Monday, January 30, 2023

Interesting (geo)political moves for next President of Nepal

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It appears that Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal "Prachanda" is both elated and worried with the overwhelming vote of confidence in the parliament.

Observers have been dissecting the motive behind Nepali Congress (NC)'s flouting of parliamentary norms by supporting Prachanda at the last moment. One explanation is that NC is angling at the post of President as a redress for the loss of all plum posts after the break up with Prachanda.

Presidentship in Nepal is constitutionally ceremonial but the last decade and a half has shown that the president can act like an executive. Ram Baran Yadav's intervention in Rookmangad Katuwal sacking episode and Bidya Devi Bhandari's moves favouring the then PM KP Sharma Oli serve as vivid examples.

Therefore, NC envisions that another rubber-stamp candidate in thrall of  Oli becoming the president will prove detrimental in the long run. NC is hoping that providing of support to Prachanda will inspire the latter to consider presidentship for a Congress leader.

But there are difficulties for Prachanda to yield to NC's desires. Hitherto, Prachanda was right to have grievances against NC for failing to honour gentlemen's agreement to make him the PM for the first tenure. He took the correct decision in embracing Oli after finding that NC was not willing to consider him for PM right away. Now that he has become PM with support from UML and other parties, he cannot part ways with Oli to please NC. Supporting presidentship for NC will prove that Prachanda is a highly unstable character and irreparably damage his credibility.

Presidentship in Nepal is constitutionally ceremonial but the last decade and a half has shown that the president can act like an executive.

So what? Prachanda has proved himself to be a fickle person in the past as well. Well, things are different this time. The future of his party CPN-Maoist Centre (MC) is in question. It seems that Prachanda wants to secure MC's future by allying and later merging with UML as both of them are communist parties. Backstabbing Oli at this critical juncture will spell doom for MC.

Changing dynamics in NC's internal politics contributes to Prachanda's hesitation. Even though Prachanda made an alliance with NC in the past after having serious differences with Oli, it was an unholy and unnatural alliance between ideologically polar opposite parties. That alliance became possible due to the camaraderie between Prachanda and NC President Sher Bahadur Deuba. But Deuba's political career is at the end and the new generation of NC leaders take a rigid stance against the Maoists. Prachanda knows that cordiality with NC in the long run is not possible.

This is the reason why Prachanda genuinely wants to continue with the current coalition. However, he is happy that he got a wriggle room after even NC gave him vote of confidence. NC's support means that Oli will not have sway over Prachanda. Now, it appears that Prachanda wants a candidate not beholden to Oli. Incumbent Member of Parliament Subash Chandra Nembang is the appropriate candidate in this scenario.

Nembang is deputy chairman of UML as well as a close confidante of Oli. But he is different from some other UML leaders who are in thrall of Oli and bow to his whims. Being a consummate legal expert, he delves into nuances of any political decision. It is said that he had mildly opposed Oli's decision to dissolve the parliament. If he becomes President, he would ask the government to reconsider any decision that may court controversy. Prachanda will be happy enough to work with him.

Besides Nembang, the names of Oli's loyalists like Keshav Badal and Satya Narayan Mandal are also being floated for Presidentship. But Prachanda may have reservations regarding these people for the reason stated above. Prachanda and others have learnt ample lessons from Bidya Bhandari's shenanigans in the past.

It is a bitter truth that only Nepali actors are not involved in making appointments to vital constitutional posts in the country. The meddlesome southern neighbour is also taking immense interest in the post of Presidentship. India was taken aback when incumbent Bhandari stopped the Citizenship Act from becoming law. Therefore, Indians want to have a Nepali President who doesn't go against their interests.

Sources say that India wants to have former Interim Prime Minister and Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi as the new President. Regmi is said to have become PM at that time surprising many on India's blessings. As soon as Regmi's name was floated for the post a month ago, some media outlets started publishing hatchet jobs against him. It is said that India was further resolute to have Regmi as President after that episode.

Second choice for India is to have an NC leader as President. Incumbent MP and senior leader Ram Chandra Paudel nurtures aspirations for the post. He was crestfallen when NC broke up with Prachanda.

Third and the least preferred choice as president is to have any UML leader not completely under Oli's control.

Third and the least preferred choice as president is to have any UML leader not completely under Oli's control. Nembang doesn't entirely fit the bill because during his tenure as the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly (CA) he was a staunch supporter of secularism. He is also alleged to have provided the Europeans unbridled access to the CA. The current Indian government does not have positive attitude towards secularism and it also does not like faraway actors have their say in Nepali politics.

Given this scenario, Oli may compromise with Prachanda on the name of Nembang because it would give him a point against India. Ideally, Oli would like to have an ultra-loyal person as President but his wish may not come true this time.

Regarding the post of vice-president, it is being said that veteran Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) leader and most senior MP Pashupati Shumsher JB Rana is a preferred candidate. Having Rana as vice-president will be a victory for arch-republican Prachanda as he will have monarchist leader holding a republican post.

It is also said that RPP parliamentarians and leaders are ganging up against Chairman Rajendra Lingden to pressure him to break up with Oli and the communist coalition. Awarding Rana with the post of vice-president may help in neutralising the dissenters.      

Published on 16 January 2023

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