As Left alliance sweeps Nepal polls, a look at the rise of KP Oli

India would do well to accept the political reality of a democratic Nepal.

 |  8-minute read |   14-12-2017
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Nepal's Left alliance - between KP Oli-led Communist Party of Nepal (UML) and Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda's Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) - is all set to form the next government in Kathmandu. It has won two-thirds seats (or more than 200 out of 275) in the General Elections in Nepal. The alliance is also set to form the first ever governments in six out of seven provinces.

This is a turning point in the history of not just Nepal, but of Asia too. Nowhere across the continent, the communists have come to power through parliamentary elections. In a country like India, they have had formed governments in states, but winning power at the Centre has remained a dream.

Hence, it is a healthy sign of democracy taking roots in the continent. This may also set an example for the other communist parties of the region wanting to come to power by other means. The "architect" of this "takeover" is none other than Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, popularly known as KP Oli.

As the 38th prime minister of Nepal from October 2015 to July 2016, Oli firmly established himself as an uncompromising nationalist leader. In his short stint of nine months, Oli hurt Indian interests like no other leader could in the past 70 years. By signing agreements and MoUs with China, he ended India’s monopoly, on paper at least, in fuel and goods import in the country. For people of Nepal, this was a big psychological victory over an "ever-dominating" India.

In July last year, India was able to win the trust of Prachanda even as he decided to withdraw support from the Oli government. This led to Oli's ouster. A year later, Oli is again staring at India with his trademark snobbish smile. He is set to become the prime minister yet again, this time with even greater numbers and absolute majority.

Oli is the new reality of Nepal. India would do well to accept the political reality of a democratic Nepal. Also, Oli is a sort of a guarantee that Nepal will remain a democratic country in future. Unlike other communist leaders of the region, Oli is a staunch supporter of the democratic system.

Who is Oli?

A few days before Oli was to visit India in February 2016 as the prime minister of Nepal, a delegation of Left leaders led by a senior communist leader Mohan Baidya "Kiran" went to meet him with a request to scrap the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty with India, which they believed made India the dominant partner in the relationship.

Oli had become the prime minister just five months ago in the backdrop of India’s economic blockade on the country. Medicine and fuel had become rare, and black marketeering became a new career option for the people of the Indo-Nepal border, who otherwise migrated in herds to Delhi and Mumbai.

In those five months, India’s "yes man" Oli had metamorphosed into the tallest nationalist leader, leading Nepal’s battle for sovereignty and self-respect. Going by the public sentiment, his government started signing treaties with China in a tit-for-tat move. Even in the United Nations, Nepal was unusually vocal about Indian intervention in its internal matter.

To the Indians, who had never seen such boldness from a Nepalese leader, Oli gave another shock by announcing his unwillingness to visit India unless it ended the restrictions along the border.

The visiting Left leaders were hoping that Oli would take his nationalist stance further by nullifying the Peace and Friendship Treaty. The answer that he gave to these leaders is now a political folklore and also indicative of who this leader really is. Oli instead sang a folksong, he said was from his constituency:

  • कांचो सुंतला
  • न खांदै यस्‍तो छ
  • खाए कुन चाल" 

(They are jumpy even before I have taken a bite of the raw orange. What would they do if I decide to actually eat it?)

Oli is a blend of razor-sharp wit, lacerative one-liners, rhetoric and, most importantly, pragmatism. Inside and outside his party circle, he is seen as a leader with an acute analytical mind. He is one of the few communist leaders of Nepal who understood the nuances of the parliamentary system from the beginning: what slogans work and what people expect.

Sample this: “We ourselves will buy a ship and bring goods into the country within three days. Ships flying the Nepali flag will sail in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.” Once sidelined in the party for being too hard on the Maoists, Oli is now the most sought-after leader by the Maoists themselves. While the hardcore Maoists love him for his anti-India theatrics, softer ones seek votes in his name.


Commitment to democracy

Unlike most communist leaders of Nepal, Oli has always remained committed to democracy. Even as a new entrant to the Communist Party of Nepal, he was very vocal against the party’s line of Naxal-like armed rebellion in 1971. But once the party crossed the line, he remained committed to it and worked with full rigour to make it successful.

As Milan Pandey, his Nom de guerre, he organised underground meetings and party programmes. For his subversive activities against the then Panchayati system, he was caught and jailed in 1973. He remained in jail for the next 14 years. All this while never did he once believe that the communist dictatorship was workable in landlocked Nepal.

With the rise of Madan Bhandari in the party, Oli too rose in rank and file. He became a die-hard supporter of Bhandari’s Jantako Bahudaliye Janwaad or "people’s multi-party democracy." In 1994, when the first communist government was formed in Nepal, Oli, for his proven commitment to democracy, was tasked with the home ministry.

Once he remarked, referring to the Maoists’ ambition of the Communist takeover, that to think of such dictatorship is like wanting to go to America in a bullock cart. Even when his party split in 1998, Oli remained firmly with the multi-party democracy line and discarded CP Mainali’s ultra-Left line.

Oli’s nationalism

When Oli became the 38th prime minister of Nepal in 2015, the people in the plains of Nepal were agitating. They were angry, and justly so, for not being represented well in the new Constitution. Almost every day one heard news of police firing. To add to this, India’s economic blockade along the border led to an extreme shortage of necessary goods, including life-saving medicines and fuel.

India was of the view that economic hardship would turn the people against the government, forcing an early agreement between the government and the agitating Madhesi people. Instead, Oli made his stand harder and turned the issue on its head, giving it a nationalist flavour. Many believe that his jingoism irrevocably damaged the social fabric and widened the plains-hill divide. But as one who follows the Indian prime minister on Twitter, Oli knew that in democracy divide brings dividends.

Oli didn’t stop there. He went a step further and signed multiple agreements and MoUs with China, including an agreement on using China’s seaport facility, which as Oli himself described, would end the dependence on a single country for trade and transit.

To counter the growing Chinese influence in South Asia, India for long had been doing everything it could to improve and strengthen its relationship with the neighboring countries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made it a personal issue and was trying hard to accelerate the process.

But within months, Oli undid all those efforts and made Modi the most hated Indian leader in the recent history of Nepal. This compelled India to form the Eminent Persons’ Group to review the past treaties between the two countries. By February that year, India lifted the blockade and stopped being seen as supportive of Madhesi agitation. When he finally visited India, Oli was accorded a welcome of a victor. But his relationship was damaged with India, maybe, forever.

Soon after the visit, political maneuverings to ouster Oli from the post began in India. Prachand’s most trusted aide KB Mahara flew to India and held several unofficial meetings with Indian think-tanks. Later Oli blamed then Nepali ambassador Deep Kumar Upadhyay for breaching his brief by facilitating the meetings and sacked him from the post. The cabinet under him even cancelled the official visit of president Bidhya Devi Bhandari to India.

In July, CPN Maoist Centre leader Prachanda tabled a no-confidence motion in Parliament against the Oli government. Prachanda accused Oli of being a feudal nationalist, one who has no respect for the minorities of the country. Before tendering his resignation, Oli refuted these allegations in his trademark eloquence. He had said:

“It is my firm belief that the countries may be small or large based on their territory and population, and they may be developed or under-developed. However, sovereignty is always equal. Is it "feudal nationalism" to say that sovereignty is not small or large? If it is a feudal nationalism to say that Nepal has rights to determine its independent foreign relations and to maintain balanced relations with all the friendly nations in the capacity of a sovereign nation, then there is no room for reason. But my question is, in which direction are you pushing the country for the sake of protesting against ‘feudal nationalism’?... Is it elitist and feudal nationalism to talk of Nepal’s national honour, independence, interests, sovereignty and freedom? Then what is the definition of nationalism? What is the nationalism of workers and peasants?"

Today he is back at the helm and the Indian media, as ever, is busy speculating his next move. Instead, it should help its leadership retrospect their past wrongs and how accepting Nepal as a sovereign nation could be the first step in that direction.

Also read: My spineless country murdered Gauri Lankesh in cold blood


Vishnu Sharma Vishnu Sharma @hellovishnu.

Journalist based in New Delhi.

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