With the dissolution of the House of Representatives for the second time within months, Nepal is bound to go for midterm elections, possibly in November as announced. However, the opposition parties and lawyers have filed 25 writ petitions against the move, calling it “unconstitutional”. The voices to punish the Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and to impeach the President have multiplied, creating chaos and confusion for the future of Nepal.
Even before the President took the decision in a late-night drama—where both PM Oli and Opposition Leader Sher Bahadur Deuba had made claims to form government as the PM under clause 76(5) of the Constitution—people were amused by the flip flops happening in Nepali politics. There was surprise and amusement when Oli was reappointed as the PM under clause 76(3) of the Constitution as the leader of the largest party, even though he had lost the vote of confidence in the House. But no other leader could stake the claim within three days granted to the parties.
The public discourse has moved from one side of the pendulum to the other in the process of deciphering the Constitution and the procedures laid out by the leaders. There has been a constant outcry of opposition parties to oust the PM due to his unilateral decision-making, total neglect of discussions, and molding the provisions of the Constitution to fit his decisions. The non-stop bombing of new ordinances at odd times has wreaked havoc among the political leaders, journalists, scholars, and even ordinary citizens. Many have started to call him an “autocratic leader” who lusts after money and power, while others view him as an “ultra nationalist” who has changed the basic character of Nepal and its system.
However, for Oli, politics is a simple game of Mahjong, where money, luck and mind all play their individual role. With decades of experience with the masses and in politics, he is aware of the public pulse and also flaws in the approaches of opposition parties. His jokes and non-seriousness may have left the opposition unhappy, but they have all been embroiled in his Chakravuh. Willingly or unwillingly all leaders are playing the game of Mahjong set up by Oli, even if they are deeply annoyed with his working style.
As he moves away from luring his own party-men to seeking the support of Madhesi leaders, each move he makes in drawing the tiles or discarding them, is aimed at completing a legal hand and staying in command. With the current chaos created by the Oli regime, the opposition is finding it hard to draw his tiles and bring order in the larger political game. In his most recent move, he tried to please the Madhesi people with the ordinance to amend the citizenship provisions of the Constitution. According to Prakash Pokhrel, a writer and political analyst, the bill was pending for over two years, but Oli got it cleared, pronto, after the dates of mid-term elections were announced.
Pokhrel believes there could be two possible outcomes: one, Oli will get someone to file a writ petition against the ordinance in the Supreme Court, thereby nullifying the ordinance and becoming a great supporter of the Madhesi people; or two, he will use it as a card during elections, even though the validity of the ordinance is only for six months and needs House approval to become law, which might be impossible due to the time gap of holding elections and forming of a new government.
Although the Constitution of Nepal has laid down guidelines and procedures, he brings in variations with each move to change the game. None of the other leaders withdraws from the game as well, probably as they think they do stand to gain a little. This was starkly visible at the time of passing of the new Nepali map and even now when without resigning from the PM’s post or losing the vote of confidence Oli managed to give 21 hours for other parties to form the new government. No leader or party opted to boycott, but ran to deliberate and reset alliances, thinking that an opportunity to grab a tile was thrown their way.
Interestingly, beyond the power plays, Oli has set up a larger Mahjong for three big geopolitical players: India, China, and the US. He knows that balancing the two immediate neighbors is not easy under the current geopolitical scenario. Hence he uses tantrums to reap benefits, by first infuriating and then cajoling the neighbors. With India, he played the tiles of “sovereignty” on Kalapani, “Ram Janambhoomi”, “simhaev jayate or satyamev jayate” on Indian emblem, and calling Covid-19 “Indian virus” to draw Indian ire. Later, he changed his tune and withdrew the changed Nepali history books incorporating the new Nepali map.
Oli knows that the US is keen to get MCC passed in Nepal to keep a check on China and to rope in Nepal in the QUAD arrangement, while China wants to link Nepal with its grand BRI project and also establish closer ideological ties. The US and China are also vying for the large populace of Tibetans in Nepal to wage their respective proxy wars. However, according to Dinesh Bhattarai, former Foreign Affairs Adviser to the Prime Minister of Nepal, Oli’s foreign policy is based purely on “political opportunism”. This has helped him not only remain in power for long, but also to continue to be a “nationalist”. For the moment, Oli remains the PM, never mind logic or legal provisions. To remain in power is now the bottom-line, no matter how one amends the rule of the game, as variations of Mahjong is what makes the game unique in Nepal.
The author is assistant professor at the Center for Chinese & South-East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University