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The Communist Conundrum of Nepal

More than two third members of the Standing Committee of Nepal’s ruling Party, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) have demanded PM KP Oli’s resignation over its utter incompetence in handling the pandemic and for blatant  attempts to bypass Party’s decisions on a number of key issues. However, the PM has quite conspicuously refused to resign and is mulling over opposition’s support to keep up with the number required in the parliament.  He even floated an idea of an Indian Conspiracy to oust him from the power. The PM’s conjecture has had quite opposite effect as it only irked the disgruntled party leaders and has only aggravated the crisis.  The crisis unfolded gradually and now it’s over the tipping point. A spectre of split looms over the NCP and the possibility of a resolution is low.

The present political conflict has its roots somewhere buried in decade long Nepal’s culture of “Politics of Consensus”. This particular trait of contemporary politics has on number of occasions awarded the nation with favorable outcomes whereas it has also helped give birth to controversies. Just when it seemed that Nepal’s politics was out of the “Number game”, the calculating hands have resurfaced. The latest episode in Nepali politics is going to further strengthen aforementioned trend but how did Nepal arrive at this juncture?  

The Communist Alliance

It was 3rd of October 2017 when a revelation was made by two parties, the CPN (Maoist Center) led by Prachanda and the CPN (UML) led by KP Sharma Oli. Both of them had at least on one occasion served as the PM of Nepal. They reached an understanding to jointly contest the upcoming Federal and Provincial elections and later to merge into a single Communist party. The news then hit the Nepali Congress like a bombshell as concurrently they were running a coalition government with the Maoists after ousting KP Sharma Oli from power in 2016.  The news of a possible large scale Communist merger was unprecedented in the history of Nepal and the Nepalese people hinged on the hope of a better future.

The 2017 understanding changed the political landscape.  The Communist alliance won almost a two third majority in the Federal election and managed to form a powerful government at the center in 2018.  It was soon followed by a merger of CPN (UML) and CPN (Maoist Center) to form a larger and more powerful Nepal Communist Party (NCP).

So why did the Maoists preferred to forge an alliance with CPN (UML) despite running a coalition government with the Congress? And why did KP Sharma Oli was ousted in the first place?  We see the role of Gentlemen agreements in these ups and downs.

The Labyrinth of Gentlemen agreements  

Let me take you back in the time when the Nepalese Constitution was promulgated. For the past decade Nepalese politics has been dictated by the “Consensus” model with power sharing among two or more coalition partners in the government. The consensus required deals brokered behind the closed doors. These deals were essential to break political deadlocks. These deals were not binding and hence were touted as “The gentlemen agreements”.

The gentlemen agreements were more focused on transfer of reigns of the government from one Political Party to another.  In 2015, Nepali Congress, CPN (Maoist Center) agreed to let CPN (UML) led by KP Sharma Oli to form the government after the promulgation of the Constitution. That’s the deal which enabled parties to move ahead. However, Nepali Congress was unwilling to keep the promise. The CPN (Maoist Center) led by Prachanda was in an advantageous position where it could choose to either support the Congress or the UML. Prachanda’s standing was a deciding factor. He argued in favor of “The gentlemen agreement” and hence, KP Sharma Oli was elected as the PM with the Maoists’ support.  

However, before Maoist and UML formed the government, another Gentlemen agreement was put in place. The agreement required UML to handover the premiership to Prachanda after a designated period of time. The UML’s led government only achievement was to downplay the minority Madheshi protest of the Constitution in south of the country and strengthen the Anti-Indian rhetoric. Reports also emerged that the government encouraged black-marketing to create artificial shortages of supplies all over Nepal and put blame on India. The strategy worked and KP Sharma Oli’s popularity rose by many folds.

However, when the Maoists reminded KP Sharma Oli of the Gentlemen agreement to pass over the reins of the government, he categorically refused to do so. The breach of Gentlemen agreement left Maoists infuriated and with no other alternative, the Prachanda led CPN (Maoist Center) withdrew from the coalition and signed another Gentlemen agreement with the Nepali Congress. The agreement between the Maoists and the Congress gave mandate to Prachanda to lead the government till the completion of the Local elections and then pass over the leadership of the government to Nepali Congress Chief Sher Bahadur Deuba in order to conduct the Federal and Provincial Elections.  Subsequently, Prachanda was elected the PM of Nepal in 2016.

The Maoist and Congress coalition fared better in terms of the work and it seemed the partnership would go a long way. The Maoist and the Congress even jointly contested the Local elections and in a rare show of Political honesty, Prachanda resigned after the completion of the Local election. This paved way for Deuba to take the oath of Nepal’s PM for the fourth time.

Shortly after Deuba’s take over, the Maoists broke the alliance with congress. However, the Maoists refrained from ousting Deuba and let the Nepali Congress lead the government as per the Gentlemen agreement. Nevertheless, the news of an alliance and a possible merger between the two largest communist parties was an uncomfortable prospect for the Nepali Congress.  So what went wrong for the Nepali Congress that the Maoists departed from them?

Though the Maoists and the Nepali Congress jointly contested most of the places during the Local elections, the Maoists were dissatisfied over the sharing of seats. Nepali Congress and Maoists failed to file joint candidates at many places. In fact, the Nepali Congress ruled out any joint candidacy in Province 2 where the Nepali Congress seemed to carry more influence. The strength of Maoists had waned over the past decade due to split among its ranks and an alliance with a powerful party presented a convenient way for an electoral success. This forced Maoists to turn to UML. Though ideologically the Maoists and the UML are closer, the ideology played little or no part in bringing them together.  For both of the parties, the number mattered.

However, the saga of Gentlemen agreement didn’t end there. In 2018, before the merger of the two parties, an agreement between KP Sharma Oli and Prachanda was reached whereupon KP Oli was to transfer the responsibility of the government to Prachanda after two and half years. However in 2019, Prachanda agreed to let KP Sharma Oli run the government for the full term. But recent developments and widespread condemnation of the government’s work have forced the party leaders to ask for a drastic change in the government and that’s how we arrive at the present conundrum.

The immediate Cause

The works of the government has been rife with allegations of financial irregularities and the KP Oli faction was immensely wary of the Prachanda and Madhav Nepal teaming up against him in the party. The first Central Committee (CC) meeting of the unified NCP showed a disappointing picture for KP Oli. Prachanda-Nepal’s teamed up faction formed over two thirds of the total CC members. The PM KP Oli desperately needed hold onto the party’s support to face any challenge to his rule. But the numbers were at odds against him.

The fact that KP Oli doesn’t command majority among his party’s MPs created the biggest insecurity for him. KP Oli needed a different strategy which he devised in the month of April. The plan was to split the party and garner outsider’s support. However, this wasn’t an easy task. The provision for splitting any party and retaining the MP status of the MPs of erstwhile members of the original party required at least 40 %  of the total CC members’  and the 40% of the total MPs’ declared support at the time of a split. But as we discussed earlier, the Oli faction would have been unable to gather the required support among the CC members. However, garnering a suppport of  40 % of the party's MPs was a possibility.

Therefore in mid-April 2020, the PM issued an Ordinance which was duly promulgated by the President. The ordinance effectively amended the provision for a party split. Now, it only required support of the 40 % of either of total CC members or among the party’s MPs. Though it would have eased Oli’s desire to split the party, to maintain a majority in the parliament would have required outsider’s support. However, the ordinance also made it a lot easier for MPs from smaller Madhesh based party to split. The overall Oli faction’s plan was to split the NCP and garner additional support from the Madhesh based splinter’s group of MPs.

The plan was thwarted after two Madhesh parties decided to unify in view of an impending split. Oli withdrew the ordinance but not without facing a flak from its party leaders. The secretariat members of the Party demanded his resignation. The standing committee members called for a meeting over the PM’s recent steps. But KP Oli manage to defer the Standing Committee meeting and tone down the secretariat members. But the issue was outstanding. PM’s position had weakened significantly and his popularity nose-dived.

In May 2020, India inaugurated the Mansarovar road which ran through the disputed territory of Kalapani. Both India and Nepal contests over the territory. This presented an opportunity for the Oli to revitalize its support among the Nepal’s population. Oli started to pitch strong anti-Indian rhetoric and amended the Constitution unanimously to include Kalapani in Nepal’s new Map. The move was seen by many in Nepal as a befitting reply to the Indian aggression. Suddenly an utterly incompetent government was being seen as the guardian of the Nepalese sovereignty. This renewed support among the population was a morale boost for the Oli faction. However, the immense financial irregularities, handling of the pandemic and the issuance of ordinance would overweigh the quick popularity gained from exploiting nationalist sentiment.

The differences over the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has also led to dissatisfaction. Majority of the party members have favored amendment to the MCC’s proposal before ratifying it. However, PM KP Oli has strong objections over amendments and wants the MCC to be ratified in its original form. The party leaders prepared a report whereby they pointed out the flaws in the MCC agreement which might infringe on Nepal’s sovereignty. As of yet, the MCC agreement hasn’t been able to pass the parliament’s test.

 Standing Committee meeting and the number game

The Standing Committee meeting was called a couple of weeks ago and it went as expected. Oli faced a strong criticism over his style of running the government. Unable to face the criticisms, Oli dodged several meetings citing health issues and publicly blamed India for trying to oust him. This led to a more intense confrontation between Prachanda and Oli at the Standing Committee meetings. Over two third of the total committee members demanded Oli’s resignation for his failures. However, KP Oli has not heeded to the committee members call.

In the recent development, KP Oli threatened to split the party and has sought help from Nepali Congress.  However, it is hard to guess the exact number of MPs each side will secure in case of a split. The party members have opposed any move that would split the party. There is continuous dialogue to reach at a consensus but both factions are firm on their stands.

The PM abruptly suspended the running session of the Parliament over fear of proposal of a motion of no confidence against him. This has only raised the suspicion that the PM might issue an ordinance similar to what was issued in the month of April to ease his chances of remaining in the power. KP Sharma Oli garnering a Nepali Congress support seems highly unlikely and any other drastic step might be detrimental for his rule. So, it would be best to win the confidence of the MPs from his own party. Therefore, both faction has directed their effort to secure the MPs in their favor.


The Nature of Conflict

The current conflict within the NCP points towards a deep rooted factionalism. The Communist parties have a long history of frequent splits. Therefore one can see a plethora of Communist parties in Nepal. Some of the splits have occurred due to the ideological differences but most of the splits have occurred due to disagreements over power sharing within the party.

However, this conflict is not a product of pure factionalism or pure power sharing.  It has some elements of disagreement over power sharing, factionalism and the style of governing as well.

The factionalism has indubitably added fire to the fuel but it would be wrong to assume it being the prime reason. If factionalism were a prime factor, Prachanda would have never allowed KP Oli to go beyond the Gentlemen agreement.

In 2019, when Prachanda decided to leave his claim over running the government for the later part, it was a respite for KP Oli but the way the present government has run wild in its style of functioning, the Party is bound to suffer from the loss of popularity and this perception in 2020, triggered a debate to oust KP Oli from the power.

The burden of widespread criticisms and proven financial irregularities will ultimately fall upon the Party’s shoulders and it would be only prudent to bring in a drastic change in the government to remedy party’s reputation.


The Conclusion

The politics of consensus has created a psyche where each political actors expect others to share his/her profit within the political class. The political class of Nepal, most of the time acts as a commune for the common good of the political actors rather than the benefit of the public. There are no friends nor enemies. The alliances have been based on vested interests instead of larger public interest or over any ideological similarities.  This has repercussion as not everyone has benign intention and the chance of a deceit is very high. 

The NCP carried the culture of "politics of consensus" through the Gentlemen agreement between KP Sharma Oli and Prachanda and this is where the conflict stemmed out from. It gradually worsened but given the composition of the NCP, it was inevitable. A final decision in this regard is pending. We cannot be sure of a split but the chances are high.  The party leaders wants to avoid a split but without any face saving exit strategy for both sides, it would be hard to find a compromise.  Both sides have increased their activities and securing the support of the party’s MPs will be the most important task in their endeavor.

The government has depicted an obstinate, unapologetic nature. The incompetency has left it open to strong criticisms. The government’s policies have been regressive.  Apart from providing an ultra-nationalistic rhetoric, it has failed on many fronts. The government hasn’t given satisfactory answers in response to different questions being raised. The public perception is highly unfavorable and any step against the present government by the party will help sway public’s opinion in the party’s favor.

The uncertainty over the next step has kept the public standing on their feet. Every discussion between the two sides has been inconclusive and the next standing committee has been postponed in order to avoid immediate escalation. So, though we can speak in probabilities, it would be really hard to predict the next event. As the saying goes, Nothing happens until it happens.

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