A group of former Maoist combatants, who were once ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for their supreme commander, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, is now negotiating with Prime Minister KP Oli to join his faction of the ruling Nepal Communist Party. Some other ex-Maoist commanders and leaders are already with Oli.
They are taking the side of someone who was once a harsh Maoist critic after Dahal decided to sever ties with Oli, with whom he shared the NCP chairmanship for three years.
Oli had become prime minister with unprecedented powers after the communist coalition he led garnered nearly two-thirds majority in the 2017 general elections. But Oli then gradually started losing the political support for his government. At first, the then Rastriya Janata Party Nepal withdrew its support, accusing the prime minister of reneging on his promise to amend the national charter. Then, at the end of 2019, the Baburam Bhattarai-Upendra Yadav-led Samajbadi Party Nepal left the government, whereupon Oli lost his two-thirds governing majority.
But Oli continued to be powerful in the government as well as in the party.
Differences between the two co-chairmen had started widening two years after the NCP’s formation. After failing to get Oli to abandon his unilateral ways, Dahal sought the support of Madhav Kumar Nepal, who in turn had been alienated after his demotion in party hierarchy, allegedly at Oli’s behest.
Instead of bowing out, Oli kept ignoring the pleas of the NCP dissident faction, which eventually resulted in the party split. As dissident leaders were planning to oust the prime minister by registering a ‘no confidence’ motion against him in the federal parliament, Oli decided to throw out the bathwater in the form of Dahal and Nepal while also ditching the parliament, the baby he was supposed to nurture.
The House dissolution decision in turn brought major political forces including ruling as well as dissident NCP factions, Nepali Congress, Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal and members of the civil society on the street.
Yet political leaders and cadres are still lining up to join the political force Oli commands.
What’s the attraction?
Oli welcomed ex-JSPN MP Shivajee Yadav into his party last week, followed by former Maoist leader Prabhu Shah who joined Oli’s team by ditching the Dahal-Nepal faction. A long-time Madhav Nepal loyalist, Satya Narayan Mandal, too, has joined the Oli faction. Sources say other influential Madhesi leaders could also join the same faction, despite the fact that Oli has always been seen as an anti-Madhesi leader.
At the time of the NCP split, former Maoist leader Ram Bahadur Thapa had taken Oli’s side after his mounting differences with Dahal, as had Top Bahadur Rayamajhi and Dawa Tamang. In a bid to attract ex-Maoist leaders into his camp, Oli had conferred ministerial berths on all senior leaders who left Dahal. Shah, Rayamajhi and Lama were all made ministers after quitting Dahal’s team.
The story doesn’t end there. Until a month ago, Shivaji Prasad Kanu, a member of the Dahal-Nepal faction, was protesting against the PM’s ‘unconstitutional’ House dissolution, and he had even burnt his right hand during a torch rally against the move. Then he switched sides, and Oli made him a member of the Land Related Problem Resolution Commission Parsa district chapter.
The government appointed 77 district chiefs as well as members of the land commission’s chapters at January-end. Bina Devi Sharma was made the chairperson of the commission of the same district after she joined Oli from the Dahal-Nepal camp. Earlier, Ramkirhor Singh Parag was made the district chairperson of Nepal Children Association Parsa for a similar switch.
The case of House dissolution is sub-judice at the Supreme Court, and the Election Commission is weighing claims of both Oli and Dahal-Nepal factions for official recognition. Yet the late-sexagenarian prime minister appears confident he will win both these battles. Oli’s opponents therefore suspect he has already made a ‘setting’.
Chief Election Commission Dinesh Kumar Thapaliya is believed to be loyal to the prime minister. Similarly, Prem Rai, the recently appointed chief of the CIAA, the powerful constitutional anti-graft body, is also an Oli acolyte.
But political analyst Lok Raj Baral doubts Oli’s confidants who are now in key state organs will support him when he finds himself in difficulty. “During the time of the second Jana Andolan, the office-bearers of state organs didn’t support the monarch who had a 250-year legacy. Oli is just a politician,” he says.
This is why, many doubt that even the Supreme Court, which is now supposedly packed with Oli loyalists, will unquestioningly settle the House dissolution case in his favor.
What Oli can count on with greater surety is continued support of President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, who continues to be a staunch backer. Her decision to immediately endorse the House dissolution move had raised questions over her impartiality.
In fact Oli had started consolidating power right after taking office by bringing the National Intelligence Department, the Department of Money Laundering Investigation and other key state offices under the PMO’s direct watch.
He also managed to place his confidants at various state organs, which also became a major bone of contention inside the NCP.
“The erstwhile monarchs used to question the dubious decisions of their prime ministers. But Oli faced no such constraints,” says Mrigendra Bahadur Karki, a professor of political science at Tribhuvan University.
Political analyst Baral says Oli’s mass rallies are aimed at retaining his core supporters as he is getting politically weaker: “He wants to create an impression among the people as well as among his rivals that he still has mass support”.
But then a sizable section of the NCP, comprised of former CPN-UML leaders and cadres, had never accepted Dahal, a Maoist, as their chairman. They are now celebrating the party split and openly supporting Oli.
Similarly, Oli’s stance during the Indian blockade and constitution making is still popular among a section of the people. On the other hand, they are not convinced with the agendas of Dahal-Nepal faction. “The situation right now is that there is no one to challenge Oli. People see that both Dahal and Nepal have become prime ministers and both have failed to deliver,” says Baral.
Satya Narayan Mandal, who is among Oli’s confidants, claims it is Oli’s honesty that attracts grassroots support. “He is the only leader committed to the country and its people. No other leader can challenge him on this issue,” Mandal says.
He points to the “hundreds of thousands” people who joined the recent rally of the Oli-led faction in Kathmandu. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, however, has termed Oli’s rallies bizarre.
Never before has the country witnessed a sitting prime minister organize a protest rally, Dahal said during a briefing to correspondents of international media in Kathmandu this week. Even as Dahal said this, Madhav Nepal, who as prime minister had strongly retaliated against the Maoist mass protest in Kathmandu in 2010, was sitting by his side. The then head of the UML’s Youth Force, Mahesh Basnet, who had led the retaliation against Maoist encirclement of Kathmandu at the time, is now among Oli’s closest confidants.
The Dahal-Nepal faction is now seeking the support of the international community even as the country's close friends have kept mum on House dissolution.
Dahal expressed his discontent over the international community’s silence while addressing a mass rally in Kathmandu on Feb 10.
“Democracy is being murdered in Nepal,” he said. To save it, “we expect support and solidarity from all international community members who support democratic values, especially our neighbor who claims to be the world’s largest democracy”.
Oli too has already approached Kathmandu-based diplomats and briefed them on House dissolution.
In Karki’s words, the US is positive towards Oli given his commitment to the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact. Similarly, Oli has made China happy by opening trade and transit routes with the neighbor. “Moreover, he has tried to woo the BJP base by taking up the Hinduism agenda.”
A journalist who met US ambassador to Nepal Randy Berry last week informed that Berry was waiting for final Supreme Court verdict before commenting on recent developments in Nepal.
Neighboring India and China have thus far not been involved in this saga, having only noted developments here.
Adds Baral, who is also Nepal’s ex-ambassador to India, “The international community may be sitting on the fence for two reasons: Nepal’s future political course is unclear because the issue is still sub-judice; nor is Oli’s calling for an election an undemocratic move in itself”.
Even if the parliament is restored, some see Oli holding on to his premiership with the support of Nepali Congress and other fringe parties. Oli has the backing of at least 83 lawmakers of the dissolved parliament, according to a leader of Dahal-Nepal faction. But it is unclear whether Oli would be able to appease the NC and the JSPN.
But Professor Karki argues that Oli won’t be able to retain his position in the reinstated parliament. “In my understanding, the current street protests are not aimed at overthrowing Oli. Those protesting rather want to show they too enjoy a level of public support,” Karki says. “But if the parliament is restored the opposition forces will be able to easily overthrow Oli.”