Oli’s legacy of shameKP Oli put Nepal’s young democracy to the test, and the political class helped him by sticking to their self interests.
To a section of Nepali society, the ejection of Sher Bahadur Deuba from prime ministership in October 2002 by king Gyanendra heralded a Panchayat redux. For those of us who had lived through the Panchayat years, the days that followed the royal move certainly felt like being transported to pre-1990 Nepal—mainly through the monotonous recital on TV and radio of names of individuals and organisations supporting Gyanendra’s putsch. As was to be expected, government newspapers also followed up by publishing long lists of those selfsame along with the words they used to welcome their monarch’s actions.
Given a political class that never seemed to tire of the perennial game of one-upmanship even in the face of a growing Maoist insurgency, it was somewhat natural that there would be some who would welcome anything that interrupted the downward drift of the country. Since it was also the palace’s imperative that the list of presumed supporters continue to grow or at least appear to do so, the ritual suited both sides. Hence, while those known for their royalist sympathies figured in the media so did many others not that well known, but who nonetheless were given equal prominence by the government mouthpieces.
One unexpected surprise was the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), the umbrella body representing Nepal’s Janajatis. As a group that had been very instrumental in propagating the narrative of how the centuries’ old marginalisation of the country’s various social groups was a result of the exclusive nature of the monarchical state, it came as a shock that NEFIN should side with the king instead of clamouring for a more meaningful democracy. I came to know later that many of those affiliated with NEFIN were livid that such a statement had gone out in their name. But at the time it appeared to be a sign of frustration that after years of government soft-pedalling the promise of creating mechanisms to help Janajatis merge into the national mainstream, there were some in NEFIN who believed that the king could be their saviour—despite all the historical evidence to the contrary.
Unlike two decades ago, NEFIN remained uncharacteristically quiet for a full month over the dissolution of Parliament by Prime Minister KP Oli. It is probably a sign of how irrelevant an organisation that claims to speak for nearly 40 percent of the population had become that it did not even bother to take a position for so long on an issue with direct implications on its constituents. Fortunately, when it finally did, the NEFIN leadership appears to have understood that the answer to an imperfect democracy can never be its total abandonment.
That is a realisation that does not seem to have been lost to at least one group of influential actors. Among the first to raise the spectre of the prime minister’s move being the beginning of a new round of retrogression was an impromptu coalition of mainly writers and activists calling themselves the ‘Grand Citizens’ Movement’. Led by writer Yug Pathak, the Movement put out a statement, stating that while they could not be less bothered about the inner workings of a political party, they were very concerned about the grave danger posed by the outfall of this intra-party wrangling to republicanism, federalism, secularism and inclusion; that it was a step likely suppress the voices of the marginalised groups and the impoverished; and that since it is the political parties themselves collectively responsible for taking the country to this brink, the parties should renew their commitment to the people once again and take a strong stance against the regressive step. Given its representation of an impressive cross-section of Nepali society, this group’s claim that the parliamentary dissolution is a direct assault on the gains of the past decade and a half certainly provided it with greater credence than a group like NEFIN’s would.
Despite all the misgivings about the 2015 constitution among those who believed that it had short-changed the excluded, there is now growing realisation that even those gains may be in danger. Therein lies the rub. Any successful civic movement against Oli’s blatant power grab will necessarily result in someone else taking his place. But when it comes to a betrayal of the promises of a ‘New Nepal’ and the creation of a more just and inclusive society, none of the possible contenders to take his place have a record that is much better. Not even Pushpa Kamal Dahal even though it has to be admitted that the Maoist movement certainly provided the initial momentum towards it. The only difference is that Oli at least has had the honesty to spell it out while the others generally hide behind obfuscating rhetoric. The end result has been the same—the backsliding on inclusion in the 2015 constitution compared to the 2007 one is there for all to see.
Another example is how the rollout of federalism has proceeded. The prime minister has been lambasted from various quarters, even from some of his most stout defenders like the Gandaki Chief Minister Prithvi Subba Gurung that at almost every step he has undermined the spirit of federalism. Yet over these three years, I do not ever recall Messrs Nepal and Dahal taking Oli to task over it. If, as they now argue, the latter needs to be removed since he violated the principle of collective party leadership, it is a wonder that they never made an issue of the need to strengthen federalism given its basic premise of promoting greater inclusion. That they got worked up every time Oli handed out plum posts only to those in his own coterie says a lot about where their real interests lay.
The same is true of the Nepali Congress leadership. Neither Sher Bahadur Deuba nor Ram Chandra Poudel have spoken out against Oli’s blatant centralising of state power in his office at precisely the time the centre was supposed to be delegating authority all the way down to the villages. We certainly do not know the full content of the periodic tête-à-têtes between Deuba and Oli but media reports suggest these have focused on haggling over the apportionment of government positions between their own supporters.
Writer Narayan Wagle hit home when he recently said that people are not going to come into the streets if the current civic movement was going to result only in a change in the prime minister. He called on the party leaders to declare that they are against this backward step and draft a charter identifying where they went remiss after the 2006 People’s Movement. The last is not such a tall order since we were treated to some show of contrition in the lead up to the 2006 movement, including one of the famous 12 points in the agreement that spawned the movement dealing specifically with it.
The sad fact is we have no choice but to go with the political parties and those who lead them and just hope we get lucky. Following the physical assault on their national legislature, the American political class looked and sounded visibly shaken. They can be thankful that their institutions were able to withstand the stress test visited upon them by an outgoing president, with the nearly two and a half centuries of legal traditions and political norms to fall back on. Ours is a very young democracy and we have an even younger polity. Oli’s crime has been to subject both to a similar test when the foundations have not even been set property. History will not be kind to him.