Will Deuba be a changed man in his fifth outing?There seems to be little hope that Deuba would be any better than Oli in terms of governance.
Despite enjoying a much stronger majority, KP Sharma Oli, the first prime minister elected under the 2015 Constitution, failed to beat the record set in the post-1990 democratic era by Girija Prasad Koirala, the first under the 1990 Constitution. Oli did come close, but as with Koirala, his government, too, experienced an unravelling due to intra-party factionalism. Thus, where the expectation was for them to serve out their full five-year terms, both came to an ignominious end: a defeat at the hustings for the latter and the ouster of the former.
The irony is that Sher Bahadur Deuba is now prime minister due to an ill-fated political manoeuvre by Oli that he (Deuba) himself had successfully used nearly 20 years earlier. The only difference is that whereas the earlier constitution had granted Deuba such leeway, it was to avoid precisely such an eventuality that the 2015 Constitution had in-built checks on our prime ministers and their fanciful whims—as Oli had to be reminded by the Supreme Court.
The 2015 Constitution also has another feature to constrain the country’s (and provinces’) chief executives—proportional representation (PR). Although its weightage was significantly watered down compared to the 2007 Interim Constitution, PR plays a significant role in ensuring inclusive representation in the federal and provincial legislatures. Since it also enables many more political parties to maintain a legislative presence, it ensures that governance is possible only through power-sharing among different interest groups.
Consociationalism, as the literature calls such an arrangement, can contribute to grave instability since it leaves open the door to horse-trading on the scale the country was recently treated to at the centre as well as some of the provinces. But when it works well, it can fulfil the interests of most sections of society since they would all be represented at the top. The avowedly anti-Madhesi Oli reaching an accommodation with the Mahanta Thakur faction of the Janata Samajbadi Party, and the subsequent assurance along similar lines from Deuba, are examples of consociationalism at work—in principle, at least. One can even argue that another reason why such a system is suitable for us is that all our major parties are also coalitions of various factions, albeit centred around the personality of the factional heads, with their interests driven by individual gain rather than ideas.
Unfortunately for the country, just when we expected politics to start from a clean slate under the 2015 Constitution, consociational politics did not even manage a toehold. After two and a half decades of the rapid rise and fall of governments representing a myriad of political alignments, and buoyed by the tantalising prospect of a strong and stable government, Nepalis in the 2017 elections ushered in what in effect was a single-party rule at all three levels of government under Oli’s paramount leadership. Granting so much power to any one individual or party is always bad news for democracy. We know as much from what is happening in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the neighbourhood, and countries as diverse as Rwanda, Turkey and Hungary further afield. Even South Africa under the decades-long rule by the African National Congress has defaulted on its promise while dismantling apartheid of racial and economic justice, and that was a party led by Nelson Mandela; Oli is a much lesser being.
A repeat of the near-clean sweep by the UML-Maoist combine in 2017 is almost impossible since that was an electoral verdict at a certain juncture in time. In the future, the parties will have no choice but to collaborate and accommodate each other’s interests in the process. Unsurprisingly, the portents so far are not all that encouraging. We are all aware that the split in the Nepal Communist Party was not due to any principles being violated by any group or individual but because Oli monopolised the distribution of patronage. As is our lot, similar jockeying is already holding hostage the new ruling coalition.
Compared to the previous incumbent, the only advantage Deuba has is that he is not Oli, and for now, that has sufficed. So low is the expectation that the most common theme in opinion pieces after Deuba’s ascension to power is the tamping down of any hope that he would be any better than Oli in terms of governance. If the news in these pages is true that in the middle of a raging pandemic, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine drive was delayed by days to allow Deuba the photo-op of kicking it off, we can only hope that better sense will prevail in days to come.
For some of us, any notion that Deuba could be a changed man after that crushing defeat in 2017 was belied by astrology once again taking centre-stage in his (and the nation’s) life. Granted that his personal astrologer has prophesised seven stints on the prime ministerial chair for him and that he needs only a further two to fulfil that prediction, one wonders whether he has even pondered over how his departure unfolded the previous four times.
This is to remind our readers how his four outings thus far have fared. The first tenure was also his longest, but he lost a vote of no confidence in March 1997 because two members from his coalition partner had decamped to the warmer climes of Bangkok. I remember a reporter recounting the next day how Deuba was going around mumbling in shock after his defeat: ‘Where the hell did they go?’ Perhaps he should have asked his astrologer first.
The second time fared even more terribly for him, having been booted out by King Gyanendra in October 2002. The day after, I happened to find myself in a room with him with two other journalists at the UML headquarters in Balkhu. Chain-smoking and quivering with emotion, Deuba certainly did not seem like someone who had been warned by his astrologer of the fate that awaited him.
The third time, in February 2005, was a repeat of the second with the dramatis personae consisting again of him and Gyanendra; no astrologer in sight.
When he became prime minister for the fourth time in June 2017 (crossing the mid-point of the fabled seven times), he appears to have taken even greater precautions to align the stars to his fate by putting off moving into the prime minister’s residence by a week. That could not forestall his leading the Nepali Congress to the most humiliating electoral rout in its history.
Yet, Deuba is back to seeking guidance from the stars. To be kind to him, at least he has the humility to know that there could be a higher power than him. Oli’s folly was to have the conceit to believe otherwise and is thus paying the price.