Nothing unites Nepalis more than a dispute with India. So, when India issued its new official map this month putting the east bank of the Kali River that Nepal claims squarely within its own territory, all hell broke loose in Kathmandu.
The brouhaha could not have come at a better time for Prime Minister KP Oli. In failing health, with falling public support and facing serious challenges from within his own party, the dispute with India united politicians across the political spectrum. It also allowed Oli, who has always used nationalism as a political plank, to send the message that he is standing up to India.
Even the opposition Nepali Congress, which had been hesitant to speak against India during the 2015 Blockade, this time mobilised its students to protest outside the Indian Embassy. Student unions in some Tarai towns also staged anti-India protests.
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But it is from his own NCP that Oli faces the greatest challenge, and he has been scrambling to put a trusted caretaker team in place ahead of a planned trip to the United States. Baluwatar insiders say Oli may be away for at least two months if he needs a new kidney.
Last week in a surprise move, Oli got his team of a dozen advisers to resign en masse. Although it looks like some of them (including his foreign policy and political advisers) will be reinstated after pressure from senior party leaders, the move suggests that the Prime Minister is working on a major overhaul in case he needs to be away longer.
On Wednesday, Oli met his main critic within the NCP, former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, for the first time since August, when they had an angry exchange in Baluwatar. Relations between the two have not been good since Oli out-manoeuvred Nepal at the UML party convention four years ago. Nepal is said to have been miffed at Oli’s surprise appointment of new provincial governors.
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Sources said the two had a “heart-to-heart talk with self-reflection”, with Oli promising to consult his party colleagues more closely. It is very likely the PM will be looking to induct Nepal loyalists to his reshuffled cabinet, and may have asked Nepal for recommendations. Oli also wants to finalise selection of the 120-member politburo before he goes away, and for this may need Nepal’s help to outflank Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
Dahal, for his part, has been biding his time knowing that sooner or later he will be prime minister. His reaction to the border dispute with India has been remarkably lukewarm, calling for a “diplomatic settlement” and the surprising suggestion that Nepal should not internationalise the issue.
Prime Minister Oli appears to be preparing for a protracted absence from Kathmandu during which time he does not want Dahal to be calling all the shots.
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