Nepal gets new prime minister as Deuba of Congress party sworn inThe Congress politician has taken over government reins for the fifth time with the responsibility to fight the pandemic and clear up the mess left by his predecessor Oli.
In February 2018, when Sher Bahadur Deuba handed over the government mantle to CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli, his party Nepali Congress had faced an unprecedented drubbing in the elections. Deuba led a coalition government, backed by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), that oversaw the elections.
But during the elections, UML and the Maoist Centre formed an alliance. Oli returned to power with a bang—he had the mandate to govern for the full term. Deuba had no option than to wait for five years for next elections, in hopes of making a comeback.
But three and a half years later, Deuba, 75, replaced Oli, 70, on Tuesday. This time again, he has the backing of the Maoist Centre.
President Bidya Devi Bhandari administered the oath of office and secrecy to Deuba on Tuesday, a day after the Supreme Court passed an order to do so.
Deuba has assumed office, for the fifth time, at a time when the country is battling a pandemic and questions are being raised about political parties’ lack of commitment to the constitution, system and democracy.
Deuba, who has returned to power earlier than he had thought, while has challenges galore ahead of him, he also has an opportunity to improve his image.
According to party leaders, experts and observers, Deuba's challenges begin from day one.
First, he has to win a vote of confidence in the restored House within one month from his appointment—by August 12. Since the Madhav Nepal faction of the UML has already made it clear that it no longer will stay with the Deuba-led alliance, Deuba could win the vote of confidence only if all 32 lawmakers from the Janata Samajbadi Party, which is a divided house, support him. If he wins the vote of confidence, he will remain prime minister for one and a half years, until periodic elections are held.
But if Deuba fails to win the vote of confidence, the House would be dissolved, and elections must be held within six months. And his government will be overseeing the snap polls.
That, however, is just a political part, according to analysts and observers. Fighting the pandemic, strengthening institutions, putting the constitution back on track and upholding the rule of law will be major challenges for Deuba, they say.
Deuba’s earlier stints as prime minister have not been successful, and on one occasion—in 2002—he was sacked by then king Gyanendra branding him incompetent.
“Whenever he became prime minister, controversies have tailed him,” said Bhojraj Pokharel, who was home secretary in 1991 when Deuba was home minister. “His past is chequered. Will he be able to clean up his image this time? Can he manage the coalition? He has lots of challenges to overcome,” added the former chief election commissioner and a champion of good governance.
Deuba currently has the backing of the Maoist Centre and the Upendra Yadav-led faction of Janata Samajbadi Party. Deuba on Tuesday formed a small Cabinet with two ministers from his party and as many from the Maoist Centre. The Yadav faction is most likely to join the Deuba Cabinet soon.
Maintaining a fine balance with his coalition partners won’t be easy for Deuba, as his supporters are leaders like Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Upendra Yadav, both known as clever politicians.
But creating a history by becoming a prime minister for five times too is no mean feat, and this also makes Deuba a successful politician. But his delivery as prime minister has been questioned in the past too.
Five months after he first became prime minister on September 12, 1995, the Maoists declared their war, led by Dahal, against the state. The Maoists had submitted a 40-point demand to Deuba and served an ultimatum. A month after the Maoists launched their “people’s war”, Deuba left office on March 12, 1996.
But he returned to power again in 2001 in the midst of the “people’s war”. He imposed a state of emergency to quell the Maoists’ violent attacks across the country. He had his own fight to battle against then Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala.
As peace talks failed to make any headway, pressure was building on him from his own party to lift the state of emergency.
In May 2002, he dissolved the Parliament. But when he sought to postpone the elections scheduled for October that year, Gyanendra dismissed him.
In September 2002, he decided to part ways with Koirala and formed his own party–Nepali Congress (Democratic).
But politics continued to favour him. In 2004, he once again managed to return to Baluwatar, only to be dismissed by Gyanendra again when he assumed absolute power on February 1, 2005 in a royal coup. Two years later, Deuba decided to mend fences with Girija Prasad Koirala. The Nepali Congress (Democratic) was dissolved.
He became party president from the 13th general convention in March 2016, months after the promulgation of the constitution. In July 2016, the Maoist Centre suddenly pulled out its support to then prime minister Oli who had succeeded Sushil Koirala in October 2015. Deuba struck a deal with Maoist Centre’s Dahal for the formation of a coalition government. After leading the government for nine months, Dahal paved the way for Deuba to lead the government in June 2017, which oversaw the elections that his party lost.
“Deuba is one of the fortunate leaders in Nepali politics. He is not a man of ideology or he is not someone who follows some philosophy,” said Suresh Chalise, Deuba’s friend from student days and former ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. “He is just a pragmatic leader.”
Pragmatic, however, is a term for Deuba which he uses well for his gains. Despite his party failing badly in the 2017 elections, Deuba refused to step down as party president. Deuba is eyeing yet another term.
As the leader of the opposition, Deuba’s role was called into question on various occasions, and at times he was branded Oli’s biggest ally as the latter trampled upon the constitution and the system.
“Deuba has been tested time and again and he has failed as a politician,” said Krishna Khanal, a professor of political science at the Tribhuvan University. “He has a chequered and controversial past. I am doubtful about his performance.”
As Deuba has taken over, his immediate challenges are ensuring vaccines for all, implementing the constitution, managing the alliance and delivering on governance, according to Khanal.
“If we see his past, he had always tried to please the king and the army so as to ensure that he got to rule the country,” said Khanal. “Last time when he left Singha Durbar, he handed it over to the communists.”
Many believe the basis for Deuba’s return to power for the fifth time was partly created by Oli’s folly. Oli’s misadventures, with the constant backing of President Bidya Devi Bhandari, reached the peak when he dissolved the House on May 21 for a second time.
Before dissolving the House, Oli had demonstrated the audacity to lay claim to the post of prime minister a day after declaring that there was no political situation for him to secure a majority. Deuba too had reached out to President Bhandari with the signatures of 149 lawmakers demanding that he be appointed prime minister.
After the President rejected the claims by both Oli and Deuba, Oli dissolved the House.
The Supreme Court on Monday ordered the Office of the President to appoint Deuba as prime minister by 5pm Tuesday as per Article 76 (5). The Office of the President appointed Deuba on Tuesday afternoon.
But as controversy has either followed or preceded Deuba’s prime ministership in the past, the trend continued this time also.
Deuba’s swearing-in function was delayed by hours due to a fresh controversy over the appointment letter in which the Office of the President did not mention under which article he was appointed prime minister. After much debate and discussion, the Office of the President corrected the letter, following which Deuba was administered the oath of office at around 8:20pm. Oli decided to skip the ceremony.
Deuba then administered oath to Balkrishna Khand, Gyanendra Bahadur Karki, Janardan Sharma and Pampha Bhusal as ministers for home, law and parliamentary affairs, energy and finance, respectively. Questions were immediately asked why Deuba did not appoint a health minister at a time when the country is reeling under the coronavirus pandemic.
“Deuba faces a host of challenges as prime minister, and due to his past, people have already started questioning his credentials,” said Kishore Nepal, a senior journalist who has known Deuba closely for years. “The country’s economy is in a bad shape. We have to fight the pandemic. Deuba also needs to clear up the mess left by Oli on political, constitutional and governance fronts.”
Deuba took over from Oli almost exactly three years and five months after he had handed Singha Durbar to the communist leader.
If Oli, who once had a near two-thirds majority in the House, had continued, he would have overseen elections next year. But time has once again brought Deuba to a position that his government once again will conduct the elections–regardless of whether he wins or loses the vote of confidence.
“Coming days are very crucial for Deuba,” said Nepal, the senior journalist.
Following Deuba’s oath as prime minister, Gagan Thapa, a Congress leader, put the challenges and opportunities before his party president succinctly.“On the one hand, there is a responsibility to implement the constitution. And on the other, [we have to] give hope to the people who have been made to suffer from various problems including the pandemic because of the Oli government’s inactions,” Thapa wrote on Twitter. “We don’t have the luxury to fail. Hope he will fulfil his responsibility by converting these challenges into opportunities.”