Back in the House

Sher Bahadur Deuba will need to hit ground running. Delhi must keep its expectations of Nepal’s new PM low.

One knot in Nepal’s political conflict has been untied with the country’s Supreme Court reinstating Parliament, and not just that, appointing Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba as the prime minister. The ruling is a setback to the ambitions of Khadga Prasad Oli, who has been at the centre of controversial decisions ever since his government lost the majority last December, when he dissolved Parliament and called for elections. When the Supreme Court reinstated the Nepal assembly, and Oli was unable to prove his majority on the floor of the House, President Bidya Devi Bhandari made an openly partisan move by dissolving parliament once again, announcing elections in November as Oli had wanted, and putting him in charge as prime minister. Given her apparent preference for Oli, it was hardly surprising that she declined to entertain Deuba’s claim to form the government with the backing of 149 parliamentarians in the 275-strong House. The Supreme Court has taken a dim view of the actions of both Bhandari and Oli.

Deuba, who has been sworn in as the prime minister as per the directions of the court, will need to prove his majority in parliament within 30 days. It is unclear if the 146 parliamentarians who filed a writ in the Supreme Court against the House dissolution continue to support him. The uncertainty could well continue. No stranger in Delhi, Deuba, who has served as prime minister four times before, and the Nepali Congress, have been traditional allies of the Indian political establishment. In a situation in which India finds itself on high alert against the Chinese Army at the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh, having a friend in Kathmandu certainly helps.

Deuba’s last visit to Delhi was in 2017, after he had been sworn in as PM. He was in office for a period of nine months at the time until the 2018 elections saw Oli make a big comeback. Delhi would be wise not to hype up this friendship or have unrealistic expectations of Nepal’s new PM. No politician in Nepal can afford to be seen as close to Delhi. No government in Kathmandu, however friendly with India, can afford to turn its back on China, which is funding a slew of infrastructure projects in the country. It is heartening that the Supreme Court’s appointment of Deuba as the prime minister has left little room for “foreign hand” theories. The instability since last December saw Nepal’s political leadership pay little attention to the pandemic and its management. The country was also badly affected by the second wave that left India devastated. Though the number of daily cases has come down now, Nepal is short of vaccinations and is struggling to get its tourism industry, a mainstay of its economy, up on its feet. Deuba will need to hit the ground running.

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