With deal sealed, Oli claims pole position

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KATHMANDU, JUN 10 – The landmark agreement on an eight-province federal model reached on Monday was possible because of CPN-UML Chairman KP Sharma Oli, who was the most inflexible on increasing the number of provinces, in a sharp departure from a maximum six that he long held on to.

This has effectively established Oli as perhaps the most influential leader in current-day politics. Oli, who had decided to go for the eight-province model against the party’s formal decision to accept a maximum of six provinces, convinced the party leaders and took UCPN (Maoist) and a section of Madhesi leaders advocating identity-based federalism into confidence by holding rounds of informal meetings.

Except former party chairman Madhav Kumar Nepal, no leaders have so far opposed the agreement that was reached among the major political parties. Nepal had asked Oli not to agree on eight provinces. “It was not a protest. Instead, it was a gentle reminder that the party had set six provinces as its bottom line,” said the party’s Deputy General Secretary Ghanshyam Bhusal, a leader close to Nepal. “But he [Oli] did it.”

In recent days, Oli, according to UML leaders, has become so dominant in the party that he can overrule decisions. His influence also goes beyond the party.

A handful of leaders including Nepal and Bhusal, who are not convinced with the decision to increase the number of provinces from the party’s previous stance, are not speaking out publicly. Additionally, they say Oli’s influence in the political spectrum will grow in the future. “His influence is already dominant in politics. I reckon it will expand further in the days to come as it seems the recent deal was made to pave his future course [ambition for prime minister],” said Bhusal.

Insiders say Oli was under pressure mainly after he raised the issue of national government at cross-party negotiations for what he said making service delivery effective and rebuilding the quake-ravaged country. Senior coalition partner Nepali Congress was hesitant to clear way for a consensus government without promulgating the constitution first.

On the other hand, Oli–who even mulled over withdrawing support to the government led by NC President Sushil Koirala–was not sure whether he could garner support to form a new government. He was not willing to choose this option also due to an agreement reached with the NC in February last year.

Based on his aides’ suggestions that an immediate replacement of the government or unplugging support to it could further complicate the national crisis, Oli faced the probable fallout of accepting more provinces than his party proposed.

“Since the devastating earthquake, he had been focusing on how to complete the constitution writing process in order to put together a national consensus government for rebuilding. And he really demonstrated statesmanship this time,” said Pradeep Gyawali, one of Oli’s aides.

The UML has also acknowledged main opposition UCPN (Maoist)’s support in resolving key constitutional disputes. Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who led the 30-party alliance that pressed for finalising the borders of provinces and naming them on the basis of ethnic identity, agreed to the federal model. “Indeed, Prachandaji also took a daring step by agreeing to resolve the names and borders of provinces later,” said Gyawali.

Oli, who was criticised for not playing an active role during the 2006 People’s Movement, was not taken seriously in politics until he was elected lawmaker from his home town Jhapa during the second Constituent Assembly elections in 2013. Immediately after, he was elected the UML Parliamentary Party leader defeating sitting party chairman Jhala Nath Khanal who enjoyed full backing of former party chief Madhav Kumar Nepal. Later, he contested for party chairmanship against Nepal, who had led the party for 15 years, and edged him in the race.

Oli supporters say he will get the prime ministerial berth with the promulgation of the new constitution. The Maoists have already expressed their readiness to join an Oli-led government and the NC had agreed to extend its support to the second largest party, UML, in forming the government once the task of constitution writing is over.

Suspicions are rife whether an extremely rigid Oli continues to enjoy the support of his loyals. But his supporters say he can manage their aspirations. “That will not be a problem for a leader like Oli. He can handle such minor issues,” said UML Secretary Prithivi Subba Gurung.