A state of status quoAnalysts say the way the government ignored Dr Govinda KC for 24 days and has failed on various fronts including the fight against the pandemic shows the Oli administration is losing its grip on governance.
The country’s Covid-19 cases have been rising. Dr Govinda KC has been on a fast-unto-death for the last 24 days. The economic outlook looks grim. Government offices are being shut one after another as staffers are testing positive for the coronavirus. The Oli administration, however, seems to be indifferent.
Ever since Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli returned from the hospital in March after his second kidney transplant, Baluawatar, his residence, has become the country’s administrative hub. All the decisions are taken there, but Baluwtar has been extremely stingy when it comes to sharing information with the public. Even five days after his three close aides declared that they had tested positive for Covid-19, there has been no word from Baluwatar on Oli’s status.
“Sometimes, I wonder if our country is even being governed. It looks like no one knows what’s going around,” said Chandi Prasad Shrestha, a former secretary at the Ministry for Home Affairs.
“Ministers in the Oli Cabinet have become so subdued and subservient that they are even afraid to speak up. They fear they will be shown the door if they talk.”
Despite facing criticism for its poor handling of the pandemic, the Oli administration has not bothered to take any further measures to protect the citizens. Instead, it looks like it has left the people to fend for themselves. The number of cases has been rising by the day. About two weeks ago, the Health Ministry said a lockdown could be imposed again if the number of active cases crossed the 25,000 mark. It reached the grim milestone on Wednesday.
Nepal reported 3,439 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, the highest for a single day, as the national Covid-19 tally reached 94,253. With 15 new deaths, the coronavirus toll has reached 578.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which has exposed Nepal’s fragile health system, has also put a spotlight on why KC’s demands matter even more.
Calls have been growing lately demanding that the Oli administration initiate dialogue with KC as the orthopaedic surgeon’s health is deteriorating fast. But the administration has been acting as if it has neither heard of or seen KC and his condition.
“The way this government is functioning does not give us a sense that it is a democratically elected government,” said Daman Nath Dhungana, a civil society leader and former House Speaker. “This government has turned into the cabal of a section of leaders. It is least bothered about people’s aspirations. Nor is it inclined to make inclusive decisions.”
Public intellectuals, opposition parties and civil society members say the Oli government’s nonchalant attitude towards the doctor who has been on a hunger strike for the past 24 days amazes them.
The 63-year-old doctor started his hunger strike from Jumla on September 14 with a list of demands, focusing on the implementation of the past agreements, various governments, including the one led by Oli had reached with him.
His demands include establishing one government medical college each in Sudurpaschim Province, Province 2, Gandaki Province and Province 1 and an amendment to the National Medical Education Act. Probing corruption cases against incumbent and former commissioners of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority and investigating their properties are also on the list of KC’s demands.
Kedar Bhakta Mathema, a former vice-chancellor at Tribhuvan University who led a panel to recommend reforms in the medical education sector, told the Post earlier this week that the doctor has not put forth any demands that the government cannot address.
Civil society members say if the Oli administration cannot address all of the demands, it can at least form a dialogue team to initiate talks to save the doctor’s life. The Oli administration instead has nakedly displayed its contempt for KC, as it has done in the past for dissenting voices.
On September 22, when KC returned to Kathmandu from Jumla via Nepalgunj, the Oli government deployed police to forcibly take the doctor to the National Trauma Centre, against his wish to go to Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital. After much criticism, he was allowed to go to the Teaching Hospital, where he has continued his hunger strike for the past two weeks.
On Wednesday, a medical team attending to him issued a statement, saying that the doctor’s health is deteriorating fast and that he is in immediate need of critical care. KC, however, has refused to be admitted to the critical care unit.
Until Wednesday afternoon, the government had just “urged” KC to break his fast. Last week, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali, who is also the government spokesperson, said during a regular press briefing that “the government requests KC to call off his hunger strike, as most of his demands have been met”. On Tuesday, Education Secretary Gopinath Mainali met with KC and repeated the request.
The main opposition Nepali Congress on Wednesday came down heavily on the Oli administration for ignoring KC and not taking the initiative to form a team to hold talks with KC.
Civil society members say the Oli administration’s utter disregard to a social crusader who is on a peaceful protest undermines democratic principles.
Some call it an irony that a government led by the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), which is led by Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, is contemptuous for a peaceful protest, which is guaranteed by the constitution. Both Oli and Dahal have a legacy of bloody armed struggles. When Oli started his political career some six decades ago, he was one of those radical communists who beheaded people terming them “class enemy”. Decades later, Dahal led the “people’s war”, an armed insurgency against the state, which resulted in the loss of more than 13,000 lives.
Both Oli and Dahal take pride in their movements, saying it is because of their struggle in the past that the country has achieved a sea change. The Nepal Communist Party says it is leading a “pro-people” government.
Civil society members say despite calling itself “pro-people”, the Oli government has not shown any interest to address KC’s demands. Dr Jiwan Khestry, a vocal supporter of KC who also writes extensively on health care issues, earlier this week described the Oli administration as “insensitive” for ignoring the doctor’s demands as well as his frail health. “This government is never tired of boasting that it is pro-people, but it is not paying attention to Dr KC’s pro-people demands,” Kshetry told the Post. “The incumbent government is not just irresponsible; it is insensitive as well.”
On Wednesday evening, after growing pressure from several quarters, the Oli government decided to form a three-member dialogue team headed by Education Secretary Mainali. The two members of the panel are Gunraj Lohani, joint-secretary at the Ministry of Health and Population, and Dr Dilip Sharma, director at the Medical Education Commission. According to a secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office, the Mainali-led team will hold talks with Dr KC’s team on Thursday.
The decision to form the talks team followed a warning by the Nepal Medical Association, the umbrella organisation of doctors across the country, that they would halt emergency and all services for two hours on Thursday and whole day on Friday at all health facilities, including those which have been designated for treating Covid-19 patients.
According to Dhungana, the Oli government has become a status quoist.
“This government has largely failed to grasp the changes that the country has achieved,” Dhungana told the Post. “Such a status quo... such attitude not to change with times may cost us dearly. Even democracy will suffer.”
Even some from the ruling party say the government has lost its direction, as it neither has any planning nor vision to deal with the challenges and contemporary issues—be it the pandemic and the economy or KC’s ongoing hunger strike.
“The entire administration is directionless and running without a vision,” a Standing Committee member told the Post on condition of anonymity. “It lacks the vision. It is failing to address people’s sufferings; it has done nothing substantial in response to the coronavirus. It is losing its credibility.”
According to the member, the poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has badly exposed the Oli administration.
Officials from the prime minister’s secretariat, however, defended the government.
“Regular meetings are taking place, and the prime minister is doing his work as per his schedule,” Rajan Bhattarai, Oli’s foreign relations adviser, told the Post. “Cabinet meetings have not stopped. The party’s Secretariat meeting also took place on Tuesday.”
Bhattarai, however, said he did not have any idea about how the government was planning to move ahead regarding KC’s protest, as he was in isolation.
Bhattarai, along with Oli’s two other advisers, Surya Thapa and Bishnu Rimal, announced on Twitter on Saturday that they were in isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus.
Since Oli has been attending Cabinet and Secretariat meetings, he is clearly not in isolation, which doctors say is a breach of the health protocol set by his own government.
Baluwatar has not come up with any statement on why Oli does not need to go into isolation. Nor has it said whether Oli has been tested—if yes then when—for Covid-19 and what was the result. About 10 days ago, Oli’s personal photographer had tested positive for the virus, and about two weeks ago, his physician’s Covid-19 test too had returned a positive result. As of Sunday, as many as 144 members in the Baluwatar orbit, including army and security personnel, had tested positive for the virus.
“Baluwatar did not consider it necessary to release any update or statement on Oli’s health status because he had tested negative for Covid-19 last Thursday,” said party spokesperson Narayan Kaji Shrestha.
Political analysts say the Oli administration is losing its grip on governance.
“A country needs two things from the leadership. First is governing capacity and second is the system,” said Shyam Shrestha, a political commentator who has followed Nepal’s leftist politics for decades. “But both are missing in Oli. The country is stuck, as the pandemic continues to take hold.”