Oli's hara-kiri, in kamikaze styleThe prime minister’s manoeuvres have taken the spotlights away from the government’s handling of the novel coronavirus.
A stark difference among the global leaders in handling the containment measures for the novel coronavirus is increasingly becoming evident. Nuanced, responsible and compassionate leaders have achieved better success in containing the pandemic as against irresponsible, arrogant and self-righteous demagogues. Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman wrote in The New York Times about the personal traits of US President Donald Trump—that his 'profound need for personal praise, the propensity to blame others, the lack of human empathy, the penchant for rewriting history, the disregard for expertise, the distortion of facts, the impatience with scrutiny or criticism' were jarring to all. Incidentally, this portrayal seemed to very aptly depict the true personality of Nepal's Prime Minister KP Oli. For that matter, the other dictatorial majoritarians of the world, from Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil to Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, among several other heads of the states or governments, are hardly any different.
But of them all, Oli seems to have gone a step further to act like a kamikaze towards democracy; in the process, perhaps, performing hara-kiri on his own political career. The reason for this being the issue of two controversial ordinances last week—one related to the split of political parties and the other on altering the decision-making process of the Constitutional Council (which appoints the office-bearers in all constitutional bodies including the justices in the supreme court). Both of them were utterly anachronistic misadventures, as they don’t even have a distant relation to the most pressing need of the day. Oli's sudden recommendation of the ordinances, and the president's swift sanction on the same, therefore, instantly drew flak from all, including his own Nepal Communist Party. The backlash compelled him to repeal them within four days of enactment.
Prime Minister Oli, like any other supposedly powerful ruler in global political history who miserably fails to deliver on people's expectations, needed to orchestrate some high voltage political drama. This was primarily to deflect the public gaze from his failures but at the same time also to save his seat of power. His government, despite being touted as the most powerful in Nepal's history, miserably failed to provide effective governance. Even before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the crisis of governance in key fronts—particularly in implementing the federal system, in managing the economy and controlling corruption—was evident.
Even in the containment efforts against Covid-19, the government failed in every aspect, from mass testing to providing necessary relief. After a lockdown of more than a month, supply chains have been broken. A month ago, the government was telling us that there was enough food stock for the next four months. But on April 25, just after a month of lockdown, the finance minister said that the current food stock would only last a month. Shortages of medicines and other fast-moving consumer goods are widely felt, almost everywhere. Supply channels from imports and domestic farms are only marginally functional.
On top of this, his ministers and advisers were alleged to have indulged in a large corruption scandal in procuring Covid-19 related medicine, testing kits and protection equipment. But the problem isn’t only the potential financial irregularity involved in the process; the procured materials are now turning out to be so low in quality that even government hospitals—despite political pressure—have stopped using them. The lockdown was inevitable, but what is criminal on the part of the government was to focus on consolidating political power rather than to coordinate to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
Unlike many hypotheses that Oli was forced to capitulate due to his blunders, the price of which he may still have to pay in the long run, he seems to have very effectively achieved his immediate objective of diverting the national political discourse from his failures on the containment of SARS-CoV-2. For the past week, the national discourse has largely concentrated on the triggers of Oli's political motive. The entire media was awash with news and analysis on the implication of the short-lived laws, and the apparent apprehension at the potential repetition of the ignominy of horse-trading of parliamentarians as witnessed during the 1990s.
Even within this political context, Oli must have had the last laugh as the debate concentrated more on the ordinance related to defection and the split of the political parties than the other ordinance on the Constitutional Council. Whereas, from the perspectives of democratic norms and constitutionalism, the ordinance to enable the Constitutional Council to decide on key constitutional appointments even in absence of the leader of the main opposition party was a significant move that exposed Oli's dictatorial ambitions. Article 284 (1) (e) of the Constitution clearly underscores that 'leader from the opposition party in the House of Representatives' would be a member of the Constitutional Council. Therefore, it was not merely an effort to amend one law by decree, but part of a larger design to upend the constitution. This, in effect, was tantamount to the amendment of the Constitution itself.
As the fallout of the prime minister’s moves captured the discourse, thousands of people—rendered helpless and hungry due to the government's apathy, inhumanity and failure in management—left Kathmandu Valley en masse, ignoring the risk of virus transmission. Their return home was certainly the safest bet, for both the government and the returnees themselves, as food insecurity and the uncertainty of earning opportunities loomed large in cities. But where the entire state apparatus miserably failed was in providing them safe passage back home by ensuring reasonable sitting distances in buses, providing adequate face masks, sanitisers, soaps etc and proper awareness on what they can and cannot do when back home. The federal government has not yet realised the need to mend this mistake, although people still continue to leave large cities to go to their villages.
Still, the debate about Oli's political future, sadly, overshadows the much needed national consensus and unity of purpose to battle the novel coronavirus. The political crisis that was bred in the ruling communist party has already started to take a toll on efforts of containing the virus. Nepal’s prime minister himself cannot be at the centre of such drama. The making and breaking of political equations can wait, but the pandemic will not.
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