Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda on the left with K.P. Sharma Oli on the right
Elections to the 275-member Lower House of the Nepalese parliament – House of Representatives – were held between November 26 and December 7, 2017.
Earlier, elections to the legislatures of the seven provinces had been concluded. The Left Alliance, comprising the Communist Party of Nepal - Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), and the Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist Centre (CPN-MC),swept the elections to the House of Representatives.
And yet, up to date, a new government has not been formed and the Nepali Congress (NC) headed by Sher Bahadur Deuba, continues to be in the seat of power in Kathmandu. Current indications are that a government might be formed in March.
Elections to the Upper House of parliament – National Assembly – have been delayed because of differences over the mode of election. The cabinet has only now decided to hold elections on February 7. The seven Provincial Assemblies are yet to be convened. New governments are yet to be formed at the provincial level. Governors to the provinces are yet to the appointed. Even fixing the capitals of the provinces has become a subject of agitations. A combination of administrative and political factors has created these uncertainties.
The 59-member National Assembly, which is the Upper House of parliament, comprises 56 members elected by the members of the seven Provincial Assemblies, the Chiefs and Deputy Chiefs of the Local Bodies, and three others nominated by the President to ensure the representation of marginal groups.
The Presidential Ordinance on elections to the National Assembly was delayed because political parties were divided on the mode of election. The still in power Nepali Congress (NC) had advised the President to use the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system so that even the smaller parties could find a place. The CPN-MC was neither here nor there but finally opted for the STV system. But the CPN-UML was pressing for the First Past the Post System (FPPS) as it would have the upper hand given the fact that it is the single largest party.
Finally, the NC’s views prevailed and the cabinet decided to hold the National Assembly elections on February 7.
Issues in Merger of CPN (UML) and CPN (MC)
Government formation has been stymied also by political confusion in the CPN (UML)-CPN (MC) alliance. The issue is how to share power? In a merged Leftist party, which of the two constituents would be the chair? Will the Prime Minister’s office and the chair of the merged party go by rotation?
Seeing the quarrel within the Left Alliance, other parties are fishing in troubled waters. The Nepali Congress (NC), supported by the parties of the “Madhesis” (who are people of Indian Origin settled in the Terai or plains of South Nepal), are wooing the CPN (MC)with the bait of a Prime Ministerial position through a system of rotation.
The problem in the Left Alliance stems from numbers as well as the self-assessment of the its two leaders – K. P. Sharma Oli of CPN (UML), and Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda of CPN (MC).
First the numbers: In the newly elected 275-seat House of Representatives, Oli’s party, the CPN (UML), has secured 121 (combining those who came through the First Past the Post system as well as the Proportional Representation System). The Nepali Congress (NC) has got63, and the CPN (MC) 53. The Rashtriya Janata Party has 17, and the Federal Socialist Forum, 16. The Rashtriya Prajatantra Party has 1. The CPN (UML) with 121 members, feels that it has to get the Prime Minister’s post and the bulk of the positions in a unified Left party because the CPN (MC) has only 53 members and cannot claim parity.
The other issue is: which of the two leaders is a genuine communist? Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda, being a Maoist with a long revolutionary past, claims to be the more genuine one having led a violent movement for years. Oli, on the other hand, considers himself to be a more practical communist though he too had led a violent movement earlier on in the struggle against the Nepalese monarchy.
Oli considers himself pro-China and anti-India, and therefore a true Nepali nationalist resisting domination by India. On the other hand, Prachanda is seen as pro-Indian which casts a shadow over his attachment to Nepalese nationalism.
While Oli is unsympathetic to, and even against, the political demands of the Indian-origin Madhesis in the Terai region, Prachanda is generally accommodative towards them. Oli is trying to portray himself as a true Nepalese nationalist based on his resolute opposition to the Madhesis’ demands for greater political representation through constitutional amendments. The fact that the Madhesis invoke Big Brother India constantly, has given the Oli’s anti-Madhesi stand the look of Nepali nationalism.
It is therefore not certain that the Left Alliance will stay. Prachanda could join Deuba and the Madhesi leaders to form a government. The only thing that will stand in the way of his defection is the mandate of the people in the elections which was for a Left Unity government.
However, Oli’s CPN (UML) is most likely to be in the driver’s seat. Therefore, New Delhi has reasons to worry. Oli had led the Nepalese nationalist resentment against the Madhesi-implemented and India-backed border blockade in 2015 which caused immense suffering in Nepal.
Oli, who was then in power, swung to the Chinese side. India backed Deuba and Prachanda to throw Oli out. Predictably, the successor Deuba-Prachanda government cancelled a Chinese-funded US$ 2.5 billion hydropower project.
But Deuba’s lacklustre performance, indecisions on the Madhesi issue and inability to complete earthquake relief works, brought about Prachanda’s defection to Oli. The defection led to Deuba’s defeat in the 2017 parliamentary elections.
If Oli is going to be Prime Minister, China’s footprint in Nepal will expand as 2018 unfolds. Even with Deuba in power, and against India’s advice, Kathmandu had signed the Belt and Road Agreement with China for infrastructural development. But India too has many projects in Nepal and has a strong hold on its power sector.
Above all, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has his “Neighbourhood First” policy to safeguard because,without being a force in the neighbourhood, India cannot be considered to be the “regional power” – a tag it needs to secure permanent membership in the UN Security Council on par with its arch rival China.
Whoever is at the helm in Kathmandu in 2018, will have to do a lot of tightrope walking both in regard to issues in domestic politics and in balancing relations between regional rivals India and China.