Sher Bahadur Deuba returns to power in Nepal; Political stability, normalization of ties with India expected

July 21, 2021 1:34 PM

The 75-year-old Deuba won a vote of confidence in parliament on July 18 days after the Supreme Court reinstated the legislature that was dissolved in May.

Sher Bahadur DeubaDeuba is a seasoned politician but he had a spotty track record as an administrator. (Photo source: Reuters)

By P. Stobdan

With the Nepali Congress (NC) leader Sher Bahadur Deuba taking charge as Prime Minister, Nepal is likely to return to a period of relative peace after a prolonged gap of political instability. The 75-year-old Deuba won a vote of confidence in parliament on July 18 days after the Supreme Court reinstated the legislature that was dissolved in May. A veteran Congress leader, who has held the office four times before, won 165 votes – exceeding the 136 required – with 83 votes against him.

Deuba is a seasoned politician but he had a spotty track record as an administrator. His earlier four times stints as Prime Minister were not without controversies. He can easily be outmaneuvered by more crafty politicians like Prachanda and Upendra Yadav in the newly formed power coalition. In 1995, Prachanda had launched “People’s War” within five months after Deuba became Prime Minister, as a result, he quit in 1996.

Deuba returned to power in 2001 and had to impose a State of Emergency to quell the Maoists. When unable to handle the peace talks with the Maoists reached nowhere, Deuba dissolved the Parliament in 2002. Subsequently, Deuba government was dismissed citing incompetence by King Gyanendra.

Deuba again came back to power in 2004 only to be sacked once again by King Gyanendra after the King acquired absolute power in a “royal coup” 2005. Later in 2015, Deuba struck a deal with Prachanda and in August 2016 the two agreed to form a rotational government led by the CPN (Maoist Centre) and the Nepali Congress for nine months each. Deuba became Prime Minister for the fourth time in June 2017.

But soon in October 2017, all ministers from the CPN (Maoist Centre) left the cabinet to form an electoral alliance with the CPN (United Marxist Leninists) led by K. P. Sharma Oli ahead of the 2017 General Elections. The Oli – Prachanda united Communist alliance won the elections and formed a government in early 2018. However, the coalition between the two Communist factions didn’t last long with Prachanda complaining about Oli’s authoritarian style of functioning.

The chronic political instability ensued since last year even though neighboring China fully tried to keep the unity between the two Communist alliances intact. In the changed political equation both Deuba and Prachanda factions ditched Oli and sought to form a government in May after he lost a confidence vote on May 10.

However, Oli with the intention to break the alliance with Prachanda opted to go for fresh elections. At the same time, Oli advised Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari to dissolve Parliament so that he continues to remain as Caretaker Prime Minister. Earlier, Oli dissolved the Parliament in December 2020, but at that time also the Supreme Court reversed the President’s decision citing a constitutional violation.

The Supreme Court finally reinstated the legislature under article 76 (5) of the constitution and overturned President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s decision to retain K. P. Sharma Oli as Prime Minister, even after he had lost the confidence vote in the House of Representatives. It also ordered that Sher Bahadur Deuba be appointed as Prime Minister.

The new political development in Nepal has several significances:

First, it has ended seven months of political uncertainty and public anxiety on the failure of the constitution and democracy.

Second, a centrist liberal Democratic Party has returned to power after the country’s trial with leftist parties that shifted political alliances and has created political and economic mess in the Himalayan nation.

The new government will complete the remaining tenure (one and a half years) of the House of Representatives unless the PM resigns. However, the Deuba government will have to overcome several difficult challenges.

First and foremost is the task of managing three coalitions partners which is never going to be easy for the Nepali Congress especially when they belong to differing ideological backgrounds i.e. with Maoist rebels led by the Maoist Centre (MC) headed by Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda, the minority Madhesi groups of Upendra Yadav and Mahanta Thakur factions of Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP), Madhav Kumar Nepal faction of the Communist Party of Nepal – UML (opposition party headed by Oli). All are prone to shifting alliances.

Second, differences would start with the distribution of portfolios. For example, Upendra Yadav would push for becoming the Deputy PM and Foreign Minister which would become problematic given India’s sensitivity.

Third, the Deuba government will find it tough to balance between the MCC Compact (under the US-Nepal Partnership) and China’s sponsored Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) economic development projects. The MCC compact is designed to increase the availability of electricity and lower the cost of transportation in Nepal which is ostensibly aimed at countering China BRI. The MCC’s investment plans have so far been blocked in the Parliament due to Communist parties’ dominance. Deuba’s attempt at passing the MCC was opposed by Prachanda, Jhalanath Khanal, and Madhav Kumar Nepal.

Fourth, the real test for Deuba will be in the area of administration and addressing the governance and development issues in a short period of one and a half years.

Already, the challenge of tackling the Covid-19 pandemic has been endemic for Nepal which has infected over 660,000 positive cases and killed 9550 lives so far. Unofficially the cases appeared to have been higher. In fact, the Oli government has been blamed for being unable to handle the pandemic. So far, less than 4% of the country’s 30 million people have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. “Combating Covid will be the first priority of the new government,” Deuba said in parliament.

In addition, Deuba will have to run the country in a less authoritarian way and reduce constitutional improprieties which had become the trademark of the Oli regime. In case the government fails to deliver on governance, Oli will be in the advantageous position to return to power in the next elections.

Deuba will have to manage the holding of the NC Party Convention to be held in the first week of September. There are five candidates for the party President position. The new government will also face difficulty in issuing ordinances due to non-cooperation from the President’s office persisted in Oli continuing with the office of PM until the next election.

Addressing the political demands of Madhesi-based political parties’ would be tricky for Deuba. Since Madhav Kumar Nepal does not have a separate political party, Deuba will depend on the Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP) for the passing of the bills in Parliament. Madhav Kumar Nepal can support Deuba only under Article 76 (5), which allows members to choose their leader.

Besides, there is the issue of procuring vaccines from other countries including from China. In addition, the new finance minister has to handle the highly sluggish economy due to the bad fiscal governance of the past. Although the Nepalese economy has shown signs of moderate recovery in the first half of 2021 after contracting 1.9% in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Deuba coming back to power is surprising for India for he was not a part of New Delhi’s scheme of things. India has been inclined to support other factions that supported Oli against Prachanda.

However, Deuba becoming Prime Minister, the environment has been created now for an improved and stable relation between Nepal and India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a telephonic conversation with Deuba after he won a vote of confidence in the House of Representatives on Sunday night. In a message to Deuba, PM said both sides should work on “all sectors” especially on combating the pandemic.

India’s relations with Nepal soared last year owing to the Kalapani territorial dispute. The two sides decided to resolve the dispute after Oli’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali visited India in January. Clearly, the Deuba government will also come under intense public pressure on resolving the much-hyped border disputes, as well as, the submission of the Eminent Person Group (EPG) report.

People in 21 districts of Madhesh, including the neighboring Navalparasi and Rupandehi of India celebrated Deuba’s becoming the PM. This has a special significance for India and one only hopes that some of the contentious issues between India and Nepal that has cropped up due to Oli overzealous drive to play the nationalistic politics and also due to China’s instigations and interferences would be solved amicably.

Clearly, the people and Nepali Congress workers are upbeat about the change.

One important signal that has come in this effect is PM Deuba and his family’s preference to approach a renowned pro-India Nepali face and the Chairman of Nepal-India Human Development and Friendship Association Surya Bhusal to join Nepali Congress.

Bhusal, who hails from Bihadi village of Parbat district in Gandaki has been actively playing a major role in building strong ties between India and Nepal.

Talking about his decision, he said, “Deubaji as the party president had asked for my contribution to the development of the party and service to the people of Nepal, for which I have wholeheartedly said ok and consented. I am looking forward to playing a constructive role in stabilizing the political situation in Nepal, as well as, to promote closer ties with our most important neighbour India.”

Surya Bhusal had launched the Nepal-India Human Development and Friendship Association 21 years ago to enhance the friendship between India and Nepal at the parliamentary level, at the leadership level, and at the level of common people. In the past, he has been internally facilitating dialogues among various political factions towards the solution of Nepal’s conflict. He has been close to every Nepali leader and advised them on key issues of Nepali politics and India-Nepal relations.

Bhusal draws his inspiration from the noted Gandhian leader Late Nirmla Deshpandey who also helped him to spearhead humanitarian activities in Nepal. His organizational activities are spread across 63 districts where he actively promotes global friendship campaigns.

He started his politics from a leftist background and ran the Naya Jyoti Weekly and Asia Express Magazine for years where he raised public issues from a nationalistic perspective. He is also a recipient of the Gandhi Service Medal from the Gandhi Global Family.

With Bhusal cozying up to Deuba, the Indo-Nepal relations are expected to get normalized. Deuba is expected to make New Delhi his first foreign visit after becoming the Prime Minister. He had earlier visited India in 1996, 2004, 2005 and 2017 as Prime Minister. Deuba is known for his closer links with the US and EU. But he will have to balance his ties with China and India in his foreign policy conduct.

(The author is an expert on Himalayan Affairs. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.

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