New Nepal PM faces a daunting task

Nepal’s new Prime Minister Prachanda has got another chance to prove himself after his dismal performance as PM in 2008-09. This time, he began on a positive note by opening talks with fringe groups on charter changes to make them more inclusive. But for his political survival, he should take special care not to upset his government’s coalition partner Nepali Congress. He should also free himself from the Chinese embrace and act swiftly to smooth ruffled feathers in Delhi. At home, he has to address poverty, social inequality and build homes for thousands of quake-hit victims.

Seven years after his unceremonious exit, Pushpa Kamal Dahal – better known by his nom de guerre ‘Prachanda,’ meaning ‘the fierce one’ – is back in the saddle as Nepal’s prime minister.

Nepal's newly elected Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, waves towards the media after he was elected Nepal's 24th prime minister in 26 years, in Kathmandu

Nepal’s newly elected Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, waves towards the media after he was elected Nepal’s 24th prime minister in 26 years, in Kathmandu, Nepal, August 3, 2016. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

His second stint at the helm is unlikely to be any less challenging than the first.

Prachanda has taken over the reins at a crucial juncture in Nepal’s history. Among other things, public confidence in democratic institutions and politicians is at an all-time low and anger among marginalized groups over the exclusionary nature of the Nepali state remains high. Importantly, Nepal’s relations with India have deteriorated over the past year. Besides, the economy is in a mess.

How successful will the Maoist chief be in steering Nepal through these multiple challenges?

In 2008, Prachanda’s swearing in as Prime Minister was accompanied by great expectations and much optimism. Here was a leader who promised revolutionary changes in Nepal’s feudal society. An enigma to most Nepali people as he had spent many years underground, he was known to be a brilliant leader with remarkable skills in military strategy. The decade-long insurgency he led had played a decisive role in dismantling Nepal’s centuries-old monarchy.

Importantly, Prachanda transitioned from armed struggle to democratic politics. He led the Maoists to victory in the 2008 elections, propelling him to the prime minister’s post.

Eight years thereon, Prachanda’s swearing-in has prompted cynicism. The aura around him is gone. Eight years in Nepal’s political arena has made Prachanda just another politician in the eyes of the Nepali people.

Prachanda’s performance as prime minister in 2008-09 was dismal. He failed to deliver on his promises to address poverty, social inequality, etc, preoccupied as he was with battling old enemies. While he did possess remarkable leadership skills, these were in running a guerrilla army. Prachanda lacked experience in functioning within a democratic system and making decisions through discussion and consensus.

Has anything changed as Prachanda steps into the prime minister’s post again? His supporters argue that he has learnt from past mistakes and has acquired experience in democratic functioning. He will be more conciliatory in his approach and reach out to coalition partners, they insist.

He will need to for political survival.

Prachanda’s Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center (CPN-MC) holds just 82 seats in the 595-seat parliament and is dependent on the support of the Nepali Congress (NC), the largest party in parliament, and other parties. He cannot afford to ruffle the feathers of the NC in particular.

The Maoists have worked with the NC in the past, as in the Seven Party Alliance of 2006 that dismantled Nepal’s monarchy or more recently to topple the K P Sharma Oli government.

Still, their relationship has been defined more by hostility than co-operation. The two are polar opposites ideologically. Besides, it was an NC government under Sher Bahadur Deuba that bore the brunt of the Maoist insurgency. Few on both sides have forgotten or forgiven the bloodshed of the 1996-2006 period.

Will they be able to put aside their differences to work together now?

An agreement signed by Prachanda and NC chief Deuba should facilitate that. Under this deal, Prachanda will be prime minister for nine months and will conduct local elections. Deuba will be prime minister for nine months thereafter and will hold general elections in 2018.

This agreement notwithstanding, chances of the new government providing political stability are weak. Nepal is notorious for its revolving-door politics. Governments fall with shocking frequency. Politicians and parties form alliances and governments of various permutations and combinations only to break them when the scent of power beckons a new alliance.

Consider this: Prachanda is Nepal’s 39th Prime Minister, its 24th since it became a multiparty democracy in 1990 and the eighth since 2008.

The possibility of the NC or a new coalition of parties pulling the rug from under Prachanda’s feet in the coming months cannot be ruled out.

In addition to political survival, several issues require Prachanda’s attention.  Top of the list are the demands of Madhesi and Janjati groups.

In return for support for his government, Prachanda signed a three-point agreement with the Madhesi Front promising to implement its demands, including amending the Constitution to redraw provincial boundaries, according martyr status to those killed and providing free treatment to those injured during the Madhesi agitation last year.

Prachanda’s government has begun well by opening talks with Madhesi leaders. But whether it will be able to push through constitutional amendment to address Madhesi grievances is uncertain. Any changes to the Constitution will require the support of the ousted Communist Party of Nepal- United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML). It is unlikely to at this juncture given Prachanda’s role in the recent collapse of its government.

Prachanda also faces the daunting task of repairing relations with India. Oli’s stirring of anti-India sentiment in Nepal during the economic blockade at the height of the Madhesi agitation and his courting of China drew India’s ire, significantly weakening bilateral relations.

Prachanda will have to act swiftly to smooth ruffled feathers in Delhi.

He has a long history of troubled ties with India and is known for his strong anti-India positions. During his first stint as prime minister, Prachanda reached out to China repeatedly. But over the past year, Prachanda and India are said to have moved closer to each other.

With India anxious to draw Nepal away from China, and Prachanda keen to avoid past mistakes of riling India, the two can be expected to prioritize mending fences in the coming months.

It will require Prachanda to free himself from the Chinese embrace.

A successful second term as Nepal’s prime minister will require Prachanda to be more conciliatory and consultative in his approach. And importantly, he needs to be considerably skilled in walking the diplomatic tightrope between Nepal’s two giant neighbors – India and China.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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