In July 2021, as Kathmandu was celebrating the ouster of K P Sharma Oli and the swearing-in of Sher Bahadur Deuba as Prime Minister of Nepal, I had some strong caveats and a deep sense of foreboding. I was almost sure that when it comes to corrupting the system, favoring near and dear ones in vital appointments, and bad governance, Deuba would be no different from Oli. “Time will come when we will have to criticize Deuba for the same kinds of mistakes for which we are now criticizing Oli,” I wrote, three days after Deuba was sworn in as the executive head.
Actually, that time had come long ago and passed. I had only held myself back.
Ten months down, Deuba has given us a long list of mistakes. He has been running the country worse than one runs a political party or even a local club. For days, Deuba sat with just four ministers in the cabinet. While the country was reeling under the pandemic and needed a competent person to lead the Ministry of Health, he kept that vital portfolio for himself for days. When he finally picked a man to lead the Ministry it had to be someone with no experience in health ministry as the state minister for health—while ignoring a tried and tested man inside his own party. It is thanks to the outpouring of support from development partners and donors that a large number of Nepalis could get the anti-Covid vaccines. But the vaccination drive was not controversy-free. At least 1.5 million doses of vaccines were reported to be missing under the watch of the government.
Then he revived the ugly play of ordinance–something for which he himself had criticized his predecessor. So that the CPN (Unified Socialist) would be able to split from UML, he proposed an ordinance to amend the Political Parties Act (2017) whereby political parties could split from their mother parties with 20 percent support in the Central Committee or parliamentary party. When the purpose of the split was served, the government quickly withdrew the ordinance.
He would say, for sure, that it was an act of political tact but, in reality, it was an act of subverting laws to serve the petty interests.
Among the first things he did, as if that was the most urgent issue, was to pick an unverified claim of encroachment of Nepali territory in Humla by China. He immediately formed a study committee whose report never proved the encroachment claim. Since coming to power, he has willfully chosen to distance China.
As if to reward the Supreme Court Chief Justice or return the favor for the verdict to appoint him as the PM he awarded a ministerial berth to a non-MP. It was thanks to his sense of embarrassment, after a huge outcry within and outside the political spectrum, that Gajendra Hamal himself put in papers within two days of the appointment providing saving grace to Deuba. But this particular episode triggered such a ruckus and division within the Supreme Court that the country’s top justice delivery body has not been able to regain its clout ever since.
While action should have been taken against the Finance Minister for failing the economy, he allowed the Minister to suspend the governor of Nepal Rastra Bank and defended the move. Thanks to the Supreme Court verdict, he was later reinstated.
Most recently, in a flagrant intervention in the appointment in Nepal Police, he picked someone who was not qualified as per the Police Regulation as the Nepal Police chief, giving a hoot to meritocracy and seniority. A Nepali online portal suspects that the post was traded off for 230 million rupees bribe.
So that the coalition with Maoist Center, Unified Socialist and Janata Samajbadi Party stands intact, he allowed the chief ministers of the provinces to increase the number of ministries and ministers in the provincial cabinets violating the constitutional norms and creating additional economic burdens to the state coffers.
The country is in an economic crisis. Rising inflation has raised the specter of a nightmare. People go to bed worrying whether they would be able to afford to buy food for their children the next morning. With inflation rising so high and the prices of daily commodities skyrocketing, people live with perennial fear of the worst crisis to come. But this is not what concerns the government head. It is instead trying to burn a hole in state’s pocket to purchase the helicopters that will cost the exchequer over four billion rupees. Deuba does not consult economists—not even famed ones from inside his own party–to find the solution to stave off the looming economic crisis. Prominent economist Swarnim Waglé has warned that this tendency can lead the country to an economic disaster. There are no words of reassurance from his cabinet that the government will take care of people during the crisis. Instead, his spouse threatens the voters that if the candidates, other than those favored by her party, are elected in the municipality, the federal government will ‘stop sending money’ to that municipality.
To sum up, for nearly every misdeed of his predecessor K P Sharma Oli, one can find a parallel case in Deuba.
Oli was intolerant to criticism and turned hostile to all those who gave him good advice in good faith. Unlike loudmouthed Oli who used to make his intolerance public, Deuba hides his intolerance and exhibits his idiocy. He is happy to be surrounded by cliques of cronies. With Gagan Thapa and Bishwa Prakash Sharma, who until elected to the posts of General Secretaries were seen as the whistleblowers and faces of hope inside and outside the party, firmly into his fold and toeing his line, Deuba is running roughshod over anyone who stands in his way.
We can afford to stay silent at the cost of Deuba being more irresponsible and more belligerent. Our job is to hold the government accountable, no matter who leads it, no matter which party leads it.
One big allegation against Oli when he was in power was that he was muzzling the press. Under Deuba the situation is not much different. Nepal reported 55 incidents of press freedom violations from May 3, 2021 to May 2, 2022, according to Freedom Forum. A journalist was arrested for writing a story about a big business. He was literally intimidating the press and the public not to speak against certain countries.
Don’t be fooled. Not much has changed since Deuba replaced Oli, except that Deuba could get the much-debated MCC Compact ratified and he chose the right men to lead Nepali missions in Washington, London and New Delhi.
The major difference in the response of the press and public intellectuals to the bad governance by Oli and Deuba is, let’s admit it, that they were too vocal with the former and too soft of the latter. In other words, the selective opposition and biases. Who made more mistakes—Oli or Deuba—is for the electorate to decide as they will face their parties in the upcoming elections. But recall the protests during Oli’s rule—protests against his mishandling of Covid response, against Guthi, the media council and IT bills among others. We saw no such protests against Deuba’s mishandling of governance and politics.
Oli had a fair share of his flaws—such flaws which had to be opposed and resisted and which were rightly opposed and resisted. He cared little about promoting meritocracy while he was in power. He dissolved the parliament, not once but twice, without the slightest sense of compunction. Which is why I had some worst fears about him.
We projected Oli as an authoritarian communist leader ready to take any step to bring doom to the country. We created an impression that because there was Oli in power, Nepal’s democracy was under threat. The Westerners were more considerate about it. One top American official told me in 2018 that they ‘look beyond labels’ and that the relationship of the US with Nepal is not based on a Marxist label or communist label, but on the commitment of the government to implement and to uphold democracy and democratic standards. But we kept saying that Nepal is under communist curse and that until communists were dislodged nothing better would come out of it.
We saw democracy under Oli’s rule and we have seen democracy under Deuba. I have not seen the fundamental difference between these ‘two democracies’. We have to come clean on what kind of democracy we want–the kind in which every wrongdoing is excusable because a certain party runs the government or the kind in which such wrongdoings are tolerated because a certain other party runs the government. Or the kind in which the press, public intellectuals and larger civil society at one time appear to act like a watchdog of the government led by a certain leader and do not even appear to do so at other time because the government is led by another leader.
We should have come out of this illusion long back–that a certain political party cannot deliver and others can because of ideological orientation. In a January 16, 2022 interview with Nepal Live Today, political scientist Hari Sharma debunked this illusion. “I don’t see any difference between Deuba’s government and Oli’s government,” he said. “In terms of accountability and public delivery, there is no difference,” he summed up. “The earlier government was more rhetorical in promises but zero in delivery. The present government does not have rhetoric, does not have delivery.” And it is not because of the difference in ideology, he explained. “The difference between the political culture between Congress and communists is getting much narrower. The political culture of all these political parties is becoming similar. Ideological differences are becoming irrelevant.”
Break the silence
There is no reason why we need to be tolerant or forgiving toward Deuba. Given that he became the PM out of fluke. We have Deuba today because Oli failed to manage his party and subsequently dissolved parliament twice. Given that Deuba is less reactive than Oli. Given that Deuba has been tried and tested several times in the past and there is nothing better one could expect from Deuba. But such an attitude will only embolden him to get away with malgovernance.
‘Deuba is bad but was Oli any better?’ argument is an irresponsible argument. If Oli failed on good governance, why should Deuba fail too? If we did not tolerate Oli’s wrongdoings, why should we tolerate Deuba’s?
Deuba has shown that he is ready to compromise on any ideals, values and norms if it serves the interests of his faction in the party. He cares little about what the Nepali Congress cadres think, forget the people.
Frustratingly, even the main opposition CPN-UML has not been vocal enough in criticizing and showing little interest in exposing the wrongdoings of the government. Perhaps they are returning the favors to Deuba for Deuba had shut his eyes to the wrongdoings of the Oli government.
But we–the public, the press and the intellectuals–can afford to stay silent at the cost of Deuba being more irresponsible and more belligerent. Our job is to hold the government accountable, no matter who leads it, no matter which party leads it.