China’s Desperate Efforts To Save Nepal PM Oli May Bear Fruit, But Only For Now 

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jul 8, 2020 12:27 PM +05:30 IST
China’s Desperate Efforts To Save Nepal PM Oli May Bear Fruit, But Only For Now    Nepal’s Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli and Chinese President Xi Jinping. 
  • China is worried that a split in the NCP would be a huge setback to its interests in Nepal.

    The Chinese embassy in Kathmandu admitted to the interference on Monday.

Beijing’s determined bid to bail out its acolyte in Kathmandu — Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli — may ultimately save the day for him, but won’t keep the ailing and unpopular leader in power for long.

Also, China’s blatant efforts to save Oli has riled many of Nepal’s politicians, diplomats and civil society leaders and is earning Beijing a bad name.Chinese envoy Hou Yanqi’s meetings with top leaders of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and the country’s President have invited sharp criticism and also triggered street protests which may intensify in the coming days.

The Chinese embassy in Kathmandu admitted to the interference on Monday. Its spokesperson, Zhang Si, was quoted by The Kathmandu Post as saying that China does not want the NCP to split and, hence, is talking to senior leaders of the party and urging them to maintain unity.

China had midwifed the birth of the NCP in October 2017 by urging Nepal’s two communist parties — Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) and Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) — to unite.

The NCP swept to power in the parliamentary elections held in November-December 2017 and Oli became the Prime Minister in February 2018.Oli also retained his post as co-chair of the NCP in violation of the party’s ‘one man one post’ policy.

Oli’s abrasive and unilateral style of functioning, his sidelining of senior party colleagues, lack of governance skills and his mishandling of many issues including the ongoing pandemic has turned a large section within the NCP against him.Public anger has also risen against his misgovernance.

Dahal, popularly known by his nom de guerre ‘Prachanda’ (meaning the fierce one) from his days as a Maoist insurgent, has been smarting from Oli’s high-handedness and refusal to consult the party on important matters for a long time.

Dahal and Oli had a gentleman's agreement to share the PM’s post for an equal term of two-and-half years each.As per that agreement, Oli would have stepped down from the PM’s post and made way for Dahal this month (July 2020).

But Oli rejected that agreement and matters came to a head late last year. President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, who had held the post of vice-chairperson of Oli’s CPN(UML), got the two leaders together and brokered an agreement in December last year.As per that agreement, Oli would remain the PM for the full five-year term while Dahal would become the executive chairman of the NCP with full powers to manage the party.

But after a couple of months, Oli junked that agreement as well.Dahal, naturally, has reason to be upset with Oli. But Oli also managed to alienate most of the senior leaders of his party, including his erstwhile colleagues from his own CPN(UML) through his unilateral style of functioning.

Oli is viewed negatively as an arrogant, power-hungry, egoistic and unreliable person by most of the senior ranks in the NCP.Most are deeply suspicious of him and blame him for the NCP’s growing unpopularity among the masses.

“Oli has failed on all fronts. His whimsical style of functioning and lack of governance skills has led to the NCP and the government becoming very unpopular. If he remains in power, we face the bleak prospect of losing the next elections (due in end-2022),” said NCP leader and former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal.

Faced with calls for stepping down from the post of Prime Minister, Oli is learnt to have asked his supporters within the party to prepare for a split.Oli took tentative steps in that regard by getting the President to prorogue Parliament last week to avoid a floor test.

The political grapevine in Kathmandu is rife with speculation that if the ongoing negotiations with Dahal and other leaders who are opposing him (read this, this and this) fail and his opponents continue to press for his resignation, Oli will bring in an ordinance that will help him split the party.

China is worried that a split in the NCP would be a huge setback to its interests in Nepal.“The NCP is the largest communist party in south Asia and a split would adversely affect the communist movement in this part of the world. Also, since it is well known that China facilitated the formation of the NCP, a split in the party would reflect very poorly on China and dent its prestige in Nepal. A split would also unseat the communists from power in the next elections,” said Nepali Congress leader Narayan Poudel.

China, thus, is desperate to avoid a split and is asking all NCP leaders to bury the hatchet.However, say observers, there is a limit to which China will go to support Oli.“Oli is Beijing’s man in Kathmandu. But China also realises that if keeping Oli in power will lead to a split in the party, Beijing will not hesitate to dump him,” said Poudel.

If anti-Oli leaders in the NCP insist on a change in leadership of the government, Beijing will eventually ask Oli to step down.“It is a game of nerves now. If the anti-Oli group can stay united and keep up their pressure, China will ask Oli to go in order to keep the NCP united. Beijing also realises that external pressure will not be enough to douse the resentment against Oli for long,” said a senior NCP leader.

But before allowing Oli to go, China will ensure that Dahal or anyone else replacing Oli will safeguard China’s interests in Nepal.Chinese envoy Hou Yanqi reportedly brought this up during her meetings with Madhav Nepal, Bamdev Gautam and Jhalanath Khanal (the three senior NCP leaders who are asking for Oli’s resignation).

Yanqi is learnt to be keen on extracting a promise from leaders of the anti-Oli faction within the NCP that if Oli is replaced, his pro-China policies will not be overturned. And in their keenness to see Oli go, these NCP leaders are not at all averse to holding out such a promise.

As for Dahal, even though he has so far refused to meet Yanqi despite the latter’s repeated requests for an appointment, he won’t hold back from making such a promise to China.“Dahal is ambitious and wants the PM’s post. When he realises that China will forsake Oli if it can be assured that its interests will be protected, Dahal will not hesitate to give such assurances,” said Poudel.

“China wants Oli as PM, but it is realising that keeping him in the PM’s chair will harm the NCP. If it is reassured that Nepal will continue with its pro-China policies even under another leader, Beijing will not have any second thoughts about dumping Oli. Right now, that is what the Chinese envoy is driving at,” said the NCP leader.

The truce that Hanqi wants to bring about now will thus be a very temporary one. Opposition to Oli is bound to resurface again soon, and China will not be interceding on Oli’s behalf then.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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