With federal and provincial elections barely three months away, Nepal’s leaders are flirting with regional powers, and exhibiting political promiscuity by switching sides and forming new alliances.
Maoist Centre leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal has made no secret of his intention to succeed Sher Bahadur Deuba as prime minister after November, and has been trying to ensure that his project has the green light from Beijing and New Delhi.
Just days after he met the visiting head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Liu Jianchao in Kathmandu, the Maoist chair jetted off on a previously unannounced visit three-day visit to India at the invitation of India’s ruling BJP.
Dahal has been prime minister twice since the end of the conflict in 2006, and he has been forging party-to-party ties with both the CPC and BJP to assure the rulers of China and India that whatever the past, he will be a reliable partner.
“It is clear that he (Dahal) is impatient to be prime minister again, so he is pulling every lever for his political longevity,” explains political analyst Puranjan Acharya. “He was probably clarifying his position to Liu during their meeting in Kathmandu, and then immediately went to New Delhi to placate Indian leadership.”
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The CPC delegation also met Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, President Bidya Devi Bhandari, Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka, Unified Socialist chair Madhav Nepal, as well as opposition leader KP Oli.
The Chinese may have carried back the message that full Communist unity may not be possible before the November election, but having a ’Maoist’ prime minister may not be such a bad idea.
The Chinese tried unsuccessfully to mediate in the power struggle between Oli and Dahal last year in a bid to keep the Nepal Community Party intact. They also failed to stop the ratification of the US-funded MCC infrastructure project, and believe Deuba to be West-leaning.
Dahal’s visit to India was said to have been at the invitation of BJP president Jagat Prakash Nadda, and Dahal insisted at a press briefing at Kathmandu airport that the trip had been planned months in advance.
Analysts say that while his meetings with the Chinese delegation was par for the course for a foreign delegation visiting Nepal, Dahal's visit to India on such short-notice was unusual.
Dahal met with Indian External Affairs minister S Jaishankar, and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, and with Nadda at the BJP headquarters. But Dahal, who had hinted at a breakthrough meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, flew home without having one.
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Dahal’s visit to Delhi coincided with the presence there of Arzu Rana Deuba, NC leader and the wife of Prime Minister Deuba. The timing raised eyebrows in Kathmandu, and especially after he said in an interview that there was a pact with the NC to take turns being prime minister after November.
Dahal insisted that the timing of the visit was a coincidence, and it was also significant that immediately after his return he met with Baburam Bhattarai, freshly ousted from his JSP. The former Maoist comrades have apparently been discussing the formation of a ‘socialist front’ for November.
Although an electoral alliance with the UML seems unlikely, Dahal has also met Unified Socialist chair Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal and Bamdev Gautam of a new left party to discuss an electoral alliance.
“K P Oli stands in the way of a leftist alliance, and if he extends even the hint of an invitation, nobody should be surprised if Dahal dumps the Congress and jumps at the chance of leading a Communist super-alliance," says Acharya.
Dahal’s meeting with leftist leaders comes on the heels of Babu Ram Bhattarai’s expulsion from Janata Samajwadi Party’s Central Committee by party chair Upendra Yadav on grounds of Bhattarai ‘engaging in activities to divide the party’. Eight other leaders from the Bhattarai camp were expelled alongside him, which Bhattarai called ‘arbitrary’ in a statement.
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Yadav and Bhattarai had fallen out after the party’s poor showing in the May local election. "By now, it is apparent that party-building is not Babu Ram Bhattarai’s forte. Every party he has established has ended up in instability due to trust issues within leadership,” says Acharya. “His political future will be safer— and his political expertise and knowledge can be much better used to help the nation— if he directs his attention to playing an active supporting role in an already established party as opposed to trying to form a new one."
Meanwhile, in the NC the rift between Deuba and leaders like Gagan Thapa and Shekhar Koirala is widening as the two have decided not to engage in a power sharing deal if the coalition wins a majority in the upcoming elections. This would mean that the NC would hold prime ministership for a full term after the elections.
Experts say it is clear that the decision of the NC to not pursue a power sharing deal is a result of the pressure on the prime minister from those outside Deuba's camp within the party.
“The NC’s decision has foiled Dahal’s plan, and he will now actively pursue a leftist alliance or a socialist front. But he has continued to say that any such alliance will not hinder the coalition in any way, so as to placate the NC,” says Acharya.
The NC’s Shekhar Koirala says his party made a mistake by encouraging its cadre to support other parties to the detriment of its own interests. He says: "We are discussing electoral alliances, but it should be done in such a way as to minimise losses for our party.”
Dahal, meanwhile, has been coy in interviews about his prime ministerial ambitions. It is clear he is impatient to lead the country once more, and he is trying to make sure that domestic dynamics and regional geopolitics will be conducive.
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