Arzu under fire for her remarks to stop grants where Congress losesAnalysts say her remarks reflect a lack of understanding of how the state functions.
It’s election season and parties and their leaders are out canvassing.
While soliciting votes for Congress candidates, she, however, went a bit over the top.
“Where there are no mayors of the Congress, why would we send money?” she said. “So, keeping this in mind, don't vote for karuwa [a Nepali pitcher with a spout], saruwa and haruwa [loser] parties.”
She was clearly asking people not to vote for Karna Bahadur Malla, the Dadeldhura district president of Nepali Congress who was expelled from the party recently for backing candidates of a fringe party named Nepali Congress (BP) in alliance with the CPN-UML. The party’s election symbol is Karuwa and it has fielded its candidates in several local units in the district.
The remarks by Arzu, the wife of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, have generated a flurry of reactions.
Analysts say what Arzu said reflects a lack of basic understanding of how the state—or the government—functions and that it reeks of a feudal mindset.
Arzu appears to have misunderstood the federal government as a family fief to insinuate that the administration run by her husband in Kathmandu would stop grants to local units where there are no Congress winners.
“Why does the Nepali Congress deploy madam [in election campaigns] to decrease the votes [for the party]?” asked Umesh Mainali, a former bureaucrat and an expert on administrative affairs. “It’s surprising that she doesn’t understand the constitutional provision of resource distribution. If she was talking about the pork barrel, that is outright an unethical political practice.”
Nepal went through some painful years as it strived to draw up a new constitution and restructure the state. After years of deliberations, the constitution adopted in 2015 turned the country into a federal republic guaranteeing three tiers of the government—federal, provincial and local.
The May 13 elections are taking place to elect as many as 35,221 representatives for 753 local units.
The state resources are distributed to local governments on the basis of a formula devised by the National Natural Resources and Fiscal Commission, a constitutional body led by Balananda Poudel.
Experts say the federal government of the day, regardless of which party is at the helm, does not have a say in resource distribution, as it should be carried out as per the commission’s formula.
Arzu’s remarks, according to experts, hence are outright objectionable and anti-constitutional and shows that she has little understanding of the federal system of governance.
A longtime politician, Arzu holds a PhD on Organizational Psychology from Punjab University, India and has been active in various social activities for decades.
She was a member of the Constituent Assembly—from 2008 to 2012 and 2013 to 2017. She, however, lost the last 2017 parliamentary elections.
She currently does not have any defined role in the Sher Bahadur Deuba government.
Earlier, in April 2017 also, she had run into controversy for her comments in Parliament demanding removal of the mandatory provision of picking a Dalit woman candidate for each ward in the local elections.
Rameshore Khanal, a former finance secretary, said that the distribution of federal funds to provincial and local governments is guided by the constitution and that even the federal government cannot override it, let alone an individual politician.
“Her statement reflects the mindset of most of our politicians,” said Khanal. “Even Thursday's statement by Maoist Centre chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal in Chitwan shows his feudal mindset.” While addressing an election rally, Dahal said that the alliance candidates should be voted if the country were to be stopped from slipping into an abyss.
“It’s unfortunate that Nepali politicians continue to treat people like subjects and not citizens, as if the Rana oligarchy rule still continues,” said Khanal.
According to Khanal, it’s worrisome that Nepali leaders are so drunk on power that they think they can do anything they want.
“There could be two reasons why she made such a statement. Firstly, her lack of understanding of the state functioning,” he said. “But it’s more because of the mindset of our leaders that they can say anything and go scot-free. Her statement reeks of arrogance.”
When UML chair KP Sharma Oli was prime minister, he too used to display an overbearing and pompous attitude to the extent of behaving as though he was the state. How Oli took a dim view of the constitutionally carved out federal structures was evident from his remark in May 2019 that the provincial and local governments were not autonomous units but subordinate agencies of the federal government led by him.
Poudel, the chair of the National Natural Resources and Fiscal Commission, said he was confused and equally surprised when he heard the statement by the Congress leader.
“The commission I'm heading has been envisioned to ensure equitable distribution of the country’s resources so that the resources won’t change on the basis of which party has won in which local unit or the province,” Poudel told the Post. “We have, therefore, set 132 indicators and a proper criteria to divide up the resources.”
According to Poudel, there could be some variations or room for manipulations when it comes to conditional grants from the federal government to the local governments based on locally prepared projects.
“Such a statement has now made us wonder if the conditional grants provided to the local governments were misused,” he said. “Now, we will have to study whether we have been able to ensure our constitutional duty of equitable distribution of resources. I will launch a study to see whether the conditional grants were manipulated.”
Nepal is holding local elections in a week as the local governments elected in 2017 are completing their first cycle, in a move towards strengthening federalism.
Experts say a lack of understanding of the federal system and state’s functioning and resource distribution among senior politicians like Arzu does not bode well for the hard-earned achievements. Not everyone can be well-versed on all issues but politicians can at least stay away from making random statements on matters they lack the knowledge of, according to them.
“She might have expertise in the non-governmental sector but actually she lacks political skills and acumen,” Mainali, who is also a former chair of the Public Service Commission, told the Post. “If people speak without even thinking, it can be counterproductive in politics.”
According to him, her statement is against the constitution and even if the government is responsible for distributing resources she has no authority to say what she said.
“How can politicians say they won’t take care of people who don’t vote for them?” said Mainali.
Congress leaders, however, defended Arzu’s statement.
“Her statement has been misconstrued. The remarks should be viewed in a holistic manner. She meant to say the Congress party will manage resources for the development of local units but the media only highlighted a small part of her speech and distorted the message,” Congress spokesperson Prakash Sharan Mahat told the Post. “It’s unfair that the media and the public are making comments without listening to the full speech while ignoring the message she was trying to convey.”