Oli, despite leading caretaker Cabinet, on spree to inaugurate and award projectsInaugurating them is an attempt to influence elections which the poll body should look into and awarding them risks future governments not owning them, observers say.
If there has been any direct act of defiance by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli against his ally-turned-foe Pushpa Kamal Dahal, it was on Saturday when he addressed a mass meeting in Chitwan, Dahal’s electoral constituency.
Oli also inaugurated the local city hall of Bharatpur Metropolitan City and the ring road there.
Conspicuous by her absence was Bharatpur mayor Renu Dahal, daughter of Pushpa Kamal and chair of a faction of the Nepal Communist Party.
Oli decided to go ahead with the inauguration despite the mayor’s opposition because it was too good an opportunity to be missed for his election hustings, and that it was in father Dahal’s constituency seems to have been an added attraction.
According to a leader belonging to the faction led by Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal, since the Oli government has turned into the caretaker one as elections have already been announced, the prime minister does not have the moral authority to inaugurate development projects.
“Since day one after the Oli government became the caretaker one, we have been urging Oli not to take decisions that have long-term ramifications and we have been opposing his move,” said a Standing Committee member of the Dahal-Nepal faction of the communist party.
On January 25, Oli inaugurated a bridge over the Rapti river in Rapti Valley, the capital of Lumbini Province. Later Oli and Shanker Pokharel, chief minister of Lumbini promised other half a dozen projects in and around Dang district. The foundation of the bridge that Oli inaugurated had been laid by Dahal in 2017.
Pokharel on Saturday laid the foundation for a road project in Rolpa after 25 percent of the construction work had been completed and over 14 percent of it paid for.
On Monday, the prime minister is scheduled to inaugurate the country’s largest electricity transmission substation in Dhalkebar, Dhanusha.
Not only is Oli on an inauguration spree, he has also been awarding major government contracts.
On Friday evening, a meeting of Investment Board Nepal chaired by Prime Minister Oli awarded the tender to develop the 679-megawatt Lower Arun Hydropower Project to India’s Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam under the build, own, operate and transfer modality.
Whether a caretaker government should award such a big project to anyone is a question that observers have raised.
“Awarding such a big project by a caretaker government may invite problems in the future as we have a very bad history of [governments] not owning projects awarded by predecessors,” said Bipin Adhikari, an expert on constitutional matters, said. “Budhi Gandaki is a good example.”
The Pushpa Kamal Dahal government in May 2017 had awarded a contract to the Chinese firm Gezhouba Group under the engineering, procurement, construction, and financing modality without competitive bidding.
The decision was overturned by the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government in November 2017, saying there were some procedural flaws while awarding the contract. Since then the fate of the much-hyped project with an installed capacity of producing 1,200 megawatt power is in limbo and it remains uncertain who will build it.
“If an issue over any project is raised in future, then someone has to be accountable,” said Adhikari. “Such big projects that have been initiated abruptly may face risks in the future. When the status of the government is being questioned, the present government should stay away from taking such decisions.”
Such activities of the government could also influence elections, others say.
“These are attempts to influence the elections,” a government secretary said, on condition of anonymity.
It would not be for the sake of the project that it is undertaken, he added.
“Such political ego and competition will hamper development projects and finally they may not be complete on time because none of the sides cooperates with each other in such a divided situation,” the secretary said.
Of the different legal challenges that Oli has been facing since he recommended the dissolution of the House of Representatives on December 20, that his is a caretaker government which cannot take big decisions is one.
On December 25, Oli reshuffled his Cabinet and inducted several ministers as those belonging to the Dahal-Nepal faction had resigned on December 22. Subsequently, a petition was registered in the Supreme Court saying since his had become a caretaker government Oli did not have the authority to appoint ministers.
If Oli’s is a caretaker government and does not have the moral authority to make big decisions is one argument, that his actions are against the election code of conduct is another.
“It is up to the media and the Election Commission to monitor such activities,” said Raghuji Pant, a standing committee member of Dahal-Nepal faction. “We have also drawn the attention of the commission to such matters.”
The Election Commission, however, has not implemented the election code of conduct.
“We will hold a meeting with all political parties and will enforce the election code of conduct,” said Rajkumar Shrestha, spokesperson for the Election Commission.
Generally, election code of conduct comes into effect once the election dates are announced, observers say.
“But in our case, we do not have a definite law about election code of conduct,” said Gopal Siwakoti, who monitors the election process in Nepal. “In practice, when the election date is declared, the process of election begins. But in our case the Election Commission begins implementing the code of conduct only after the formal election process or timetable begins.”
The elections will happen only if the Supreme Court upholds the dissolution of the House. But Oli continues to reiterate that elections will be held on the announced dates of April 30 and May 10.
Oli has not been missing any opportunity to declare that the House will not be restored, a claim that has attracted the attention of the court which has summoned him to be present in person by February 4 to face a contempt case for influencing the court.
For its part, the Election Commission is in a state of confusion and it is not speaking up because it is under the shadow of the Oli government, say leaders who belong to the Dahal-Nepal faction.
“Oli’s intention to visit Dahal’s home district and to inaugurate the city hall and ring road shows how desperate and fearful he is,” said Beduram Bhusal, a Standing Committee member of the Dahal-Nepal faction. “His attempts are to divert public attention from the main issue. But his tactics to win the elections by blaming us or others, by inaugurating projects or by doing any other political stunt will not save him.”