—Nepali Congress (NC) President Sher Bahadur Deuba has been sworn-in as the new prime minister of Nepal after a landmark judgment by the Supreme Court on 12 July.
Giving its verdict on outgoing PM K P Sharma Oli’s recommendation for House dissolution on 21 May and President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s refusal to appoint Deuba as the PM, the Constitutional Bench ordered restoration of parliament and Deuba’s appointment as the new PM as per Article 76 (5) of the Constitution of Nepal.
This has brought to an end Oli’s three-and-a-half year long tenure as the PM.
Oli's Court-ordered Controversial Exit
Considered one of the most powerful leaders in Nepal’s recent political history, Oli’s tenure was fraught with controversy and internal party wrangling.
Although he started with a two-thirds majority government, the rift with Prachanda and Madhav Kumar Nepal faction cost him dearly. In the last leg of his term, the Mahanta Thaku faction of the JSP (Janata Samajwadi Party) had joined his government.
India was perceived to have played a key role in bringing together this alliance given the proximity of the Madhesi leaders with Indian establishment.
Before leaving Singha Durbar (office of the PM), Oli vented angst at the SC and the Madhav Nepal faction of his party, CPN-UML. He claimed that the SC had made a political decision to appoint a new PM, which is outside the purview of the judiciary while slamming dissidents from the UML for conspiring to topple the government run by their own party. He also put forth doubt about Deuba’s capability to hold the next elections in a televised address to the nation on 13 July.
But the Apex Court decision in fact, rescued the democratic process in Nepal and paved the way for holding the next polls. The role of President Bhandari, who colluded with Oli to dissolve the House twice, too, has come under criticism.
“The Court verdict has tied the hands of the President, she must act in good faith and resign,” Dinesh Tripathi, senior SC advocate, told this author after the verdict, adding, “She (the President) is under moral obligation to quit.”
Challenges in Deuba's Way
Sher Bahadur Deuba, 75, has assumed the post of premiership for the fifth time in his political career spanning six decades. In the past, Deuba had served as the prime minister of the country four times: from June 2017–February 2018, June 2004–February 2005, July 2001–October 2002 and September 1995–March 1997.
He has to now secure a vote of confidence in the restored House within a month (by 12 August) as per Article 76 (6). In case of failure, he will lead the country forward to the next general elections.
Deuba has claimed support of the majority of the members of parliament. But it will be challenging to work with all political stakeholders to hold the next elections, especially the Oli faction of the UML that took to the streets after the SC verdict.
It may be recalled here that virtually all mainstream political parties in Nepal are deeply divided from within, on the political course of action.
There are many other big challenges for Deuba on multiple fronts.
Making COVID vaccines available to the majority of the population, giving direction to the ailing economy, improving governance, pursuing a balanced foreign policy approach, and dealing with decisions pertaining to the American MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) grant, are some important ones.
The ratification of the $500 million MCC grant has been delayed due to intense opposition from various factions in Nepal who perceive it as part of the larger US-China geo-strategic rivalry playing out in South Asia, as a result of China’s ambitious BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) projects.
How China Balanced its Interests Better Than India
China—which had made immense inroads in to Nepal after Oli came to power and tried hard to maintain communist unity—has been quiet in Nepal’s internal politics since the Communist party split, mainly after the SC verdict which brought the Maoists and the CPN-UML to pre-poll status as separate entities.
But China has key interests in Nepal. Besides implementing the BRI, which Nepal endorsed in 2017, China wants a reliable partner in Nepal, for which it has been now engaging with various political players.
Till only recently, it was promoting its interests with the Communist leaders of Nepal alone. Chinese President Xi Jinping held virtual conference with leaders of 160 countries on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) at the beginning of this month. Oli was part of this interaction as well as Deuba and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the chairman of CPN-Maoist.
India, on the other hand, has once again lost the plot in Nepali politics, for it had been perceived to be on the side of Oli government of late. After heightened tension during the map row and the adoption of a new map by Nepal, a thaw in relations came when Oli spoke to Indian PM Narendra Modi on 15 August last year.
The reaction triggered in Nepal due to India’s warming up with Oli was much bigger than actual Indian support for him. India was seen as being on the wrong side of the coin for not supporting democratic norms as Oli went about trampling Constitutional provisions.
A series of visits by Indian dignitaries to Kathmandu followed, that led to a faction of Madhesi group joining the Oli government.
India’s relationship with the Oli administration was criticised in both countries, as silent diplomacy did not pay off.
However, all is not lost as India has cordial relation with the NC, and Deuba in particular. As an old party with strong Indian connections, the Congress has maintained friendly ties with Indian political parties.
Although Deuba may not have been the Indian choice for the premiership for Nepal, it can no doubt muster close ties. Deuba has the image of being a pragmatic leader and it would only serve the interests of both neighbours to enhance government-to-government relations.
(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.)