PM Oli to India?

After reports appeared in a section of the India media (pictured above) that Prime Minister K P Oli may be making a visit to New Delhi on 4 January, officials in Kathmandu are neither confirming nor denying it.

Not rejecting the reports outright may mean that there is some truth in a possible visit in the new year. If it happens, it would coincide with an embattled prime minister fighting for his political life as a rival faction of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) is intensifying a campaign to unseat him.

The report appeared in India’s which had also reported that Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali’s trip to New Delhi on 17 December was to work on the details of the visit.   

What gives some credence to the report is that Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla had also visited Kathmandu on 27 November in a fence-mending exercise after a year of strained relations. Many saw Shringla’s trip  as laying the groundwork for an exchange of visits by the prime ministers of the two countries.

“We had discussed a high level exchange of visits during Mr Shringla’s trip to Kathmandu, and it is on the priority list, but no decision has been taken yet,” Foreign Minister Gyawali told Nepali Times on Friday.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal led a rally to the Election Commission on Friday to stake their faction's claim to the NCP name and election symbol. Photo: BIKRAM RAI

Even if Oli’s visit does go ahead,  the plans have been overtaken by the fast-paced events of this week, when Prime Minister Oli dissolved the Lower House and announced dates for new elections in April-May 2021, leading to a virtual split in the NCP.

The two factions now have rival claims at the Election Commission as well as a dozen or so writ petitions in the Supreme Court challenging the dissolution. The Speaker of the Lower House, Agni Sapkota, is also said to be preparing to convene the Lower House, even though there is no clear provision for that in the Constitution, just as there was not for the House dissolution by Oli.

If Oli does go to Delhi, he will likely to not be in a position to make any major agreements. He will try to use the possible visit more for domestic consumption to shore up his strength to tackle the rival faction.

But analysts say this is a double-edged sword because a visit to India will be seen by his critics as an effort to get New Delhi to meddle in an internal NCP squabble. It will also undermine Oli’s nationalist credentials, which he used to gain an overwhelming win for his UML-Maoist alliance in the 2017 elections.

The two parties then merged in 2018 to form the NCP, but Oli has had a running feud with his party co-chair former Maoist Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who also took away some of Oli’s erstwhile party colleagues like Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhalnath Khanal.

On Friday, Oli added nine ministers after seven Dahal-loyalist ministers resigned from the Cabinet on Sunday. He has appointed former Maoist Top Bahadur Rayamajhi as Energy Minister to replace Barsha Man Pun, Mani Thapa has replaced Dahal's daughter-in-law Bina Magar as Water Supply Minister. 

Two other ministers have been reshuffled. Health Minister Bhanubhakta Dhakal has been given the Tourism portfolio, while Hridesh Tripathi has been transferred to the Health Ministry.

The Dahal-Nepal faction and the Oli group have been holding separate Central Committee meetings this week. Although Oli has not ousted Dahal from the party, it has restructured the hierarchy and also kept former Maoists like Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa in its fold.

The Dahal-Nepal faction, meanwhile has made Nepal the party Chair and the Dahal the head of the Parliamentary Party. This means that for all intents and purposes the NCP is already behaving like two parties.

India has so far not been drawn into this fight, describing it as an “internal matter”, and its diplomats in Kathmandu are keeping a low profile. The Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi, meanwhile, has been meeting leaders from both factions to once more try to keep the party from splitting, as she has done twice in 2020.

A CCTV image of the full Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court issued a show-cause notice on Friday to Prime Minister Oli's government to justify its dissolution of the Lower House.

In a day of high drama on Friday, a rally led by Dahal and Nepal marched to the Election Commission to demonstrate that it had signatures of the required two-third majority in its Central Committee to claim the NCP party name and election symbol.

Dahal and Nepal both wore signs on their heads that read हामि याहाँ छौँ (We Are Here) and submitted 297 signatures of Central Committee members. Seven members of PM Oli’s Cabinet who were Dahal-loyalists resigned on 20 December after the prime minister dissolved the Lower House.

There are 13 writ petitions at the Supreme Court asking for the House dissolution to be revoked, and the hearings began on Friday in the Constitutional Bench which included Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana, Justices Hari Krishna Karki, Biswambhar Shrestha, Anil K Sinha and Tej Bahadur KC.

The Bench issued a ‘show cause’ notice to the Government to explain why it dissolved the Lower House, and to provide all documents relating to it to the Court by 3 January so that it can continue the hearing on 6 January.

If the prime minister does make his New Delhi trip, it will be in between those two court dates.