Professor of International Politics, JIMMC
Nepal was thrown into a political crisis in December 2020, when the President Bidya Devi Bhandari dissolved the Parliament and announced fresh elections. There is no government in Kathmandu since. The 31 – million- country is grappling with Covid-19, like other countries in the world. The absence of a credible and stable government is making matters worse. Government of India says Nepal’s present political crisis is their internal matter and would not interfere with it. Is New Delhi neutral? Should it be? Let us explore.
The chronology of the present crisis. The Lower House was terminated by the president on the advice of the incumbent Prime Minister KPS Oli who lost the majority in the 275- member house following the split of his party and withdrawal of support by the party led by Puspa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda). To recall, KPS Oli became the prime Minister by merger of the two communist parties, one led by him called the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) and the other Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist faction) helmed by Prachanda. The two parties merged on 17 May 2018 to form the Nepal Communist Party and became the ruling party.
The formation of the new party out of the merger was nullified by the Supreme Court following a complaint by Rishi Kattel who was the leader of the Nepal Communist Party which was formed before the merger of the two parties. Kattel petitioned that the name of his party was copied by Oli and Prachanda. The apex court maintained the petition and derecognized the new party. Oli lost no time in reviving his old party, Communist Party of Nepal (UML). At any rate, there were bitter internecine feuds between both the factions, short of a split. The decision of the highest Court hastened and formalized the split.
As Prachanda withdrew support in December, KPS Oli advised the president to dissolve the House and announce fresh elections on 30 April and 10 May. The Opposition parties went to the Supreme Court against the decision of the president. On 24 February 2021, the apex court reinstated the Parliament, but the inter-party and intra-party squabbles continued unabated. The government was hardly functioning. Then, according to the article 100(1) of the constitution, the Prime Minister KPS Oli decided to seek a trust vote. On 10 May the trust vote was taken which Oli lost. As per the article 101(3), the Prime Minister had to be relived of the post.
KPS Oli managed to get only 93 votes short of 43 votes to cross the halfway mark in an effective strength of 231 members in the House. The votes against were 124 and 15 were neutral. The members present were 232 in all. The Speaker Agni Sapkota announced that the confidence was defeated. According to article 76(2) of the Nepali Constitution, the president should call the leaders who have the support of parties to stake claim to form the government.
The Nepali Congress led by Sher Bahadur Deuba, supported by Prachanda of Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), and Upendra Yadav leading one faction of Janata Samajbadi Party, Nepal (JSP-N) submitted a list of 149 Lawmakers to stake their claim to form the government. Interestingly, Oli also submitted a list of 153 Members asserting majority in the House. Apparently, some of the names figured in both lists. The president at this stage invoked article 76 (3) to invite Oli again to form the government. This article states, if any leader is not able to form the government with a demonstrated majority t, the President can invite the leader of the single largest party to become the Prime Minister. KPS Oli the biggest party in the Lower House with 121 members, followed by Nepali Congress with 63, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) with 49, and the Janabadi Samajbadi Party with 34. There are 4 Independents and 4 vacant.
KPS Oli was re-appointed as the Prime Minister who advised the President that any Member of the house could be given a chance to gather majority support to form the government. This he did when there was no vacancy for the PM as he was holding the position. The president gave less than 24 hours to the Members to sake their claim. While this process was on, Oli advised the dissolution of the Parliament and general elections to be held in November 2021. The Opposition parties have once again gone to the apex court against the decision of the President who they allege is hands-in-gloves with Oli. At the time of writing, the Court was to give its judgement.
Many insiders in Nepal say that a stable government would have been formed if New Delhi helped. Although Government of India announces its neutrality, it is in close contact with the parties in Kathmandu. The Rajendra Mahanto and Mahant Thakur faction of the Janasamajbadi Party is in touch with Indian Embassy in Kathmandu. Even Oli who is perceived to be anti-India has made up with Indian leadership to gain support of the Madhesi leaders to run the government.
The buzz in Nepal political circles is Oli uses anti- India rhetoric during the elections to whip up nationalist support and after the elections, he changes his stance. Perhaps New Delhi is unsure of Oli after his government made unilateral claim to 330 sq km of Indian territory comprising Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulekh Pass. He brought out map showing this patch as Nepal’s got it ratified by the parliament.
This land is of great strategic significance to India. Lipulekh Pass is the shortest land route between India and China. New Delhi was aghast that, all of a sudden, perhaps at the behest of Beijing, Nepal should make this claim upsetting the geo-political security in the face of an aggressive and expansionist China. The relations were considerably strained after this dramatic step by Oli government. Oli seems to have made up since. Recently, he passed the new citizenship Act which would allow children of parents to be Nepali Citizen by descendance if either of the parent is Nepali citizen. It was meant to appease the Madhesi who still have wide marital relations with Indians.
Nepalis feel that they are and should be closer to India than China, but are disappointed with New Delhi’s hegemonic or indifferent approach to Nepal. In the last blockade by Madhesi parties during the writing of the country’s constitution, GOI stood by the Madhesi, not the entire country causing heavy suffering to Nepali population who rely critically on the supplies from and through India.
Now again, South Block seems to be supporting a faction of Madhesi party obstructing the formation of a stable government. Nepali observers feel that the Indian Foreign Minister is ill-disposed to Nepali leadership whereas the Prime Minister is behind the Nepali government. During the premiership of Sushil Koirala, the foreign Minister Jaishankar who was the foreign secretary then seemed to have run roughshod with Nepali government as the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit to Kathmandu assured his counterpart that he would support Nepal’s autonomy and sovereignty in writing their own constitution.
Obviously, inter-governmental relationship is also a matter of communication and confidence building. NaMo was an instant hit in his first trip to Kathmandu as the Prime Minister. Jaishankar, however, well intentioned has been a bureaucrat spending all his time in files and furniture with little party-political skills. The GOI should give a hand in stabilising Nepal politics as per the norms and the constitution. It may be losing the goodwill of one neighbour after another with Beijing on the prowl to grab influence in the region. India playing its cards effectively is in the interest of Kathmandu as well as, in the longer run, of New Delhi.