Two political leaders who were once ready to kill each other joined hands this week to form a new government.
Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal suddenly switched sides, abandoning Prime Minister KP Oli for Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress. They agreed to take turns to be prime minister for the next 18 months.
The new-found friendship between these former foes could prove costly. The first casualty will be the Constitution that all three leaders pushed through last year.
Deuba was prime minister when the Maoists went to war in February 1996. In 2002, when he was prime minister for the second time, Deuba put a price on Dahal’s head. Dahal in turn ordered his guerrillas to kill Deuba, and he narrowly escaped a Maoist attack in Kailali.
Politics makes for strange bedfellows, but who would have predicted that Dahal and Deuba would one day be best buddies? Oli foiled an earlier attempt to unseat him in May by charming Dahal out of an alliance with Deuba. This time the Maoist-NC ties seem stronger, and the deal allows Dahal to be prime minister first, to be replaced by Deuba after local elections in December and until provincial and parliamentary polls.
The Maoists registered a no-confidence motion against the government on Wednesday, but Oli has refused to step down, preparing instead to face a vote in Parliament this weekend. But the arithmetic is against him. Madhesi and other fringe parties are backing the NC-Maoists, so Dahal is on course to be the next prime minister.
Seven years after a humiliating resignation following his failure to oust the Army chief, Dahal may be Nepal’s 24th prime minister in 26 years. But he will be looking over his shoulder warily at Deuba and Oli.
Even less confidence
Hours after CPN (Maoist-Centre) Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Nepali Congress (NC) President Sher Bahadur Deuba registered a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister KP Oli’s government in Parliament on Wednesday, NC legislator Amresh Kumar Singh warned in an interview that federalism will not work in Nepal.
Coming from a fervent proponent of ethnicity-based federalism in the new Constitution, his comments on BBC Nepali Service on Wednesday night set off a firestorm. Singh is an obscure NC MP who wields mysterious clout in Nepal’s politics, and is given to outlandish rhetoric.
When the NC agreed with the UML, the Maoists and the MJF (D) to fast-track the new Constitution after last year’s earthquake without the Madhesi parties on board, Singh nearly revolted. He allied with Madhesi leaders to foil the Constitution-drafting process led by his own party, and was even in the group that went down to Kailali to incite the Tharus to rise up in August 2015. Later, eight policemen and a child were lynched in protests. Demonstrations swept across the Tarai and lasted six months, leading to a border blockade supported by India. Nearly 50 more persons were killed in police action against the protests.
Although he is just one of the 206 NC legislators, and not even a Central Committee member of the party, Singh’s remarks often create ripples across the political spectrum because he regularly boasts of his closeness to New Delhi. When his party fought against Gyanendra Shah’s authoritarian regime, he was nowhere to be seen on the streets. Nevertheless, he rose dramatically as a key player in the post-April Uprising negotiations between the NC-UML coalition and the Maoists.
It may not be wholly true that New Delhi uses Singh to extract information straight out of political negotiations in Kathmandu, but he does not try to hide his role as a ‘fixer’. In fact, he does not mind that the public perceives him as speaking the Indian line during times of turmoil in Nepal, and he seems to relish his image as the ‘Octopus’ — referring to the smart cephalopod that once predicted the result of the Football World Cup.
Singh quickly retracted his BBC statement through Facebook, accusing the radio of editing out crucial parts of his answers. He said he was still ‘committed to federalism’ and clarified that ‘the Constitution should be more federal’. But his remarks have been podcast and hardly anyone believes his clarification. The question everyone is asking on social media is: Was New Delhi using Singh to float a trial balloon about scrapping federalism?
Singh was also involved in this week’s back-room deal between Dahal and Deuba to unseat PM Oli. Madhesi parties have vowed to vote against Oli when he faces a no-confidence motion this weekend. They are even ready to join the new government.
But Oli’s ouster has cast a shadow over the implementation of the Constitution. Political analyst and Maoist MP Shyam Shrestha says: “We will now face a new deadlock, and the UML will not help break it.”
Maoist leader Narayan Kaji Shrestha is now against toppling the Oli government. He calls the Dahal-Deuba alliance “unfortunate” because “Nepal was moving in the right direction to reduce its over-dependence on India for trade by reaching out to China”. “People had begun to see our party as a nationalist force,” he said, “how will we redeem that image now?”
Political analyst Puranjan Acharya is convinced this week’s political games were orchestrated by an “outside force”. “It wanted to break the Maoist-UML coalition, and restrict the UML to the opposition bench.”
Meanwhile, anti-corruption crusader Govinda KC is growing weaker by the day. The political crisis has diluted his demand for the impeachment of the Chief of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) Lokman Singh Karki because that would not be possible without the NC-UML partnership.
(With input from Rameshwar Bohara)
Pulling the rug, Kunda Dixit
Electing to govern, Editorial