Deuba’s intriguing dilemma and his credibility chasmThe onus of taking the political process forward is upon the Congress chief. But given the dynamics in his party, and his relations with Oli and other parties, he is hesitating.
Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba is on the horns of a dilemma.
The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) is offering him the post of prime prime minister should he agree to form an alliance, along with the Janata Samajbadi Party, so as to unseat Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. For a four-time prime minister, the offer is tempting. But there is a catch.
Deuba is unsure about the Janata Samajbadi Party, which is a divided house. For Deuba to become prime minister, he needs the support of 49 Maoist lawmakers and almost all of the 32 Janata Samajbadi lawmakers.
The Nepali Congress has 61 seats in the lower house.
Insiders in the Congress party say Deuba, however, is faced with yet another issue—the party’s 14th general convention.
Legally, the party must hold the general convention by the middle of September and Deuba wants to lead the party again.
Deuba is caught between whether to take the government leadership or focus on general convention which could earn him party presidency once again.
Despite the government’s House dissolution move having been overturned by the Supreme Court, Oli has refused to step down, and many say Deuba, as the leader of the opposition, should have been at the forefront to press for the prime minister’s resignation.
According to observers and experts, Deuba has conspicuously failed to perform his duty as the leader of the opposition, as he could not stand firmly against Oli’s unconstitutional and undemocratic move of dissolving the House. More importantly, at a time when Oli has been attacking the constitution and parliamentary democracy, Deuba has not been able to speak up, they say.
“It’s true that Nepali Congress does not have sufficient numbers in the Parliament to be a decisive force and it is not sure about the possible coalition partners, as it has its own bitter experience with the Maoist Centre and the Janata Samajbadi Party is divided,” said Krishna Khanal, a professor of political science at Tribhuvan University. “That said, the Congress leadership has failed to create an atmosphere in its favour.”
In the Congress party, many believe that the Maoist Centre, in principle, should have withdrawn the support it lent Oli in February 2018 before seeking their support. But even if it did not, the Congress did have the responsibility to seek Oli’s resignation on moral grounds, some leaders say.
“Deuba and Oli seem to be on the same page,” said Dr Shekhar Koirala, a senior Congress leader. “That is why we have been failing to take the right decision at the right time. And this is weakening the party. Deuba in the meantime is toying the idea of becoming the party president again.”
Oli’s December 20 House dissolution move had attracted widespread opprobrium, with a sizeable number of Congress leaders quick to call it unconstitutional and undemocratic. Deuba, however, maintained his silence, or even while opposing Oli, it was a half-hearted effort, Congress leaders admit.
On most of the occasions, Deuba took a safe side—that there was nothing to say as the issue was being dealt with by the Supreme Court. And in principle, it looked justified, as conventionally a case sub judice in court does not warrant statements—neither for nor against.
According to at least two Congress leaders, Deuba himself gave enough ground to suspect if he was complicit in Oli’s decision to dissolve the House and declare polls for April 30 and May 10.
“Our party president barely spoke up despite the Oli government being embroiled in a slew of controversies and scandals,” said a leader who did not want to be named. “We should have asked for Oli’s resignation from the House floor, but Deuba chose not to speak. Deuba’s silence, which can be easily translated into his tacit support to Oli, on the government’s various moves including the ordinance on the Constitutional Council Act is mysterious.”
The 2017 election was a disaster for the Nepali Congress.
After pulling out support to Oli in July 2016, Maoist Centre chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal had formed an alliance with Deuba. The understanding was that Dahal would lead the government for seven months and then hand over the reins to Deuba to oversee the elections. The Maoist Centre fought the local elections under an alliance with the Nepali Congress.
But in the lead up to provincial and general elections on November 26 and December 7, Dahal and Oli declared their “left alliance” in October 2017, much to Deuba’s chagrin.
The people gave the mandate to the UML-Maoist Centre alliance (which merged in May 2018 to form the Nepal Communist Party) to govern for the full term. With just 63 seats, the Congress was left with no option than to lick its wounds.
Deuba, however, refused to step down as party president, something he was asked to do on moral grounds for failing to ensure victory for the party.
Oli’s House dissolution and snap polls, however, were a godsend for Deuba, say party insiders. Deuba was then suddenly licking his lips at the prospect of making a comeback through the snap polls and becoming the prime minister—for the fifth time.
But about two weeks after the House was reinstated, the Supreme Court on March 7 scrapped the Nepal Communist Party and revived the UML and the Maoist Centre, catapulting the Janata Samajbadi Party into the kingmaker’s position.
In the changed political landscape, Deuba’s chance of becoming the prime minister came even closer.
But his past experience with the Maoist Centre and the Janata Samajbadi Party’s indecision made Deuba hold his horses, say Congress leaders.
“That Deuba has aligned with Oli is an out and out baseless allegation,” said Prakash Sharan Mahat, the joint general secretary of Nepali Congress considered close to Deuba. “We are a party in the opposition and have a limited role to play. We don’t have the numbers and the Janata Samajbadi Party does not look keen on joining hands with us and the Maoist Centre to form a coalition.”
According to Mahat, Deuba has been in talks with the Maoist Centre and the Janata Samajbadi Party.
Following immense pressure—and to somehow mollify the critics and stave off criticism from the media, the Congress party on April 2 decided to take the lead to unseat Oli and form a coalition government.
“The Janata Samajbadi appears more inclined towards joining hands with Oli,” said Mahat. “What can our president do in this situation?”
Observers, however, say Deuba as the opposition leader could have done much more to help the political process move just while he focused on his party’s internal issues, including the general convention.
“Deuba can take the lead to form a coalition of the Nepali Congress, the Maoist Centre and the Janata Samajbadi Party,” said Kishore Nepal, a senior journalist who has been writing on political and social issues for decades.
“Why cannot he offer the prime minister’s post to Mahantha Thakur? Why is he hesitating to break the current impasse?”
Thakur, the chair of the Janata Samajbadi Party, is currently in the spotlight, as he and Rajendra Mahato have been negotiating with Oli for a power-sharing deal.
“The thing is Deuba and Oli share a good rapport and they have had some kind of understanding on key appointments and power-sharing issues,” Nepal told the Post.
Deuba does not seem to have any qualms over early polls if Oli can declare them again. If not, according to insiders, Deuba will put his efforts on winning the party presidency through the general convention and prepare for elections which are anyway due in November-December next year.
But analysts like Khanal, the professor, say politics is not just a power game and the Parliament is not just about forming governments and that politicians have a larger role and responsibility to play to ensure the rule of law, uphold the system defined by the constitution and protect demmocratic values.
“What has stopped Deuba from standing on the Parliament’s rostrum and seeking Oli’s resignation? Has Deuba ever challenged Oli and held him to account? How many times did Deuba stand to criticise Oli from the House?” said Khanal.
“Why is the Congress not filing a no-confidence motion against Oli? Registering a no-confidence motion does not always mean removing the government. It’s also a way to express dissent and keep the government in check.”