Prime Minister Oli needs to realise that we may be able to choose our friends, but we can’t choose our neighbours.
Just as we had foretold in this space in the past two months, it was only after K P Oli became prime minister that the deadlock over the constitution, the violence in the Tarai and the blockade would start to be resolved.
Oli hardly hid the fact that as a patient with a double kidney-transplant he was in a hurry to move from Balkot to Baluwatar. He may have been coy when asked point-blank if he wanted to be prime minister, but there was no doubt that ambition burned fiercely in him. Which may be why he was deliberately confrontational while fast-tracking the constitution: he wanted to be seen as that strong leader, the knight in shining armour to rescue the country from its crises.
Events have confirmed that Oli wanted to take credit for getting the blockade lifted and bringing the Tarai back to normalcy. Sure enough, soon after his swearing-in trucks and tankers started moving in across the border, the Madhesi parties ended their boycott and took part in the parliamentary vote on Sunday. Oli had given India a face-saver.
Here on, the new prime minister has his work cut out to fix what he broke. He needlessly antagonised the Tharus and then the Madhesi parties, played brinkmanship with India and gambled with the parliamentary vote. Now he has to solve problems that he himself helped create. One cannot expect the person who inflicted a wound to also heal them, but as Nepal’s 38th prime minister, Oli is out to prove us wrong.
The prime minister’s first order of business is to bring the country back from the edge that he has pushed us to. He needs to visit the Tarai and try to reunite the deep fissures that have opened up between the hills and plains. It will not be easy, the anger among Madhesis this time runs deep – fueled by the perception of an uncaring state that sent police out to kill men, women and children.
There is also deep economic frustration: the plains have been shut down for more than two months. Schools are closed, hospitals have run out of medicine, hundreds of thousands of people are stuck, and Nepal’s industrial corridors have all ground to a halt. Oli needs to act quickly to fix that, and not go into hibernation over the holidays.
Prime Minister Oli also needs to address some of the grievances of the plains-dwellers concerning what they perceive as injustices in the constitution. Some of these amendments have already been tabled, and should go some way in assuaging the Madhesi and Tharu groups.
Then, he needs to make an effort to mend ties with India. Relations have soured to such an extent that they have destroyed whatever goodwill Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi built during his visit to Kathmandu last year. Oli needs to reboot Nepal-India relations by going out of his way to massage hurt egos in New Delhi.
We may be the aggrieved party, India may have come across looking like a bullying big brother, but we must realise that we need them more than they need us. We may be able to choose our friends, but we can’t choose our neighbours. We are stuck with India, and have to be much smarter in our dealings with them. For its part, it is in New Delhi’s own strategic interest to reach out and redress deep anti-Indian feelings here by being genuinely more magnanimous, and less overbearing.
Oli reaped the political dividend by stoking nationalism, but we have seen in the past that such advantage is short-lived. Unless he delivers on the economy in the next few months, the people’s support for any government will be fickle. He needs to move quickly to generate jobs by putting earthquake reconstruction into high gear to make up for lost time. That reconstruction hasn't started even six months after the earthquake is a travesty. He needs to get industry back on its feet. The damage from the agitation and blockade to business actually dwarfs the economic cost of the April earthquake.
Prime Minister Oli has several things going for him: he is decisive, plain-speaking and wants to leave a political legacy so that history will judge him as a statesman. The leader of a revolutionary group once inspired by the Naxalites across the border to behead landlords, Oli is a consummate politician.
Proof of this was his dramatic alliance with arch-rival Pushpa Kamal Dahal in June to finish the constitution and form a national unity government. It showed that there are no permanent enemies in politics. And by backing out of a deal to hand over the prime ministership, Sushil Koirala proved that there are no permanent friends, either.
So far, the formation of the cabinet shows that Oli understands the need to reach out and be more inclusive. It’s a good sign, but Oli's future actions will show whether he has statesmanship as well.
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