A leadership change on expected lines is hardly likely to arouse expectations. In that sense, Nepal’s new prime minister, 72-year-old Sher Bahadur Deuba, should consider himself lucky. He replaced Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal, while securing little less than two-thirds majority in parliament. After all, both Dahal and Deuba, who is also president of the Nepali Congress, have said the coalition they gave birth to last year will continue, at least till January next year, the deadline for holding elections to federal parliament and seven provincial legislatures.
“Deuba has got a rare opportunity for a leap forward, but a failure may bring disastrous consequences for the country and undo the political achievements of the past,” Dahal said, soon after he stepped down to pave the way for Deuba, as per their earlier decision to retain the coalition under a rotational leadership scheme. But Dahal knows that he and Deuba share a history of animosity. On many critical issues, they have contradictory approaches — the duo has come together under compelling political circumstances, mainly to keep their powerful common rival, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist, and its leader, K.P. Oli, in check. It is this common ground that led Dahal to leave the Oli-led coalition government and join hands with Deuba in July last year.
Deuba was prime minister when the Maoists launched their decade-long insurgency in February 1996. The Maoists tried to kill him twice. In turn, Deuba was the one who put the price on the Maoists. Circumstances changed in July last year when Oli stood up to India in the wake of the fivemonth-long economic blockade and identified himself with the prevailing “national sentiment” against India. Oli signed agreements with long-term implications, including on trade and transit with China and committed Nepal to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
At that point, India, as in the past, influenced Deuba and Dahal to come together.
Dahal tried to repair his relations with China just as he was stepping out. He signed the BRI and asserted in parliament that Nepal was keen to extend the Chinese railway up to Lumbini, Buddha’s birth place. Interestingly, the Maoist leader, K.B. Mahara, who presented the budget on behalf of the Dahal government, is now the foreign minister. He is tasked with pursuing a policy of equal distance with China and India.
However, the continuation of the Nepali Congress-Maoist alliance offers hope that the two signatories to the peace process are together to complete the unfinished peace process and “execute” the constitution to the fullest. This calls for holding all those guilty of human rights violations during the conflict years to justice, compensating victims and conducting elections to the provincial and national legislature by early next year, something they have failed to do in the past decade. Will the Maoists continue to support Deuba’s government if the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, investigating rights violations during the insurgency, frames some top Maoist leaders?
Meanwhile, India seems ready, at least in principle, to acknowledge Nepal’s balanced relations with China. This is a clear departure from its past stand. It had actively endorsed the radical agenda for Nepal in 2006 and expected it would end Nepal playing the China card against India.
Aside from economics, China’s looming presence will have political and strategic outcomes. That, perhaps, was a concern that influenced Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to congratulate Dahal for successfully conducting the first phase of local bodies elections late last month. That India, which has not yet welcomed the Nepali constitution, chose to welcome a partial election held under that statute clearly reflects a change in its approach. Perhaps New Delhi wants the constitution to remain in “Nepal’s domain”.
Besides, the unpredictable developments in Qatar, which is home to a Nepalese diaspora of 7,00,000 people, mostly working as labourers, may cast a shadow over Nepal. The government will be tested if it has to intervene for their evacuation or safe repatriation if an extraordinary situation arises there.