Originally Published 2016-08-12 09:48:17 Published on Aug 12, 2016
Deja vu of a new beginning

On August 4, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre), was sworn in for the second time as Prime Minister of Nepal, becoming the ninth Prime Minister in the country’s eight-year-long history as a republic and the only communist leader to have managed to stage a political comeback. While this may be testimony to his pragmatism, others feel that Prachanda has engaged in too many political flip-flops.

Mr. Prachanda’s predecessor, Mr. K. P. Sharma Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), had come to power last October with Maoist support and has accused his successor of betraying him. To be fair, however, it was increasingly evident that  Mr. Oli was isolated and unable to deliver on the political and economic challenges facing the country. Mr. Prachanda realised that continuing the coalition would not help his party. In April, he had begun talks with Nepali Congress (NC) leader Mr. Sher Bahadur Deuba about creating a new coalition, and on May 4 announced that the Maoists were withdrawing support from the Oli government. However, within 24 hours, a patch-up had been effected with CPN(UML) leader Mr. Bam Dev Gautam acting as the mediator.

A nine-point agreement was negotiated to address Maoist concerns but more significant was the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ that following the budget presentation, due at the end of May, Prime Minister Oli would step down and the CPN(UML) would support Mr. Prachanda as the next Prime Minister. By the end of June, it was clear that Mr. Oli was in no mood to implement the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’.

He first prolonged his tenure by suggesting that the deal was not about presenting the budget but about getting it through the Assembly. Mr. Prachanda got wind of the fact that Mr. Oli was also reaching out to the NC to get their support in the eventuality of the Maoists pulling out. He realised he had to apologise to the NC for his embarrassing about-turn in May and revived backchannel talks.

Like Mr. Prachanda, Mr. Deuba too saw the Oli government as dysfunctional and concluded that there was no advantage in doing a deal with Mr. Oli. Normally, Mr. Deuba is not known to be a forgiving person but the backchannel interlocutors (NC’s Bimalendra Nidhi and Mr K. B. Mahara from the Maoists) were able to keep the discussions on track and swing the deal this time around. On July 12, Mr. Prachanda once again announced that he was withdrawing support from the Oli government and followed through with the filing of a no-confidence motion against the government the following day. Incidentally, Mr. Nidhi and Mr. Mahara were both sworn in as Deputy Prime Ministers with key portfolios of Home and Finance, respectively, last week.

< style="color: #163449;">NC-Maoist coalition prospects

Many political observers feel that an NC-Maoist coalition will prove to be more stable than the preceding ones. The fact is that it was under NC stalwart G. P. Koirala’s leadership that the peace deal with the Maoists was concluded in 2005-06, which allowed them to come into democratic electoral politics. However, problems arose shortly after the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections in which the Maoists scored an unexpected victory. With 229 seats in an Assembly of 601, they were by far the largest party, followed by the NC and CPN(UML) with 115 and 108 seats, respectively.

In return for supporting the Maoist demand that the Constituent Assembly declare Nepal a republic, thereby abolishing the 250-year-old monarchy, G. P. Koirala expected to be sworn in as the first President of the newly created Republic of Nepal with Maoist support. However, Mr. Prachanda reneged on the deal; the Maoists put up their own candidate who was eventually defeated when the NC’s Ram Baran Yadav was elected as the first President. G. P. Koirala, who had wanted to be elected unopposed, instead took on the role of Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly. As Mr. Prachanda now acknowledges, this was a political error for G. P. Koirala then became a formidable opponent.

< class="aBn" tabindex="0" data-term="goog_410375955">< class="aQJ">Nine months later, Mr. Prachanda’s coalition partners deserted him following his controversial decision to sack Chief of Army Staff General Rookmangud Katawal, which was not upheld by President Yadav, forcing him to resign. It was an ignominious end to a short tenure and for the last seven years political power has eluded Mr. Prachanda. The governments that followed, beginning with CPN(UML) leader Madhav Nepal in 2009, enjoyed coalition combinations based on the NC and CPN(UML) or the CPN(UML) and Maoists, with added support from some of the smaller parties.

During the years out of power, Mr. Prachanda saw a weakening of his position as also that of his party. In 2011, when the Maoists got another chance to lead the government, coalition partners preferred his colleague Baburam Bhattarai as being more dependable. Dr. Bhattarai became Prime Minister and Mr. Prachanda sulked; later the two drifted apart and eventually, last year Dr. Bhattarai split from the Maoists, launching his own party, Naya Shakti. The hard-line faction led by Mohan Baidya Kiran had already split in 2012, accusing Mr. Prachanda of being a ‘revisionist’.

The 2013 elections brought down the Maoist strength from 229 to 80; in contrast, the NC emerged as the largest party with 196 seats, followed by the CPN(UML) with 175. Therefore while Mr. Prachanda has become Prime Minister because of his role as kingmaker, his party is clearly the junior partner in the new coalition. All of this should certainly make the new Prime Minister a little more cautious and careful in managing the coalition.

Under the terms of the understanding with the NC, Mr. Prachanda’s tenure will be nine months, during which local body elections will be conducted. Thereafter, he is expected to step down in support of NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba who will be taking over as Prime Minister for the fourth time. He will oversee the provincial and national elections that are likely to be held in November next year, in accordance with the new Constitution.

< style="color: #163449;">Prachanda’s opportunity

The NC-Maoist coalition will be faced with a number of challenges in the coming months. Mr. Prachanda is still struggling to give shape to his Cabinet. He would like to get the Madhesi groups and Janajatis on board but the Sanghiya Gathabandhan want to first see what kind of pronouncements are made about making the new Constitution truly federal and inclusive. Here, Mr. Prachanda will have to use his political charm to hold out a healing hand, something that his predecessor failed to understand.

To strengthen his leadership within his party, Mr. Prachanda would like to bring the pending legal cases against the Maoist cadre going back to the decade-long insurgency (1996-2005) to a closure, which could lead to strains with the NC. It was during Mr. Deuba’s earlier tenure as Prime Minister in 2001 that the Nepal Army was first deployed against the Maoists and Mr. Prachanda would do well to steer clear of going down the path of another confrontation with the Army. One of his major complaints against the Oli government was its reluctance to resolve these pending cases, but doing it in a manner that is acceptable to the cadre and does not lead to legal challenges will not be easy.

Easier perhaps are simple steps to get the post-earthquake reconstruction efforts going. The international community had generously pledged $4.4 billion for the reconstruction effort at an international conference held in Kathmandu last year. Yet, very little of this money has actually come in because the Oli government wasted months in seeking to establish new institutional mechanisms, leading to turf battles. India has pledged $1.65 billion of concessional funds during the last two years but has been able to use up only $150 million. Similar is the situation with the Indian grant assistance of $250 million intended for rebuilding dwelling units in some of the worst-affected areas. Other development partners too have similar experiences and in some cases, lack of utilisation may well lead to the pledges lapsing on account of budgetary cycles.

On the foreign policy front, Mr. Prachanda needs to repair the damage done by his predecessor Mr. Oli to relations with India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already congratulated him on his appointment and invited him for a bilateral visit. The last time Mr. Prachanda visited India as Prime Minister was in September 2008 but the goodwill generated was short-lived as he began to blame Indian interference to cover up for his shortcomings. He has another opportunity now to make his second nine-month tenure truly productive and recover his lost political legacy.

This commentary originally appeared in The Hindu.

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Rakesh Sood

Rakesh Sood

Ambassador Rakesh Sood was a Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He has over 38 years of experience in the field of foreign affairs economic diplomacy and ...

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