Dahal’s redemptionHere’s a five-point roadmap for Prachanda to redeem his legacy
If all goes well, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Prachanda, the Chairman of CPN (Maoist Centre), is set to become Nepal’s 39th Prime Minister on Wednesday, his second time in eight years. His first inning as prime minister in 2008, after leading his party into an unprecedented victory in the first Constituent Assembly elections, failed to live up to public aspirations. Hubris, lack of administrative experience, and politics bogged him down heavily, giving him little room for manoeuvrings. But he did gracefully resign when he lost majority status. Since he came above ground in 2006, Dahal, whose nom de guerre means awesome, has gone from being described as awe-inspiring to awful in 10 short years.
As Prachanda prepares for his second inning, he is said to be mindful about not repeating his previous mistakes that gave him a bad reputation. His priority this time, he says, will be delivery and that he would put together a small and efficient Cabinet to achieve that. This is a fine aspiration, but given that he will be presiding over a coalition government, he will not have much leeway in deciding the size and composition of his Cabinet. Therefore, Prachanda will need to have clarity of thought about what is realistic and achievable.
Thematically, there are five key points that Prachanda will have to push in the next nine months: 1) expanding the acceptability of the constitution by reaching an accommodation with the Madhesi parties and thereby driving the constitution’s implementation forward; 2) concluding the peace process, particularly by making the transitional justice process credible so that Nepal is not seen unwilling or unable to deal with atrocities of the past—and avoiding more colonel Lamas in the dock in foreign courts; 3) addressing head-on the issue of lack of proper governance, including the delay in reconstruction, by instituting an accountability mechanism at all levels of the administration; 4) giving infrastructural development push some traction; and 5) continuing the recalibration in Nepal’s foreign policy while remaining sensitive to the genuine concerns of both India and China.
Each of these five key areas would demand that Prachanda put together a competent team of advisors, not just partisan hacks, to help him rapidly adopt policy options that can be implemented within his first 100 days. On the acceptability of the constitution, a trilateral task force is already fleshing out a plan of action. This task force should be given continuity until all issues related to restructuring of local bodies, demarcation of provincial boundaries and electoral constituencies are addressed.
Time for an overhaul
In credibly dealing with the transitional justice issue, Prachanda will have to put together another task force of experts, victims’ representative and the outgoing attorney general Hari Phuyal, who has already done substantive work behind the scene. On this issue, however, Prachanda risks being influenced too much by his own fear psychosis and that of his party members. As a result, the bills related to transitional justice may get watered down, leaving both the victims and the international community deeply unhappy. Prachanda should be able to say that if doing the right thing means going to jail, he is personally prepared for it. That kind of statesmanship can bring even the most reluctant party officials in line.
The third issue of governance is linked to the failure of all prime ministers. Prachanda will have to adopt a two-pronged strategy: empowering the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) while pursuing legislative reforms to institute an accountability mechanism that rewards and promotes civil servants based on performance. He would require a much more active PMO with the right combination of civil servants and political appointees with expertise. Most prime ministers are fond of hoarding powers and rarely delegate authority. If Prachanda is smart, he should appoint someone like Gagan Thapa as minister in-charge of the PMO to get the whole machinery rolling on a day-to-day basis to deliver on government priorities. He should also appoint as his chief advisor someone like Barshaman Pun, who is pragmatic and thinks outside the box. At some point, the public will expect the next prime minister to speak and act on protests surrounding the issue of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority’s overreach that has paralysed the administration and cowed politicians and lawmakers into silence.
The fourth issue of infrastructural push would also require another set of management experts, who would be given the authority to become the prime minister’s eyes, ears and hands to ensure that gaps in policy and implementation are addressed. Big projects often fail because the project managers come from civil service with no prior experience of handling such projects and no sense of accountability. Someone of Radesh Pant’s calibre, who has already proven his mettle at the Investment Board, can be the prime minister’s infrastructural czar—chief advisor and enforcer on infrastructure development.
On the fifth priority of foreign policy, depending on how active the in-coming foreign minister will be, Prachanda should consider appointing a special envoy who would assist both the prime minister and foreign minister and continually engage the two neighbours as Nepal’s ties with India and China enter a new chapter in the aftermath of the blockade. In India, under the Modi model, the current foreign secretary S Jaishankar doubles as foreign secretary and special envoy to the prime minister.
Prachanda certainly has his task cut out on multiple fronts. His success will depend on his choice of his staff and advisors early on to handle day-to-day affairs. He will have to appreciate the value of teamwork and understand that a prime minister by himself can get very little done. He will have to learn to take a leap of faith, delegating authority to his staffers and ministers. He is often said to take his family’s advice on matters where clearly they have no expertise. Whether or not Prachanda regains some of his lost reputation will depend on his decisions and actions in next few days and weeks. Unlike the cliché, it is highly unlikely that he will be third time lucky.