In Oli administration, ministers don't even know of many Cabinet decisionsMinisters admit that they rarely speak up either because they fear retribution or they are hardly given a chance, as the prime minister is the one who calls the shots almost every time.
On Tuesday, when Minister for Land Reforms and Cooperatives Padma Aryal was asked whether Monday’s Cabinet meeting had discussed reopening the country for tourists from October 17, as it had been decided at an earlier meeting, she said “no idea”.
“Could you please ask a secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office? He could help you out about the Cabinet decisions,” said Aryal.
Two weeks ago, when Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, through a Cabinet decision, decided to recommend former finance minister Yubaraj Khatiwada and outgoing chief secretary Lok Darshan Regmi to ambassadorial positions and elevate foreign secretary Shankar Das Bairagi to chief secretary, ministers came to know about it later.
The Cabinet meeting of September 14 decided to appoint Khatiwada as special economic adviser to the prime minister.
Ministers, again, were not aware of the decision.
In a prime ministerial system, the prime minister makes the decisions, but all the agendas are discussed in the Cabinet. But in the case of the Oli administration, decisions are often made without the knowledge of ministers.
“We even don’t know many decisions the Cabinet made as the chief secretary drafts those, and sometimes they are not even read out at the meeting,” said a minister who spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to another minister, during a Cabinet meeting the chief secretary reads out the proposals of the meeting after the prime minister opens the floor and then the prime minister discusses the issue asking concerned ministers to clarify the proposals of his or her ministries and concludes the meeting after commenting on them.
Following the meeting, the chief secretary prepares the decisions and they are revealed by the government spokesperson through a press meet.
Regular Cabinet meetings take place on Mondays and Thursdays at Baluwatar but the decisions are usually revealed by the government’s spokesperson at the premises of the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology on Thursdays.
According to two former ministers in the Oli Cabinet, the prime minister can either add or delete any issue in a decision even after the meeting is over without the knowledge of the ministers and therefore they remain in dark about many of the Cabinet decisions.
Cabinet ministers including Labour Minister Rameshwor Raya Yadav say they should not speak out against what the prime minister decides upon in this parliamentary system.
In August, Oli overturned an earlier Cabinet decision to build the Nepal National Library at the prime commercial location of Jamal even though the Education Ministry had already spent Rs240 million on developing the property and making designs.
According to ministers, in the present Cabinet, Ghanashyam Bhusal, who is the minister for agriculture, is the only vocal critic of the prime minister and the government and does not balk at challenging Oli’s decisions.
When the prime minister brought two ordinances in April, only Bhusal and Minister for Energy Barshaman Pun had called it an untimely move, according to a minister.
The ordinances, one on the breaking up of a party and the other related to the Constitutional Council, were eventually revoked, even though the President had endorsed them, after widespread criticism from both within the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and outside it.
“In most of the significant issues and appointments, ministers do not have any say,” said a minister close to party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal requesting anonymity. “They are all decided by the prime minister and his advisors. Therefore, actually we have nothing much to do.”
Former ministers say that defying the prime minister could invite the sack.
“When I was the minister Gokul Baskota and I used to discuss pros and cons of the issues being raised at the Cabinet but no other minister would speak up,” said Sher Bahadur Tamang, former law minister. “In general there would be no minister who would differ in their opinions on the prime minister’s proposals.”
Tamang was forced to quit after he made controversial remarks about Nepali female students studying medicine abroad while Baskota resigned after he was caught on audio tape allegedly asking for a RS 700 million bribe.
“When the prime minister puts forth his proposal there won’t be anything to speak for ministers in this parliamentary system,” said Lalbabu Pandit, a former minister. “The prime minister should not interfere in petty issues of the ministries.”
In the prime ministerial system the prime minister is all in all, but party leaders and observers say the government’s decisions must be transparent and the existing system in which ministers act just as rubber stamps must change.
Political analysts have a different take on the system. According to them, even in the republican set-up, Nepal is continuing with the system and culture developed by the Panchayat during which the ministers were not allowed to criticise the king’s statements.
“There are examples of ministers countering the prime minister’s proposals even in India and other democratic countries but we are continuing with the culture developed during the Panchayat system,” said Shyam Shrestha, a political analyst. “Instead of developing a culture of analysing issues critically, we have continued the culture of treating ministers as puppets.”
Shrestha said if ministers fail to discuss the issues there won’t be any use of them, as all the proposals could be prepared by the secretaries of the ministries.
But not all prime ministers took as much control of the government as Oli does.
“During my ministership in Sher Bahadur Deuba’s term four years ago, we were given free rein to take decisions and there was no interference from the prime minister,” said former minister Asha Khanal, a ruling party leader and member of Gandaki provincial assembly. “The existing government seems to be worse than the previous ones in terms of freedom for the ministers to take decisions.”
A member of the party’s Standing Committee whose name is being taken as a ministerial candidate and is aware of Oli’s style of functioning said, “There is no meaning of becoming a minister in his Cabinet except getting the benefits and allowances.”
Oli’s working style has changed compared to his first stint in 2015 when he led a coalition government. He now leads a party with almost two-thirds majority in the federal parliament.
“Maybe because the government I worked as a minister was a coalition one, I didn’t feel much pressure from the prime minister compared to what the existing ministers are saying about Oli’s working style,” said Rekha Sharma, a former minister who served under Oli in 2015.
Former and serving ministers as well as analysts agree that there must be some space for the ministers to discuss the issues to be endorsed by the Cabinet.
“It would be better if we could set up a system to discuss the long-term consequences before taking any decision,” said Tamang, the former law minister. “But such a system will remain a distant dream in the rule of Oli.”