Political seesaw in Nepal

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Political seesaw in Nepal

Wednesday, 03 April 2024 | Ashok K Mehta

Political seesaw in Nepal

As Nepal navigates through these uncertain times, the future of its leadership and the direction of its governance hang in a delicate balance

Many Nepalese see second time Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane Rashtra Swatantra Party as a future Prime Minister . With Bell as its election symbol it became the fourth largest party on debut in politics. Bereft of ideological orientation and any macro vision, it has focused on development and eradication of corruption. Ironically, Lamichhane is himself being investigated for fraud a second time—the first time he had to step down due to dual passport and citizenship issues. Nepali Congress had blocked Parliamentary proceedings setting a deadline of 31 March for an impartial parliamentary probe and demanding his resignation for alleged fraud in a cooperative fund. He was questioned by an inhouse panel of lawmakers where he denied the charge. Both Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda and former PM KP Oli have ruled out the probe and his resignation. 

Lamichhane captured the people’s imagination as a Galaxy 4K TV anchor who championed the crusade over corruption in his signature show, Seedha Kura Janata Ko Sang (Straight Talk with People). He is youthful, charismatic and a popular leader who is going places. A Janata Samajwadi Party politburo member, whose party is in the five-party coalition Government told me yesterday in Pokhara, : “Lamichhane ko dui ta haath ma laddu chha (Lamichhane has sweets in both hands), implying he’s the new kingmaker sought by the opposition NC to break the coalition and return to power. The NC is believed to have offered him the premiership before Prachanda and Oli had secured him. Will Lamichhane take a break till investigations - if ordered - are completed? Or will the case lead to another political crisis? But the assault on corruption is absolute.

The former Maoist leader and Prachanda confidante KB Mahara was rearrested and released on bail in the 61 kg gold scam in which his son Rahul is already in jail. Many distinguished leaders are in and out of jail. There is a money and name trail with Chinese deeply embedded. The Bhutan refugee scam had powerful politicians including former NC defence minister, Balkrishna Khand, recently released on bail and Maoist Top Bahadur Raymajih still in custody. Many others including a “prominent lady” are linked to it. Min Bahadur Gurung, the owner of the biggest departmental store chain, Bhat Bhateni, was in jail recently. And last month, Nepal’s only billionaire and NC lawmaker, Binod Chaudhary, was investigated over Bansbari land scam while his brother Arun was briefly jailed. The names of two former PMs have been linked to Lalita Niwas land scam. Another former PM’s  name is whispered about a tea estate in Jhapa. Both Prachanda and Lamichhane are attacking corruption with utmost vigour 

China was last month delighted with the Left alliance returning to power  which Communist leader Oli insisted was not Beijing’s handiwork but “ours” - “we brought about the change”. Despite the perceived pro-China Government, its leaders are moving very slowly on BRI and the utilisation of Rs 60 bn pledged by President Xi Jinping during his maiden visit in 2019. Last week Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Narayan Kaji Shreshtha was on a nine-day visit to Beijing (UML’s Bishnu Poudyel was also in China) and met his counter part Wang Yi. They reaffirmed to “very soon sign the BRI implementation plan” which is according to Chinese procedure, is needed for executing projects. When NC’s former Foreign Minister Prakash Mahat signed the BRI Framework Agreement in 2017, Nepal had worked on 35 projects which were toned down to nine. The hesitation on part of both China and Nepal and the consequential delay is due to defining the funding modality. Kathmandu wants aid and grants or , concessional, not commercial, loans from China. 

Nepal has joined only China’s Global Development Initiative, not Global Security or Global Civilisation Initiatives. After an agonising four years, Kathmandu subscribed to US’s Millennium Challenge Corporation - Nepal Compact in 2022. BRI is intended to balance MCC. 

Nepali strategists have modified Prithvi Narayan Shah’s dictum — Nepal is a yam between two stones (India and China) to three stones (India, China and US). Till about 2010, US Embassy in Delhi would say: “It will take the lead on Nepal from India.” Over time, that has changed. 

I’ve been living in Lame Ahal, a predominantly Gurung village below the Kathmandu-Pokhara Highway which China, its original builder, is four-laning for the last two years throwing up dust, slush and anger. 

Chinese engineers from Wayuan Highway and Bridge Construction Company with Nepalese labour are working at snail’s pace. Pokhara-ites were telling me it hadn’t rained for two years. Many village taps had dried up. Then suddenly last week Pokhara valley was deluged in rain, causing havoc for road and air traffic from Pokhara. It is an unseasonal phenomenon and climate-change related. 

India is still the favourite whipping boy. When I visited Bhat Bhateni and observed in audible voice: everything is Chinese” the lady at the counter responded: “India does not give us anything”. On my daily trek across Seti river, I sometimes hear the word ‘thug’ about India. All of this is compulsive and imagined anti-India sentiment which will not go away anytime soon.

Prachanda is already talking about switching coalitions again. This tactic keeps coalition partners with him. NC is trying to wean away JSP and Unified Socialists led by Upendra Yadav and Madhav Nepal who was once called Madhav India to revive Democratic alliance keeping the current coalition  on a short fuse and Nepal unstable. 

(The writer, a retired Major General, was Commander, IPKF South, Sri Lanka, and a founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff. Views are personal)

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