Oli’s Second Innings Opportunity To Change Nepal’s Destiny
CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli has started his second premiership on high note. After leading the Left Alliance comprising the UML and CPN-Maoist Centre to sweeping victory in the three-tier elections conducted in line with the new constitution last year, Oli is thrust to steer a federal republic beset with a sea of challenges. The CPN-Maoist Centre’s staying out of the government seems to be unpalatable given that both the communist forces had promised to the electorate to give a stable government during the poll campaign. This teething snag is unlikely to foil the grand project of building Nepal anew. There is widespread hope that the two big parties will respect the popular mandate and soon iron out their differences over ideology and power-sharing.
Oli’s rise to power bears historic significance. He will go down in history as the first prime minister of federal Nepal. The election followed the promulgation of the new constitution drafted by the elected Constituent Assembly (CA). The statute has institutionalised the achievements of all past movements and revolutions. Having a constitution written by the elected representatives was a long-held dream of Nepalis for the last seven decades. In 2015, the CA met this aspiration of Nepali people, and Oli presided over the first government formed under the roadmap of the very national charter.
There is a reason why the people handed a thumping victory to Oli. He led from the front in writing the new constitution. He played a crucial role in reconciling between the Nepali Congress and CPN-Maoist Centre that were poles apart on the contents of statute. Bringing together the centre to right (NC) and the ultra-left (MC) parties was indeed a herculean task but Oli played a decisive role in striking a 16-point deal that is win-win for all the major forces. Nonetheless, the domestic consensus faced a serious threat from the external forces that wanted to scuttle the grand statute writing project. On the eve of the promulgation of the new charter, former Indian secretary Jayashankar landed here to play as spoilsport, and former PM late Sushil Koirala almost gave in to the Indian pressure but Oli’s firm position stopped Koirala from dithering. MC chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal offered his solid backing to Oli in resisting the foreign meddling. This resulted in the promulgation of new charter but it came at a price.
In retaliation, India imposed a blockade on Nepal and tightened the noose during Oli’s premiership. He led masses against the cruel blockade, winning the hearts of many Nepalis. He signed the historic trade and transit treaty that provided Nepal an access to the sea via Chinese territory. Opening the alternative means to conduct trade and commerce with other nations boosted the confidence of Nepal. He refused to visit India until it lifted the blockade on Nepal. These bold and patriotic moves transformed him into a strong leader that Nepalis were searching for decades. This put him in the pantheon of great nationalist statesmen of Nepal - Bhimsen Thapa, king Mahendra and BP Koirala. First prime minister Thapa had challenged the hegemony of British empire while Mahendra and BP had stood up to the paternalistic attitude of India. The people elected Oli and his party to power for his patriotic stance.
Oli won the election on the plan of nationalism, stability and prosperity. Now he should fulfill these electoral promises following his election to the highest executive post. In order to match up to his nationalistic stand, Oli requires adopting pragmatic, independent and balanced relations with both the neighbours. Oli is in a better position to execute foreign policies and end unwarranted external meddling. India is hesitant to directly butt in the internal affairs of Nepal with the resounding victory of the Left Alliance. So Indian PM Narendra Modi called Oli over phone three times since the election. Modi appears to be eager to wipe the slate clean. He sent Indian Minister for External Affairs as his special envoy to Nepal on the fence-mending mission. This positive gesture is good for the sovereignty and dignity of Nepal. Nonetheless, Oli should walk a tightrope, must not be swayed away by the sweet talks, but act to translate the kind gesture into concrete economic benefits and opportunities. Many India-funded projects are pending so this rapprochement needs to be utilised to give momentum to them. This will be also a test for India’s Nepal policy – whether it really wants stability and prosperity in Nepal.
At the same time, Oli must not waver from implementing the trade and transit treaty signed with China. Nepal has joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that seeks to connect Asia, Europe and Africa for the shared prosperity. Nepal is ideally located to benefit from the BRI and the Left Alliance enjoys diplomatic leverage to accrue benefits from the BRI that focuses on infrastructural development, connectivity, fiscal integration, trade, investment and people-to-people relations. As a towering national leader, Oli should prove himself as a pro-Nepali leader, smash the negative labels such as pro-Indian or pro-Chinese. There has been a tendency, especially among the Indian media, to depict Nepal as a vassal state - either it is pro-Indian or pro-Chinese. This is very parochial and colonial mindset, hurting the sentiments of Nepalis, who never accepted foreign rules.
In order to ensure stability, Oli must be able to take the Maoist Centre and its chief Prachanda into confidence. Prachanda often shows mercurial character and may be the victim of geopolitical maneuverings to destroy the left unity. Influential MC leaders are engaged in one-upmanship to grab the plum ministerial portfolios by masking the façade of ideological differences so he should walk a fine line when it comes to bringing the MC into the government and pushing the eventual unity between the two communist forces. This is a rare opportunity for the Nepali communists to rewrite the destiny of Nepalis. And they must not let this golden chance slip through their fingers.