Oli is cornered in the ruling party and there is no one to blame but himselfOver the last two years, Oli has ignored genuine calls for changes to his unilateral working style, which alienated many leaders who were once on his side.
When KP Sharma Oli returned to power in February 2018, he had a strong electoral mandate—a near two-thirds majority in Parliament. After the unification of his UML with the Maoists, Oli, as one of the chairs of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, became the strongest prime minister the country has had in recent times.
For two years, Oli ran the government and the party almost unilaterally, some might even say “with an iron fist.” But today, Oli is seeing shadows everywhere and a confrontation with Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the other party chair, threatens to derail his government.
The situation that Oli is facing today was in the making for quite some time and party insiders say that there is no one to blame but himself.
Despite criticism—from the public as well as a section of leaders from within the Nepal Communist Party—that the government was failing to deliver on its promises, Oli refused to pay any heed.
“Over the last two years, the prime minister tarnished his own image because of his arrogance,” said Hemraj Bhandari, a central committee member. “He surrounded himself with a vicious circle of near and dear ones and different interest groups, ignoring genuine concerns and suggestions from party members.”
Oli pushed through decisions in the party and ran the government the way he wanted, providing ample room for his detractors to band together against him, say insiders.
Despite agreeing to lead the party together with Dahal, Oli also refused to provide the latter with any room. A frustrated Dahal then began bringing up a “gentleman’s agreement” between him and Oli to lead the government in turns.
After continued pressure from Dahal, coupled with Oli’s frail health—he has been undergoing dialysis—he finally made a concession. The party decided that Oli would run the government for the full term while Dahal would become the executive chair of the party.
But even then, Dahal seethed as Oli refused to let go of the party. Oli even publicly said that every party has a junior and senior leader, insinuating that Dahal might be the executive chair, but he was junior to him.
At around the same time, Oli also managed to alienate some of his old colleagues from the CPN-UML days, and Dahal was only too happy to cultivate these leaders.
The real coup came when Dahal last month managed to extract the Speaker’s post for the man of his choice, resisting Oli’s pressure to go for his own confidante Subash Nembang. Dahal’s success was largely attributed to an alliance he had created with leaders like Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal and Bamdev Gautam, all long-time comrades of Oli’s.
Now, Dahal controls a majority in the nine-member Secretariat, which on Wednesday decided to send Gautam to the National Assembly. Oli has said that he will not nominate Gautam and will continue with Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada, whose two-year term is ending on March 3.
“If he ignores the party’s decision at this point of time, his opponents could make a bid to oust him,” said a close aide to Oli. “I think Oli would rather nominate Gautam for the Upper House and continue with Khatiwada as finance minister for the next six months.”
Dahal knows that Oli is in a pickle. If Oli relents and allows Gautam into the Upper House, Dahal will claim victory, but if he sticks to his guns and refuses, he will be violating a decision made by the party’s Central Committee for the party and the government to work together. Either way, he will come out on the losing end.
Talking to journalists at Bharatpur Airport on Friday, Dahal reiterated that Gautam would be a National Assembly member.
“It was a unanimous decision of the party Secretariat to send Vice-chair Gautam to the National Assembly,” said Dahal. “The prime minister must abide by the decision and he will.”
Earlier on Friday, Dahal had held a meeting with Nepal and Khanal where they decided to press the Gautam issue, according to party leaders from the Dahal camp. Oli’s detractors know that they can bolster Gautam’s position to force Oli into a corner.
“What I know is that he [Oli] will recommend Gautam. I don’t want to talk about what ifs. I cannot even imagine that he will reject a decision taken by the Secretariat,” Dahal told reporters.
However, one of Oli’s advisors, Rajan Bhattarai, said that the recommendation for the National Assembly is not for the party to decide.
“As per the constitution, it’s a matter for the government and the president,” Bhattarai, the prime minister’s foreign affairs advisor, said at an event on Friday. “Things will be amicably settled in a few days.”
According to constitutional provisions, three National Assembly members are nominated by the government, pending endorsement by the President. All National Assembly members serve staggered terms, with the Finance Minister Khatiwada’s current two-year term expiring in March. Gautam has been slated to replace him, but Oli shows no signs of budging on continuing with Khatiwada.
Oli, who does not usually refrain from speaking his mind, however, has stayed uncharacteristically quiet about ongoing party issues.
At an event organised by the party’s Bagmati Province Committee on Thursday, Oli only said that he would go for a kidney transplant soon and defended his close confidante Gokul Baskota, who resigned on February 20 after he was heard negotiating a Rs700 million ‘commission’ in exchange for awarding the contract for a security printing press to a Swiss company.
“Baskota has said that the tape was fabricated. No complaint has been filed against him,” said Oli.
Complaints, however, have been filed at the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority against Baskota.
Despite calls from opposition parties, Oli has yet to respond to the Baskota scandal in Parliament. Baskota’s loss, at a time when opposition within the party is getting stronger, will certainly be felt in the Oli camp.
A sitting minister, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that his defence of Baskota shows that the flaws that led to his current position in the party continue to drive him.
Bhandari, the central committee leader, too said that Oli will only face more and more problems if he continues unilaterally, ignoring advice from party members. Ultimately, it is Dahal who will benefit, said Bhandari.
“Oli could not change his unilateral and arrogant style of working,” said the minister, “so he is himself to blame for the situation he is in today.”