Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has shunted out the country’s deputy PM Ishwar Pokhrel out of the defence ministry in Wednesday’s cabinet reshuffle, a move seen as an effort to reset ties with its giant neighbour India, people familiar with the matter said. As defence minister, Ishwar Pokhrel had been one of India’s sharpest critics in PM Oli’s cabinet.
The change of guard at the defence ministry – PM Oli will hold the charge of this portfolio – has been timed ahead of the Nepal visit of Indian Army Chief General MM Naravane on November 3.
Pokhrel has been attached to the Prime Minister’s Office, an assignment that Nepal media said, effectively means he will be a minister without portfolio.
Back in May this year when General Naravane had hinted at China’s role in Nepal’s shrill reaction to an 80-km road to Lipulekh built for pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet, Ishwar Pokhrel had sought to provoke Gurkha soldiers who have been an integral part of the Indian Army for decades.
Gen Naravane’s comment had “hurt the sentiments of the Nepali Gurkha army personnel who lay down their lives to protect India”, Pokhrel had said, claiming that Gurkha soldiers in the Indian army wouldn’t respect their superiors after Gen Naravane’s comment. There were other offensive remarks by the minister as well.
Nepal watchers say Pokhrel had recently also opposed General Naravane’s November 3 visit to the Himalayan country and wanted India to first sit across the table to discuss the boundary dispute between the two countries.
Pokhrel would often have run-ins with his own army chief General Purna Chandra Thapa as well. Gen Thapa, for one, had refused to play his game over the Lipulekh row when he declined to issue a statement. A report in the Kathmandu Post said General Thapa had also been upset about the minister dragging the armed forces in a row over the purchase of medical equipment to fight Covid-19.
Pokhrel, who was considered one of PM Oli’s most-trusted lieutenants, faced corruption charges in the procurement of medical equipment from China and has also been blamed for messing up Nepal’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. PM Oli had appointed him to lead the country’s high-level Covid-19 crisis management centre.
During his Nepal visit, General Naravane would be conferred the honorary rank of general of the Nepali Army by Nepal’s President Vidya Devi Bhandari in keeping with a long-standing convention between the armies of the two countries on a reciprocal basis. Nepal Army Chief Gen Thapa was conferred the honorary rank of general of the Indian army in January 2019.
PM Oli had laid the groundwork for his India outreach in August when he dialed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to greet him on the occasion of India’s 74th Independence Day. Last month, he stopped the distribution of a new text book that included the country’s revised political map that has riled India. The map shows three strategically-important Indian areas as part of its territory.