Kosi now, Kathmandu next?

Will Pushpa Kamal Dahal keep his promise to hand over prime ministership to Sher Bahadur Deuba, or will he do an Oli?

If the frequent collapse of the provincial coalition in Kosi is any indication, all is not well in the power dynamics in Nepal’s nine-party governing alliance.

This week, Kedar Karki of Nepali Congress (NC) became the fifth Chief Minister of Kosi Province since elections last November. Karki passed the floor test in the provincial assembly, but with help from the opposition UML. The UML had failed to get enough votes for its own chief minister candidate which precipitated the new election.

This was an embarrassment for Maoist prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal who had got the coalition at the centre to back fellow comrade Indra Bahadur Angbo. And it was also a blow to NC president Sher Bahadur Deuba.

A dissident faction of the NC not happy with party president Sher Bahadur Debut’s conjugal relationship with the Maoists, got UML backing to support Karki’s chief ministership. Eight NC members from Koirala’s camp and 39 from the UML, which has the majority seats in Kosi provincial assembly, supported Kedar Karki. 

What followed was even more intriguing. Prime Minister Dahal and Deuba summoned Shekhar Koirala and tried to convince him to backtrack on Kosi. He refused. But they did manage to convince him not to mess with the coalition setup in return for allowing Karki to be Kosi Chief Minister.

And since Nepali leaders are not best known to keep their word, the three put their deal in writing on a crumpled piece of paper, torn from someone’s copy book, and signed it (pictured).

Kathmandu interfering in Kosi is not new. In fact, the former Kosi Chief Minister Hikmat Karki of the UML was actually backed by the Maoists, despite its alliance with the NC at the centre. Rescinding that support is what led to the current instability. 

The background to this back-and-forth is the ethnic debate about whether the province should be called Kosi or Kirat. The matter is such a hot potato that Province 1 was the last of the seven to finally vote on a name (Kosi) last year. 

The region’s indigenous groups want a name that reflects their identity, but the various ethnic groups are not united in what that name should be. Prime Minister Dahal made matters more complicated by saying that Kosi should be changed to Kirat. 

All this is ammunition for those who want to scrap Nepal’s federalism, saying it is a waste of money, it decentralises corruption and multiplies by seven the disarray at the centre.

However, Nepal’s provinces have never been allowed true autonomy on revenue-raising and decision-making, they have been mere appendages of Kathmandu.

Within the NC, the Kosi debate has brought to the surface the strong feelings about the leadership of the largest party in Parliament shamelessly kowtowing to the third largest party. Leading this dissenting group are Shekhar Koirala and Gagan Thapa, although there is an undercurrent of rivalry to succeed Deuba between them.

So far, the coalition has withstood tensions brought on by controversial provisions in the budget, as well as a series of high profile corruption cases that shook up and implicated the top leadership of all major political parties. 

It is clear that Nepal’s governing coalition, especially the alliance between the NC and the Maoists, has remained steadfast because of the sheer opportunism of the leaders in charge of both the parties. (And perhaps a bit of geopolitical goading from the South.)

The aftermath of Dahal’s successful attempt to regain premiership from Deuba last year was a power-sharing deal under which Dahal and Deuba gave each other two years each as PM. As per the deal, Unified Socialist chair Madhav Nepal also gets one year at premiership, which is perhaps why he has gone along with the whims of Dahal and Deuba.

All this horse-trading leaves little time for the coalition to govern. Development is at a standstill, inflation is at an all time high (page 4) and corruption has reached pandemic proportions. 

The Dasain mood is subdued. Coalition partners will likely use the holiday to plot, and plot some more. They will face fresh challenges, the biggest being the question whether the alliance will hold together long enough, and if Deuba and Dahal will honour their deal to rotate the prime ministership.

Shristi Karki