Deuba can salvage the imageHistory will remember him for how he fumbled the ball in the past couple of weeks.
Paban Raj Pandey
Everyone makes mistakes. Not admitting a mistake is a more significant mistake. KP Sharma Oli, former prime minister and current chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), had an opportunity to make amends for a mistake he made during his February 2018-July 2021 administration, and he seized on it. In contrast, Sher Bahadur Deuba, prime minister until Boxing Day and the Nepali Congress president, had two opportunities in less than a week to rise above the occasion, instead let them slip by. Deuba still has a chance to do the right thing and try to salvage his tarnished image. On the other hand, Oli can further boost his stature by choosing to sacrifice for national unity.
The November 20 federal and provincial elections resulted in a hung Parliament, with the Nepali Congress winning 89 seats, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) 32, Madhav Nepal’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Socialist) 10, Loktantrik Samajwadi Party four and Rastriya Janamorcha one. These five were in a five-party alliance, and their combined 136 just fell short of the 138 required to form a government. In addition, the UML won 78, Rastriya Swatantra Party 20, Rastriya Prajatantra Party 14, Janata Samajbadi Party 12, Janamat Party six, Nagarik Unmukti Party three, Nepal Majdoor Kisan Party one, and independents five.
It was a foregone conclusion that the alliance would form the next government, as it only needed two more seats. The battle was won, but not the war. Within the coalition, both Dahal and Deuba wanted to lead the government first. Dahal feared history might repeat itself. In 2017, the communists allied and won nearly two-thirds of the 275 seats in the House of Representatives; the Nepali Congress won only 63. Oli became the prime minister, but only to later renege on a promise he made to Dahal that the latter would become prime minister in the latter half. Dahal and Nepal rebelled. To survive, Oli dissolved Parliament twice; both were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Oli’s coup d’état
The Supreme Court decision also opened the door for Deuba to lead the next government—lasting from July 2021 to December 2022—with crucial help from Dahal and Nepal. So, when the time came last month, possibly, to return the favour, Deuba backed off. Greed took over. This is what Baluwatar does to you—or has done to erstwhile politicians. It is hard to let go of power. Hindsight is always 20-20, but Deuba could have easily gotten the presidency, the speakership, and God knows what else had he shown the flexibility to let Dahal become prime minister for the first two or two-and-a-half years. Instead, digging in his heels, he forced Dahal into Oli’s embrace.
Oli deserves praise for the way he played the latest drama in Nepali politics. He not only broke the five-party alliance, but also repaired the strained relationship with one-time-partner Dahal. It is probable Nepal will end up rejoining the UML sooner than later. To achieve all this, all Oli had to do was support Dahal in his quest to become prime minister for the third time. In return, Oli’s UML will probably end up taking several important portfolios, including the presidency and the speakership. As the second largest party in the House, the UML could not have asked for more. Assuming their reunion sticks together—it likely will—the communists will be a force to reckon with five years from now.
Already on the back foot by what can be described as Oli’s coup d’état, this presents one additional headache for Deuba. Whether or not Oli and Dahal were colluding after the election results were out or if some invisible hand of foreign powers played a role in reuniting the two is not as important as the fact that Deuba—and a few others around him—miscalculated big time. His immediate worry now is how to galvanise the morale of party cadres who until recently held their head high representing the largest party. Now, the Nepali Congress is out of the power equation. This can possibly go on for five years. Not to kick someone on the ground, but for Deuba, this was gaffe number two.
Need of the hour
On December 21, the Nepali Congress held an election to choose its parliamentary party leader. Attempts were made to elect Deuba unanimously, but general secretary Gagan Thapa, who had gone to the November 20 polls projecting himself as a future prime minister, went ahead and fought. He lost—25 to 64. All other major parties chose their parliamentary leaders without any opposition. This is a bad practice—shows either lower-rung leaders lack the required capability and conviction or fear revenge. Thapa, 46, deserves kudos for trying. Ideally, Deuba, 76, should have made a graceful exit and handed the reins over to the new generation. He was 49 when Girija Prasad Koirala passed the baton.
The risk for Deuba is that history will remember him for how he fumbled the ball in the last couple of weeks. All the good deeds he did for his party and the nation will be pushed to the side. In this moment of soul-searching within the Nepali Congress, Deuba will probably begin the process of healing by stepping down as either party president or parliamentary leader or both. Let the young blood take over. Oli, too, is known for his authoritarian tendencies. He improved his image by installing Dahal in Baluwatar. He can do more. The UML has its eyes set on the presidency, which, although ceremonial, is increasingly viewed as crucial, thanks to two activist presidents, including the incumbent.
In 2009, Dr Ram Baran Yadav overrode the then prime minister Dahal’s sacking of Army Chief Rookmangud Katawal. Last September, Bidya Devi Bhandari refused to endorse the amendment to the Citizenship Act 2006. Article 61 of the constitution says the president shall promote national unity of Nepal—a sentiment so broad that someone with prejudices can massage to suit one’s self-interest. At a time like today when no party owns a majority, the need of the hour is a neutral, non-political figure in Shital Niwas. Oli can set an example by sacrificing the post for national unity. This has the potential to change Nepal’s political landscape, and how Nepalis view their political leaders.