This government has been ineffective not because of incompetence, but because of its design: CK LalThe Post’s Mukul Humagain spoke with CK Lal, a political analyst and columnist, about Oli’s first year in office and a wide range of issues ranging from his government’s performance, foreign policy conduct and Nepal’s political fault lines.
The KP Oli government marked its first anniversary two weeks ago. His party, Nepal Communist Party, a unified communist force formed after joining hands with former Maoists, swept the November-December 2017 elections on the plank of “stability for prosperity”. Oli’s government, the strongest in the last two and a half decades with two-thirds majority in Parliament, however, has caused more disenchantment than raise hopes, as there have been criticisms for failing to deliver on its promises. The Post’s Mukul Humagain spoke with CK Lal, a political analyst and columnist, about Oli’s first year in office and a wide range of issues ranging from his government’s performance, foreign policy conduct and Nepal’s political fault lines. Excerpts:
The KP Oli government recently marked its first anniversary. How do you assess this administration’s performance in the last year?
To guage how successful a government has been you have to take into account issues of security, economic performance and social, cultural and foreign relations. When we talk about security, there weren’t any major security breaches, but there were a lot of rape cases that remain unresolved. There was also a lot of hue and cry about breaking the transport syndicate and cartels, but that has reverted.
On the economic front, this government had all the advantages—favourable monsoon, stable petroleum prices, growing remittances and interest of the investors. Despite the positive atmosphere, the growth projection had to be repeatedly reduced. If you look at the economic performance, it is tough to find any account that would assure us that the economy grew in the right direction under the government.
When we look at the government’s social relations, the Oli administration had a tremendous opportunity to make peace with the Janjatis and Madhesis, to act against untouchability and casteism. While the launch of the social security scheme is encouraging, a lot more could have been done. In the cultural sector, due to the government’s involvement in Christian missionary works, a lot of resentment against secularism came into the fore. Similarly, wholesale promotion of Hindutva by a certain sector of ruling alliance gave rise, and is continuing to give rise, to majoritarianism.
On the issue of foreign relations, we can find there is some kind of detour in the relationship with India but the government’s promise to improve relations with India has not worked. With the Chinese also, there was much fanfare about the Belt and Road Initiative but nothing has been implemented. The government supported the Indo-Pacific strategy but undercut it by supporting Venezuela. So, we don’t know where the government stands on the foreign policy front.
The government’s performance this past year has been disastrous; it lost a great opportunity. A lot could have been done with the two-third majority with total control over permanent establishment of Nepal. This has been a wasted one year.
When you say a year has been wasted, what, in your view, could this government have done?
If this was Oli’s first stint as prime minister, then we could have given him the benefit of the doubt: that he is learning the ropes and one year is required for anyone to be comfortable in Singha Durbar. But that was not the case with him. In countries like Nepal, two ministries—the Home Affairs Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister—are very important in running the government. Oli has had the experience of running both the two ministries in the past. And then, he learned to become a team leader during his first term as prime minister. So, there was no lack of experience. He cannot claim that he was “learning things”.
As to what his government could have done, let’s talk first about the security issue. He could have given a lot of authority to the three layers of government to handle matters. He did not. On the economic front, he could have gained the confidence of investors, because the former UML has total control over trade unions. It would have been easy to gain the confidence of investors and create conditions—by increasing domestic investments and then attracting foreign investments. It was also possible to create employment opportunities by making some big projects take off. But he failed on materialising any of them.
On the cultural front, this government could have gone strongly on secular issues because there cannot be a functional republic without secularism in a multinational society and multicultural country. But the government did not take any initiative and let Hindutva parties take their own action and those who work for conversion; [they] were allowed to go their own way. So instead of secular polity, we ended up having a multiple militant religious society which is against the spirit of secularism.
As for maintaining foreign relations, the government could have taken some proactive measures and maintained a stand that it cannot afford to go against India, nor against China. We could have told them: look we have our limitations... we cannot meet all your expectations. But we’re open, and understand your compulsions.
Nepal has three important, big neighbours. Two on the land: China and India; and one in the sky: the Western lobby, especially the Americans. We cannot ignore them either. Balancing the three is a tight-rope walk that requires a lot of personal initiatives at the prime minister’s level. You simply cannot say the foreign minister will deal with it.
Recently, PM Oli said that the first year was utilised to create a base and that governance and development will take place in the next year.
The base is created by the constitution and the laws. A government is like a vehicle going in a certain direction. The first thing you need to figure out about the vehicle is whether the engine is competent or not, whether everything in the engine is working in sync or not. If you use this vehicle metaphor, what can be said about this government is that it is in first gear. There is power but the speed is low. For the vehicle to pick up speed, the government needs to have determination, which was lacking throughout this year.
So you are essentially telling us that there were more optics and less substance.
That is true. What I wanted to point out is that this government has been ineffective not because of incompetence but because of its design. Because the priority of KP Oli changed over time. His [first] priority was to take control over the former UML completely, and he succeeded. Now, there is only one supremo in the former UML. He has also succeeded in cutting Pushpa Kamal Dahal to size, which was his second priority.
On the government front, he has been able to establish single control over bureaucracy, security forces
and foreign relations. Some say that after Surya Bahadur Thapa, Oli is the second prime minister to have such complete control over the permanent establishment of Nepal.
His third priority was to create an economic base for his party. Oli has shown that business houses that have a soft corner for the Nepali Congress cannot prosper.
On foreign relations, he wanted to show that when you talk to Nepal, you talk to him. Earlier, the army had one line, the bureaucracy had another. And leaders would either run to Delhi or Beijing. Now, no matter who goes where, unless you talk to Oli, nothing gets done.
But there are some initiatives such as the social security scheme and the employment guarantee scheme by this government, which, if handled well, can bring major changes.
Well, right now, they are just wonderful slogans. Anyone can make catchy slogans. In its earlier UML avatar, there was “Afnai Gaun, Afai Banau” programme, and we all know how much prosperity our villages saw.
So, these slogans are good, but as they say the proof of the pudding lies in eating, we will know what it is only when it goes into implementation. But before that we’ve to see whether this government itself is honest about implementation, [whether it] knows how to implement, [whether it] has instruments in place to implement, and whether there are enough resources.
There have been a lot of frictions, especially between provincial and federal governments over power delegation. How do you think this federalism journey has taken off?
Neither the ruling party nor the opposition was committed to federalism, which was the outcome of the Madhes uprising. They were forced to accept federalism only after a court ruling. That’s why they are not committed to its implementation.
One of the main hurdles behind fedaralism not being properly implemented is the mindset of the state. Nepal has been a unitary state since its inception, and breaking that mindset is difficult. So the understanding of federalism in the permanent establishment of Nepal is tough. Besides, the government hasn’t been able to draft laws as per the spirit of the constitution as well.
Local governments have the freedom to function on their own because they are supported by voters. But the central government exercises its control not through elected representatives but through the administration and security forces. Even local governments are not functioning well. This is once again a wasted opportunity because most of the local governments are controlled by the coalition at the centre. So despite the same political authority existing in the provincial and local governments, in the last one year none of the layers of the government has been able to deliver.
Having said that, there are functional three-tier governments. Provincial governments, despite being part of the ruling alliance, have been vocal to assert their rights. Doesn’t it augur well for future of federalism in Nepal?
Federalism is like a republic—once you have announced it, it is very difficult to back down. Those who promised people that they would work to strengthen federalism while contesting elections aren’t going to keep quiet.
Only two chief ministers have been vocal. Both of them are young chief ministers who see a future for themselves in politics and they probably realise that people are not going to be happy with a federalism that is there for the sake of it. If the states fail to deliver, the resentment will be so high that this constitution will collapse with federalism, and not just this constitution, there may be other problems such as separatism and anarchy.
Chief ministers of Province 2 and 4 are probably preparing themselves for politics of pursuance in which they will have to address aspirations of the people. Federalism in a multinational country like Nepal is inevitable. You can delay it, but you cannot deny it.
How do you view Oli government’s foreign policy conduct?
In a multipolar world, no government in Nepal can afford to antagonise the Americans. That’s a given. Due to various religious, cultural and social relations, Nepal cannot afford to antagonise India as well. Our economy is dependent on India completely. Nepal also cannot afford to antagonise China because of Tibet. Right from the days of the Ranas, Nepali governments have considered China to be a balancing factor.
The problem of Nepal’s policymakers—not just political leaders, even foreign policy executives—is that they still tend to view Nepal’s foreign policy with cold war glasses. But there are many shades of grey in between, which requires reorientation of Nepali foreign policy. That has to come from political leadership, and KP Oli should
have taken up the role. But he appears to be confused. Because of the confusion of Nepali establishments, our friends are also confused and nobody is taking this establishment very seriously.
Apart from the state level, non-state actors have also become important players of foreign policy. For example, agents of multinationals, big investors, corporations, banks, those with interest in minerals, aviation, have also become big players in the foreign policy arena.
The third important non-state actor that comes into play is international civil society which is concerned about human rights, democratic values and the state of the marginalised. These issues have become global and affect foreign policy. But the government treats all civil society initiatives as anti-state. The fourth important player is social media. But this government simply seems to consider social media as traditional media that needs to be controlled. So complete reorientation is necessary but this government is neatly stuck in the ‘60s cold war era.
Given the US’s push to make Nepal part of Indo-Pacific alliance, China’s BRI and India’s traditional interest, Nepal has three major international players with whom it can engage. Do you think these are also opportunities for Nepal?
Shouldn’t Nepal try to be friends with all? Theoretically this is possible. Practically keeping your two feet in two boats is very dangerous. What you can do is you stay on one boat, but tell people in other boats that you’re not making holes in their vessels, that you’re not against them. So you have to choose your side.
When you have the 1950 Treaty with India and say the relationship is of equidistance, then it’s contradictory. This government has no courage to tear the 1950 Treaty and also no courage to tell the Chinese “look we’re treaty-bound but we cannot go against you”. For that, it has to first earn the confidence of different players. That confidence can only be gained by delivering. Either you shouldn’t have signed the BRI, but because you have signed it, you have to be serious about it and work on it. Do we have a ministry or commission that deals with something as huge as BRI? There should probably be a commission-like mechanism under the chairmanship of the PM.
Nepal should be slightly reluctant to the Indo-Pacific alliance. It could be a dialogue partner, but not a participant. Land-locked Nepal tied between India and China cannot say it is a part of the Indo-pacific. At best, it could say we’re a dialogue partner. We can be of help when it is in our interest.
The Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) was formed to review Nepal-India relations, including the 1950 treaty. Do you think there will be a paradigm shift on Nepal-India relations after the report comes into implementation?
Treaties are done in three conditions. First, when one party defeats another, a treaty is imposed on another. Second, when both parties agree that a treaty is in mutual benefit for them. Third, in the lack of the previous two conditions, a third party comes and says: agree to these terms and conditions because it will benefit you and us. When you look at the 1950 Treaty, Nepal and India were not at war. India did not defeat Nepal. So the first case was not there. The second condition was also not there because the Ranas were under pressure. They knew that they were not gaining much from this treaty. India was also under pressure. They also knew they were not gaining much. Still this treaty happened.
The third condition was applied there. After India’s independence, the British power prevailed upon India that said this might not benefit you immediately, but it is in your long-term interest. It also prevailed upon Rana rulers that “look you may think it is disadvantageous now, but in the long-term, this will probably benefit you”. The 1950 treaty existed for so long because the so-called international community was quite happy with this treaty.
Due to China’s interest, which wants to distance Nepal from India, and many European countries which will be happier for more leg room, a revision has become necessary.
This revision area has strong constituency in the middle class Nepalis who have been born and bred with anti-India sentiments. When the EPG was formed, it appealed to this anti-India constituency and that was the formation of the Nepal side of the EPG. The Indian side of the EPG was the Hindutva lobby.
Indians know that a majority of Nepalis are not with what the EPG report has. Nepalis know that a large section of Indians also do not buy it. Since both governments are aware of this fact, no government is taking this report seriously. How this will go will depend a lot on what happens after elections in India or whether there is a political change inside Nepal.
What are the fault lines in Nepali politics now?
The Maoist insurgency chapter is closed. However, the Madhesi-Khas Arya faultline exists, so does the Janajati-Khas Arya faultline. The other is the class faultline, which still exists in Nepal because liberalisation has increased inequality. The fourth, which is the most serious, if not dealt with correctly, is the right wing resurgence, especially of the religious kind. That faultline requires proper secular leadership by the state and by civil society, which is currently not happening right now.