Political processes in Nepal are now increasingly being influenced by networks of greed.
We have witnessed dramatic political developments in the past few months. At the most simplistic level, we can see current politics as being driven by the conflict between Prime Minister KP Oli and his detractors within the former Nepal Communist Party. The Supreme Court's decisions have aided and abetted political dynamics. Who were once close allies are diverging; who were once hated enemies are converging.
Nepal's political parties, including Nepali Congress and Janata Samajwadi Party, are politically opposed to Oli. However, these parties appeared indecisive after the restoration of Parliament by the Supreme Court. Several factors were responsible for the indecision. The first was the fear that if they didn't control the process, then Oli would hold the next elections under his leadership.
However, the incidents also reveal far more significant trends and patterns, which indicate that we are entering a new phase of political dynamics. This new phase is remarkable for geostrategic rivalry, the growing power of the Nepali state, and the transition from the politics of greed and impunity to the politics of conflict and fear.
Fear and retribution
That politics is about greed for power and money has become a commonplace idea. Parties and politicians have been too willing to sacrifice the people at the altar of political power, their object of absolute faith.
Nepali politics has facilitated the rise of a kleptocratic network that cuts across all parties, the private sector and state institutions. To protect the network and its members, and to ensure impunity, the network has co-opted the state's core legal institutions, including the judiciary. The recent incidences of political conflict have revealed yet another dynamic to this feature. What happens when one group or individual is unwilling to share the spoils with other less powerful modules within the network?
Prime Minister KP Oli has single-handedly curtailed the influence of other political actors and asserted near-complete control over all institutions. In addition to preventing the access of other political actors to the machinery of extraction, he is also wielding the power of core state legal institutions like the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA).
What makes these dynamics even more significant is the growing powers of the state. Since the promulgation of a new constitution in 2015, the Nepali state has become much more powerful in terms of collecting taxes and in terms of security apparatuses. There have been significant upgrades in recent years regarding mechanisms of surveillance and policing. Part of this is due to Nepal's international obligations to the Asia Pacific Group on money laundering.
As a result, the state has much more control over individuals and institutions in Nepal. The case of the Netra Bikram Chand group's surrender to the government reveals the absence of space for extra-constitutional and illegal activities—unless such activities are supported by the state.
Since very few politicians in Nepal are clean, almost every politician, and a significant number of private sector actors, have suddenly become vulnerable to prosecution, especially in corruption cases. So what was once a feeling of impunity has now been replaced by fear. Because of what is at stake, most of the members of the kleptocratic network have no other option than to conform to the wishes of the ruling regime.
When the powers of the state are wielded by a person like the current prime minister, the fear of retribution becomes real. However, such fear also forces those excluded from power-sharing to come together and look for opportunities to topple the ruling regime. It makes them more desperate and willing to engage in conflict.
What remains missing from analyses is the role of international actors, because it is largely hidden. According to informed sources with direct knowledge of events, the parties and leaders wanted India's support in making moves against Oli. Such tacit encouragement did not come, and the parties were reluctant to act against Oli.
The series of events support at least two arguments. First, the government can influence electoral results—hence the desire to hold elections while in power. Second, political parties and leaders have a habit of relying on the support of foreign powers while making important political moves.
Foreign powers can provide many types of services. They can provide finance and others forms of support during elections. And, they can use their leverage, both within and outside Nepal, to enhance the status of leaders, facilitate benefits, or provide political protection in case of political or legal prosecution.
Another shift in strategy among the foreign powers is the realisation that they can no longer depend on the idea of permanent political allies and they have to work with whoever is in power. Such a shift in strategy is especially visible in the way foreign powers like China, India, and the US are conducting their diplomacy.
In the last 3-4 years, China made significant political investments in the sustainability and stability of the Nepal Communist Party, the 'nationalist' Nepali forces and Nepal's government, so that Nepal could become independent of India's influence. The strategy has failed because of the three-way splinter of the NCP that has made matters worse than before.
The three forces are now forced to contend with each others’ manoeuvres, happy to extract small victories rather than go for an ambitious end game.
Interestingly, the most significant areas of contention, at present, are pushing forward infrastructures of connectivity, extending reach in political parties, obliging and streamlining security apparatuses, and protecting operating space in the civil society.
What is missing from current trends in political analysis is the dynamics of fear and vulnerability as well as the hidden role of international actors. While analysing Nepali politics, we must now be able to account for the transition from politics of greed to politics of greed-based networks, the transition from politics of impunity to politics of fear, the transition from a weak state to a powerful state, and the evolving strategies of external forces.
This is an issue of significant concern for all political parties because being in government allows parties and leaders to extract money from the state, abuse authority, and prevail psychologically over voter interests.
Given the significance of international actors, the conflicts over access to mechanisms of corruption, and the unequal control of a state that is growing more powerful, we are likely to see growing conflict in the future. These factors are also going to fundamentally alter the way in which parties practice politics in Nepal.
Ajaya Bhadra Khanal is a research director at the Centre for Social Inclusion and Federalism.
This article was originally published on The Kathmandu Post. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.