In a historic judgment on 23 February, the Supreme Court (SC) of Nepal termed the dissolution of the House of Representatives as unconstitutional, and asked the Parliament to resume its winter session within 13 days. The ruling is a severe blow to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s move of 20 December 2020 and his ‘authoritarian’ aspirations.
The SC has rightly corrected the undemocratic move of Mr Oli who commanded a two-thirds majority before recommending the dissolution of the Lower House. His party, the CPN (Communist Party of Nepal), has now virtually split into two factions.
The Court bench led by Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher JB Rana ruled that Article 76 (1) and (7), that were referred to by the President while dissolving the House, does not allow a PM with comfortable majority in the House to recommend for its dissolution.
Implications of Nepal SC Judgment
It was reminiscent of the 1995 landmark judgment by Nepal’s Apex Court, when it reinstated the dissolved House when veteran communist leader Manmohan Adhikary was the PM. Also in 1998, Late King Birendra had refused to approve the recommendation of the then PM Surya Bahadur Thapa to dissolve the parliament and call for mid-term elections.
In that sense, Tuesday’s judgment is landmark, as it has not only corrected a wrong move of the Executive, but also saved the ethos of the Nepali Constitution that has firmly laid ground for a federal, democratic, secular republican system as per the aspirations of the Jana Andolan II (the people’s movement).
With this verdict, the moral authority of both the PM and the President has come under doubt. The jubilant CPN faction led by former PMs Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda and Madhav Kumar Nepal has demanded the immediate resignation of Mr Oli.
Many senior leaders of the Opposition Nepali Congress (NC) too have said that the PM must resign or be ready for a floor test in the House.
In fact, a no-confidence motion was registered at the House on the same day (20 December) by the Dahal-Nepal faction with the signature of some parliamentarians. The same motion can be put to vote, or any other political party can lodge another motion. As per constitutional provisions, a no-confidence motion needs the signatures of 25 percent of the total number of House members.
Complications of Nepali Politics
However, there are deeper political under-currents precipitated by technical difficulties at present in Nepali politics. Although the House will now be tasked with appointing a new government, this is contingent entirely upon how Mr Oli will act. His close aides have indicated to Nepali media that the PM will not resign, but rather, will face a floor test in the House.
The CPN together has 173 seats in the 275-member House. But due to the split, the Oli faction has some 80 members.
The NC has 63 seats and could thus emerge as the key player as it can form government with the support of either of the two NCP factions. The magic number is 138 — to claim the formation of a new government. Both Prachanda and Nepal have publicly given statements of their will to support NC President Sher Bahadur Deuba as the PM candidate. But the problem is that the NCP split is yet to be formalised, and the Election Commission has upheld both Oli and Prachanda as co-chairs of the party.
This matter is yet to be resolved.
Also, it may be recalled that in the last polls, the CPN-UML and Maoists were separate political entities that only came together to fight the elections. The new NCP was formed in May 2018. A new political party has to emerge from either faction now for it to support forming a new government. However, both Oli and Prachanda (backed by senior members of former UML like Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal) have claimed leadership of the NCP.
At the same time, the opposition, NC, too is deeply marred by factionalism with senior leaders openly disagreeing with each other. When the House was dissolved, the President had announced fresh polls for 30 April and 10 May. Needless to say, polls would be vital in times of democratic crisis, and no institution could oppose it, but the real issue — as rightly identified by the SC — was that the PM’s move could derail the Constitution altogether.
Unfortunately, however, it seems that there will be an intense power tussle in Nepali politics in the days ahead as it is being guided by individual aspirations under individual discretion.
The position of the head of the state has come under doubt, as President Bidya Devi Bhandari has been unable to bring order to the chaotic political atmosphere. Even the role of the Speaker of the House, for instance, is in doubt as he can be seen acting in favour of a faction’s interest.
India’s Role In Nepal Politics
India has a key role in Nepal’s politics.
Seen to have been in favour of the split in the ruling NCP, India wanted to counter the growing influence of China in Nepal’s internal politics as the latter desperately tried to save the communist party from a break-up.
But it seems that reinstatement was more of Chinese, American and European agenda rather than India’s.
Given the fragility of the political scenario, it cannot be ruled out that the NCP might not formally split anytime soon although the possibility of the two factions joining hands seems slim.
What India Must Do Next
India has to ponder if a new political realignment (most likely amongst NC-Madhesi parties and the Prachanda faction) would be in its interest.
After all, India has shown inconsistency in its dealings with Mr Oli by withholding and again showing support since 2015.
To avoid a scenario where India could be seen to be at the side of undemocratic forces/moves in Nepal, India must bring clarity in its Nepal policy immediately.
The Indo-Nepal border dispute that recently created heavy tensions between the two countries — even as Nepal’s parliament endorsed a new map including three disputed territories — and rising Chinese engagements in Nepal’s domestic politics along with huge Chinese investments in Nepal’s key development projects — could blur India’s influence in Nepal.
(The author is a Nepali journalist, researcher based in New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)