You stab my back, I stab yours

Illustration: Diwakar Chhetri

The back-stabbing in Nepali politics is now going into hyper timelapse. It is getting difficult to figure out exactly who is doing whom in.

Nevertheless, it does look like reports of Prime Minister K P Oli’s imminent political demise were greatly exaggerated. We ourselves have written numerous editorials in the past six months either predicting the prime minister’s ouster, or advised him to step down for governance failure, and mishandling the COVID-19 crisis. 

But the wily Oli has outfoxed his rivals yet again. Even his enemies hand it to him: this is one crafty fellow. He was outnumbered in the party Secretariat, outgunned in the Standing Committee, his Cabinet was mutinous, his hold on the Nepal Communist Party seemed tenuous, and he was playing brinkmanship with India. But not only has he held on, he seems to have turned things 180 degrees in his favour.

The history of the power struggle (some say ego clash) between Prime Minister Oli and his NCP co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal goes back to their ‘gentlemen agreement’ to take turns at prime ministership. But Oli dragged his feet, and when Dahal confronted him last year, Oli said OK-OK, I’ll make you executive head of the party if I get to stay on as PM. Dahal agreed, but Oli double crossed him. 

In April, Dahal stepped up pressure again and Oli was isolated. At which point, he got saved unexpectedly by India unilaterally opening a road in Lipu Lekh through Nepali territory. Oli grabbed the chance to play the nationalism card.

This bought him some time, but Dahal turned on the heat again in the Standing Committee this month. Once more, Oli fell back on anti-Indian rhetoric: accusing the embassy spooks of trying to oust him and then declaring that Lord Ram was a Nepali.

This time, the India card did not work. What was more effective was Oli’s threat to split the party and revive the old UML. This alarmed the Chinese, whose ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi openly lobbied to prevent a party split. Her message from the highest level of the Chinese Communist Party to comrades in Nepal was: stay united.

This message resonated with the mid and lower rank and file of the NCP, who then upped their pressure on the two leaders to sort out their ego differences and not hold the party and country hostage anymore.

Which was why last week, just when it was looking like he was cornered at last, Prime Minister Oli managed to wriggle out of it again. After multiple marathon one-on-ones with Dahal, Oli hammered out a deal in which for the sake of party unity Oli would stay on as PM,  he would help Dahal get elected as sole party leader in the November convention, and Oli would reshuffle the cabinet to induct some Dahal loyalists. Oli and Dahal then went over to President Bidya Devi Bhandari on Sunday and got her to stand witness to the pact. In return, Dahal had to agree to back the UML principle of ‘people’s democracy’ first espoused by President Bhandari’s late husband Madan Bhandari, and drop the Maoist ideology once and for all.

All this would have been a workable compromise, except that Dahal’s allies (former UML prime ministers Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhal Nath Khanal, et al) were completely left out of the picture. They were so incensed by having the rug pulled from under them that they trooped off to Khumaltar on Monday to ask Dahal for a clarification.

At first Dahal denied there was deal, but admitted that to save party unity he had to strike a compromise with Oli, but that he was committed to the alliance with Nepal and Khanal. By now, Oli had got other fence-sitters like Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa and Bam Dev Gautam once more to his side.

What changed Dahal’s mind appears to be pressure from the second-tier leaders like Janardan Sharma, Barsha Man Pun and Shakti Basnet to save party unity. Dahal must have also been convinced that even if the party split, there was little chance of him being prime minister. But the final straw was probably Dahal’s  realisation that his real rival within the party was not Oli, but Madhav Kumar Nepal.

However, given that back-stabbing, breaking promises and not acting as agreed are the hallmarks of Nepali politics, it is not certain how long the Oli-Dahal pact will endure and if it will just be the latest in the long list of betrayals. 

The tragedy in all this is that the multi-layered crisis Nepal and Nepalis are facing does not figure at all in this power struggle.

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