Outside, looking in

For a government with a hefty majority that loftily promised voters prosperity and stability, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has been able to ensure neither. 

As far the mirage of prosperity goes, there had been no signs of improvement even before the Covid-19 crisis hit this year. The ambitious forecast of a 8% annual economic growth had to be scaled back because of policy uncertainty and underperformance. Foreign and Nepali investors were spooked by high risk, and endemic corruption. 

Development activities did not pick up as expected, and then the pandemic killed any hope that was left. The prospect for prosperity in the run-up to the next election in 2022 looks dim.

The NCP can try to use the coronavirus as an excuse for the economic breakdown, but there is no justification for this chronic instability. The country has been made to suffer because the two most powerful people in the party want more power.

This never-ending battle for supremacy within the NCP has affected the management of state affairs, sidetracked its executive, legislative and even judicial functions, and stymied the government’s ability to respond to the health and economic challenges of the pandemic.

Going by the reaction of Nepalis on the internet, the public’s response has been to let off a big yawn. Most have tuned off, or if they do react, it is with scathing ridicule of politicians in social media posts. 

In Season 4 Episode 1 of this epic teleserial, relations between Prime Minister K P Oli and NCP co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal deteriorated further during the Dasain break. Oli shuffled some Cabinet portfolios and appointed new ambassadors, and the Dahal faction accused Oli of trying to go it alone without consulting the party.

The duel of the supremos then turned into an artillery barrage of written statements. Dahal fired off a 12-page salvo against Oli’s various transgressions, and the prime minister retaliated with his own list of the co-chair’s misdemeanours. All the while, Oli tried to tarry Dahal’s insistence on calling a NCP Secretariat meeting to sort things out, threatening to split the party.

On the surface, this looks like a philosophical disagreement about whether the government or the party should call the shots. At a practical level, it translates into how the former UML and ex-Maoist members of the party should be accommodated in government. But it has by now become a clash of personality cults between Dahal and Oli.

In the interest of the country, these differences should be quite easy to resolve. But the level of mutual mistrust is now so high, so many promises have been broken so often, that neither faction will take any new agreement at face value. 

It is into this scenario that we now have the larger geopolitical rivalry involving Nepal’s northern and southern neighbours. For the past decades, trans-Himalayan tensions between India and China had been stored in deep freeze as both countries had their hands full to ensure domestic growth.

But China is now emerging as a global economic and technological power challenging American supremacy, especially in the Asia-Pacific. After signing the BECA pact with the US and taking part in the Quad naval exercises in the Indian Ocean earlier this month, New Delhi is now firmly in the ‘Indo’ part of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Looking at all this from Beijing, Chinese military leaders feel encircled. Which is why the Himalaya that once formed a natural border wall between empires for centuries is now on the frontlines of this eyeball-to-eyeball contest. Greater connectivity and infrastructure means the mountains are no more a barrier. 

Formed by the geo-tectonic clash of continents, the Himalaya is now a stage for geo-strategic confrontation, and Nepal is smack in the middle of it all. 

Whether the infighting within the NCP is a proxy war between regional powers, or whether Nepal’s inability to put its own house in order has prompted India and China to extend their influence, is a chicken-or-egg question. The reality is that when a house catches fire, neighbours will not just stand around and watch.

The internecine clash within the NCP coincides with greater regional involvement in our politics. India has sent its spy chief and army chief to Kathmandu, and its foreign secretary is visiting next week. The Chinese Ambassador in Kathmandu has once more had to step in to prevent the NCP from splitting. 

As Nepalis, this self-destructive power struggle is embarrassing and is difficult to watch. As far as the opposition Nepali Congress is concerned, the less said the better. But for its own sake, and with an eye on the 2022 elections, the ruling party must get its act together to reassure the people that even if they cannot deliver prosperity, they can at least not hold the country hostage because its two leaders cannot get along.