Prime Minister K P Oli will leave for Beijing on a week-long official trip maintaining the tradition of balancing Nepal’s north-south relations, nearly a month after he visited New Delhi. Beijing is likely to roll out the red carpet for him and, unlike his previous visit that he said was “without and beyond an agenda”, he’s mincing no words now — it will be long list of demands as well as some give-and-take.
Oli’s claim that he was able to bring Nepal-India relations back on track seems to be more for the sake of the record. Kathmandu will try to secure more support and patronage from Beijing on development. Three different hydro projects — with a combined capacity of around 2,200 MW — investments in solar energy, a free trade agreement, the construction of an international airport at Pokhara and a few roads connecting the two sides, as well as post-earthquake reconstruction, are issues on which the pre-visit negotiations concluded on a positive note.
For its part, Kathmandu will concede to Beijing’s proposal for Nepal joining the silk-road project and, subsequently, also reviewing the extradition treaty along with the mutual legal assistance deal to curb the “externally instigated Free Tibet Movement” on Nepali soil. There are indications that President Xi Jinping will visit Nepal en route to Beijing after the BRICS meet in Delhi.
However, a political crisis, along with a constitutional disaster, appears all set to eclipse the visit and its aftermath. A judiciary vs legislature confrontation, triggering a political realignment over the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court, is likely to snowball into a major crisis.
The Judicial Council, with two of its five seats vacant, recommended 11 judges for appointment to the apex court. But parliament speaker Onsari Gharti returned it, raising objections, including about the council’s competence to make the recommendations. Chief Justice Kalyan Shrestha, who heads the council and is due to retire next month, called the speaker’s move akin to “stifling” justice at a time when there were nearly 22,000 cases pending in the apex court.
The Maoist party, the second-biggest ruling coalition partner, has even threatened to pull out if the speaker (a Maoist) was vilified and her concerns not addressed. The law minister, an ex-officio member of the council, belonging to the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) that heads the coalition, has fully stood by the chief justice.
That the list of recommended judges includes a former UML parliamentarian has not only raised eyebrows but also gives credence to the fear that political recruitment is going to dilute judicial impartiality. In fact, Nepal’s judiciary of late has come under greater political and legislative control. In 2012, then sitting chief justice, Khil Raj Regmi, headed an “electoral government”. But it ruled for more than a year and took many crucial policy decisions, with ministers drawn from the four major parties. The Supreme Court sat over more than a dozen petitions challenging Regmi’s takeover, mainly on grounds of the violation of the separation of powers, which gave rise to the growing perception that the court and political parties were part of a secret deal. Ever since, the court and the judges have been losing credibility. The current case, too, is seen as a continuation of political control over the judiciary.
How will this deadlock end? A stand-off between the UML and Maoists may have a direct impact on the fate of the coalition government. The recent general convention of the Nepali Congress, the largest party and main opposition, elected three-time PM Sher Bahadur Deuba as party president. More significantly, Shashank Koirala, son of the late B.P. Koirala, emerged victorious in a three-cornered contest after he asserted that issues like “federalism, republicanism and secularism need to be reviewed and corrected”. A confrontation between the UML and Maoists may bring Deuba to the centre of power, but the parties need to be clear about the political agenda they want to pursue.
The tussle between the legislature and the judiciary and an ambitious Nepali Congress do not augur well for Oli. Although he’s focusing more on his China visit, he hasn’t completely been ignoring the developments. Yet, six months after he assumed office, the ground under his feet is slipping, notwithstanding the red carpet awaiting
him in China.