Pratigaman: Weaponisation of a word

Bikash Sangraula

  • Read Time 9 min.

Lazy analysts have taken to use ‘regression’ as an easy tag for the actions of anyone one dislikes. In the latest instance, ‘pratigaman’ was weaponized against KP Oli. While the weapon did not work, its manufacturers and distributors should be required to answer certain questions.

When the Supreme Court on February 23 reinstated Parliament that Prime Minister KP Oli had dissolved on December 20, 2020 a gaggle of politicians and their agenda setters, agenda amplifiers, and agenda justifiers in the media, social media and civil society celebrated it as their decisive victory over Oli’s ‘pratigaman’ or ‘regression’ from democracy towards autocracy.

As far as they were concerned, the war against a ‘tyrant’, who just by coincidence is also the nation’s democratically elected prime minister and who still commands a majority in the House, had won. And so, the two supremos of the anti-Oli force fed each other laddoos in Chitwan while bottles of expensive single malt whiskey that have suddenly become quite affordable to some were emptied at ‘victory’ gatherings at private residences in Kathmandu. These were the same people who had for over two months, until that verdict, staged sponsored political and ‘civil society’ pantomimes on some of the streets and public venues in Kathmandu, and on complicit media platforms—among other things questioning the independence of the justices to give a fair verdict. As should never be forgotten, one senior-most civil stalwart even threatened the judges of a public lynching if they took decisions supporting Oli’s move. With the verdict, it seemed that all was forgiven and that the suspicions had never been entertained.

You will not find the political analysts having a second think, that perhaps Oli’s prescription of snap elections in April-May was the only democratic and parliamentary recourse, given that the numbers held by the three main parties (four after the subsequent Supreme Court decision) in Parliament just would not provide a stable government for the remaining two years of the parliamentary term. The Prime Minister is now in the ‘I-told-you-so’ position, given that those who had clamored for reinstatement of the Lower House were not able to, or did not want to, bring a no-confidence motion against him in the full two months before the House was prorogued on Monday. The political prescription of mid-term elections is now seen as an empirical necessity by the leaders of the main opposition Nepali Congress as well as the Janata Samajwadi Party, the third on the totem pole.

It is clear that the NC and JSP will do well if general elections were to be held, and the earlier the better. They would eat into the partial vacuum created by the chaos within the Nepal Communist Party, now broken up into the UML and MC. However, the internal dynamics within these two parties is keeping them from being very vocal about this—the opposition to Sher Bahadur Deuba within the NC would prefer party General Convention to unseat him rather than a general election that yields success to the party as a whole. Within the JSP, the Baburam Bhattarai and Upendra Yadav duo seeks to block the inclination of Mahanta Thakur and Rajendra Mahato for polls that would see their numbers rise in the new Parliament.

Alone against the electoral prescription is the Maoist Centre, which lacks the confidence to face the ballot given that it is seen by the public as merely a vehicle for its chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’). Dahal himself is personally wary of the polls because he can expect the party to win only in pockets in Rukum/Rolpa, and his own prospects are uncertain. It is known that in the first elections he won through electoral fraud and complicity of the Election Commission, and his second win was due to blackmail (there is a tape of him exhorting his Kirtipur constituency followers to use all measures from force to bribery to achieve victory).

What has happened and what we are seeing since the House was reinstated in February indicate that Oli’s intentions need not be questioned to the extent they were. It was certainly not pratigaman. It is thus time to either clean up the House though prevailing parliamentary process or go for early elections and fresh mandate.

While the mainstream media and particularly the broadsheets paint a picture of Dahal as a leader who holds the reins firmly, his own persona shows a level of panic as power and credibility slips from his grasp. And for this Dahal has only himself to blame—see for example how he worked to make his Maoist lieutenant Agni Sapkota the Speaker of the Lower House, and thereafter has been using him to sabotage the Government’s parliamentary agenda. It was Pushpa Kamal Dahal, insecure because of his past crimes and present pelf, who initiated and still fuels attacks on, and triggers tussles between, institutions of the young republic that just over three years ago got its first elected government under the new Constitution, which was written and overwhelmingly endorsed by people’s representatives just over five years ago.  When commentators point out the ongoing derailment of the parliamentary process, they fail to point out Dahal as the fount and trigger, to which the Prime Minister and others are forced to react as best as they can.

Events that have unfolded since the February 23 verdict have offered no evidence whatsoever that Oli’s decision to go for snap elections can be called ‘regression’. If anything, the regression was the attempt by the NCP stalwarts, through their moribund Secretariat, to control the Government, as if Nepal was a Stalinist state where a head-of-government is answerable to his party rather than to the legislature.

No victors

In the two months after that verdict, citizens have repeatedly heard from the anti-Oli clique that a new dispensation aimed at stopping Oli’s ‘tyrannical’ ambitions is imminent. In lack of both political foresight and the parliamentary strength to unseat Oli, the strategy of positing Oli as the nation’s chief enemy did not result in the groundswell of popular support the clique had hoped for. The public knew all too well to disregard the preparatory work done by the broadsheets on behalf of the Dahal agenda.

This clique, led by Dahal and aided by his UML proxy Madhav Kumar Nepal, can now be seen portraying these two as victims ‘rightfully’ fixated on revenge which was recently orchestrated in Karnali Province where four provincial lawmakers who represented UML crossed the floor.

Given the rug was pulled from beneath their feet by the Supreme Court decision that de-recognized the NCP, the two former prime ministers, who could not credibly blame the Court after having applauded it only two weeks earlier, are busy playing the victim card. That three former prime ministers arrayed against Oli (Dahal, Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal) can play the victim, and that the media will portray them as such even though the public barely buys it, can perhaps be tolerated only in South Asia’s most tolerant and liberal country, which Nepal is.

And quite incredible it is to note that Dahal is still carried by commentators and opinion-makers as the protector of democracy. As in the past, Dahal is given to suit his statement to his audience, but the impact is not the same as before because his political power and treasure chest are both diminished. Madhav Kumar Nepal is reduced to find a way to survive, with Dahal as senior partner. And so, he broke parliamentary precedence by asking four members of his UML faction to cross the floor to vote to save the provincial Karnali government of Chief Minister Mahendra Bahadur Shahi of Maoist Centre.

Meanwhile, some among the clique’s amplifiers in the media and civil society are busy offering up explanations as to why Oli’s ouster has been delayed. While they would be quite happy that the Chinese worked to keep Dahal’s power intact, they suggest darkly that it is Indians who have a hand in Oli’s survival in Government, which of course does not give any credit to the rank-and-file of the UML, including those who are not diehard Oli followers. There is no irony evident among the opinion makers, when they see Dahal and Nepal begging Deuba or Thakur to run the Government. In the meantime, the larger public seems quite sure of its own viewpoint, which is the necessity of mid-term elections, and the dissonance between the commentators beloved of the mainstream media editors and the public at large is clear even on a hazy day.

In these precarious times, when the nation is being lashed by a pandemic and facing earth-shaking geopolitical shifts, a fake ‘four-point agreement’ said to have been signed by the prime minister and R&AW chief Samanta Goel was recently ‘leaked’ to a gullible portal. The editor of said portal got away with a simple removal of the fake news, yet the episode does point to the need for the public to be on guard against prejudiced media. The same alertness is required as some miscreants seek to tribalize Nepal in the name of identity politics, something that was summarily rejected by Nepali voters in the second Constituent Assembly elections when the Maoists were demoted from the largest political party to a distant third.

A hijacked parliament  

Speaker Agni Sapkota, a murder-accused and a Dahal loyalist, held the reinstated Parliament hostage from Day 1 when he prevented the tabling of ordinances, among which was one seeking to significantly increase the penalty for acid attacks, a violence that leaves life-long scars. Ever since, Parliament was largely reduced to a place where silence was observed for deceased lawmakers.

The very important US $500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant gathers dust because Speaker Sapkota refuses to table the agreement for discussion and vote. Incidentally, the MCC agreement was signed after lengthy negotiations to ensure transparency and on-time work in transmission lines construction during the Nepali Congress-Maoist Centre government. Today, for no other reason than following the dictates of Dahal to make governance difficult for Oli, Sapkota sabotages the MCC project.

Photo: NL Today

Thanks to Sapkota’s complicity, Dahal is free to create as many hurdles as is possible in Parliament. When civil society and even international NGOs critique the Oli Government for using adhyadesh for appointments to constitutional bodies, including the National Human Rights Commission, they do not pause to consider that this was required because Sapkota would not allow it to happen through regular bills in Parliament.

Sapkota has shown singular lack of initiative to kick-start elections of the Deputy Speaker—under whose Chairmanship, incidentally, he can be impeached for surrendering the sanctity of his office to the private services of his party boss. The very reason Sapkota can get away with so much chicanery is that he reports to the Maoist supremo Dahal, and so many media leaders seem to be taking dictation from the same source.

Election decision  

While the court’s February 23 verdict told the Prime Minister that he had overstepped on December 20, it did not untie, and could not have untied, political knots that had accumulated in more than three years since general elections were held.

It was immediately after the unification between the UML and Maoist-Center in 2018 that the groundwork to oust Oli was started, with many handlers in media given the task of ridiculing the excessively loquacious Oli. After gnawing at the government from the inside for two years, when the constitutional moratorium on a no-confidence vote expired, the intended political coup, which was not backed by necessary numbers in Parliament, was unfurled publicly in the form of a no-confidence vote registered hours after the House dissolution and given a forged timing by Speaker Sapkota.

This and other efforts before and thereafter to oust Oli were instigated by non-parliamentary ambitions of Dahal and Nepal. It was supported by editors and commentators who were either already in Dahal’s court, or were energized by their distaste for Oli, so deep that they would hand over the keys to the country to the Maoist chieftain. But, as it is becoming clear, a dislike for someone is not reason enough to get rid of him as head-of-Government if you do not have the numbers to oust him. The moment they can garner the required number of MPs to oust the Prime Minister, they should certainly be welcomed to do so. In the meantime, will the editors and reporters who have so breathlessly reported on the imminent departure of Oli over the past few months self-evaluate their motives and professionalism? One can leave that question hanging there.

As things stand in the new year 2078, and coming on the last week of April 2021, Oli faces a hostile Speaker on the one hand, and a Parliament that cannot cobble together a coalition to unseat him on the other, no matter how many stories appear on the media parroting the Dahal-Nepal claims about imminent government collapse.  It thus becomes clear that Prime Minister Oli’s decision of calling snap elections was right for two reasons: one, there was no trust among the various large parties which showed the need for a new mandate from the people; and, two, the appointment of Agni Sapkota as Speaker in January last year meant that there was no way this Parliament would be able to function, whether it was reinstated or not.

What has happened and what we are seeing since the House was reinstated in February indicate that Oli’s intentions need not be questioned to the extent they were. It was certainly not pratigaman. It is thus time to either clean up the House though prevailing parliamentary process or go for early elections and fresh mandate.

What is pratigaman?

Pratigaman isa term that came into popular use during the coup of 2005 by King Gyanendra, when he jailed leaders and civil society activists, leading to a groundswell of public resistance that got termed the Second People’s Movement. Today, lazy analysts have taken to use ‘regression’ as an easy tag for the actions of anyone one dislikes. In the latest instance, ‘pratigaman’ was weaponized against KP Oli. While the weapon did not work, its manufacturers and distributors should be required to answer certain questions.

Isn’t returning to the pre-2018 era of revolving-door coalition governments, during which people made careers, pratigaman? In the clear absence of an alternative to the incumbent prime minister, isn’t the publicly visible efforts aimed solely at incapacitating the government and ridiculing or defaming the prime minister pratigaman? Isn’t the portrayal of Dahal as victim, given that he is the leader and architect of an armed insurgency that caused the deaths of over 17,000 people and set the national economy back by two decades, pratigaman?

The civil society wallahs who have a fetish for Pushpa Kamal Dahal need to answer to the public, which clearly does not think along the same lines as they do.

Bikash Sangraula is a Kathmandu-based journalist and author.