Street politics

Anti-establishmentarians take to the streets hoping to tap on discontent among Nepalis

The Prasai camp in Balkhu and the UML gathering in Tinkune on Thursday was a show of force between two former allies. Photo: GOPEN RAI

As soon as Nepal’s festival season ended, two opposing political groups took to the streets of Kathmandu in a brewing struggle between pluralism and populism. 

People bused in by business tycoon and bank defaulter Durga Prasai gathered in Balkhu Thursday for what he called a “citizen’s movement to protect the nation, nationalism, religion and culture”.

Prasai has latched on to a political line calling for a return of the monarchy and re-establishing Nepal as a Hindu state. 

Meanwhile, in Tinkune the UML’s youth wing, the National Youth Federation and former parliamentarian Mahesh Basnet, a close confidante of UML chair KP Oli, gathered to protest what it called the incompetence of the current coalition government. 

But beneath the surface the simultaneous rallies represented a major falling out between Prasai and the UML.

Durga Prasai protests Balkhu NT
Durga Prasai protests Balkhu NT
Durga Prasai protests Balkhu NT

It is not uncommon for Nepalis to gather in masses to protest, but what stood out this time was the government's (and the opposition party’s) response to it. 

In 2018, Durga Prasai hosted a famous lunch meeting between then-Prime Minister KP Oli and now-Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal at his residence, playing mediator as they attempted to unite their two parties into the now-defunct NCP and negotiate leadership responsibilities within the new party. 

Prasai had dealings with Dahal, but the businessman would eventually build close ties with Oli, becoming the leader’s trusted associate. He later became a member of the UML’s Central Committee. But their relationship soured over the years.

Prasai, who is significantly in debt after having borrowed to start a hospital in eastern Nepal, has also been leading a public campaign urging bank debtors not to repay loans.

Durga Prasai protests Balkhu NT
Durga Prasai protests Balkhu NT

Many have seen his anti-establishment pivot from party politics as a ploy to get out of paying back the money he owes. 

Prasai’s strategy seems to be working. Many defaulters affected by the government’s loan policies are said to have supported Prasai’s rally.

On Thursday, UML protestors on a bike rally were pelted with stones by the Prasai camp. Protestors in Balkhu also clashed with security personnel. Meanwhile in Tinkune, the designated zone for the UML gathering, the rally was relatively peaceful.

“Disenfranchised Nepalis who are not entirely politically aware are frustrated with elected leaders and are looking for reliable leadership,” says political analyst Indra Adhikari. “That is why some are trying to cash in on that frustration and helplessness.”

The UML framed its own protest as an attempt to get back in charge of the government, with chair KP Oli seemingly placing the cause of the anti-establishment, pro-monarchy protest on the NC-Maoist led coalition. 

“The incompetence of this government, which has created an environment conducive to regression and enabled regressive forces, is unacceptable,” said Oli ahead of the planned rally. “If the government cannot function efficiently, those who are leading it must step down.”

Oli’s full backing of his youth wing’s attempt to engage with the Prasai-led rally has baffled many. Analysts say Oli may be worried that his soured relationship with Prasai could mean some of the skeletons in his closet could come out. Prasai has accused the UML chair of having massive amounts of properties and investments overseas.  

“Prasai’s actions in recent times have been a ploy to get himself out of his current financial mess by garnering the support of people who are also indebted to banks,” says analyst Adhikari.

She adds, “Why KP Oli has declared a figure like Prasai an equal opponent worthy of giving space, and why the UML has not questioned it, is mind-boggling.”

UML protests Tinkune NT
The UML's youth wing staged their protest at Tinkune in Kathmandu. Photos: SUMAN NEPALI
UML protests Tinkune NT
UML protests Tinkune NT

The pro-monarchy movement has also brought to light burgeoning divisions within the royalist-right RPP. While RPP chair Rajendra Lingden publicly distanced himself from Prasai’s platform, other leaders like Prakash Chandra Lohani and Rabindra Mishra have been more open towards the businessman’s attempt to engage. 

Nepal’s other mainstream political parties also seem to be keyed into the pulse of increasingly anti-secularist as well as pro-monarchist public opinion. NC chair Sher Bahadur Deuba is said to have spoken out against secularism during a recent party meeting, citing dissatisfaction of a majority of Hindus with Nepal’s secular status. 

The coalition’s response to the two rallies, meanwhile, has been to further constrict physical as well as digital spaces to protest and dissent, with authorities declaring the area between Maitighar Mandala and New Baneswor a prohibited zone to protests for 30 days. Lalitpur also banned a gathering of more than five people in the Pulchok area for six months.

“The government’s security concerns regarding protests and rallies have to come hand-in-hand with the protection of citizens’ rights to assemble and to dissent guaranteed by the Constitution, whichever group they might belong to,” says Adhikari. 

UML protests Tinkune NT
UML protests Tinkune NT
UML protests Tinkune NT

Analysts say that the restrictions on dissent adds to the infringement of free speech already affected by the recent TikTok ban in Nepal.

“If we are to ban TikTok, we might as well ban the whole of social media and the internet—Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter have all been similarly misused,” says senior advocate Dinesh Tripathi.

Already, there are concerns about censorship. On Wednesday, anchor Bhushan Dahal claimed the AP1 tv had refused to air his interview with Durga Prasai, alarming many and leading the presenter to release the interview on YouTube.

Meanwhile, Kathmandu Mayor Balen Shah has sent a four-point bulletin to the Censor Board, urging it to ‘stop broadcasting content that harms Nepal’s independence and self-respect.’

Says Tripathi: “The remedy to any problem should not be worse than a disease in a democracy— any step taken by the government must be in line with the Constitution, and must not constrict democratic space.”

Shristi Karki


Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.

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