Prime Minister K.P. Oli is known for his patience and oratory. Oli had also proven himself a good administrator as home minister and foreign minister earlier. But as PM, he’s yet to prove his worth, as the gap between promise and delivery widens.
Last month, Oli promised to make Nepal “cylinder-free”, with each house connected to a cooking gas network. Some took it as the PM’s great vision for a country that faces a shortage of cooking gas, following India’s blockade. Others, especially those queuing up for weeks for a half-filled cylinder, took it as a cruel joke. Yes, there have been some half-hearted studies to find cooking gas reserves in the country, but never a sustained effort to explore. A minister followed up on Oli’s promise by digging up a spot recognised as a “cooking gas reservoir” in Kathmandu and lit a pipe underneath to confirm the presence of said gas reserve. But whether Oli manages to divert the collective frustration of the people depends largely on his luck.
Yet, Oli has been able to connect the shortage with the unfair and undeclared blockade by India. He has a ready answer to explain the blockade of the Raxaul-Birgunj checkpost, accounting for 70 per cent of supplies to Nepal. “I have a tremendous weakness, that is, I trust my friends. I should not be blamed for trusting them,” he told senior journalists recently. His reference was to the assurance given by Indian Ambassador Ranjit Rae that things would be back to normal once the constitutional amendments were through. The parliament amended the constitution, promising proportional representation in state organs to 16 groups, including the Madhesis. But in the last 10 days, the Raxaul-Birgunj crossing saw movements of only a few thelas, half a dozen trucks and a dozen tractors.
Everything hinges on Nepal-India relations, at its lowest ebb now. The shortage has been seen more as an Indian act than the failure of Nepal’s government. Oli is being criticised for his comments and promises at the senior levels of his Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML). Four senior leaders of the United Democratic Madhesi Front, including former deputy PM Upendra Yadav and Rajendra Mahato, visited Patna to mobilise support of the ruling alliance in the neighbouring Indian province. Lalu Prasad promised all support to the demands raised by the Madhesi leaders, which drew big criticism from the Nepali media and political spectrum.
Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, the vice president of Lalu Prasad’s RJD, said Nepal’s government is “blackmailing India, playing [the] China card, and we cannot let them do what they like.” Kathmandu promptly reacted to Singh’s comment, calling it a brazen interference in Nepal’s internal affairs. Most political parties and leaders, including those critical of Oli, ended up criticising the Madhesi Front for taking their politics beyond the border.
Upon returning, Mahato, who has been supervising the blockade, said there was no point blocking just one checkpost: “Either block all, or lift that as well.” Is this ambiguous statement an indicator that Delhi is trying to create an atmosphere conducive enough for Oli’s Delhi visit? The Madhesi leaders perhaps had an inkling of this and, therefore, approached Bihar’s Mahagathbandhan leaders, who are PM Narendra Modi’s biggest political foes at the moment.
Oli, despite his poor delivery on promises, seems lucky. But that doesn’t guarantee his survival for long. Maoist chief Prachanda, who heads the powerful political machinery of the ruling alliance, has already asked Oli to improve the government’s performance. Oli has also been told not to negotiate with India, nor yield on national interests “out of fear”. Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel’s visit to Delhi (February 7-9), to clear the road blocks for Oli’s visit may indicate what direction Nepal-India relations will take, but a continued confrontation will have twin outcomes — Nepal will continue to suffer from political instability and economic crisis, which will increase the likelihood of its looking north, and India will continue to be seen as a “destabilising factor”. Despite Oli’s growing unpopularity, he will continue to exploit the second factor to the hilt.