PM Deuba 5.0: Early report card

Chances are sovereign Nepalis will remember Deuba 5.0 as the most forgettable blip among his forgettable terms as prime minister.

Bikash Sangraula

  • Read Time 6 min.

Thirty years ago, then Home Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba was invited along with Inspector General of Police (IGP) Ratna SJB Rana to an event at Dipendra Police School (renamed post-2008 as Nepal Police School) in Sanga, Kavre. The students presented such a flawless, colorful parade that Deuba, as expressionless back then as he looks now, managed to exchange a smile with Rana on the dais.

The students had gone out of their way to put up a good show, out of respect—reverence even—for the storied democrat who had suffered so much for democracy and had finally arrived to set things right. From teachers, the students heard stories of brutalities he had suffered for his political beliefs, of which one was about his tongue having been electrocuted while in prison, leaving him with the speech impediment that exists to this day.

The event at Dipendra Police School was preceded by confusion and nervousness surrounding the preparations, the principal one being whether the Home Minister was ‘Deuba’ or ‘Deupa’. For years it had been the latter for Kathmandu folks, but suddenly it turned out that the proper far-western surname was the former.

And ‘Deuba’ it has been in the decades since for the politician who astutely parlayed the power of his far-western origins to reach the topmost rungs of power, managing to wrest the Nepali crowns more than once from the exalted Koiralas. And this, Deuba has managed with a mix of parochial nepotism and astute opportunism. IGP Rana would have known.

IGP Rana, for whom the post of Additional Inspector General of Police had been created for the first time in the history of Nepal Police, as a consolation for his junior Hem Bahadur Singh having preceded him, was not allowed to complete his term. Deuba not only sacked him unceremoniously in favor of his far-west compatriot Moti Lal Bohara but did more. He first asked Rana for a list of officers who deserved promotions. After getting the list of about 20 capable officers, Deuba sacked all of them together with Rana. Some were reinstated later.

The tall, affable Rana died soon after his removal from the post, and there were those senior police officers who said he had lost his spirit after Deuba’s manhandling. Deuba’s penchant for meddling in the police force was in full display the last time in 2017 when as fourth-time prime minister he appointed fellow far-westerner Jay Bahadur Chand as police chief ignoring regulations. The appointment was later revoked by the Supreme Court.

Deuba 5.0 seems to have decided to be there just in name, making a series of mistakes and presenting himself as a laughing stock.

Much has been written about Deuba’s previous four terms as premier. During the First People’s Movement of 1990, Deuba, like many leaders emerged into the front ranks of national politics after years as a junior party cadre. They have all lost the aura they carried because of daring jailbreaks, lengthy jail terms, exile, and innumerable other kinds of suffering. It would seem that the nation and the people have been compensating these leaders ever since, an end to this nowhere in sight. 

So poor is Deuba’s track record that ahead of his fifth term, pundits overly critical of his predecessor KP Oli fine-tuned the narrative on governance in favor of the incoming PM, to an extent that some said all Deuba needed to do in his fifth term was “do no harm”.

Manipulation by Dahal

Unlike what some prefer to believe, Deuba did not get his fifth term because of foreign powers. A chain of unfortunate events kick-started by Pushpa Kamal Dahal to capture the then NCP is what has landed Deuba his fifth term on a tray. Dahal first tried to oust Oli through machinations within the then NCP’s so-called ‘secretariat’. When that did not work, Dahal wooed Madhav Kumar Nepal away from Oli, to vote against his own party and for Deuba. Essentially, Dahal presented the reluctant Deuba with an offer he could not refuse. Once he got the unexpected post, Deuba and his henchmen and henchwomen have decided to settle in and make the most of it.

Dahal’s chicanery was ‘unfortunate’ because the various activities he foisted upon the polity destroyed the credibility of institutions—the legislature, the judiciary, and the presidency. Of them, the legislature has been held hostage by murder-accused Speaker Agni Sapkota who has been misusing his office to give Dahal the powers that are highly disproportionate to the Maoist party’s strength in Parliament. This has left Deuba helpless, something that the recent American delegation for MCC witnessed first-hand.

Dahal and Sapkota have worked in concert to weaken Parliament, derail the USD 500 million grant project that is the MCC, and leave transitional justice in suspended animation. Deuba is left to take the blame and look like the culprit. Indeed, the media moguls and their editors, as well as the Kathmandu intelligentsia, prefer to blame the failures of the ‘gathabandhan’ on Deuba’s incapacities while protecting the real culprit—Dahal.

Unlike what some prefer to believe, Deuba did not get his fifth term because of foreign powers. A chain of unfortunate events kick-started by Pushpa Kamal Dahal landed Deuba his fifth term on a tray.

Managing a prime ministership foisted on him, the spark seems to have gone out of Deuba this time around. While some would have thought he might want to leave a legacy of good deeds and probity to make up for so many misdemeanors of the past, Deuba 5.0 seems to have decided to be there just in name, making a series of mistakes and presenting himself as a laughing stock, which incongruously ends up projecting Dahal as the democratic sage and the constitutionalist.

Indeed, the Maoist supremo’s fingerprints are all over Nepal’s present crisis, even though the media and intelligentsia refrain from calling him out and point all fingers at the hapless Deuba. Seeing his political future in peril, Dahal invited Chinese micro-management in Nepal to capture the NCP. When that did not work out, he worked to make Deuba the prime minister, but then Deuba went and miffed the Chinese by sending a team to look at the alleged border dispute in the far north-west. Dahal’s hopes for Beijing’s blessings were thus momentarily dashed, which has made it all the more important for him to oppose MCC to get back in the good books of the northern handlers.

Dahal is also desperate for a helping hand from Beijing because he has over the years effectively burnt his bridges to the south, which, in any case, seems to be on the lookout for a carrier of Hindutva in Nepal—from within the Nepali Congress if possible. While Dahal is a contortionist who could even present himself as a Hindutva and monarchy supporter, there are few who will believe him now. Thus, Dahal’s only hope is to seek the blessings of Beijing, even as he fears the upcoming local, provincial, and federal elections.

Poor start 

While Dahal is dangerously overcharged, Deuba seems to be criminally lethargic on the prime minister’s chair. He has been sluggish in seeking a joint investigation with India on the alleged murder by the Indian SSB border security force of Jaya Singh Dhami while crossing the border river Mahakali on a ‘tuin’.  

Even though Deuba has gone on to do much harm, the magnanimity of Kathmandu’s intelligentsia towards him continues, perhaps because he is backed by Dahal. Meanwhile, Nepal has disappointed neighbors and well-wishers—including India, China, and the USA—and a populace amused by spectacles like budget holiday and an aging prime minister shouldering more than a dozen ministries for more than two months. And even as Nepal faces great power rivalry for the first time in decades, between Beijing and Washington DC, and as the Beijing-New Delhi relationship becomes chilly following the Ladakh skirmish, the nation lacks a steady hand.

Democracy is what we chose as a nation. We invested heavily, in terms of time, money, as well as emotion (as when India blockaded Nepal) on the Constitution that we have. The aberrations that we are faced with can be addressed within the frameworks it provides through a couple of elections until the frameworks get concretized.

Deuba could deliver some stability for the country at large, and do good for his Nepali Congress party, if he were to dramatically dump the ridiculous ‘gathabandhan’ government and call general elections. Chances are, though, that he will simply do as told by his own coterie and by Dahal. In which case, sovereign Nepalis will remember Deuba 5.0 as the most forgettable blip among his forgettable terms as prime minister.

Bikash Sangraula is a Kathmandu-based journalist and author. @SangraulaBikash