For the head of a Nepali government with nearly two-thirds majority in the federal legislature, and effective control of six of the seven provinces, the sequence of events he set in motion on April 22 were tantamount to a political hara-kiri. The country under an unprecedented medical emergency, PM KP Oli tried to engineer a split in a Madhes-based party, which at the best was a marginal player in national politics. To this effect, the cabinet passed a pair of ordinances in the afternoon, and by the evening the President had even given them her stamp of approval. But the legal change making it easier to split national political parties backfired on the Prime Minister. Instead of the Samajbadi Party splitting and a section of it joining the federal government, as he expected, the legal change brought about the long-delayed merger between the Samajbadi Party and the RJPN, another major force in Tarai-Madhes.
Oli’s rivals in the ruling party will use the shocking failure of this Machiavellian maneuvering of their co-chairman to question his leadership. The opposition against him had already been building in the Nepal Communist Party, largely after the mending of fences between co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal and senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal. The ordinances would have helped Oli split the NCP and form his own party if he felt his PM’s position and party chairmanship were under threat.
India played an instrumental role in the midnight merger. It wanted a force that could help challenge ‘pro-China’ Oli’s national premiership, and a strong outfit in Madhes under its control. Without India’s intervention, Oli’s plan to split the Samajbadi Party would probably have succeeded.
However the merger came about, the unity of the two Madhes-based parties will solidify the Madhesi agenda. “I have been getting calls from Madhesis from every walk of life ever since the merger was announced,” says Tula Narayan Shah, an analyst of Madhesi politics who also had a dormant role in the Samajbadi Party. “They are all jubilant.” Why?
“You see, they see it as a part of the evolution of the Madhesi society from the ‘voter class’ to the ‘leader class’. The Madhesi society has been politicized, and the confidence is rising that they can finally claim leadership roles at the national level,” says Shah. Well and good, but will the merger last to warrant such enthusiasm? Shah says there is no guarantee of continued unity, given the ‘make-and-break’ history of Madhesi parties and their leader-centric politics. But he expects the unity to be intact at least until the next general elections.
Its implications on national politics will be massive. NCP co-chair Dahal, for one, is reportedly euphoric with the merger. If Oli splits the NCP or is reluctant to transfer party leadership, it clears the way for future collaboration between former Maoists, Madhesi parties and the main opposition Nepali Congress, most likely under Dahal’s leadership.
Any way you look at it, Oli loses. He has made a career out of bold risks. His latest has failed, and he has to live with the consequences. Alas, President Bidya Devi Bhandari, who has already done great harm to her office by acting as the PMO’s rubberstamp, may not be able to come to his rescue this time.