Nepal: Citizen's Needs Remain Sidelined as Turbulent Game of Politics Continues
The Nepal Communist Party, the current ruling party in Nepal, was formed in May 2018 shortly after the general elections of December 2017. The party was a joining of forces between the Maoist Centre led by Pushp Kamal Dahal and the Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) under K.P Sharma Oli.
The arrangement , essentially undertaken to achieve an overwhelming presence for the government in the Parliament , was supposed to lead to a complete merger of the two parties with their independent identities subsumed under the new party. As the UML had scored somewhat higher than the Maoist centre in the polls, an agreement had been arrived at that Oli would be the Prime Minister for half the term of the government and Dahal would take charge in the second half.
Oli took charge at a time when his health was already a matter of concern. He had had a kidney transplant twelve years ago when both his kidneys failed. But since taking over the Prime Ministership there have been further setbacks with the PM having undergone an appendectomy and eight rounds of dialysis since October 31 2019. Yet the PM had shown no inclination to honour the agreement that would have him hand over the Prime Ministership to Dahal. Oli's partymen claimed they had already indentified two donors to give him a kidney.
Over the past year Dahal had begun to realise that Oli had no intention of handing over power to him. On numerous occasions he had emphasized the terms of the agreement in order to force Oli's hand. Unhappy with his lack of responsibility about party matters, which were controlled by Oli, Dahal had utilized Oli's absence from the country to cultivate Bamdev Gautam who had been instrumental in arranging the merger of the UML and Maoist Centre and Madhav Nepal an important player in the UML. In the NCP, two of the three factions-led by Oli, Dahal and Nepal-getting close together meant a distinct threat to the third faction.
In order to neutralize the potential threat from Dahal, Oli too had been cultivating his long term rival Madhav Nepal. He had also moved to make Gautam Vice- Chairman by amending the statute of the party- a move of an individual's unwarranted elevation not to the liking of many of the leaders. Some reports suggested that both Dahal and Oli-seeking Gautam's support -were willing to get him a place in the National Assembly by appointment him to the Upper House of parliament.
Gautam's own thoughts were expressed in a media interview where he said that he would become prime minister if "the country needs me" and, since the Constitution only allowed a member of the House of Representatives to become the prime minister-which he was not-he suggested that the party should be willing to move an amendment to the Constitution.
Dahal's constant references to the agreement for rotation of the Prime Ministership had led Oli to work out a compromise. After well publicized discussions between the two leaders, it was reported that an agreement had been arrived at under which Oli had agreed to let Dahal head the party organization while he remained PM. Dahal's supporters claimed that the arrangement suited Dahal as he had been able to extract whatever he wanted-an executive chairman's role- and would use that as launch pad to becoming a leader with the sole authority.
But the going for Dahal was unlikely to be easy. While he had told the media that all the confusion had been cleared as there was now a clear division of work between the two co-chairs, PM Oil in a media interview had downplayed the importance of Dahal's new status. He had told the Kantipur TV that the NCP had two Chairmen but that he was the one leading it. Dahal's ambitions to become PM were also likely to be thwarted by leaders, especially those with a UML background, who could hesitate to accept Dahal as the sole chairman unless he was elected through a convention.
Given the rivalries between the two partners it was not surprising that more than one and a half years after the creation of the NCP the constituents were still struggling to complete the unification process.
The formation of the politburo, a crucial committee in any communist party, was significant part of party unification. More than 40 central committee members had demanded about a year ago that the politburo be formed immediately. But the standing committee of the party failed to properly discuss the agenda. The 45 member standing committee had so far been the sole decision making body in the one and half year old NCP.
A meeting of the standing committee was held this month but ended without taking decisions on major issues such as the party's political ideology, the formation of its politburo, making the secretariat and other party committees inclusive, etc etc.
Executive co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal told the meeting that opening discussions on the party's political ideology could create problems. So discussions would only be opened before the party's national convention. The party had scheduled a meeting of its central committee for January 8, 2020 but there was little optimism that proper discussions could take place in the 445-strong committee, because of the paucity of time, before taking decisions.
Oli has been accused of acting in an authoritiarian manner. In additional to seeking to control the media, his government had also sought to issue an ordinance to amend the provisions of the Constitutional Council (Functions, Duties, Powers and Procedures) Act-2010 so that decisions could be taken on the basis of a simple majority, as opposed to a consensus.
The Council has the mandate to recommend the chief justice, along with ambassadors and chairpersons and officials for various constitutional bodies. The proposal drew immediate criticism with legal and constitutional experts terming it an attempt to undermine the parliamentary system and bypass the House of Representatives when it was in recess. Oli backed off and the ordinance is yet to be cleared by the President.
Recently the Oli administration relieved the governors of all seven provinces of their duties. A Cabinet meeting took the decision to remove the governors, all seven of whom had been appointed by the Sher Bahadur Deuba administration in January 2018. Kundan Aryal, Oli's press advisor, said that the Cabinet decided to remove the governors because the Deuba government had appointed them in an "irrational manner".
Politics in Nepal remains turbulent. The latest development was the resignation of Samajbadi Party leader Upendra Yadav who held the post of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Law. He cited PM Oli's refusal to accept his proposal on constitutional amendments, as the reason for his decision.
The Samajbadi Party had been formed together by former PM Baburam Bhattarai's Naya Shakti Party and Upendra Yadav's Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum Nepal with Bhattarai the Chair of the Federal Council and Yadav the Executive Committee Chairperson.
In 2015 the new Constitution of Nepal had been promulgated despite massive protests in the districts along the southern plains as the Madhesis, Janajatis and other marginalised communities felt excluded by some of the provisions of the constitution. For the past four years nothing had been done to meet the aspirations of identity-based parties and groups that wanted inclusive and proportional representation in politics and state bodies.
The Rashtriya Janata Party- a grouping of six Madhes based parties- along with the Samajbadi Party had joined the NPC Oli led government to assure it of a two third majority in Parliament. The RJP withdrew from the government in March 2019 and had proposed a merger with the Samajbadi party to fight jointly for the constitutional amendments. The merger did not fructify because of the reluctance of the Samajbadi Party to quit the government. Reports said that while Bhattarai was supportive of an early exit from the government Yadav had been reluctant.
Interestingly however the RJP had now entered into an electoral alliance with the NCP to preserve its two seats in the forthcoming National Assembly Elections. The move which commentators said was not in the interests of the Madhesis, could however create pressure on the Samajbadi party to expedite the merger with the RJP on which it had been dragging its heels. Yadav's resignation and the Samajbadi's withdrawal from the government, which the RJP had been demanding as a prerequisite for the merger, had now taken place-but now it was the turn of the RJP to deliver-to keep the new electoral alliance with the NCP or to back off and go ahead with the merger with the Samajbadi Party.
According to Bhattarai's public comments Nepal had entered a new era after the civil struggle and there was need for a new ideology that went beyond capitalism and communism. Calling the Nepali Congress a capitalist party, Bhattarai said the Samajbadi party was so named because its vision was socialism based on inclusive and participatory democracy. He said the Samajbadi party believed not in indirect democracy but direct election of the President by the people.
Netra Bikram Chand's Communist Party of Nepal had been declared a terrorist outfit in March 2019 following incidents of bomb blasts. Yet Oli had invited Chand for talks which did not fructify because Chand's demands that included lifting of the ban on his party's activities, release of its leaders and cadres, and possibly a "respectable position" in the Secretariat besides portfolios in the government, were not acceptable. Over the months hundreds of Chand party leaders and cadres had been arrested with his brother included in the latest police action.
Meanwhile Sher Bahadur Deuba was facing problems from rivals within the Nepali Congress. The factions led by Poudel and Krishna Prasad Sitaula had been demanding that the party president come up with a clear plan for the 14th general convention; halt the formation of 41 departments; and resolve the long-standing dispute between the Nepal Tarun Dal and Nepal Student Union. Party members had been accusing Deuba of running the party unilaterally and of ineffective leadership in Parliament.
Deuba's intention to extend the terms of all elected party bodies by one year, after their expiry in March 2020 as per the party charter, had not found favour with Poudel who wanted the convention to be held, if necessary by extending the terms only for the duration between the date of expiry and the holding of the convention and not necessarily for one year. He had also expressed concern about the growing authority being exercised by Deuba's faction. Deuba had despatched loyalists to talk to Poudel and also visited the latter's residence. The discussions eventually led to Poudel agreeing to allow Deuba to form the 41 departments provided he presented a proper roadmap for holding the next convention of the party. A similar demand was made by Sitaula.
Given the preoccupation with power and politics effective governance often becomes the casualty-used not to serve the people but to serve the leaders. In Nepal those who suffererd during the civil war remain one of the most aggrieved segments of society.
Successive Nepalese governments have faced criticism domestically and from international human rights organisations for their failure to redress the suffering of the victims of the civil war. Human Rights bodies have said that Nepal has made no tangible progress in delivering justice, truth and reparations to the victims. They have maintained that impunity for the culprits and denial of access to justice for the victims have not been tackled.
One of the crucial items on the agenda of 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was the conclusion of the transitional justice process it was never treated as a priority. In 2015 the Supreme Court had directed that the Transitional Justice Act be amended to make it consistent with international human rights standards. The court had struck down almost a dozen provisions and declared that the government should ensure that no amnesty is awarded in cases of serious human rights violations committed during the decade-long insurgency. The government has still not started the amendment process.
The selection of the teams for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons has also been controversial. The National Human Rights Commission has said there should be no political intervention in the selection of the new teams and the recommendation committee must ensure impartiality, fairness and transparency in the selection process.
Recently Pushpa Kamal Dahal had proposed setting up a political mechanism-a body with leaders from the ruling and opposition parties-to support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons. At the recent Nepal Communist Party's Standing Committee meeting, Dahal argued that forming the body was necessary for concluding the process that has dragged on for over a decade. The idea about forming a credible high-level mechanism, represented by all concerned parties of the peace process, was floated by the Conflict Victims Common Platform in November last year which felt that the new body would help in finding ways to conclude the Transitional Justice process in a credible manner.
But representatives of the victims were against the idea of a process that would work under political influence. Suman Adhikari, former chairman of the platform, told the media that they had not proposed a mechanism that would intervene in the work of the commissions. He said they wanted a mechanism that would decide the course of the transitional justice process before the leadership of the commissions was appointed. Ram Bhandari, an adviser to the Conflict Victims National Network said the hidden interest in the political mechanism was to drive the transitional justice process the way the parties wanted and this was unacceptable as there would be no credibility to the process.
Each of the commissions has a five-member team led by a chairperson with four members. The last lot of chairpersons and members were removed in April 2019. A committee formed under Justice Om Prakash Sharma in March to select new sets of officials took eight months to come up with names as the political parties jostled to get their own men in the commissions. But not surprisingly the list of names included those who had been members earlier. The political parties finally agreed to appoint Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba's choice, Ganesh Datta Bhatta, an associate professor at Nepal Law Campus, to lead the Truth Commission. The political parties, however, did not want to change officials in the Commission On The Disappeared, under Lokendra Mallick.
Nearly 57 people, mostly with law and human rights backgrounds, were said to had applied for the posts of chairpersons and members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons. But two of the applicants withdrew their names when the list of shortlisted people was made public, charging political interference in the selection process- a charge that victim's representatives had also been making about the entire process.
In a joint statement the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International had also expressed concerns over the appointment of the chairpersons and members in the transitional justice commissions without making necessary reforms in the legal framework.
In the educational sector the government had taken a position favourable to for -profit schools. A High-Level National Education Commission was set up last year and in its 500 page report to the Prime Minister the commission said that leaving private educators to "generate profit", as they are doing at present, would be tantamount to a breach of the constitution. But in the Government's public release of the new education policy it was clear that almost all of the commission's recommendations had been ignored including its suggestion that private schools be transformed from the 'for-profit' to 'not-for-profit' model.
Nepal's foreign affairs remained largely dominated by India, China and the U.S.A. A spat occurred when India released its new map showing Kalapani within Indian borders. There were demarches and protests at what Nepal considered an encroachment of its territory by India. A response to Nepal's protests had come from the Indian government reiterating the accuracy of the map but agreeing to hold talks about the issue. Nepal had asked for Foreign Secretary level talks. Kalapni had provided fodder for critics of PM Oli with the opposition Nepali Congress and a section of the ruling Nepal Communist Party expressing dissatisfaction with the government for not doing enough to ensure talks with India.
With China a new dimension to the bilateral cooperation appeared to have emerged after the last two day visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was announced that Nepal and China were set to sign a fresh agreement worth 150 million RMB (approximately Rs 2.5 billion) for military aid to the Nepal Army. Beijing had extended a similar kind of military assistance to the national defence force in October last year but this was the first time that China had pledged back-to-back annual military support to the Nepal Army. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Ishwar Pokhrel went to China to sign the deal after a Cabinet decision. Interestingly Brigadier General Bigyan Dev Pandey, spokesperson for the Army, told the media that he did not have any idea about the new agreement to be signed with China.
With the U.S.A Nepal's membership in the United States' State Partnership Program under the Indo-Pacific Strategy continued to give rise to conflicting statements. In the first week of June 2019, the US Department of Defense released an Indo-Pacific Strategy report that categorically mentioned that the United States was seeking to "expand" its defence relationship with Nepal under the State Partnership Program in the Indo-Pacific and that Nepal.
The programme primarily focuses on disaster response, aviation safety and operations, leadership development, military medical fields, and cyber defence. Its objectives include meeting US national security goals while maintaining relationships with some of the U.S.A's staunchest allies and partners "in every corner of the world." Kathmandu had denied that it had agreed to be part of the programme participation in which many in the ruling dispensation believed was directed to contain China and the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative to which Nepal is a signatory.
But during a recent visit to Nepal US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver was told by Defence Minister Pokharel that Nepal was positively considering becoming part of the Partnership Programme under the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
The hiccups in foreign policy articulation had been criticised by commentators as indicative of the Oli Government's many shortcomings.
Oli's health will remain an issue of major concern as it would affect the structure of Nepal's polity. In the meantime the process of various mergers and breakups would continue even as the ordinary citizens watch from the sidelines and wonder when the leaders will have time to pay attention to attention to the people's needs.