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KP Sharma Oli: why Nepal's new PM isn't the right man for the job

CK Lal | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 5:55 IST

The man

  • KP Sharma Oli is the new prime minister of Nepal
  • He\'s a man of contradictions -- a Stalinist who cultivates the right
  • His UML party is a known as a cabal of business cartels, NGOs

The mission

  • Address the Madhesi protests over the new constitution
  • Mend ties with India, which recently halted supplies to Nepal
  • Hasten the country\'s post-earthquake reconstruction

Its contested new constitution makes Nepal nominally secular. And when KP Sharma Oli was sworn in as the republic's eighth prime minister, he took the oath in the name of the people and the country. Not in the name of God as has been the tradition.

Yet, his first call of duty was to accompany President Ram Baran Yadav to Rato Machhindranath, the Hindu-Buddhist festival of the goddess Kumari.

It's such contradiction that has defined the Stalinist premier for much of his political career.

Born to poor Brahmins, Oli grew up in the house of the wealthy Naxalite leader Ramnath Dahal in Jhapa district of eastern Tarai, just across the border from Siliguri in West Bengal.

He grew up to be a committed far-leftist in the 1970s, when the 'Jhapali Communists' were beheading "class-enemies" to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat in the world's only Hindu kingdom. Jailed in 1973, he wouldn't come out until 14 years later.

Oli's star rose rapidly after multiparty democracy was restored in 1990 and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) - now better known as UML - emerged as a political force by bringing together Marxists like Manmohan Adhikari and Leninist hotheads like Madan Bhandari.

As the new party veered to the Stalinist idea of nationalist communism, Oli became founder-president of its youth wing, the Prajatantrik Rastriya Yuwa Sangh.

From there, he rose quickly through the ranks, even though, true to character, he spent much of his time playing chess rather than studying Marx as many of his fiery comrades did.

Indeed, even when Oli became the party's propaganda chief, he dealt mainly with strategy rather than tactics.

His combative opposition to the Nepali Congress regime in the early 1990s earned him much goodwill with the ultra-left communists who were the torchbearers, or Masale in Nepali, of the then brewing Maoist revolution.

Power player

As home minister under Manmohan Adhikari in the mid-90s, Oli cultivated Kathmandu's permanent power elite, especially its hoodlums, the monarchists or Mandale.

His second stint in power was no less crucial. Appointed foreign minister of the interim government in 2007, Oli was introduced to the key interlocutors in New Delhi who influenced India's policies towards Nepal. Perhaps, through prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala, he also made friends with powerful international players.

The training of Oli was complete. However, he had to wait eight long years to realise his life's goal of ruling Nepal. And for one reason alone: he had infamously denounced the republican agenda of the 2006 People's Uprising as a dream of travelling to the moon in a bullock cart.

In the 1970s, Oli was a committed cadre of the 'Jhapali Communists'. He was jailed for 14 years

It took election to the second Constituent Assembly in 2013 to wash the sin of that statement off the Stalinist strategist.

Shaped by varied experiences, Oli's is a complex but compelling personality. The lumpenproletariat loves his populism and adores him for protecting his acolytes irrespective of their character. The lumpenbourgeoisie - the amoral neo-rich that seek to hide their transgressions behind the veil of cultural nationalism and vacuous sloganeering - find his habitual denunciations of minorities witty and patriotic.

He has essentially built a coalition of what has long been derided in Nepal's democratic circles as Masale-Mandale-Male (Maoist, monarchist and Marxist-Leninist) combine.

Balancing act

It's one thing to build up a coalition but managing the partners' competing ambitions is a big challenge, even for Oli.

In his own UML, old Marxists may find that their chairman is beholden more to the power elite and various interest groups than his own party. He has tried to placate influential lobbies in the UML with cabinet births but it's an axiom of power politics that there are always more waiting to get in through the door.

Keeping Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda in good humour will be a tough ask. Prachanda remains a formidable force despite the fragmentation of his Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Maoists) and his support is crucial for Oli's survival.

The other partners in Oli's coalition, deputy prime ministers Bijaya Kumar Gachhedar, a Madhesi, and Kamal Thapa, a monarchist, will also bring their own agendas to the table.

Host of challenges

As a strategist of the UML stormtroopers in the 90s, Oli had himself made clear that governments don't deserve any honeymoon period by stirring protests the day the Nepali Congress government took office.

Now, he has to hit the ground running as the country is faced with multiple crises, or risk falling flat right at the starting line.

Madhesis had begun protesting against the unjust provisions of the new constitution even before it was promulgated. In two months of mass protests and strikes since, over 40 people have been killed by the police and hundreds wounded.

Unlike his fiery comrades, Oli spent much of his time playing chess rather than studying Marx

Handling this is going to test the mettle of the new government that largely relies on an anti-Madhes support base. His past outbursts against Madhesis aren't going to help Oli build a conducive climate for rational give-and-take.

In 1989, India-Nepal ties had hit the nadir when differences over trade and transit and the Peace Zone proposal of King Birendra had made New Delhi throttle the supply of essential goods to the landlocked country through the Kolkata port.

The situation isn't as bad now but constraints on the supply of goods - which Kathmandu called undeclared blockade - has created a strong anti-India sentiment in the mountainous regions. Madhesis, on the other hand, have welcomed it as much-needed assistance in their time of need.

To balance these sentiments, through negotiations at home and diplomacy abroad, Oli will need to summon every skill he has mastered over his 25 years in power politics.

Governance issues are no less pressing. The government has failed to spend a penny of the over $4 billion it got from international donors after the April earthquake. The law needed for the formation of a reconstruction authority was not allowed to pass due to the intransigence of Oli's own party.

So, the development work is at standstill with almost nothing done in the last six months. Oli will have to at least kick-start the process given the high expectations in the hills and the growing resentment in Madhesi plains.

Outsourcing governance

Oli is known for getting things done through intermediaries, and it's unlikely he'll get down to brass tacks even now.

He'll probably rely on the Maoists and Gachhedar to deal with the protests in Tarai-Madhes. The strategy is likely to consist of bringing Madhesi parties on board with a combination of conciliatory carrots and administrative sticks, and then defuse the stir by announcing local elections.

For reconciliation with India, Oli will marshal the resources of the power elite. Kathmandu is abuzz with rumors that Nepali billionaires with business interests in both countries have assured New Delhi that Oli is ready to sign on any commercial deal as long as his political line is endorsed in exchange.

Indeed, supplies have already eased somewhat since Oli took over. The efficacy of this strategy, however, remains to be seen.

As for governance, the premier will probably farm it out to NGOs and bring in the for-profit sector for reconstruction work. The UML, in fact, has long been known as a conglomerate of business cartels, service syndicates and NGOs of various shades that provide gainful employment to the party's cadre between elections and contribute greatly to its coffers.

Looking ahead

All that the proposed changes seek to do is restore status quo of the interim constitution. The demarcation of provinces has to be renegotiated. That won't be easy as it'll directly pit Madeshi and Tharu interests with the core Bahun and Chhetri constituency of Oli's party. The efficacy of the Maoists in resolving the issue is doubtful at best.

Farming out foreign policy to Hindutva forces and commercial lobbies has its own pitfalls. Shorn of transparency and accountability, commitments made through unofficial channels are difficult to be met in a democratic polity.

Oli seems to be banking too much on busybodies in normalising ties with India. In such a close relationship, personal initiative at the highest political level is necessary, which Oli seems neither capable of nor willing to initiate.

The international community is already tired of the tardiness in earthquake reconstruction. So, Oli's proposal of channeling foreign aid through NGOs associated with UML are unlikely to find willing takers. Then there is the risk of governance being harmed by the conflicting interests of coalition partners.

All things considered, Oli isn't the right person for the job at the moment. Instead of clearing up the political mess left by the previous government, he may end up making it worse.

The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.

First published: 14 October 2015, 5:28 IST
CK Lal @CatchNews

The writer is a noted journalist and political columnist from Nepal.