A tale of two NepalsAs the country reported 8,842 new Covid-19 cases and 214 deaths, Nepali politicians had but one number in mind–136, the figure that could secure them power.
When Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli on May 2 made a sudden dash for Sheetal Niwas, the presidential palace, after holding a party meeting early in the morning, many thought he was discussing the goings on in Lumbini, where the chief minister, his close aide, had resigned. Without even returning to Baluwatar, his official residence, Oli called a meeting of his Cabinet from Sheetal Niwas itself. Oli told his Cabinet ministers that he would seek a vote of confidence, to the surprise of many. The biggest shock anyone possibly got was the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre).
President Bidya Devi Bhandari, accordingly, called a House session for May 10.
While addressing the session, Oli delivered a convoluted speech, reiterating what he has been saying all along, and counted his government’s achievements.
“There is no reason why I should not get the confidence of this House,” Oli roared.
But it looked like Oli knew very well that he would fail the confidence motion. He did. As lawmakers from the Madhav Nepal-Jhala Nath Khanal faction of his own CPN-UML party decided to abstain, Oli could secure just 93 votes. As many as 124 votes were cast against his confidence motion. Fifteen lawmakers stayed neutral. Apart from 28 lawmakers from the Nepal-Khanal faction, four others were absent. Four lawmakers are suspended.
As soon as President Bhandari called on the parties to form a new government as per Article 76 (2) by Thursday 9pm, the numbers game started.
On Thursday, politics took a turn just the way Oli had wanted.
Hours before the deadline set by the President, the Nepali Congress and the Maoist Centre declared that they were not going to stake claim to the government.
“After the Mahantha Thakur-led faction of the Janata Samajbadi Party declined to support us, chances of forming a coalition government under the leadership of the Nepali Congress have come to an end,” Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba told his party’s office bearers after a meeting.
Later on Thursday, President Bhandari appointed Oli as prime minister as per Article 76 (3) as the leader of the party having the highest number of members in Parliament. Oli’s UML has 121 seats.
The 15 lawmakers who stayed neutral during the May 10 vote were from the Thakur-led faction of the Janata Samajbadi Party. Thakur and Rajendra Mahato of the Janata Samajbadi have stood in support of Oli. The other faction led by Upendra Yadav and Baburam Bhattarai was willing to support the Congress-Maoist alliance.
“The Thakur-led group of the Janata Samajbadi wished to support Oli and Madhav Nepal also failed to take any decision. So there was no situation to lay claim to a new government,” said Prakash Sharan Mahat, joint general secretary of the Nepali Congress, after the meeting of the party's office bearers. “Yadav was ready to support us but he could not bring in the numbers.”
The Congress and the Maoist Centre, with 61 and 49 votes, respectively, needed 26 more to claim the majority to form a coalition government. The two parties were also expecting that as many as 20 lawmakers from the Nepal faction would resign, which would have brought the House strength down to 251, thereby taking the magic number to 126. In that case, with around 15 votes from the Upendra Yadav faction of the Janata Samajbadi and one vote from any of the three parties, which have one seat each in Parliament, the Congress-Maoist Centre alliance had a chance of forming a new government.
Oli, however, made his moves from early morning on Thursday. He decided to withdraw the action initiated against Nepal and other leaders from his group—Surendra Pandey, Bhim Rawal and Ghanashyam Bhusal. Oli had suspended them all for six months from the party’s ordinary membership. He activated some second-rung leaders to set up a meeting with Nepal.
After an hours-long meeting in Chapali, on the northern rim of Kathmandu, with Oli, Nepal declared that his faction’s leaders would not resign as lawmakers “at least for a few days”.
“The issue of resignation has been postponed for a few days as talks are headed in the positive direction,” Nepal told reporters after the meeting.
Meanwhile, Thakur and Mahato had their lawmakers lodged in a resort in Bhaktapur so as to pre-empt anyone from breaking away.
The Congress and the Maoist Centre that had been holding a series of inter- and intra-party meetings realised that they were not going to muster the number.
By Thursday evening, there were as many as 19 lawmakers from the Thakur-Mahato faction in support of Oli. With Nepal faction lawmakers stepping back, Oli now has 140 votes in his kitty, four more than needed when he has to secure a vote of confidence.
Oli now needs to secure a vote of confidence from the House within 30 days—by June 14.
“If he fails, the country would head towards elections, as by that time all available provisions would have been exhausted,” said Raju Chapagain, an advocate and chair of Constitutional Lawyers’ Forum.
Analysts say for the Congress party, there is not much to lose. The party was never keen to take the lead to form a new government even after the Supreme Court invalidated the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and revived the UML and the Maoist Centre on March 7, two weeks after the court overturned Oli’s decision to dissolve the House.
The onus was on the Maoist Centre to withdraw the support it had lent Oli back in February 2018, three months before the UML and the Maoist Centre announced their merger to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
While the Maoist Centre goaded the Congress into making a move, Deuba, the party president, refrained from taking initiative, saying a divided Janata Samajbadi Party won’t be of help.
According to Congress insiders, within the party, a line of thought was dominant that if elections were held, it would be a godsend for them, as their rivals–the communists–were divided.
Analysts say after Oli lost a vote of confidence, it was but natural for the Congress to take initiatives to form a new government, but there was not much enthusiasm, as leaders knew they lacked the numbers. There was not much incentive to lead a government when the country was facing a serious Covid-19 crisis and failure to deal with it would have harmed them in elections, according to them.
“Dahal and his Maoist party are the biggest losers,” said Shreekrishna Aniruddh Gautam, a political analyst who writes regular columns for the Post’s sister paper Kantipur. “The other loser is Madhav Nepal. At least he has lost his political credibility.
The Nepal faction was “supposed” to tender resignation of its lawmakers en masse earlier this week, just a day before Oli’s trust vote. But the plan was postponed until Monday morning after Oli activated his confidants to “convince” the Nepal faction. The Nepal faction said it had given Oli until Monday morning to “correct his mistakes”. Oli did not bother. The Nepal faction decided to abstain from voting rather than resigning.
On Thursday also, the Nepal faction set a deadline of 4pm for Oli to “correct” his mistakes before they resigned to facilitate the opposition to form a new government.
Almost two hours past the deadline, the Nepal faction chickened out.
“Nepal won’t be trusted at the political level anymore,” said Gautam.
Right after the Congress meeting on Thursday evening decided that it was not going to stake claim to a new government, the Maoist Centre too called an emergency meeting of its Standing Committee.
The meeting concluded that there was no possibility of proving a majority.
“We were actually expecting the Madhav Nepal group’s support but that did not happen,” Ganesh Sah, a Standing Committee member of the Maoist Centre, told the Post. “Now Oli will become more powerful and he will run the government as a dictator.”
During the Standing Committee meeting, according to leaders who were present, Dahal said that democracy as well as the left and communist movements would be in danger now under Oli. “There is a need for the opposition forces to contain him as circumstances do not allow mass protests,” a leader quoted Dahal as telling the meeting.
Ever since Oli dissolved the House on December 20, his one constant refrain has been—the country needs to seek a fresh mandate of the people. Even after the court restored the House, Oli kept on trying to justify that the House had become irrelevant. The restored House could hardly sit even once to deliberate on the pressing issues, as the Oli government would not provide any business.
While Oli eyed early elections, so did the Nepali Congress. For the Congress party, the 2017 election was a disaster, for it had not faced such a drubbing in its history. It was itching to go to polls. Leaders of the Janata Samajbadi did not have much choice, but they were convinced that they did not have anything to lose in case of early polls. The Maoist Centre, however, was clearly not in favour of elections.
The party was once even considering changing its name, and there seems to be a deep realisation, according to insiders, among the top leadership that there is no specific agenda to sell during the elections.
By being reappointed three days after losing the House confidence, Oli has now pulled off a coup, consolidating his position to assert even loudly that if there is any leader who calls the shots then it’s him.
Hari Roka, a political economist, however, said it’s not about who lost or who won but the important question rather is how Nepal has seen an erosion of political morality in politicians.
“The way Oli and Nepal settled their dispute, which had reached a tipping point, in a dramatic way is telling,” Roka told the Post. “It clearly shows the UML lacks an ideological base. Today’s development has given Oli carte blanche to do what he wants.”
Many say the way Nepali politicians indulged in dirty politics in the midst of a pandemic, which has been infecting thousands and killing hundreds of people every day, is just beyond anyone's comprehension and sickening.
Nepal on Thursday reported 8,842 new coronavirus infections. The Health Ministry reported 214 new deaths. The country’s number of active cases stands at 105,207. Health experts have warned that the situation can go even worse.
Roka said if the opposition parties fail to keep Oli in check, the country is in for multiple serious crises.
“It’s incumbent upon the opposition parties to step up to the plate and ensure the checks and balances. Until Oli is comfortable, he will try to govern with an iron fist and close his eyes to corruption by his cliques,” Roka told the Post. “Whenever he feels his position is untenable, he will play the election card. But elections are simply impossible in the near future given the pandemic.”