Within a span of three days, Nepal’s caretaker Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli has twice announced that Foreign Affairs Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali will be going to New Delhi on 14 January for the joint commission meeting.
K.P. Oli first made the date public from a political rally and reiterated the itinerary and agenda from the rostrum of the National Assembly, the upper house of the Nepalese parliament, where his group has been reduced to a minority.
The preparation, however, seems to be in anticipation of the finalisation of schedule from New Delhi. Neither the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kathmandu nor the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi has confirmed the agenda of the joint commission meeting before Oli’s unilateral announcement of the visit.
It seems Oli’s enthusiasm for Gyawali’s purported talks with his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar isn’t matched by the hosts. Politically isolated at home, the caretaker PM is hoping for a conciliatory gesture from New Delhi to extricate himself from the constitutional quagmire of his own making.
Riding on the wave of anti-India sentiments, K.P. Oli became the first elected prime minister under the controversial constitution of Nepal in October 2015. He continued to polish his ultra-nationalist image and cashed in on it to emerge as the parliamentary party leader of the Communist coalition that consisted of his parent party, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre). Oli became the prime minister for the second time in February 2018.
After a series of meetings and hush-hush negotiations – alleged to have been facilitated by Chinese interlocutors – Oli emerged as the head of the government with two-thirds majority when the CPN (UML) and CPN (Maoist Centre) merged to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) in May 2018.
The constitution of Nepal has a provision that no confidence motion can be brought against a government till two years of its formation. Once the moratorium was over, Oli feared being ousted by the ‘second Chair’ of the ruling party, former PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’.
Oli tried his machination to undermine his challenger. He got an ordinance issued in the middle of national lockdown to split smaller political parties but had to rescind it when his likely targets merged to save themselves from the imminent onslaught.
Fearing fresh offensives against his political primacy, Oli had the Pratinidhi Sabha – the lower house of parliament – dissolved in December 2020 to show that he remained in control.
Political opponents of Oli have been knocked off balance. Constitutionality of the dissolution is for the Supreme Court to ascertain. And street protests have failed to fire the imagination of the masses.
Domestically, Oli’s position appears unassailable for now. In case the Supreme Court decides to restore the House, he has the option of remaining in government with the help of one or more opposition parties. Should the decision to go for fresh polls be endorsed, he will still be in a position to delay it for as long as it takes to use the power of the State to prepare a formidable electoral machine for himself.
Oli needs India’s acquiescence, if not outright support, to strengthen his position. And he seems to be ready to do whatever it takes to assure his loyalty to New Delhi.
The ruling Nepal Communist Party is wedded to the Xi Jinping Thought. It was natural for Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi to try her best to save the unity of the fraternal organisation of the Chinese Communist Party. When Yanqi’s attempts failed, Beijing sent a three-member team to prevent the split.
Rumour is rife in Kathmandu that the Chinese haven’t given up hope of rescuing the NCP from self-destruction. Parliament’s abrupt disruption has made Oli’s case weak in the eyes of Beijing, which wanted him to leave the government to save the unity of the party. A diplomatic lifeline from New Delhi can pull him out of the mess.
In order to look sufficiently anti-India to establish his nationalist credentials, K.P. Oli had the constitution amended to incorporate a contested area into the official map of Nepal. In the heat of nationalistic passion, he ridiculed the motto of the Indian emblem as ‘singhmev jayate’, asserted that real Ayodhya was in Nepal, and described the Indian strain of the coronavirus as “more lethal”.
Once cornered in the intra-party feuds at home, Oli began his patch-up drive with India by inviting Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) Chief Samant Goel to Kathmandu. Indian Army Chief M.M. Naravane followed in his steps to receive the rank of honorary General of the Nepal Army. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla was the next high-profile visitor. But for strained ties to normalise, it will require concrete steps from both sides.
Oli has said that boundary issue will figure in New Delhi talks. It’s unlikely that the Indian side will be ready to negotiate with a caretaker government on such a crucial matter. With the official agenda still uncertain, speculation about possible issues is rife. A deal on Covid-19 vaccine may materialise, which the government can show as its success.
New Delhi can raise the question of Koshi High Dam. Nepal may probe the fate of Eminent Persons’ Group report. Indians are likely to enquire about Nepal’s formal position on the Gorkha recruitment pact, which Foreign Minister Gyawali had earlier described as redundant.
The unstated purpose of Gyawali’s visit seems to be to acquire an invitation from New Delhi for PM Oli. Despite his bluster, the shrewd PM seems to have realised that he needs the blessings of New Delhi to survive. Should that fail to materialise, he can always put the blame of his fall upon ‘Indian designs’ and secure his nationalistic legacy.
Little wonder that K.P. Oli is so eager to have a heart-to-heart talk with New Delhi. It appears to be ‘heads I win, tails they lose’ proposition to him as long as RAW doesn’t spring a surprise upon him.
CK Lal is a columnist, commentator, and playwright. He has written about arts, books, industry, economy, culture, society, politics, and international relations. Views are personal.