Nepal political tug-o-war continues

After six months of pressure, Prime Minister K P Oli has finally backed down to allow his ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) rivals led by co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal to nominate senior leader Bamdev Gautam into the Upper House.

The fact that this internal power struggle in the party dragged on for so long at a time when the country was reeling under the Covid-19 emergency, is proof enough that Nepali politics is not about improving governance and service delivery to citizens, but about bhagbanda division of the spoils.

And it is when the bargaining hits a deadlock that the country is held hostage, as it has for over a year now. Prime Minister Oli wriggled out of every challenge to his leadership by either using anti-Indian nationalism, or threatening to split the party.

But on Thursday, outgunned in the NCP secretariat and running out of options to prevent a mutiny, he relented.

The party secretariat meeting on Thursday was supposed to decide on Gautam’s fate, and whether he would be nominated to the Upper House in place of Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada whose term expires on Saturday.

Earlier meetings had been postponed because Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel and other Cabinet minister were in self-isolation after a member of the Covid-19 Crisis Management Committee tested positive for the virus.

The unelected Khatiwada was nominated to the Upper House and made Finance Minister by Prime Minister Oli, who has come to rely on him as a sounding board with the international community as well as on fiscal policy. Khatiwada also became the Information Minister and government spokesperson after the resignation of scandal-ridden Gokul Banskota in February.

Khatiwada’s term in the Upper House has been extended once before, but it ends on 5 September. Gautam was angling for his party’s nomination to the Upper House and to replace Khatiwada.  But it remains to be seen if he will get it, because Prime Minister Oli can still renominate Khatiwada to the Upper House and retain him as Finance Minister.

One bone of contention between the Oli and the Dahal faction since January has been Gautam’s future. He is the only senior leader in the NCP who has never had a chance to be prime minister, and has openly admitted that he would like to get a chance to serve as one.

Knowing this, Oli had been stringing Gautam along, first promising a Constitution amendment to make an Upper House member prime minister, then assuring Gautam’s election to an NCP seat from Dolpo so he could become an MP and succeed him as prime minister.

Gautam allied with Dahal to put pressure on Oli, but the prime minister mollified him repeatedly by dangling carrots.

At a late night meeting at Baluwatar on Wednesday, Oli gave it one last try and offered Gautam the Dolpo constituency so he could succeed him as prime minister. But this time Gautam did not take the bait. He insisted on nomination to the Upper House, and be made deputy prime minister and finance minister.

Oli tried to find a way to convince Dahal about retaining Khatiwada at a meeting on Tuesday, but Dahal told Oli that he could not take that decision on his own and would have to put it to the secretariat.

Oli is now in a bit of a bind. He realised that he was in a minority in the party secretariat, with even his staunch loyalist Bishnu Paudel said to be supporting Gautam, and Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa fence-sitting. Oli had to agree to Gautam’s nomination to the Upper House, but he may still have something up his sleeves.

Khatiwada will have to resign from his finance minister position by Saturday, but insiders say Oli could still renominate him with President Bidya Bhandari’s consent.

In the past, whenever he has been cornered in the NCP secretariat or standing committee, Oli has pulled a rabbit out of a hat  And given this track record, the Prime Minisster still has options to retain Khatiwada as finance minister.

The NCP dissident’s main irritation with Oli is that he does not consult them and wants to go at it alone, and a decision to re-nominate Khatiwada would reinforce that distrust.

Oli’s other option is to make Khatiwada and Bamdev’s future position part of a package deal over a proposed Cabinet reshuffle, and other pending political appointments. Midway through his term, Prime Minister Oli must know that there is widespread public disenchantment over his performance – especially in his government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

A change of faces in his government would buy him some time, appease party rivals, and allow him to continue unchallenged for a while longer. This has become important because it will determine who is incumbent as the country faces another general election in 2022.

If he is unable to save Khatiwada this time, sources at the Prime Minister’s Office said, one Oli lollipop would be to promise to make him ambassador to the United States.

The whole debacle has re-exposed the rent-seeking culture among Nepal’s politicians to be obsessed about power, the country be damned. Thursday secretariat meeting was not about how to address the emergency the country faces, but about power and position.

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