On February 6, the Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) decided to quit the coalition government led by Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center (CPN-MC) supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal. The party lasted barely a month in the government.
Its leader, Rabi Lamichhane, decided to quit the government after Dahal refused to give the Home Ministry portfolio to the party. However, the party has not withdrawn support for the government, leaving the door open for rejoining the ruling coalition in the future.
This is a dramatic change in course for the six-month-old party.
The RSP had a rapid ascent to power as it emerged as the fourth largest party, winning 20 seats (out of 275) in the November 2022 elections. It landed four ministries, including the Home Ministry, in the power-sharing agreement among the seven-party ruling coalition formed after that.
Lamichhane became the deputy prime minister and home minister. His ascent was unprecedented in Nepali political history. On his return to Nepal in 2016, he hosted a popular talk show on television and then launched his own television company.
However, Lamichhane’s appointment as the home minister was controversial to start with. The investigation about his citizenship and passport was ongoing. Lamichhane had taken American citizenship in 2014, rendering his Nepali citizenship invalid. He left his American citizenship in 2018 and was eligible for Nepali citizenship, yet he did not go through the due process. In between, he also had a Nepali passport issued using the “invalid” citizenship certificate. Ironically, the Home Ministry is responsible for carrying out those investigations.
On January 27, Nepal’s Supreme Court ruled that Lamichhane did not hold a valid citizenship certificate and scrapped his status as a member of parliament and president of RSP. A day after the verdict, he followed due process, acquired the Nepali citizenship certificate, and returned as the RSP president.
After the court’s verdict, Dahal decided to keep the Home Ministry portfolio to himself and refused to give it to Lamichhane, who was ineligible because he was no longer a parliament member, or any other parliamentarian from the RSP.
After the decision to leave the government, RSP organized a press conference where Lamichhane had an outburst, to put it mildly. In an hour-and-half rant, he went after the media in a rage. He accused the media – specifically Kantipur Media Group – of targeting him by headlining his citizenship front and center and held them responsible for his ouster from the government. He even threatened the media that he would incite his supporters to “punish” media houses if they dared write “wrong” news about him.
Lamichhane is in his own league when it comes to hogging the limelight. His outburst is also not out of character. Nepali media and opinion makers have roundly criticized him for the outburst. However, his supporters have stood firmly in support of “exposing” the reality of Nepali media.
RSP’s quitting of the government has an immediate impact on Nepali politics.
First, RSP and its leaders were the dark horses in Nepali politics. Despite their performance in the election, people did not know where the party stood ideologically or how they would participate in governance. People voted in droves for the party expecting it to be the alternative to the establishment, which was corrupt and cared only about gaining power.
While a month is not enough to judge the party, it has hardly shown itself to be different from the others.
Second, RSP was billed as a coalition of independents. Nevertheless, the recent development shows that the party is Lamichhane, and Lamichhane is the party. There were dissenting voices on whether RSP should quit the government. However, Lamichhane hardly engaged his party officials and issued a diktat that the party would withdraw from the ruling coalition.
Third, RSP’s quitting of the government has increased the trust deficit between the CPN-MC and Khadga Prasad Oli-led Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), the two major parties in the ruling coalition. Dahal and Oli shared a contentious relationship before this, and their differences started to increase with the apparent closeness between Dahal and Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress (NC), despite Dahal ditching Deuba to form a coalition government with Oli.
Dahal has kept Deuba close in order to limit Oli’s influence in the coalition, whereas Deuba is eying Dahal’s support in electing an NC candidate for the upcoming presidential election. In the longer term, Deuba would like to break the Dahal-Oli partnership to gain power, just like Oli broke the Dahal-Deuba partnership.
With presidential elections coming up, the CPN-UML has come out supporting RSP, even trivializing the court’s verdict about Lamichhane’s citizenship. Two other coalition partners have yet to join the government. RSP’s exit means only four parties from the original seven-party coalition are participating in the government.
The longer-term implications are more concerning than the short-term impact on coalition dynamics.
Lamichhane’s outburst is an ominous sign in Nepali politics. He was a populist and was known to play to the crowd. He emerged in the political scene riding the anti-establishment wave. Now, he is discrediting Nepal’s chaotic but relatively free media. In doing so, he has lumped the media in with the corrupt establishment, and projected himself as the one who can challenge the status quo.
His tantrum on February 6 played differently to audiences. His supporters saw a leader willing to take on the powerful elements of the “swamp” and challenge the establishment. Meanwhile, his speech gave enough ammunition to his detractors about his political priorities and temperament. The gap between his supporters and detractors has widened as a result and will continue to grow.
Lamichhane’s rant also carried concerning signs. He played the victim that the establishment was trying to corner. He alleged that he had been targeted relentlessly because some elements of the establishment would be “exposed” if he continued as the home minister. By projecting himself as the only one who can challenge the establishment, he is building a personality cult.
He dared some members of the “swamp” to contest him in elections or shut up. He attacked the media for reporting on his citizenship and insinuated that they were not to be trusted. These are Trumpian tactics, and indeed his politics is shaped by Donald Trump’s success in 2016 in the United States.
This is not to suggest that Lamichhane will walk the Trumpian way. For a start, Nepal has a parliamentary system. Even populists such as Oli have found it challenging to have a singular hold on the Nepali political structure. However, expect the anti-establishment voices to be louder and politics more divisive as voters turn into followers and distrust the establishment or the media.