The power of the throneThe ruling party continues to play games of power, even as the status quo is maintained and the opposition is crippled.
A popular Nepali epigram ascribed to Jang Bahadur Kunwar (1817-1877), the wily warrior of Gorkha, intones that deceitfulness is the strength of Gorkhalis. Supremo KP Oli has been compared with the Shah usurper Mahendra and the Kunwar adventurist Jang among a clutch of other authoritarian personalities of Nepali history.
With the recent cabinet reshuffle, Prime Minister Oli has once again proved that he has no equal in contemporary politics when it comes to the game of deception and manipulation of beliefs. He has succeeded in killing at least five proverbial birds with a single stone. The game may have been counterproductive in the sense of improving governance, but it was a political masterstroke.
Most tricksters know that the shuffling of cards is a great divertissement for the real sleight of hand. The awardees are justifiably elated. When devoid of principles, official positions become the only measure of success in politics. The ones that were dropped from the team are consoling themselves that the decision had nothing to do with their performance, or the lack of it. With the dexterous wave of a conjurer’s hat, the Supremo has successfully diverted popular attention away from the failures of his government on all fronts of political economy, societal harmony and international relations.
Some prominent Maoist pawns have been retained on the frontlines. Ethnic Magars constitute the main support base of former Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal. The UML faction seems to have lured them away from the nominal chair of the unified party. Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa and Energy Minister Barsha Man Pun will now have even less reason to remain loyal to their commander of the armed conflict era when they know that he is not going to be the chief executive anytime soon. Survival of the fittest is the ultimate mantra in the politics of expediency.
Dahal’s fall on the party front has been even harder. All his pretensions of being at par with the Supremo have been exposed. The designation of executive chairman hides the reality that Dahal will no longer have any role in the formulation of policies. The responsibility of an executive chairman, as the title itself suggests, is limited to implementing decisions of the board. The equivalent of a board in the Nepal Communist Party is its central committee where Dahal remains in a clear minority.
The fourth target of the Supremo has been the most accurate. The spectacular fall from grace of Deputy Prime Minister Upendra Yadav proves once again that in authoritarian polities, pecking orders have little, if any, meaning. The Supremo is the player while all others are merely his pawns on the chessboard. Janus-faced Yadav will now be expected to negotiate with his agitator self as the minister of law to amend the constitution and defend its inviolability simultaneously.
In order to defuse politics of dignity in Madhesh, Hridayesh Tripathi, the sacred-thread wearing Brahmin with solid cross-border connections in the Hindutva lobby of Uttar Pradesh, has been co-opted to prove that Oli is sensitive towards religious sentiments of high-caste Hindus of the plains. Rameshwar Ray will be expected to nibble into the Yadav support-base that Deputy Prime Minister Yadav enjoys in the eastern and central Madhesh.
Perhaps there is a reason Dahal has agreed to accept whatever he received in the fresh deal. It is being said that President Bidhya Devi Bhandari backed an offer that the former Maoist couldn’t refuse when they met prior to the reconstitution of the party leadership and the government. When an office backed by an organised force of nearly 100,000 serving and many more retired personnel—as the presidency is backed by the army—gives an ‘advice’, only the foolish would have the courage not to accept it.
The Katawal kanda, when the first elected prime minister of the republic had to bow out in defeat after his tussle with the army chief, clearly showed that there is nothing constitutional, let alone ceremonial, in the role of the commander-in-chief of the strongest organised force of the country. Former president Ram Baran Yadav had no political constituency independent of his parent party and was an outsider in the ethnonational establishment of Kathmandu. President Bhandari sits at the top of the cast-hierarchy and seems to have maintained her connections with the Hindutva lobby inside and outside the country.
Even though they hesitate to admit it in public, Dahal, Deuba and their company know fully-well that the-then king Gyanendra moved out of the Narayanhiti Palace and surrendered the Shah crown to the museum not only because of the international pressure or domestic politics but because of the realisation that he no longer enjoyed the confidence of the armed forces.
The office of the supreme commander-in-chief is a useful device to establish the idea of civilian supremacy, which is essential to retain the credibility of democracy. On this front, the Nepal Army has been singularly lucky. The first president, who was Madhesi, established the claim that the army wasn’t an ethnonational establishment despite its composition. The second one happens to be a woman and that has made the army leadership look gender-conscious. It helps that political outsiders are easier to persuade and accept the official narrative.
There is a reason political leadership vie with each other in earning the confidence of the army leadership. In the existing scheme of things, it was but natural that the indoctrination wing of the Nepal Communist Party was given to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Ishwar Pokharel. With the influence of Dahal on the wane and UML stalwart Madhav Kumar Nepal out of the game, Pokharel will be the person to watch as Oli slowly slides into being merely the face of the permanent establishment of Nepal due to health reasons.
There is a reason the top brass of the army resented Girija Prasad Koirala while its mouthpieces in the media and intelligentsia elevated Krishna Prasad Bhattarai to near sainthood, despite their ideological differences. Apologists of the establishment similarly loved Sushil Koirala because he had more in common with Bhattarai than his cousin: Both lacked independent political constituency.
Ever since Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba consolidated his hold over the party, he began to lose the confidence of the defence forces. The force loves political lightweights, hence the competition inside the NC line-up to prove that the contenders for the top post have no independent agenda other than giving continuity to the status quo in a more forceful manner. A moderate communist, which many UML politicos claim to be, is an oxymoron. But Nepali Congress’s pretension of being ‘progressive conservative’ is even more laughable. Meanwhile, enjoy the political show while governance remains on autopilot.
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