For Oli, power—not governance—is priority, as country fights virus waveThakur-Mahato faction joins government, inviting questions for themselves of being complicit with someone who they once opposed for his loathing for the Madhes.
Days of hectic negotiations on Friday culminated in the entry of a section of the Janata Samajbadi Party into the KP Sharma Oli government, with as many as 10 members from the Mahantha Thakur-Rajendra Mahato faction getting appointed ministers.
Eight members were sworn in as ministers, with Mahato also getting the deputy prime minister post, and two were appointed state ministers.
Even though Oli was elected in February 2018 to govern for the full term—what was seen as a semblance of stability in the country, he has thrown the country into uncertainty.
Observers say Oli has been using all the tricks in the book to cling on to power and the latest move of inducting ministers from the Thakur-Mahato faction is just a continuation.
Friday’s Cabinet reshuffle is likely to have direct implications in Province 2, as the Janata Samajbadi Party that governs the province is now vertically divided.
After the 2017 elections, the Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum Nepal and Rastriya Janata Party Nepal had formed the government in Province 2. The Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum was later renamed Samajbadi Party Nepal after its merger with Baburam Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti party.
Sanghiya Samajbadi Party, led by Upendra Yadav and Bhattarai, had merged with Rastriya Janata Party, led by Thakur, in April last year.
The Thakur faction’s decision to join the government follows Oli’s assurances to address its long-standing demands, including constitutional amendments, release of Resham Chaudhary and making public the Lal Commission report.
The faction claims that the Oli government has already addressed some of its demands.
Friday’s reshuffle comes at a time when Oli’s May 21 House dissolution move is being tested by the Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court.
Even though his earlier December 20 decision to dissolve the House was overturned by the Supreme Court on February 23, calling it unconstitutional, Oli repeated the act, which has been criticised again for being unconstitutional.
Oli’s status is currently reduced to a caretaker prime minister and instead of focusing on fighting the pandemic, he is engaged in reshuffling the Cabinet to fulfil his vested interests, say observers.
“A Cabinet reshuffle in general is not a big deal, but there has to be the rationale behind it,” said Bhojraj Pokharel, a former bureaucrat and former chief election commissioner who lobbies for good governance. “The reshuffle today is clearly aimed at influencing the elections, if they happen.”
Mahato has joined the Oli Cabinet as deputy prime minister and minister for urban development. Sharat Singh Bhandari has been given the Ministry of Energy, Water Resources and Irrigation, Anil Jha Water Supply, Laxman Lal Karna Land Management, Cooperatives and Poverty Alleviation, Bimal Srivastav Labour, Employment and Social Security, Uma Shankar Argariya Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, Chanda Chaudhary Women, Children and Senior Citizens and Ekwal Miya has been given the Ministry of Youth and Sports.
Chandra Kanta Chaudhary has been appointed state minister for energy, water resources and irrigation and Renuka Gurung state minister for women, children and senior citizens.
Oli has given continuity to Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel, Education Minister Krishna Gopal Shrestha, Law Minister Lilanath Shrestha and Physical Planning and Transport Minister Basanta Nembang.
Those who have been relieved of offices are Ishwar Pokhrel (deputy prime minister), Pradeep Gyawali (foreign minister), Hridayesh Tripathi (health), Bhanubhakta Dhakal (tourism), Parbat Gurung (communication and information technology) Padma Aryal (agriculture), Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe (land management), Ganesh Singh Thagunna (federal affairs), Prem Ale (forest), and Julie Kumari Mahato (women, children and senior citizens minister).
Three state ministers—Navaraj Rawat, Rambir Manandhar and Bimala BK—have also been removed.
This is not the first time Oli has quickly reshuffled his Cabinet whenever he felt his position was untenable.
Observers say Oli should have technically resigned when his first House dissolution was overturned by the Supreme Court. It was unethical on part of Oli to continue as prime minister even after losing the vote of confidence in the House on May 10, according to them.
“Now this sudden Cabinet reshuffle is a serious political and governance issue,” said Rameshore Khanal, a former finance secretary. “The politicians Oli has inducted into his Cabinet have been tried and tested and they are incompetent. They cannot deliver. It is apparent that Oli’s move is aimed at retaining power. He is eying elections.”
The Thakur-Mahato faction’s decision to join the Oli government, however, has intrigued some observers, including those who have followed Madhes politics closely.
There was a time when Mahato, a firebrand politician from Dhanusha, would not be tired of chiding Oli. Oli himself holds a reputation as an anti-Madhesi politician.
Thakur, a long-time Nepali Congress member before he decided to form his own party, is known as a principled politician.
CK Lal, political analyst and columnist for the Post, said he was amazed that “such a principled person decided to support Oli”.
“I find it inexplicable that Thakur decided to support Oli whose credentials are anti-democratic and anti-Madhes,” Lal told the Post last week when talks were ongoing between Thakur and Oli on joining the government.
The Thakur-Mahato faction started to lean towards Oli immediately from the second week of March.
In a dramatic incident, 15 members of the Thakur-Mahato faction stayed neutral when the House voted on Oli’s confidence motion on May 10. The Yadav-Bhattarai faction, however, voted against.
After Oli lost the confidence of the House, Thakur issued a statement saying that his party would not become part of any process to form a new government, indicating that it would not support the Nepali Congress in its bid to claim the government.
Thakur’s decision not to support the Congress-led to the reappointment of Oli as prime minister on May 13.
“I do not know or see any reason why people like Thakur who fought for democracy for five decades supported individuals like Oli, who is an anti-constitutional and anti-democratic person,” said Lal.
“Personally, socially, nationally and internationally, Thakur’s move to support Oli does not have any advantage for him or the Madhes. If we have a democracy, we can fight for our agendas forever, but when democracy dies, there is no space to fight for the agendas.”
While there is no dearth of questions against Oli for lacking moral grounds and principles to govern, questions now are being asked about Thakur also.
Thakur led a party to denounce the constitution when it was promulgated in 2015. The Madhes-based parties ever since have observed September 20, the day the charter was adopted, as “black day”.
The constitution promulgation had led to months-long Indian blockade, which gave Oli the nationalist plank to return to power.
Surendra Labh, a political analyst, said only time will tell how Thakur is going to convince his constituency of his decision to side with Oli.
“With conjectures from India, including by some diplomats and experts, that Thakur decided to back Oli at the behest of New Delhi, his credentials are sure to come under the scanner,” Labh, a member of Policy Research Institute, a government think tank, told the Post last week.
Thakur, however, has maintained that his faction decided to support the government because Oli assured that he would fulfil their demands. An ordinance on the Citizenship Act is seen as Oli’s move of trying to appease the Thakur-Mahato faction. But there are still concerns about its implementation and whether the ordinance indeed would help address the concerns raised by the Thakur-Mahato faction.
Bhattarai, who is currently on the opposite side of Thakur, on Friday questioned Thakur’s decision to join the government.
“The moot question—how have those who celebrated the constitution and who denounced it have come together? How those who cheat hill voters by championing ultra-nationalism and those who cheat Madhesi voters by talking about regionalism have come to the same place,” Bhattarai wrote on Twitter. “Where exactly is the root of this bonding between the supporters and opposers of the blockade? Have both not been exposed?”
Observers say how Thakur will deal with his constituency can be left for time to answer. The issue at hand is how Oli has manipulated things and effected an unnecessary reshuffle, not paying attention to governance at a time when the country is ravaged by the coronavirus, according to them.
“Oli’s only aim is to consolidate power. He just wants to assert that politics is still under his control despite losing the moral ground to govern,” said Lal, the political analyst, on Friday evening. “The constitution was rushed at his behest because he wanted to become prime minister at the earliest. Now he is doing everything to save his position.”
(Anil Giri contributed reporting)