Student cadres celebrate as they take part in a candlelight vigil after the verdict of the Supreme Court to reinstate parliament in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: AFP / Rojan Shrestha / NurPhoto

The political landscape in Nepal took a turn last month when the president of the Nepali Congress (NC), Sher Bahadur Deuba, replaced Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) chairman K P Sharma Oli as prime minister.

After it became evident that Oli could not prove a majority in the parliament, Deuba had staked a claim for the formation of a coalition government in May. Concluding that neither Oli nor Deuba commanded a majority of votes in the House of Representatives, President Bidya Devi Bhandari opted to go for the dissolution of the House and set mid-term elections for November.

However, Deuba was catapulted to the prime minister’s chair after the Supreme Court annulled Oli’s move to dissolve the parliament.

Although Deuba has become the prime minister for the fifth time, he is not a leader with any concrete past achievements to boast about. People generally do not rate him favorably.

He has become the prime minister at a time when the country is facing complexities in the domestic and international political scenes compounded by the challenges related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore, this might be his last chance to dispel the notion of his lack of leadership and visionary attributes and prove his critics wrong.

Domestic politics

The long-term future of the present coalition, which is made up mainly of the NC, Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center), Janata Samajbadi Party and a faction led by the former leader of CPN (UML), Madhav Kumar Nepal, is uncertain.

Madhav was embroiled in an internal political battle against his longtime rival Oli and has just registered a new political party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Socialist). Support of this new party is crucial for the survival of the Deuba government until the next general election, which is due in November 2022.

Oli had won an overwhelming majority in 2017 elections to rule for five years. However, his intra-party tussle with former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (alias Prachanda) led to a split in the then-ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP).

People had expected that political stability would lead to the country’s economic development after years of unstable political environment.

Oli’s logic of dissolving the parliament in the name of seeking a fresh mandate did not go down well with the general population as untimely elections are a waste of the taxpayers’ money. His government was suspected many times of indulging in corruption. As a consequence, he has inadvertently done damage to CPN (UML)’s image.

Every government formed after the restoration of democracy in 1990 has emphasized the need for a stable domestic political environment to achieve socio-economic prosperity. In spite of winning nearly two-thirds of seats in parliament, the ruling party split because of a clash of egos among its top leaders, which ultimately led to Oli’s fall from power.

This clearly demonstrates the lack of public accountability amongh leaders of the political parties with regards to the faith placed on them by the voters to govern the country.

As the next elections are due in less than one and a half years, people should not expect this government to produce far-reaching results to transform the country. Rather, this government should focus on good governance, reduce corruption and restore the dwindling faith people have on the current system and its leaders.

Fight against Covid-19

Nepal is bracing for a third wave of Covid-19. More than 10,000 people have already died from the virus (out of a population of more than 28 million). So far the country has been able to secure 9.7 million doses of vaccines from different countries and an additional 10.3 million doses are expected to arrive by mid-October.

The government aims to import 32.3 million doses by mid-January. Because of delays in getting the vaccines, only 15% of the total population has received at least the first dose to date.

The second wave of the pandemic exposed Nepal’s fragile health-care system. Neither the previous nor the incumbent government has been able to improve the health-care system in terms of infrastructure and human resources.

Many of the ventilators provided by donor countries are lying idle. There seems to be a general lack of preparedness even after the second wave caused so much devastation in terms of human lives as well as social, emotional and mental trauma.

It has also been observed that the vaccination centers are overcrowded and not well managed. The government should ensure swift vaccination drives across all seven provinces of the country in an effective and efficient manner and work toward improving the overall health-care system for a fight against the third wave.

International relations

Fissures in domestic politics affect the foreign policy of any country. Although the horizon of Nepal’s international relations has broadened over the years, geography and history dictate that ties with its immediate neighbors India and China will remain at the forefront of the Himalayan nation’s foreign policy.

Ideally, there needs to be a broad consensus among the political parties with regards to foreign policy so that Nepal’s vital national interests are not compromised even if there is a change in government.

Oli could not improve relations with either India or China during his tenure. Relations with New Delhi had soured in the aftermath of the territorial dispute concerning Kalapani, Lipulek and Limpiyadhura in northwestern Nepal. While it was perceived that Oli tried to mend ties with the southern neighbor, no visible signs to that effect could be observed.

His initial reluctance to purchase vaccines from China, supposedly to please India, did not go down well with the northern neighbor. Furthermore, he also did not show much interest in expediting projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As a result, Beijing likely felt Oli’s departure from power would best suit its interests in Nepal.

At the same time, the euphoria created after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Kathmandu in 2019 has failed to produce any tangible results in the bilateral relations over a period of time.

Deuba has his hands full in the realm of Nepal’s international relations and he will have to manage the conflicting interests of powerful countries deftly. Usually, it is customary for a newly elected Nepali prime minister to visit India and China. In spite of his election to the post more than a month ago, neither neighbor has extended an invitation to him. One may assume that it may be so because of the Covid-19 situation.

India is not at all pleased after Nepal amended its constitution to incorporate the territories of Kalapani, Lipulek and Limpiyadhura on its map and national emblem in June last year. It is to be seen how Deuba will reinvigorate ties with India as it is extremely unlikely that New Delhi will cede these territories to Nepal. In all probability, he will sidestep this issue and engage with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on other fronts.

India lost a glorious opportunity to restore its image in Nepal on the “vaccine diplomacy” front. The Serum Institute of India has not been able to supply a million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines for which payment had already been made because of a ban on exports by the Modi government.

Despite several requests by the Nepalese government, India did not budge from its stance, citing priority for its domestic needs. As a result, Nepal’s senior citizens were deprived of their second doses within the stipulated time. Because of the pandemic, other pending matters such as the contentious boundary issues and railway connectivity have been overshadowed.

The failure of India to supply the vaccines forced the Oli government to seek China’s help, albeit reluctantly, after a lot of domestic pressure. Beijing thus found an opportune moment to unleash its vaccine diplomacy in Nepal.

Currently most of the vaccines available in the country are supplied by China’s Sinopharm. By supplying vaccines when needed, China’s image in Nepal has definitely soared. However, its failure to make concrete progress on earmarked BRI projects, including the much hyped trans-Himalayan railway connectivity, is bound to restrict its strategic leverage in Nepal.

The United States has been one of the most important development partners of Nepal. The US$500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) agreement related to the development of Nepal’s electrical transmission lines and road network, which was signed in 2017 between the governments of the US and Nepal, is still awaiting parliamentary approval.

The political parties and general public are divided over its implementation, with some fearing that the MCC will gradually aid the strategic interests of the US in Nepal given its sensitive geopolitical location.

China would also not want the MCC to be implemented just as the US would not like the BRI projects to flourish.

Caught in this conundrum, the Deuba government should create a broad understanding among the political parties and people on what would be the best for Nepal’s national interest. Because of growing public resentment and China’s tacit stance against the MCC, coalition partner and CPN (MC) supremo Dahal would wish to procrastinate tabling the motion to approve the MCC from the parliament.

Conclusion

Nepal’s political parties have failed to take lessons from history. Their indulgence in unfair political jockeying has exposed their lust for power. They seem least accountable to their people.

Political instability will lead to inconsistency in policies, which in turn will hamper Nepal’s development and international standing.

Unless domestic politics is stable, foreign powers will keep on meddling in Nepal because of its geo-strategic significance.

Oli lost a golden opportunity to rule for five years and cement his legacy. Yet based on Deuba’s past performance, people do not have any high expectations.

It will always be difficult for Nepal to overcome geopolitical complexities. It depends upon the resolve of Nepali leaders on how best to manage them to safeguard the country’s national interest.

In the coming days, Nepal needs to tread the path carefully in its domestic politics and foreign policy so that the quest for the elusive consensus and stability on both fronts can be achieved.

Gaurab Shumsher Thapa

Gaurab Shumsher Thapa is an analyst and writer on topics related to international relations. He is the president and managing director of the Nepal Forum of International Relations Studies (NEPAL FIRST).