House of cards


In the two months since Prime Minister K P Oli dissolved the Lower House of Parliament, massive rallies were held across the country. Oli and his arch rival in the party, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, competed to have bigger and more expensive rallies. This my-crowd-is-bigger-than-yours contest was intended to influence the Supreme Court as it deliberated on the constitutionality of the House dissolution.

The enormous amount of money spent, from the state treasury by the Oli faction and from party coffers by the other, went to waste. In the end, the 5-justice Constitutional Bench decided on the basis of legal merit, not on the size of the crowds.

Each faction accused the other of “setting” the Supreme Court and the Election Commission to rule against it. But the judiciary reinforced the separation of powers doctrine and set a precedent. Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana read out the verdict on 23 February to reboot the House and ordered it to reconvene by 8 March.

Even though leaders of the two factions have tried since 20 December to portray themselves as great democrats who believe in the Constitution, it has been clear that this was always just a chess game to check mate the other side.

K P Oli in the nearly three years that he has been prime minister has used the 2017 electoral mandate to go it alone. He did not just want to be top dog. He wanted to be the only dog. He spent most of his waking hours, not to attend to matters of state, but to undermine his arch nemesis, Dahal.

Oli had convinced himself that it was he who rescued the former Maoist chieftain from political limbo by merging the UML with the Maoists. Oli also used his office to get back at Madhav Kumar Nepal and his followers.

He did appease Nepal by making some of his acolytes ministers (Bhusal, Bhattarai, et al) but by and large he sidelined and humiliated the former prime minister every chance he got. Nepal took it personally.

The lifespan of politicians depends on their ability to get to power and hold on to it by defusing threats from rivals. Oli did use the levers of office to dispense patronage, and woo away some of Dahal’s former Maoist comrades (Thapa, Bhatta, Rayamajhi). But he failed to defang Dahal-Nepal.

He even held secret talks recently with the underground Biplav faction of the Maoists. But by then, Oli had opened himself on so many fronts that he had completely isolated himself.

The rift between Oli and Dahal was therefore not ideological, and not about the constitutionality or otherwise of the House dissolution. It was that Oli reneged on his agreement with Dahal on a rotational prime ministership. Prachanda desperately needed to be prime minister to indemnify himself from prosecution for conflict era excesses.

Many Nepali media commentators have said the Supreme Court decision pushes Nepal from the frying pan into the fire. Indeed, Parliament is once more going to be a “goat bazaar” as it used to be called during the year of coalition politics.

There are many possible scenarios, and they will all depend on Grandmaster Oli’s next chess move. He could hand over the prime ministership to Dahal. This would defuse the situation, and keep the NCP intact to fight another day. But given the bad blood, it is not likely.

The second scenario is Oli pushing an ordinance to split the party, and face a confidence motion in the House. At present the NCP jointly has 174 of the 275 members in the Lower House, of which at least 90 have pledged allegiance to Dahal. Oli will need to woo members from the Dahal faction as well as the NC or JSP to win the vote. Also unlikely.

Although Dahal has said he does not mind offering Deuba prime ministership in a coalition, there is too much mutual distrust. Besides, Deuba has his own  battles within the NC to fight first.

The coming week will show which of these five tried, tested and failed prime ministers will get one more shot at being prime minister. Deuba has been prime minister four times already, Dahal has been prime minister twice, Nepal and Khanal once each.

Why are we stuck with just these five aged, mostly-Brahmin men? The trouble is that the young turks are not allowed to rise up the ranks, and they are all nearing 50. 

It is well and good that the Supreme Court decided as it did, but it looks like we will just be reshuffling the cards. We may need a new deck.