Updated: May 18, 2021 10:47:11 am
On Monday, Nepal Prime Minister K P Oli lost a vote of confidence in Parliament, leaving the country’s politics in uncertainty.
Oli, chairman of the Nepal Communist Party-Unified Marxist-Leninist, had come to power for the second time in 2018, in the first ever parliamentary polls under the new Constitution promulgated in September 2015.
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Two factors helped boost his image. He had stood up to India when it launched an economic blockade after the Constitution was promulgated, and expressed unhappiness over grievances of the people of the Terai not being addressed. Second, the Nepal Communist Party–Maoist Centre aligned with Oli’s party during the elections, and subsequently merged to form the Nepal Communist Party.
His image took a blow at the end of the first half of his five-year tenure in September last year. His refusal to vacate his seat, as agreed, in favour of Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, Co-Chairman of the Nepal Communist Party, eventually proved his undoing.
In the vote of confidence, 93 members supported Oli and 124 opposed him, while 28 from his own party — including former Prime Ministers Jhalnath Khanal and Madhav Nepal — abstained in efiance of the party whip, and 15 others remained neutral. Counting a few members who were absent on Monday, the House has an effective strength of 267; to become PM, anyone will need at least 134 votes.
President Bidhya Devi Bhandari has asked parties to stake their claim by Thursday night. Article 76(2) of the Constitution requires a leader to furnish proof of majority support in the House, and then prove it on the floor within a month. If no claim is made by the Thursday night deadline, it will result in the President invoking Article 76(3), which would mean the leader of the largest party in the House — in this case Oli himself — would have to be invited to form the government, and proving his majority within 30 days. Oli is unlikely to step aside and pave the way for someone else.
Rival turned supporter
When his own comrades deserted him, Oli found unlikely support from Mahanth Thakur, First Chairman of the Janata Samajbadi Party with 32 members in Parliament. He stayed neutral along with 14 members while 15 others voted against Oli. Thakur and his group are contemplating action against Upendra Yadav, leader of the other faction.
Thakur and other Terai-based political groupings had owned the blame for blocking the border after promulgation of the Constitution in a bid to absolve India, amid rising anti-India sentiment in Nepal. More than 60 people protesting against the Constitution had lost their lives and India had raised the issue in the UN Human Rights Council. Thakur and his party had then declared Oli the biggest enemy of the people of Terai.
But in the new bond with Oli, Thakur seems not to be bothered about the likely split in his party as half the members are in favour of supporting Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba as the new Prime Minister. Deuba has been promised support by the Nepal Communist Party—Maoist Centre that has 48 members (plus the Speaker).
Dissidents’ next move
Dissidents like Khanal and Nepal can play a decisive role or totally disappear from the political scene now. While their abstention brought Oli down, whether they would resign from the House or wait for Oli to suspend or terminate their membership will be decisive in choosing the next leader. If they resign, the effective strength of the House will come down to 239, making it easy for Deuba to win with 124 votes. If they wait for Oli to act, it will favour the person they wanted to finish politically. If Oli does not terminate their membership before the floor test, Deuba would need at least 134 seats — which looks impossible as of now.
Closeness to President
Oli and President Bhandari belonged to the same faction within the party, and that bond remained intact after she became President. As dissent grew within, Oli unilaterally dissolved Parliament on December 20 , which the President instantly endorsed (the Supreme Court declared it illegal 65 days later). Oli made frequent visits to the President’s House without any communiqué issued about it, and the President on many occasons hosted meetings of her former party. Last month, she visited the house of dissident leader Khanal to request for a patch-up. Last week, Deuba said she did not deserve to be the President, and “we would have removed her if we had the numbers”.
With President Bhandari behind him, Oli will be keen to make a comeback, while Deuba will have a hard time to rule. Mid-term polls appear unlikely because of the pandemic. If Oli becomes PM and dissolves the House before he seeks the vote of confidence, he will be ruling with no accountability.
SUPREME COURT’S ROLE: Soon after reinstating Parliament after Oli had dissolved it, the Supreme Court gave a solution to an issue that worked in Oli’s favour. Rishi Kattel, who had registered the ‘Nepal Communist Party’ with the Election Commission, petitioned that the party had been hijacked by the new NCP that Maoists and UML had formed after their merger. The Supreme Court restored the name to Kattel and ruled the two parties that had merged shall go back to their pre-merger identity, practically announcing their divorce. That came as a godsend for Oli, since his rivals had launched a campaign to get rid of him.
TIES WITH INDIA, CHINA: Nepal-India relations have been strained during Oli’s two tenures. First it was the blockade, and then the Nepal government published a map including 370 sq km with Kalapani, Lipulek and Limpiadhura , months after India had those areas in its map.
It is not clear how the thaw came about, but Oli, who had once said in Parliament that Indian officers were hatching a conspiracy to dislodge him from power, has of late retrained himself, nor has he raised the border or other contentious issues in public.
Oli has distanced himself from China by not promoting projects under Belt and Road Initiative that Nepal is a signatory to, and by not signing an extradition treaty as was promised during President Xi Jinping’s visit in October.
China has enhanced its presence in Nepal, increasing its investment and grants especially after 2006, apparently in retaliation to India and western countries (including the US) aligning with Nepal’s pro-democracy parties to bring about radical changes. India’s interest in Nepal’s internal politics has at times been widely criticised. The new equations between Thakur (whom India had backed) and Oli illustrates a change.
Recently, China has also been competing with India in its vaccine diplomacy by supplying vaccines, oxygen cylinders and ventilators amid a growing pandemic in Nepal.
TOTAL CONTROL: Oli had gradually vested himself with all powers, bringing the National Intelligence Agency, Revenue Intelligence, Anti-Money Laundering Department all under himself. He brought laws against media and citizen’s privacy .He filled all key posts in constitutional commissions with party cadre.
Neither the Opposition nor leaders within his party contested it effectively. It started cropping up when Prachanda became sure Oli was not going to honour his promise of sharing the Prime Minister’s chair by rotation. Leaders at the party’s standing committee and central committee started raising issues in public, alleging Oli was running the government without consulting the party on important issues. Oli then began running the government and the party from home, citing security reasons.
His promises of linking Nepal with China and India by rail, starting waterways trade with India and beyond, and many more remained on paper, which made him the object of ridicule lately. He was also accused of promoting and patronising corruption. He kept quiet even when there was evidence about huge bungling in purchase of medical equipment at the time of pandemic. The fallout was rebellion within the party, and abstention by 28 members during the vote of confidence.
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