Deuba, Oli in talks through various channels on MCC pact, leaders sayEven as Prime Minister Deuba appears confident that his coalition partners will support the passage of the US grant, he is keeping multiple options open.
Politics is a game of immense possibilities, they say.
As though national politics was not charged up enough over when to hold local level elections, the Millennium Challenge Corporation-Nepal Compact has taken centre stage again, for an umpteenth time. And Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is in the eye of the storm.
Deuba’s position on the MCC compact, the $500 million grant from the United States, has always been clear—that it must get through Parliament. The catch, however, is he has two key partners in his coalition government that are against the parliamentary passage of the US assistance, which Nepal signed in September 2017.
Since Washington has been building pressure on Nepal in its own manners and styles, Deuba is learnt to have been trying to seek support of the main opposition CPN-UML.
The UML, which was in favour of passing the MCC when it was in power until July 12, has maintained that it currently has no position on the American grant.
Multiple leaders from Deuba’s Nepali Congress and the UML told the Post that the prime minister is exploring several options, including seeking the main opposition’s support.
“Deuba and Oli have been talking through formal and informal channels,” said Min Bishwakarma, a leader close to Deuba. “The prime minister wants to build national consensus on holding local elections and ratifying the MCC.”
After widespread criticism of the ruling alliance’s exercise to delay local polls, the alliance made a turnabout, agreeing on conducting them by mid-June. The UML, however, has said that local level elections must be held latest by the third week of May.
Deuba wants a broader agreement on local elections and the MCC.
Deuba’s bid to seek UML support for MCC comes with a risk. Such a move could lead to breaking of the alliance.
If the Maoist Centre and the CPN (Unified Socialist) decide to pull out support, the current coalition will collapse. But the bigger danger for Deuba is—what if a new left alliance emerges.
In 2017, the Maoist Centre broke up with Congress and sided with UML. Congress faced a drubbing in the elections.
Deuba and Oli last met on January 8, and it was the first since the former took over from the latter on July 13 last year. Deuba had reached Oli’s residence for the meeting.
Oli in the past snubbed calls for meetings. He even boycotted at least two all-party meetings called by Deuba—on September 30 and December 19.
The main opposition leader holds contempt for the ruling alliance as he believes the current government lacks the people’s mandate and was installed through a court order.
Deuba has consistently sent his emissaries to meet Oli in signs of overtures.
Even on Monday morning, Gyanedra Bahadur Karki, minister for communication and information technology, met with Oli.
“It’s obvious. He was carrying Deuba’s message, or else why would he meet Oli?,” a Nepali Congress leader said. “The discussion revolved around ratifying the MCC from Parliament and opening the House obstructions. But the UML is adamant on not letting the House function.”
The UML has been obstructing the House proceedings since October. But unlike in normal conditions—when the opposition doesn’t not let the House function over some issues with the government—the UML’s only gripe is that Speaker Agni Sapkota refused to take cognizance of the party’s decision to expel 14 of its lawmakers in August last year. Those “expelled” leaders later formed the CPN (Unified Socialist) under Madhav Nepal.
Leaders from the Nepali Congress and the UML said that even Oli is of the view that his party won’t extend support to Deuba’s MCC bid as long as the current alliance exists.
According to the leaders, the UML will rescue Deuba on MCC and let him continue as prime minister even if the alliance breaks down, by not staking claim to the government.
But what’s the guarantee?
Leaders say there’s no guarantee in politics.
Deuba’s government was formed under the last of the available constitutional provisions—Article 76 (5)—for constituting the Council of Ministers. If the prime minister elected under this provision fails a vote of confidence, it leads to House dissolution.
If new elections are declared after such a House dissolution, Deuba will continue.
“If other ruling parties object to the passage of the MCC, then naturally the UML will come forward to support the Deuba government. That much assurance Deuba has received from Oli,” said Bishwakarma, the Congress leader.
The UML has maintained that it will make its position clear on the MCC once the coalition government makes its position clear. The MCC Nepal compact has been in Parliament since July 2019 and the Speaker needs to put it to vote.
The incumbent Speaker Sapkota is a long-time ally of Maoist Centre chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal, and many believe he is unlikely to move the American grant unless he gets the nod from Dahal who is opposed to MCC’s parliamentary ratification.
The UML in a statement on January 23 said that the ruling alliance was making ludicrous and childish moves such as constituting a task force to study an agreement that they themselves had signed.
When the MCC was signed in 2017, then also Deuba was the prime minister backed by Dahal. The current government has formed a task force of Jhala Nath Khanal from the CPN (Unified Socialist), Narayan Kaji Shreshtha from the Maoist Centre and Minister Karki.
Both Khanal and Shrestha represent the parties that are dead against MCC’s passage from Parliament.
According to Bishnu Rijal, deputy chief of the UML’s publicity department, Oli during his last meeting with Deuba had said that the government should first table the MCC in the House.
“Our party chair also told the prime minister that there was no need to form the task force,” said Rijal. “How do you expect to get the right recommendations from people who are against the ratification of the MCC?”
Another UML leader confirmed to the Post that Deuba and Oli have been in talks lately through different channels and interlocutors.
“If the present alliance breaks down, the UML will be there to rescue the Deuba government,” said UML’s Secretary Padma Aryal. “Our position on MCC is clear. We will show our cards only after the government moves it forward in Parliament. If the Deuba government falls into a minority over the MCC, we are not going to join the government; we will rather support it from outside.”
But Deuba is aware of the pitfalls.
According to leaders from his orbit, Deuba does not want to let the current coalition break apart.
The prime minister believes the Maoist Centre and the CPN (Unified Socialist) would support the MCC, according to a Congress leader.
“But in politics, everyone keeps different options open,” said the leader. “And so is Deuba, or any other leader for that matter.”