Prime Minister KP Oli has tried nearly everything to hang on to the prime minister’s chair: Breaking an opposition party to knit together a governing majority, amending the citizenship law via an ordinance to appease the Madhesi leaders joining his government, anomalously expanding his Cabinet, and repeatedly trying to cajole other senior CPN-UML leaders with empty promises into backing his leadership. Most troubling of them all is that he reclaimed the prime minister’s chair by stepping on contentious constitutional grounds. Now the Supreme Court has started invalidating these questionable moves, one after another. That at least is one way of seeing things.
On June 22 the Supreme Court ruled his two latest Cabinet expansions unconstitutional, as a result of which 20 ministers including three of his deputies have been relieved of their duties. The opposition parties have united against him. Ex-prime ministers believe PM Oli is ready to trade Nepal’s sovereignty to save his chair. Whatever the case, if the prime minister had to make way for someone else, he would have done it long ago. Oli is determined to hang on, any which way, until the next round of elections.
When it appeared that domestic forces could not keep him in power, he sought India’s help, which duly came. India convinced the Thakur-Mahato faction of the Rastriya Samajbadi Party, Nepal (RSPN) to ditch the party’s Yadav-Bhattarai faction and join the Oli government. In return, Oli promised to work for the restoration of Nepal’s ‘Hindu nation’ status. Modi, meanwhile, is in no mood to listen to ex-Indian diplomats who have repeatedly asked him not to pick sides in Nepal. Instead, the BJP government has passed a law that withholds state pensions of ex-officials who criticize the government in public forums.
As I have pointed out in this space before, there are many similarities between the governing styles of Oli and Modi. They are a natural match. Both are intolerant of criticism and choose to silence rather than heed their critics. They also believe in using the iron-fist of the executive to undermine other vital state organs. When other state officials cannot be coerced, they are co-opted. Therefore there are now many adherents of Modi’s Hindutwa agenda in the Indian Supreme Court. Despite his recent court reverses, perhaps Oli too believes he still has enough friends in the Nepali Supreme Court to ensure he remains at the helm during the next elections.
Modi remains popular in India, with 66 percent approval according to a new survey. This is down from his above-80 percent support pre-covid. Yet if the latest approval holds, it will be enough for him to win another election. Perhaps Oli too knows that Nepalis are bitterly divided, and as badly as he has done in the government, the party he leads can still garner a plurality of votes in the next elections. After all, the voting public hardly favors other political figures with chequered records like Madhav Kumar Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, and Sher Bahadur Deuba.
And rest assured: Oli still has a few more rabbits to pull out from his bulging bag of tricks. Oli’s political obituary has been written many times in the past, and each time he has made a roaring comeback. He would love to prove his critics wrong one final time in the next elections.