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In Nepal game of political dice, Prachanda-Deuba & India are back while Oli out in the cold again

There’s never a dull day in the Himalayan republic. When Deuba lost the election, everyone thought India had lost the plot. But then the plot changed.

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The wheels are turning in Nepali politics again, barely a couple of months since the elections threw up a new coalition government led by two Communist parties, one of whose leaders abandoned his pre-poll partner to become Prime Minister in alliance with the other.

But since politics is the art of permutations and combinations and Nepal’s young democracy has perfected the science of jumping ship and matching them with the arithmetic of numbers, Maoist leader and prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal or Prachanda, is once again in the spotlight. Never mind that his post-poll partner, the other Communist leader K. P. Oli, has decided to pull the rug from under Dahal’s feet, in the hope that he will be seen as king-maker again if not yet the king.

But the rug in Baluwatar, as the PM’s residence in Nepal is called, has been witness to many a political brew being prepared. Until last week, Oli was a key ingredient in the government sweepstakes, but this week he has been discarded summarily. The newest old flavour is Sher Bahadur Deuba, the 80-year-old leader of the Nepali Congress and the chief occupant of Baluwatar until the elections.

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The three guests on the side

Watching on the sidelines are three guests, India, China, and the United States, their invites dependent on who’s sitting at the head of the dinner table. They have been shuffling menus for a while, with international geopolitics dictating the main course of the day. India and the US, Quad partners in the Indo-Pacific and “natural allies” elsewhere, are often seen to be taking a keen interest in what’s cooking in Kathmandu, with India more often than not leading the charge. China, meanwhile, has remained loyal to the charms of Oli, no matter where else the bread is being buttered in Nepal.

Of course, there’s never a dull day in the Himalayan republic. When Deuba, the senior partner in the pre-poll Deuba-Prachanda coalition, lost the election, everyone thought India had lost the plot.

That’s because Deuba and his NC are widely seen as being supported by Delhi, never mind that this Delhi is run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and not the Congress, which has been the true ally of the NC for decades.

So Prachanda, with just 18 seats, moved to Oli’s side because Oli, whose Unified Marxist–Leninist (UML) party had won 44 seats, smartly offered him the post of the PM to break his alliance with Deuba. The NC had won 57 seats and was the single-largest party in the lower House.

Now, who doesn’t want to be PM? But a few weeks into the formation of the coalition government, Oli sensed the plot was turning against him. So he threatened to pull all his ministers, including the very smart and articulate foreign minister Bimala Rai Paudyal, hours before she was supposed to catch the flight to Geneva to attend a United Nations conference. On 27 February, Oli carried out his threat.

The Paudyal-Paudel week

Some would say that this week in Nepal belongs to the Paudyals or the Paudels, take your pick. While Paudyal was an incidental cause celebre in the Oli-Prachanda battle, it was Ram Chandra Paudel who was the straw that broke the camel’s back of the Communist coalition. He was the NC candidate who Prachanda had promised to support in the presidential election in Nepal.

Both Paudyals and Paudels are Brahmins or bahuns, dominant caste families used to wielding power no matter which party they belong to.

And then there is Foreign Secretary Bharat Raj Paudyal, who met Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra recently in Kathmandu. Kwatra is also believed to have met several political leaders, including Deuba and Prachanda.

The word in Kathmandu is that Kwatra’s meetings rejigged the game of dice, resulting in the current upset. That, at least for the moment, Deuba and Prachanda — and India and the US — seem to have won, while Oli — and China — have lost.

A game of dice

Certainly, there will be a vote of confidence in the House. Prachanda’s Maoists will be supported by Deuba who will get his presidential candidate installed. The governments in the seven provinces will also probably change — they’re likely to move away from Oli and in favour of the Deuba-Prachanda coalition.

How are the next five years expected to unfold in Nepal? Apart from the constant murmurings in favour of the monarchy, a power-sharing deal between the major parties seems to have been brokered. So Prachanda will be PM for two years, Madhav Nepal, who belongs to another faction of Oli’s UML, will be PM for one year, while Deuba will be PM for the remaining two years.

Will Deuba wait that long to come to power? Will Oli be content to wait in the wings and lick his chops? What about the headstrong and feisty Rabi Lamichhane, whose Rastriya Swatantra Party quit the Prachanda-Oli coalition last month?

As the Himalayas watch over Nepal, some would say that this game of dice only strengthens democracy. Perhaps there’s a grain of truth in that.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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