Prime Minister KP Oli for once made sense and appeared statesmanly during his May 3 address to the country. Making a U-turn from his earlier public stand that Covid-19 was an innocuous disease that responded to ingestion of turmeric and boiled guava leaves, this time, speaking from inside a glass box and through a surgical mask, he appealed to the people to take the virus seriously. Oli also urged them not to heed rumors and to only listen to experts. He rounded off by expressing his government’s seriousness in combating Covid-19—in English.
A calculated performance it was, coming hot on the heels of his promise of seeking a vote of confidence in the federal lower house—a vote he could very well lose. If he does, Oli could announce fresh elections in six months. As the number of daily infections and deaths mount, Oli seems to have realized that his pitch of an ‘easy virus’ could backfire as an electoral strategy. People now want the truth, however painful, and expect their prime minister to lead the anti-virus crusade. There could be no better vote-garnering strategy right now than honoring that expectation.
Oli knows that even though he may lose the parliamentary vote, an alternative candidate is not on the horizon. The only viable candidate, Sher Bahadur Deuba of Nepali Congress, does not seem interested in taking over when there is a high chance of him being discredited for mishandling the pandemic. Better to stay in opposition and continue pointing fingers at Oli. The Oli government’s failure on corona-control, Deuba reckons, will be to the electoral advantage of Nepali Congress. Moreover, he could better plot his comeback as party president from outside the government.
Relations between Oli and New Delhi continue to thaw, partly because of Oli’s foot-dragging on the BRI and his support for the MCC compact, a part of the broader US Indo-Pacific Strategy. Oli’s support for China was always exaggerated: He was only cashing in on the anti-India public sentiment in the aftermath of the 2015-16 border blockade. Otherwise, Oli’s relations with the South Block have always been top-notch.
Deuba understands India will not look kindly on him if he disturbs New Delhi’s new Nepal strategy. This, in his calculation, will make it difficult for him to keep the party presidency and return to PM’s chair.
However you see it, Oli seems to be in it for the long haul. Even with his checkered governance history, the master strategist is banking on people’s immediate electoral dilemma. Will they vote for Nepali Congress under Sher Bahadur Deuba, the four-time, largely ineffectual prime minister? How likely are they to back a Dahal-Nepal coalition that has no other agenda than to unseat Oli?
The electorate will continue to be divided in the upcoming elections, and Oli could very well benefit from it again.