Conflict in ruling party hits governance hardMinisters busy resolving internal conflicts, bureaucrats don’t want to take risks in a fluid situation, experts say.
Tika R Pradhan
When the novel coronavirus, first detected in Wuhan last year, started to spread across the globe, governments sprung into action. The World Health Organisation on January 30 declared the outbreak a public health emergency.
The first case was reported in Nepal in January. It was during that time the ruling Nepal Comumunist Party was embroiled in a conflict over the selection of House Speaker.
Two days after the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Nepal, Agni Sapkota was elected Speaker after weeks-long tug of war between party chairs KP Sharma Oli, also the prime minister, and Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Immediately after, the party held its Central Committee meeting, which was overshadowed by disputes over the Millenium Challenge Corporation.
On March 4, Oli underwent his second kidney transplant. A day earlier, the government formed a high-level committee to fight Covid-19. Oli got hospitalised but he did not appoint an officiating prime minister, raising concerns over how the government would respond in case of a virus spread. Oli had a successful kidney transplant. The country escaped virus spread. When infections were soaring in various countries, the government imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 24. Nepal had reported just two Covid-19 cases.
Public health experts have long argued that the government failed to utilise the lockdown period for preparations to fight the pandemic. During the lockdown, the ruling party, instead, was in the midst of a conflict over Oli’s resignation.
Minister for Labour, Employment and Social Security Rameswor Raya Yadav agreed that the government couldn’t properly focus on combating Covid-19.
“Due to the uncertain situation following the internal wrangling in the party, we could not focus on combating Covid-19 with high self-confidence,” he told the Post.
Analysts say at a time when countries across the world were employing their medical wherewithal and political will to fight the virus, in Nepal, the ruling party was engaged in infighting.
“If there is a conflict within the party that is governing the country, governance tends to get seriously affected,” said Bimal Koirala, a former chief secretary. “Bureaucrats don’t want to take risks by making decisions when the political situation is fluid.”
The lockdown was lifted on July 21–by that time the number of Covid-19 cases in the country had crossed the 17,000 mark.
The country today has over 28,257 Covid-19 cases, with 114 deaths.
While the government had a lethargic response to the pandemic, corruption cases emerged, making matters worse.
The prime minister continued to make light of the virus threat–at times saying Covid-19 is not killing people in Nepal while other times he encouraged people to drink water with turmeric.
In June-end, when the country reported a sudden spike in Covid-19 cases, a faction in the ruling party was baying for Oli’s blood, demanding his resignation both as party chair and prime minister.
As the Dahal faction upped the ante, Oli, along with his ministers, was busy planning ways to resist pressure to resign.
“The Oli-led government completely lost the plot when it came to fighting the pandemic,” said Shyam Shrestha, a political analyst. “The internal conflict in the party led to knee-jerk actions rather than studied decisions.”
According to Shrestha, corruption cases with allegations that even health and defence ministers were involved exposed the Oli administration’s poor governance.
“The Oli Cabinet lost its focus due to the internal conflict in the party,” said Shrestha.
After corruption cases were reported, the Cabinet on March 29 decided to purchase medical equipment to fight the virus under a government-to-government deal. The army was roped in. But it took months for the equipment to arrive.
Meanwhile, Nepalis in large numbers from India started to return home. Since the borders were sealed, they were stranded on the other side of the border. Desperate to enter home, many used alternate routes to enter. Quarantine facilities set up near border areas by the government were so poor that public health experts doubted if they could help contain the virus.
As internal conflict grew in the party, Oli on April 20 introduced two ordinances–one related to party split and registration of a new party–aiming to use it as a weapon to tackle his opponents in the party. After much criticism that the ordinances were uncalled for at a time when the government should have been fighting the pandemic, Oli decided to withdraw them within five days.
On April 29, party leaders demanded Oli’s resignation at the Secretariat meeting.
In May, the Oli government’s focus shifted to border issues with India after the latter inaugurated a road link via Lipulekh to Kailash Mansarovar in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.
As Covid-19 caess continued to rise, Oli found refuge in a new Nepali political map. The decision to publish a new map and subsequently get endorsed by Parliament drew huge support from parties across the spectrum. The Parliament approved the new map depicting Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as Nepali territories on June 13.
The Oli government then sat on the laurels of publishing the new map, as virus cases showed no signs of abating. The conflict in the ruling party also escalated and on June 29, the party’s Standing Committee convened, with around 30 members once again demanding Oli’s resignation both as party chair and prime minister.
A Cabinet minister, who represents the opposition faction in the party, conceded that the party’s internal conflict hugely affected the works of the ministries.
“It’s obvious. We all know the nature of our society, bureaucracy and culture,” the minister told the Post who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisal.
The minister did not elaborate.
“Nepali bureaucrats are highly politicised,” said Koirala, the former chief secretary. “Instead of taking decisions and implementing policies they are more interested in pleasing political leaders. Even ministers could not take decisions with their positions insecure.”
Many of the ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Ishwor Pokhrel, Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa, Energy Minister Barshaman Pun, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali, Agriculture Minister Ghanashyam Bhusal, Tourism Minister Yogesh Bhattarai, Health Minister Bhanubhakta Dhakal and Forest Minister Shakti Basnet were engaged in various meetings to manage the party conflict. All these ministers, except Dhakal, are Standing Committee members of the party.
“The internal conflict in the ruling party made the positions of the prime minister and other ministers tenuous. How could we expect them to focus on governance?” said Rajendra Maharjan, a political commentator. “The government should have used all its might to fight the pandemic, which did not happen due to the ruling party’s misplaced priorities.”