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A tightrope for Prachanda

Nepal’s new PM must address Madhesi aspirations and bring relations with India on even keel.

Written by Deb Mukharji |
August 13, 2016 12:18:12 am
nepal, nepal news, prachanda, nepal new pm, nepal prime minister, nepal recent prime minister, pushpa kamal dahal, nepal pm, new nepal pm, nepal pm news, new nepal pm prachanda, nepal pm prachanda, nepal news, world news, latest news Prime Minister of Nepal Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’. (Source: AP)

Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, president of the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has returned as prime minister of Nepal after seven years, in alliance with the Nepali Congress. The agreement between the two parties stipulates that Dahal and Sher Bahadur Deuba, the president of the Nepali Congress, shall each hold the post of prime minister for nine months before the national elections, due in 2017. Prachanda’s election comes after the resignation of K.P. Oli, leader of the CPN (UML) as prime minister in the face of an impending no-confidence motion in parliament where he had ceased to command a majority.

With frequent changes in the post of prime minister over the years, the election of Dahal is not, by itself, a matter of great importance, except to those directly involved. It could be seen as part of the process of political adjustment in an era of unstable coalitions. But the circumstances leading to it and the challenges ahead, both for his party and for the state of Nepal, are significant.

K.P. Oli had led a government that sought to divide and not unite the nation. In the debate on the no-confidence motion against his government, senior members of his own party had expressed dismay at his methods and manner of functioning. Oli had decided that the future lay with hill-based castes and classes and treated Madhesi aspirations with open disdain. His reaching out to China in the pursuit of Nepali national interests cannot be faulted, but his palpable stoking of anti-Indian sentiments may not have been in Nepal’s interests.

Dahal inherits a legacy of having to provide effective relief to Madhesi aspirations and bringing relations with India on an even keel. The former will be difficult. The issue of demarcation of state boundaries, which is at the core of Madhesi demands, will not be possible without constitutional amendments, and this, in turn, cannot be effected in the present parliament without the support of Oli’s UML. At the least, there would need to be engagement with the Madhesis and movement wherever possible.

For both Dahal (and Deuba, nine months down the line) the deadline is end-2017 when fresh elections are constitutionally mandated. Display of good governance would be useful, and picking up the pieces of the lives affected by the earthquake would be a good beginning. The world had responded generously after Nepal’s devastating earthquake of April 2015. But successive governments remained too preoccupied with the politics of Kathmandu to be able to utilise even a fraction of the aid offered. This should engage the attention of the new prime minister.

Dahal himself has undergone several changes of image since his heady days as supremo of the Maoist insurgents, fighting the Nepali state to a standstill. As defender of the rights and aspirations of the underprivileged janjati, who had formed the backbone of the insurgency, he gradually became identified with the preservation of the status quo, as signally demonstrated by the indifference to Madhesi aspirations at the time of the framing of the constitution. Dahal had, in the past, shown his preference for conflating Nepali nationalism with anti-Indian sentiments (instead of basing it on anti-feudalism, which had been Baburam Bhattarai’s prescription). This plank will no longer be available to him, as it has now been convincingly taken over by K.P. Oli, who can, and does, proudly claim to have created unprecedented bonds with China and reduced Nepal’s dependence on India.

Ground realities with regard to delivery may tell a different story, but Oli has certainly succeeded in bolstering China’s image in Nepal as an all-weather friend. Dahal would need to capitalise and build on Oli’s openings to China for the benefit of Nepal, without needlessly aggravating India. Xi Jinping’s proposed visit to Nepal in October should be indicative of how seriously the Chinese wish to pursue the proposals mooted during Oli’s visit, which appeared at the time to reflect a Nepali wish list.

For Prachanda, finding a new relevance for his party and himself in the post constitution and pre-election scenario would be the greatest challenge. Oli has unambiguously positioned the UML as the defender of Nepali sovereignty (against Indian hegemony), thus becoming the ideological successor to the defunct monarchy, while still wearing its Marxist-Leninist badge. Even a change in leadership of the UML and the advent of more sober leadership may make it difficult for the party to change course in the short term. The Nepali Congress would always have an attraction for people in the centre of the political spectrum and may be able to persuade people that traditional values can lead to stability, In the recent past, it has been under criticism for not permitting a new, more vigorous leadership to emerge.

A new element has been introduced by Baburam Bhattarai and his New Force Party. Perhaps more than most politicians, Bhattarai does have a reputation for probity, and his move away from the parent UCPN (Maoist) for whom he had been the chief ideologue for decades had been on issues of principle. He had been scathing about the raw deal meted out to the Madhesis for centuries and critical of the new constitution for not meeting the demands of the Madhesis and the Tharus. For his new party, Bhattarai’s emphasis is on development and economic prosperity. In a sense, this changes the rules of the game of politics in Nepal, governed hitherto by politics. But the demands of the Madhesis and the janjati go beyond economics into issues of identity. These would need to be addressed as well for any lasting stability to the polity. For their own reasons, the CPN (ML) and the NC are likely to stay together in governance in the coming months, but they and others would be jockeying for positions of advantage keeping in view the elections in 2017.

Deb Mukharji is former Indian ambassador to Nepal

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