A year after Nepal suffered a devastating earthquake, political tremors rocked Kathmandu last week. Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli barely managed to stave off a looming crisis as his coalition partner, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)-UCPN(M), threatened to withdraw support. Nepal’s envoy in Delhi, Ambassador Deep Kumar Upadhyaya has been recalled; he had been appointed a year ago by former Prime Minister Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress (NC). President Bidhya Devi Bhandari’s maiden visit to India, scheduled to begin on May 9 has been cancelled; she was expected to visit Ujjain on May 14 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to participate in a “Shahi Snan” during the ongoing Simhastha Kumbha festival. Meanwhile, senior officials close to Mr. Oli have openly blamed India for the conspiracy to topple the Oli government, leading to a further deterioration in the bilateral relationship.
Fractured internal politics
Last week, on May 4, UCPN (Maoist) leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” gave vent to his unhappiness with the government’s performance on post-earthquake reconstruction and lack of progress on the constitutional amendment process; he announced that the Maoists were withdrawing support from the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) [UML]-led government. He added that he would lead a new government with NC and Madhesi support and invited other parties to join in a national consensus government. However, Mr. Prachanda’s real source of unhappiness was that the cases registered against the Maoist cadres during the insurgency had not been withdrawn despite repeated assurances by Mr. Oli.
NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba had assured Mr. Prachanda of NC support and had suggested that the UDMF (Madhesi grouping) would be forthcoming. With 207 seats in a house of 601, the NC is the largest party with the UML and the Maoists following with 181 and 83 seats respectively. The Madhesis were expected to add another 30-plus seats, providing for a comfortable majority. Compared to Mr. Oli’s unwieldy coalition with six Deputy Prime Ministers including those from both Maoists and pro-monarchy parties, the NC’s support could have ensured a more stable government under Prachanda.
Rather than being reduced to a minority, Mr. Oli had decided to address the nation the following day and then hand in his resignation to Ms. Bhandari, his old comrade in arms from the UML whose election he had ensured last October. Under the circumstances, Ms. Bhandari’s visit to India had to be called off. His trusted aide, Bam Dev Gautam, who has always enjoyed close ties with the Maoists (he had been Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister in Prachanda’s cabinet in 2008-9) engaged in an exercise to woo back Maoist support.
Meanwhile, rumors began to do the rounds that the conspiracy to topple the Oli government had been cooked up with Indian help by Sher Bahadur Deuba. Mr. Deuba had been spending time in Delhi in connection with his wife’s medical treatment. Mr. Gautam played up the Indian angle knowing that Mr. Prachanda’s relations with India have never recovered since his ill-fated attempts to undermine the Nepal Army which brought his tenure as Prime Minister to a rather abrupt and ignominious end. However, like most Nepali politicians, Mr. Prachanda blames Delhi for the collapse of his coalition and the subsequent breakup of his party.
Playing musical chairs
Mr. Gautam pointed out that the NC could not be trusted because Mr. Deuba’s ambitions to become the Prime Minister were hardly a secret. Keeping UML-Maoist unity intact was a better option. Finally, he dangled the ultimate carrot — that Mr. Oli was keen to present one regular budget and once this was done in June, he would step down and the UML would support Mr. Prachanda as Prime Minister.
Within 24 hours, Mr. Prachanda had ditched Mr. Deuba and switched positions. A new nine point agreement between the Maoists and the UML — which commits the Oli government to granting clemency to Maoist cadres, providing compensation to the injured and others who lost their livelihoods, facilitating land allotments, bringing in controversial transitional justice provisions pending for over a decade, and ensuring close consultation with regard to government appointments — had been concluded. The agreement also provides for accelerating reconstruction work and addressing Madhesi demands at the earliest though it is clear that the Oli government is in no mood to move forward in this regard.
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Rakesh Sood was Indian Ambassador to Nepal between 2008 and 2011, and is presently Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org