There is an old African proverb that when two elephants fight, it is the grass underneath that gets trampled. Thanks to the growing interference of the two giant neighbors, China and India, in the internal politics of Nepal, that proverb aptly describes the political crisis that Nepal is facing today. Added to this, the utter incompetence and ineptitude of the incumbent government in tackling major economic issues facing the country completes the circle of woes.
On July 24, Parliament was about to vote on a no-confidence motion tabled by Pushpa Kamal Dahal (also known as Prachanda) of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Center) with the support of other coalition partners like Nepali Congress and other small parties. It was a foregone conclusion that the no-confidence motion would have carried through. Prime Minister K.P. Oli, of the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist, was left with no alternative but to tender his resignation after being in office for 292 days. Dahal had earlier reached an agreement with Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba to lead the new government on a rotational basis. Earlier, China had sent several diplomats to Nepal in order to save Oli’s government, as the premier was seen coming closer and closer to China at the cost of India.
What led to Oli’s downfall? There are three main factors: his inability to rebuild Nepal after the massive earthquake in April 2015, his failure to address the grievances of the Madhesis, who have close linguistic and cultural ties with the Indians, for proportional representation in the new constitution and, thirdly, his increasing closeness to China at the cost of India, which did not sit well with New Delhi.
Under the new constitution, which has a provision for a 165-member Parliament, the constituencies have been demarcated in such a way that the people of the hill and mountain region will get 100 seats, despite the fact that their share of Nepal’s total population is less than 50 percent. On the other hand, the Terai region, home to over half of the country’s population, has been allocated only 65 seats. This was felt as a travesty of justice as, in all democratic countries, proportional representation is arrived by taking the population of a region into account and not geographical areas. Madhesis, who form 51 percent of the population, were left out in the cold. They saw it as a deliberate attempt to keep them from mainstream politics and, instead, vest the actual power with the “hill people.”
In fact, at the time of drafting of the constitution, India had invited prominent members of all major parties like the Nepali Congress, CPN-UML, and CPN(M-C) to Delhi for discussion. India also cautioned the Nepali parties against the danger of giving proportionate representation based on geography, instead of population, as this would be seen by the Madhesis as an attempt to vest the actual power with the hill people. India got an assurance from these leaders that they would address the Madhesis’ concerns in the draft constitution, but, unfortunately, they reneged on the promise.
Secondly, K.P. Sharma Oli deftly played the China card. By signing a deal with China for oil and ending India’s four-decade monopoly, he ensured that Nepal’s overdependence on India was reduced. It was seen as a master stroke by the political leaders in reducing Nepal’s economic dependence on India. However, much to his chagrin, many of the promises made by China did not fructify, forcing the government to approach India for help.
The third factor that led to strident criticism of his government was the inability to accelerate the pace of reconstruction and rebuilding of homes after the massive earthquake that hit Nepal in April 2015, rendering over 650,000 homeless. In fact, it was India that first came to the rescue by rushing essential supplies to Nepal. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally took it upon himself to galvanize the entire government machinery to extend all possible help to Nepal to cope with the unprecedented tragedy. The speed with which India rushed essential supplies to Nepal even invited praise from China.
Sadly, even one year after the earthquake, the reconstruction process has been slow. Many lay the blame squarely on the dysfunctional government, which has yet to come out with much awaited building codes for the construction of new houses. Many people who are in a position to rebuild their houses are unable to do so because permission to rebuild their homes is not forthcoming in the absence of building codes.
Although a new government is expected to be announced by the end of the week, is it unclear how effective the new government will prove. Nepali politics have always been dominated by a handful of powerful people who have successfully managed to influence politics for over 20 years. It is for this reason that the parliamentary democracy in the country remains dysfunctional. Unless people at the grassroots level are empowered and are given a say, Nepali politics will continue to be dominated by vested interests.
Governments may come and go, but no visible change will be seen on the ground unless there is political will to strengthen democracy by bringing out a social transformation in the country that encourages ordinary people to play an active role in the democratic process. Unless that happens, the democracy will continue to remain as a sham.
As far as its relations with its important neighbors, Nepal should show maturity by adopting a neutral stance. Oli paid the price by antagonizing India. India and China, on their part, should not meddle in Nepal’s politics and, instead, should work in tandem to rebuild the country.
In the interest of Nepal’s future, one hopes the new dispensation works in the interest of the people by not only strengthening the democratic process at the grassroots level but also bringing necessary changes to strengthen the democracy, which is a sine qua non for ensuring that the democracy remains relevant in the country.
K.S. Venkatachalam is an an independent columnist and political commentator. his articles have been featured in leading newspapers.