An oath of office when people are gasping for breath as well as answersAs Oli has been sworn in as prime minister again, he now must focus on fighting the pandemic and saving lives, leaving his political games aside, analysts say.
Tika R Pradhan
When KP Sharma Oli was taking the oath of office as prime minister on Friday afternoon at Sheetal Niwas, in Balaju, some six kilometres southwest from the presidential palace, hundreds of ordinary citizens—nervous and worried, some of them crying—were queuing up to get hold of one of the most essential components that could save the lives of their dear ones, oxygen.
The pomp of the oath-taking, a ritual when a prime minister is elected, was immediately pointed out by many as a ceremony that insulted the people of the country—an affront to citizens’ fundamental rights to health and a life with dignity.
In what came as a shock to many that Oli even skipped the part where he, as the prime minister, has to “commit” to serving the people abiding by the constitution and the law.
Immediately after assuming office, Oli addressed his ministers, where he said there is no shortage of beds—a blatant lie—even as doctors for the past few weeks have been saying hospitals have run out of beds as well as oxygen and they cannot admit new patients.
On Thursday, Dr Santosh Paudel, director at the National Trauma Centre, told the Post that most of its over 100 patients would have died had the facility failed to manage oxygen in the nick of time.
Analysts say that since Oli has been reappointed as per the constitutional provisions, there is not much to complain about, but it would be a great service to the people if he shed his self-aggrandisement and turns his focus to the Covid-19 pandemic that has overwhelmed the country.
Nepal on Friday logged 8,467 new coronavirus cases. The Health Ministry said 203 died of Covid-19. The country's active cases stand at 107,336. The national coronavirus infection tally has reached 439,658.
It has now become apparent that the Oli administration's spectacular failure led the country to such a situation, as in the period when the cases were ebbing, Oli and his supporters made triumphant declarations that Nepal had won the battle against the virus.
Public health experts, doctors and leaders say Nepal’s healthcare system cannot handle the situation anymore and soon things could spiral out of hands leading to a catastrophe.
“I hope Prime Minister Oli now leaves all his political games behind and focuses only on how his administration can save the lives of people,” said Gagan Thapa, a Nepali Congress leader and former health minister. “Oli as the prime minister controls the system and I wish he uses all the state machinery in the fight against the pandemic.”
Thapa is the same leader who Oli had mocked last year, when he countered the prime minister’s statement claiming Nepalis have strong immunity against the virus.
Oli’s mocking of Thapa was just an example of how the prime minister was downplaying the virus threat and offering unfounded remedies for Covid-19.
Until Saturday, amid the virus onslaught, Oli was reluctant to admit that people were dying and suffering, as he made a grand statement on CNN—that the situation is under control. His admission that the country had already got into a deep crisis came two days later, when in an opinion piece in The Guardian, he pleaded before the international community for support.
“It is the time of difficulty when the actual leader’s skill, acumen and capability is measured. There is a panic among all sections of society. Political uncertainties could have invited more crises,” said Dr Mingmar Galgen Sherpa, former director general of the Department of Health Services. “That Oli is back in power, it would be good if he postponed every other insignificant event and focused on fighting the pandemic.”
“It’s urgent. Every day hundreds of people are dying.”
Sherpa said the prime minister should work on bringing vaccines besides managing necessary supplies including oxygen, ICU beds, and ventilators in hospitals.
Despite becoming one of the first countries in the world to launch a vaccination drive, Nepal’s inoculation programme has hit a snag. The country has not been able to import new consignments amid blame games and corruption allegations between the health minister, government officials and “local agents”.
Oli, meanwhile, had been so engrossed in saving his chair that his administration did not explore options. Nepal was heavily reliant on India for vaccines. But the second wave has brought India to its knees and it is looking to the international community for assistance.
The Oli administration did not explore possibilities with China, the northern neighbour, also a powerhouse in terms of Covid-19 vaccines.
With international flights suspended, concerns are now growing if Nepal could run out of other necessary medical supplies. The way Nepal’s parliamentarians queued up for the second dose of vaccines even as over 1 million people are not sure about getting their second dose also raises concerns about equitable justice in Covid-19 response.
Amod Pyakuryal, a medical sociologist, said that Nepal has become a hotbed of the coronavirus pandemic is an understatement.
“There’s no denying that the government and political parties completely failed to take the pandemic threat seriously,” Pyakuryal told the Post. “The government failed spectacularly. Nonetheless, Oli now has an opportunity to improve his image and show his leadership quality. How the political leadership tackled a certain pandemic is remembered in any country for generations.”
But whether Oli will commit fully to fighting the pandemic, leaving aside political differences and shenanigans, is not clear. He was appointed prime minister on Thursday, days after he lost a confidence vote in the House, after a section of the Janata Samajbadi Party threw its weight behind him. Oli’s appointment was possible also because he managed to placate the rival faction led by Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal within his CPN-UML party.
He now needs to secure a vote of confidence in the House within 30 days.
Analysts say Oli’s tough political times are not over yet, and since he has a penchant for political games rather than governance, it cannot be said yet how his administration would respond to the deepening virus crisis.
Many say Oli is still eyeing early polls, and he might succeed in his goal by dissolving the House again. If Oli convinces the Thakur-led faction of the Janata Samajbadi Party to stay neutral again when he seeks the House confidence in 30 days, the country would head towards polls, as by then all the constitutional provisions to form a government from the House would have been exhausted.
The Thakur faction had stayed neutral during Monday’s vote of confidence of Oli.
“It would be stating the obvious to say Oli's priority should be the fight against Covid-19,” said Rajendra Maharjan, a political commentator and a columnist for the Post’s sister paper Kantipur. “But as is his wont, he won’t refrain from his own political games.”
That his focus is still not on the raging pandemic, according to Maharjan, is evident also from the fact that immediately after his oath, he decided to inaugurate a conference hall.
“If he seriously considers himself a pro-people ruler or if he is sensitive about public health, he must put everything else on a halt and channelise his focus on dealing with the pandemic,” Maharjan said.
On Friday, why Oli skipped the phrase “I vow” while taking the oath also raised many an eyebrow. He appeared to be dictating the President, who was administering the oath, what should be said and what should not.
Constitutional experts say there is a set format of the oath text, which must be duly followed. However, Nepal’s communist leaders have for long committed “in the name of god”, and this has become a norm—Oli skipped that on Friday as well. But why Oli would not say he “vows '' to do his constitutional duties towards the country and the people honestly remained unanswered.
Chandra Kanta Gyawali, a senior advocate who specialises in constitutional law, said Oli cannot change the oath; if he did that, he needs to take it again.
Gyawali cited a Supreme Court order to Paramananda Jha to retake the oath of office, as he had not abided by the set format of the oath. Initially, Jha had taken the oath in Hindi, by translating the oath text impromptu as he was sworn in.
“Oli must take the oath again as he has missed an important phrase in the text for the oath,” Gyawali told the Post. “He has also disrespected the President by telling her what is unessential.”
While Oli is blamed for the poor handling of the pandemic, politicians across the spectrum too are to blame, analysts have pointed out over the past months. The opposition parties too indulged in the game of political brinkmanship, forgetting their primary duty that they need to hold the government to account.
Thapa, the Nepali Congress leader, who does not deny political parties’ failure, however, has been at the forefront of questioning the government and launching initiatives of his own to create support groups for Covid-19 patients.
“Only if Oli devoted some of his time to discussing ways to manage oxygen by cancelling or postponing his inaugurations or his political meetings, could many lives be saved,” Thapa told the Post. “Oli has a golden opportunity now to show his leadership skills and improve his image. Is he going to do that? I am not sure.”
Binod Ghimire contributed reporting.