May 19, 2020
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Opportunist Politics At Work

Communists take advantage of a factional rift threatening the six-month-old ruling coalition of Sher Bahadur Deuba

Opportunist Politics At Work
FIVE years after the triumph of the pro-democracy movement and the first-ever democratic elections, Nepal once again faces political upheaval. The six-month-old Nepali Congress-led coalition government, which includes the pro-monarchy Rash-triya Prajatantra Party (RPP) and the Teraibased Nepal Sadhbhavna Party (NSP), is threatened by rebellion within the RPP. And things have come to such a pass essentially because of bickering between the Nepali Congress (NC) and the RPP.

On March 12, the opposition CPN(UML)—Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist)—filed a no-confidence motion against the government, accusing it of creating political instability, violating human rights, jeopardising peace and tranquility and destroying the national economy. Surprisingly, it proposed forming a new government with a faction of the RPP, led by the last Panchayat prime minister, Lokendra Bahadur Chand.

What observers find galling is the fact that Chand, who brutally cracked down on the popular pro-democracy People's novement in 1990, will head the proposed CPN(UML)-RPP coalition if the government loses the confidence vote on March 24.

Not everyone is surprised though. Says the NC lawmaker, Pradeep Giri: "We made a mistake thinking we had purified the RPP."

The RPP's apex body, the 41-member central executive which met on March 20 to decide the issue of support to Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's government, came up with a split vote—24 voted in favour of the ruling coalition and 17 voted against it. The party has decided to issue a whip but the possibility of a divided vote looms large. But Foreign Minister Prakash Chandra Lohani told Outlook: "I expect the lawmakers to follow the party's majority decision."

Lohani and Water Resources Minister Pashupati Samshere Rana raised Deuba's hopes last week when they walked out of RPP's parliamentary party meeting, demanding that the executive body be convened to take such an important decision. But the matter is far from settled. Padma Sunder Lawati, agriculture minister and Chand loyalist, has indicated a likelihood of a RPP split in Parliament.

The no-confidence motion has all but split the RPP into two factions—the Chand group and the Surya Bahadur Thapa group. The two had come together just before the 1994 general elections, when the party stunned everyone by winning 20 seats, with Chand winning from two constituencies. But the party, which was once seen as posing a serious challenge to the NC, has gradually lost its credibility due to personality clashes. Most of its senior leaders are panchayat veterans who have already headed various ministries. Says an analyst: "The RPP is ungovernable. Everyone in the party is a leader."

Serious differences emerged when RPP President Surya Bahadur Thapa voiced his reservation against the proposed CPN(UML)-RPP alliance and announced that the party would continue to lend support to the NC-led government.

The Thapa faction has 11 votes in Parliament while the Chand group has eight. The big question, is will that be enough for the CPN(UML) to reach the 103-mark required to topple the government? On the face of it, the answer is no. The CPN (UML) has 87 lawmakers in the House and has so far managed to win over two more Independents into its fold, and together with the eight RPP rebels, the final count totals 97. Even if it manages to woo the three fellow communists of the Nepal Workers and Peasants' Party, it will still fall short of a majority. If the battle between the government and the communists ends in a photo-finish as anticipated, one or two independents may well decide the final result.

This is a replay of last June's drama, when the NC petitioned King Birendra to convene a special session of Parliament to discuss a no-confidence motion against the then CPN(UML) government. Barely seven months in office, the minority CPN(UML) government, headed by then prime minister Man Mohan Adhikari, in a pre-emptive move, dissolved Parliament and announced mid-term polls. A long judicial battle ensued and on August 28, Nepal's Supreme Court revived the dissolved House and termed the call for mid-term polls unconstitutional. In the confidence vote that followed, the NC, helped by the RPP and the NSP, defeated the CPN(UML) and formed a coalition government. In a desperate bid to compromise with coalition partners, the NC even sidelined its long-cherished political ideology of democratic socialism, and ignored the possible backlash it may face in colluding with disparate political forces. "We chose to close our eyes," says Giri, "and went headlong into immediate gratification of power which is a dangerous vice. Now, they are paying us back in the same coin."

The CPN(UML) no-trust vote has jeopardised former prime minister G.P. Koirala's recent attempts to wrest the NC's reins from party President Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. The March 31 party convention, at which he was expected to stake his claim to the presidentship of the beleaguered party, has been indefinitely postponed.

More importantly, the embattled Deuba has had to cancel his official visit to China between March 21 and 26 because of the threat to his government. Nepalese leaders in the past have always visited China after a trip to India to show their country is equidistant from the two giant neighbours.

Political observers point to a gradual rise of revivalist forces over the years in Nepal. NC leaders claim an ultra-rightist force is trying to destabilise democracy. Even the Palace has been accused of behind-the-scene manoeuvres. The partisan Nepalese press finds it easier to look for scapegoats. Cautions Giri: "Such acts will needlessly drag the monarchy into controversy. If the king's kith and kin are pushing remote control buttons, as some of us believe, we should be courageous enough to name them and give evidence."

Even the great leaders of the People's Movement have fallen prey to the temptation of finger-pointing. They have failed to translate their lofty dreams into reality, but there is seldom a frank admission of the failure. The venerated NC supremo Ganesh Man Singh came up with the 'democracy-is-at-peril-yet-again' statement last week. Sadly, his words of caution don't cut much ice these days.

Says Giri: "The leaders have cried wolf a bit too often and ended up being a laughing stock in front of the people. Who takes leaders seriously these days?"

Even if Deuba does survive the confidence vote, it doesn't mean the road ahead is smooth. Given the parliamentary equation, any government will have the Damocles' sword hanging over it. Says Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of Himal South Asia: "I don't see a collective vision for national economic betterment coming out of either this coalition or any other. The parties should seek a fresh mandate through polls."

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