Over the edge, again

Illustration: SUBHAS RAI / NEPALI TIMES #22, 22-28 DECEMBER 2000

Nepal has been on a knife-edge in 2020 because of the pandemic, but the country’s leaders are too involved in their internal power struggles to notice. This week, better sense  prevailed once more at the last moment as the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) on Wednesday pulled back at the last minute from tearing itself apart.

The struggle for supremacy between the two top leaders, Prime Minister K P Oli and party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal, have become so nasty, rhetoric so acrimonious and the actions being taken so drastic that it has now dragged all three arms of the state the legislature, judiciary and executive into controversy.

The latest casualty was the Office of the President which is now seen by many as just a rubber stamp for the prime minister. As head of state, Bidya Devi Bhandari, should have been beyond reproach and above the fray, but by hastily signing the ordinance to amending the law on the Constitutional Council this week she faced unprecedented  ridicule.

It was all unnecessary because Oli and Dahal smoked the peace pipe ahead of the NCP Standing Committee Meeting, and the prime minister decided to take back the ordinance (for the second time this year). The Standing Committee has also been put off till 21 December.

By passing the ordinance amending the Constitutional Council law, Oli may have just been trying to demonstrate to Dahal how far he would go to get his way. But the damage has been done. Not just to the esteem of the President’s office, but to himself, his party, the Constitution and Nepal’s democracy.

The Oli-Dahal row this year has been a wrecking ball on the Nepali state, and its nascent Constitution. It was predictable, therefore, that the opposition and the smaller parties would move to cash in on the disarray in the NCP, and fill the political vacuum.

Nepal’s Hindu-right held a series of rallies across the country last month which were increasingly well-attended, calling for the scrapping of the country’s secular republican constitution. There may not be widespread public support for the return of the monarchy, even a ceremonial one, but declaring Nepal a Hindu state is a popular notion among the dominant majority community.

For its part, the faction-ridden opposition NC had been under relentless pressure ever since its battering in the 2017 election, to play a more effective role as an opposition party. It had to assert itself for fear of the rightists pulling the rug from under them with a Hindu agenda, and since Parliament is not in session had no option but to stage its own show of force.

Prime Minister Oli’s brinkmanship did the trick, and he bought himself some more time. But at what cost? He has isolated himself even more within his party and shown an authoritarian bent, he single-handedly dismantled an essential check-and-balance of Nepal’s democracy, he put the Speaker and the leader of the opposition in the spot.

Oli’s act of defiance against his party rivals led by Dahal, has undermined the Constitution and the rule of law and pushed the Nepali state closer to the edge.

 Kunda Dixit