The alliance of Nepali Congress, Maoist Center, Upendra Yadav-Baburam Bhattarai faction of Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal (JSPN), to some extent Madhav Kumar Nepal faction of CPN-UML, media at large and commentators are celebrating the downfall of K P Sharma Oli.
Something is missing in this euphoria.
There are commentaries portraying him as the biggest dictator the country had to bear with, in decades. Many are thinking as if the dark days of Nepali politics are over with the exit of probably the most arrogant leader we have seen post 2015.
Undoubtedly, there are strong reasons for this feeling. Oli never showed respect for the media and opinion makers. He would dismiss nearly everything critical of him as the result of ignorance of media men, their biases and prejudices. Media and the columnists, by nature, become critical of the government. The more Oli showed aversion toward public criticism, the more public criticism followed. He demanded that he be addressed with the honorific of tapain in writing and speech, and the media went ahead with common timi. The more he demanded respect, the less respectful he became.
Few months after his appointment in February, 2018, he began to exhibit an immense sense of hubris. He scorned everyone who did not agree with him. He began to deride intellectuals, treat constitutional council as if it was a sister organization of his party, defended the corruption-accused, and failed to manage the party: The Nepal Communist Party (NCP) could have been saved if he was conciliatory toward Pushpa Kamal Dahal; supposing that Dahal was too difficult to deal with, he could at least have saved CPN-UML unity. In Nepal’s ugly realpolitik, dissents can be managed by offering some ministerial portfolios. He insulted in deeply dehumanizing terms his own colleagues who could come to his rescue, he kept taking one after another unconstitutional move, that the court was overturning his unconstitutional move meant nothing for him. The list goes on.
For all these, he has already received enough criticism. Those follies have been well documented. Now he is gone. Nobody threw him out of power. He himself did.
How will Deuba fare?
For outsiders like me who understand politicians based on their public persona, speeches and gestures, there is no way of knowing how exactly they are as human beings but about Sher Bahadur Deuba and K P Oli certain things can be said, with certainty.
Deuba may not be as shrewd as Oli, nor is he as eloquent. But since Congress has historically been liberal on matters of civil liberties, the media will probably be freer now.
Deuba has become the PM for the fifth time by happenstance. He would not be there if not for Oli’s ambition of destroying the House to settle scores with his opponents and rivals. Only if he had learned a lesson from the February 23 Supreme Court verdict on the House dissolution, only if he had earnestly sought rapprochement with Madhav Nepal.
If Oli was facing geopolitical pressure, Deuba will face it too. If Oli was cozying up to China initially and later to India thereby messing up the balance, Deuba might fall into that trap too if he does not conduct himself carefully and wisely.
Deuba will look acceptable as long as Oli’s follies remain fresh in our memories. When it comes to corrupting the system, favoring near and dear ones in vital appointments, protecting the cadres even if they are accused or convicted of crimes, Deuba has not been any different in his previous terms. Let us not be fooled. In terms of governance, we may have to write similarly scathing criticisms against Deuba’s government a few months down the line.
Whether Deuba will be able to serve for the next one and half years is yet to become clear. By August 13, he will have to secure a vote of confidence from parliament, which is looking like a remote prospect after the announcement of Madhav Kumar Nepal to ditch the Congress alliance. If Madhav Nepal does not support him, Deuba then will have to dissolve parliament (saved two times by the Supreme Court) and announce fresh polls.
Supposing that Deuba will win the confidence vote, he will face probably the most formidable opposition. Oli should be grateful to Nepali Congress in the sense that Congress never presented itself as a violent disrupter in three years. Until December 20, 2020, one would wonder if there was Congress at all in opposition. As a matter of fact, Congress began to get suspicious about Oli after the first House dissolution. It actually heavily stood against Oli only after Oli dissolved the House for the second time on May 21.
Oli is going to pay back that leniency of Congress with sternness. He indicated that in his farewell address on Tuesday.
There may be one hundred reasons to criticize Oli but he has initiated some such things which his successors will have to carry over, whether they like it or not.
The biggest national initiative was the process of reclaiming the territories of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura. He may have done it as a political stunt, to divert the attention of the people from bad governance. Many good things in Nepali history have been the byproducts of the moves taken by the rulers to sustain their hold on to power.
But the remapping of the country was indeed a landmark moment for Nepal.
Oli was already being accused of ‘secretly’ compromising on the map issue to stay in power. People will keep asking him and his successors: What became of our land in the north-western frontier?
The attempt of opening up with China was a watershed in Nepal’s history. The transit and transport agreement with China and signing of its protocol may look like a granted proposition to us for now, for our relation with India is good and the 2015 blockade is fading away from our memories. But our posterity will surely look back to these times and the person who initiated the process for opening up, even if it is abandoned by others, when the country, god forbid, faces a similar kind of blockade in the future.
His handling of the secessionist threat in Tarai Madhesh and attempts to bring Netra Bikram Chand’s underground outfit into the mainstream also deserve to be mentioned.
Of course, in three years, Oli could have done much more to materialize the first two gains mentioned above. For example, he could have opened more road links with China. He paid no attention to this matter. He squandered the opportunity. Which is why Deuba will be expected to take it upon himself to continue the process.
Navigating the geopolitics
It’s easy to criticize the government from outside on its foreign affairs conduct but as the US-China cold war is intensifying, and as India and China stand on open confrontation with each other, one can imagine the challenges Nepal’s PMs, foreign ministers and Foreign Ministry officials face in handling the matters with India, China and the US—three of the largest powerful countries, which are Nepal’s friends and development partners as well, but which have their own competing interests in Nepal. A man without foresight and patience simply won’t be able to handle the tricky geopolitical balance.
If Oli was facing the geopolitical pressure, in whatever form that could be on whatever issues, Deuba is likely to face it too. If Oli was cozying up to China initially and later to India thereby messing up the balance, Deuba might fall into that trap too if he does not conduct himself carefully and wisely.
India has always regarded Nepali Congress as an ‘India-friendly’ political entity. In this characterization lies the wish that Nepal will reverse its engagement with China. That expectation is hard to fulfill. Nepal’s biggest foreign policy test has been to strike a balance in its relation with India and China. Once, Congress seemed complicit in dragging China into controversy by allowing some of its leaders to propagate that China was encroaching on Nepali territories. In response, the Chinese wrote a note to Nepali Congress for undermining friendly relations. Congress has a legacy of maintaining good relations with China. When in government, Congress will have to be mature enough in dealing with sensitive matters concerning Nepal’s neighbors.
The process of reclaiming the territories of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura was the biggest national initiative started during Oli’s rule.
A politician is not capable of understanding everything. He has to listen to people who know and Congress has a lot many of them with it. With the best men around him, Deuba can salvage his image impaired by his tainted past, deliver on home front and maintain good relations with neighbors and countries beyond.
But the problem with Nepali political parties and the leaders is that they talk sense and more responsibly when they are in opposition than when they are in government.
Time might come when we will have to criticize Deuba for the same kinds of mistakes for which we are now criticizing Oli.
Keep your fingers crossed.