Former Nepalese Minister Matrika Yadav on India’s response to Oli’s “constitutional coup”

Violaine Martin / UNCTAD / Wikimedia Commons
26 February, 2021

On 20 December 2020, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli and Bidhya Devi Bhandari—the prime minister and president of Nepal, respectively—dissolved the country’s parliament, sparking a constitutional crisis. The leaders opposing the decision have claimed that Oli’s act is against the spirit of the Nepalese constitution whose 76th section only allows dissolution when all other options have been exhausted. They use the term “pratigaman,” or regression, for it. On 23 February 2021, the Supreme Court of Nepal overturned the dissolution of parliament. However, Oli’s allies have said he will not step down as Prime Minister, prolonging the constitutional crisis.

Following the first election under a new constitution that was ratified in 2015, Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), led by former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal—commonly called Prachanda—merged to form the Nepal Communist Party. The two parties had previously worked together in Janandolan 2, a movement to end the Nepali monarchy. However, the past three years have been marred by constant infighting in the NCP, primarily over Nepal’s relationship with India and Oli’s move to join the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The MCC is a bilateral foreign aid agreement with the United States which critics fear would lead to the loss of Nepali sovereignty. On 24 January 2021, the NCP, led by Prachanda, expelled Oli, calling his act unconstitutional.

On 4 February, a nationwide general strike was called by the NCP. Ever since, massive protests have erupted in Nepal. In a protest on that day in Janakpur, Nepalese police fired more than 15 rounds in air and used tear gas against the protesters. Matrika Prasad Yadav, the former minister for industry, commerce and supplies—who was made to step down from his post by Oli in November last year—was severely injured in the police action. He was flown to Kathmandu for treatment and arrived in Delhi on 15 February for his further treatment. Two days before the Supreme Court overturned the desolution, Vishnu Sharma, a Hindi translation fellow at The Caravan, spoke to Yadav about the ongoing political crisis, India’s position on it, Oli’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the MCC. “What I want India to remember is that it was Oli who was responsible for fanning the anti-India campaign in Nepal, when he first became prime minister,” Yadav said.

Vishnu Sharma: What is happening in Nepal?
Matrika Prasad Yadav: Currently, a coup has happened in Nepal against the achievements of the 2015 constitution. These achievements were the result of several long struggles, including the decade long People’s War, the Janandolan 2 and the Madheshi movement. Often, the people who rebel are those who are unsatisfied with a constitution, but here we have a situation where a government has done a coup.

There had been acts of such regression in the past too, the kings had done so, but now a prime minister, who is from a communist party is doing it. The current situation is extremely complex and it is an attack on the gains we have all made. It shouldn’t be seen simply as a question of elections [which will likely follow] the constitution itself is under fire. If the regression isn’t corrected, then the elections too will be unconstitutional.

VS: Why do you say that Oli’s act of dissolving parliament is unconstitutional? Doesn’t the constitution allow the president of Nepal to act on the recommendation of prime minister?
MY: It doesn’t. The president can only use the power given to him by the constitution. The president is also the defender of the constitution. In Nepal’s history, there has been a trend that very few governments functioned well. We have a history where rulers of majority governments have also been brought down. BP Koirala’s government which had a two-third majority [in parliament in 1959] was dissolved by King Mahendra in 1960. After which Koirala was arrested, the Panchayati Regime was imposed on people. [The Panchayati Regime refers to Nepal’s period of absolute monarchy before 1990, when political parties were banned.] The last King Gyandera also dismissed popular governments.

So, while we were preparing this constitution, we discussed this issue in length. That is why Section 76 of the constitution says very clearly that only in a situation where the possibility of forming a government ceases completely, then on the recommendation of the prime minster, the president will dissolve parliament. And this exercise ought to happen inside the parliament. When Oli dissolved the parliament, these constitutional provisions were not followed.

VS: What do you think Oli should have done instead of recommending the dissolution?
MY: Oli was in a minority in the party, but the party still enjoyed a majority in parliament. In every party, what happens is that first you try to convince members, and if there is no consensus, then you take a vote and follow what the majority says. Oli went ahead without facing the party. If he was so sure that that he had the majority then he should have faced it in the house. He dissolved the house without facing the party or the parliament.

EC has to decide on the claim of the party meaning which group is the rightful owner of the party. The EC should call the majority and ask which side it is. The matter should have been resolved by now but it is dragging it. It is said that to delay justice is to deny justice. They are speaking in a language which helps Oli.  

VS: Oli continued to argue that there will be an election. What is your position on a fresh election?
MY: We, too, aren’t against elections. What we all must remember here is that elections did happen under the Panchayati regime, but those were only held to solidify the Panchayat regime. And likewise, the elections Oli has declared are to destroy the constitution. This will set a precedent that anything can be done [to retain power] and it is not necessary to adhere to the constitution.

VS: Will there be a situation similar to the Janandolan against Oli, where there were widespread popular protests that overthrew a government?
MY: That depends on the people of Nepal. The kind of people’s participation we are witnessing [in the general strike and protests] shows that people are unhappy with Oli’s decision.

VS: Oli says that Prachanda’s faction did not allow him to work and that is why he had no option but to recommend the dissolution of Parliament. Is that accurate?
MY: We were fighting for the fulfillment of the election promises we had made. The government did nothing to help people during the COVID-19 crisis. The lockdown was imposed and Nepali migrants working in India were not allowed to return. Only after they got infected were they allowed to enter and thus the situation in Nepal deteriorated. Before that, those who tried to cross over to Nepal, some even had to do so by jumping in the Mahakali river [which forms a part of the border between India and Nepal] and were humiliated. When people reached home, they were not given any help. Who had stopped him from helping people? So, to say that he was not allowed to work is a blatant lie.

VS: Some people see that the infighting was the result of the contradictory ambitions of Prachanda and Oli. Is this true?
MY: It is very superficial to see it like that. That is simply what has been hyped. You have to see that Oli isn’t even a communist. In a party event, I asked big leaders how Oli became our leader. I said that he wasn’t more than a comedian. He isn’t a materialist even. He prays for hours at foundation stone-laying ceremonies. I had often said we should not do such things in public events.

VS: But didn’t you all choose him as your leader?
MY: I, as the member of then CPN (M), never gave my consent for him to be chosen. I didn’t even support the unification of the two parties. I was indeed in favour of a coalition government and not a merger. When we did decide to merge, it was agreed that Prachanda and Oli would lead the government in turns. [The agreement was that Oli would be prime minister for the first half of the five-year term, and Prachanda the second half.]

VS: Was it in writing?
MY: It was in writing, but Oli went back on the agreement. He was never even in favour of the constitution, but Prachanda offered him premiership so he agreed. Later, he was offered party unification, which he accepted on the condition that he be made the prime minister.

VS: The media has accused your faction of working at the behest of China, which does not want Nepal to ratify the MCC.
MY: I don’t think this is a grounded analysis. See, Nepal is a country situated between China and India. It is not good for it to go against any of the two countries. No one wants to be on bad terms with their neighbours. If you can remember, recently Indian media was saying Prachanda is with India and Oli is with China. Now, why has the same Indian media become close to Oli? I personally think that the Indian media is helping Oli. We don’t know who is telling it to support Oli, but it is indeed helping him by weakly criticising him while simultaneously keeping mum about his action.

VS: Several Nepali intellectuals and journalists have been saying that one of the reasons for the infighting is that one section wants the MCC for Nepal and other is against it. And since China too is against Nepal signing the MCC, the internal struggle is a reflection of the party’s stance on the China-America tussle as well. Wasn’t the MCC first proposed and signed when Sher Bahadur Deuba was the prime minister, between 2017 and 2018, and Prachanda’s party was his coalition partner? Why did Prachanda and others, after initially agreeing to it, start to oppose it?
MY: When we agreed on the MCC, then there was no provision in to get it ratified from the house. The agreement now is such that it will be above the Nepalese constitution and laws. It is here we don’t agree. When a country offers investment for the development of Nepal, we support it, but we don’t want to be a part of any alliance. We are not in favor of becoming a part of any militarily alliance. We believe in the policy of non-alliance. The MCC, if ratified as it stands today, research and other things done under it become the property of the United States. In case there is death in a project associated with the MCC, the Nepal government cannot file even a case.

VS: Do you believe it is like colonialism? Why does Oli want it while constantly presenting himself as a nationalist leader?
MY: Exactly. Oli isn’t a nationalist, he is a pseudo nationalist. Can there be a nation without people? Every act of a nation should in the interest of its people. Can one claim to be nationalist by only talking about territory and killing people? We want our leaders to be patriots. Oli is a person whose only agenda is to save his position. His only aim is to keep sitting on the chair, either by presenting himself as a nationalist or by becoming a broker for others.

VS: What do you expect from India?
MY: What I want India to remember is that it was Oli who was responsible for fanning the anti-India campaign in Nepal, when he first became prime minister [in 2015]. After Prachanda’s government came to power [in 2016] there was a dip in anti-India sentiment in Nepal. Again, the sentiment rose after Oli became the prime minister again [in 2018]. If India supports Oli, anti-India sentiment will again rise. It should not think that the regression in Nepal is an internal matter. If there is a conflict or unrest in Nepal, India will not remain unaffected by it.

VS: How is Oli’s working style? You have worked with him in the past. The last time you came to India you had told me that he was not interfering with the work of your ministry.
MY: He wants to make everyone his agent. If you do whatever he says, then he allows you do everything. But if you don’t, he doesn’t allow you to do anything. One has to do even unconstitutional things if he demands it. When I had said those words, things were different, but when I went back to Nepal, he gave me something to do which was not as per law, so I didn’t agree. I fought with him on the issue of an appointment for the industrial sector. He appointed a corrupt person without bothering to consult me. I blocked that appointment. Then, he was developing a big industrial zone in his constituency with Chinese funds. When he had become the prime minister for the first time, he himself had said that the land that was taken for it, it was done against the law. He wanted me to ratify the sanction of land, but I didn’t agree. I told him that as his minister I was his advisor too and I would not allow my prime minister to make mistakes. My experience is that in his cabinet there are no ministers, only his employees.

This interview has been edited and condensed.