In KP Oli’s ouster, there are lessons for others—what not to do when in powerA fall from grace for the leader who squandered a historic opportunity and strong mandate to govern, implement the constitution and safeguard democracy, observers say.
When KP Sharma Oli was elected prime minister in February 2018, he had a strong electoral mandate. The merger of his party CPN-UML with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) in May 2018 made him a prime minister with a near two-thirds majority in Parliament.
There were hopes and excitement—that decades of political instability had come to an end, the constitution would be implemented and the federal system would gain strength. Oli was set to lead the government for the full five-year term, something that had not happened in the country in the last two and a half decades.
But on Monday, after three and a half years, Oli was defenestrated from office by the Supreme Court. On Tuesday, Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba took the reins. And on Wednesday afternoon, Oli departed from Baluwatar for his home in Balkot.
It, however, was not a regular transfer of power as Oli created quite a mess of everything during his tenure, observers and analysts say. According to them, in Oli’s ouster, there are quite a few lessons for Nepali politicians on what not to do when in power.
“Oli squandered a historic opportunity handed to him by the people because of his arrogance, stubbornness and ego,” said Shyam Shrestha, a political commentator who has followed Nepal’s left movement for decades.
Oli had started demonstrating his authoritarian streaks right from the start when he started centralising power. As soon as he was appointed prime minister, he brought the National Intelligence Department, Department of Revenue Investigation and the Department of Money Laundering under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office.
His intolerance for dissent became apparent when he banned protests at Maitighar, near Singha Durbar, the government’s seat. His government then prepared a slew of bills aiming to muzzle the media, curtail freedom of expression and shrink civic space. Within his Nepal Communist Party (NCP) also he left no space for dissenting voices.
Failing to put his house in order, Oli then started attacking the system. He ignored constitutional provisions when he dissolved the House—twice in less than six months.
Observers and analysts say after failing on governance fronts, Oli started to trample upon the constitution, as he wanted to remain in power by hook or by crook.
“It was poor governance, ill-governance and sick governance,” said Bimal Koirala, a former chief secretary. “His government was embroiled in controversy and corruption in the purchase of medical goods to fight the coronavirus.”
According to Koirala, there was no improvement in service delivery, hence Oli’s was one of the weakest governments ever in terms of governance.
“He transferred civil servants every six months and threatened people who he found were not supporting him. He actually created a mess in the bureaucracy,” Koirala told the Post. “Going against the spirit of federalism, he centralised everything.”
But Deuba’s ascension is not a panacea to all ills. Deuba’s return to power may have ended Oli’s tyranny, but the Congress leader himself does not have a record of good governance that he or his party can boast about.
This is Deuba’s fifth stint as prime minister and whether he leads the government for the remaining one and a half years or just for six months depends on multiple factors.
Observers say if Deuba focuses on governance and does not repeat what Oli did, he has a great opportunity to prove himself, and both Oli and Deuba can leave a legacy for future politicians on what to do and what not to do.
“Deuba must internalise why and how Oli failed,” said Shrestha. “During his three years in power, Oli started acting as though he was a monarch. Oli has been ousted, but by the time he left, he had become a tendency, a phenomenon. Deuba must steer clear of Oli-like misadventures.”
According to Shrestha, not only Deuba but all politicians must understand the fact that when they are in power their duty is to serve the people, protect democracy, uphold the constitution and respect the system.
Oli’s prime ministership was different from his other contemporaries’ in many ways. He was the first prime minister to be appointed after the elections held under the new constitution promulgated in 2015 that guaranteed Nepal as a secular country and federal demoratic republic. With such a strong mandate, Oli’s primary duty was to implement the constitution and strengthen federalism while ensuring effective service delivery.
Oli, however, misunderstood the electoral mandate as unlimited power given to him to rule the country with an iron fist.
A Standing Committee member of the UML told the Post that though everyone in the party knew Oli very well, no one thought he would go to the extent of attempting to govern with an authoritarian style.
“We did not realise he would use the mandate given to him as a tool to destroy the constitution, the system and institutions,” said the member who did not wish to be named because he feared retribution. “Some of his actions in later years of his tenure put federalism, securalim, republicanism and democratic values at a great risk.”
Ever since democracy was restored in 1990, frequent changes of government became the bane of the country. After the 2017 elections, Oli’s rise to power with a strong mandate gave hopes that a strong government would put the country on the path of prosperity and development.
But Oli started using all the tricks in the book to remain in power. He had risen to power riding on the ultranationalist plank. After a little over two years in office, Oli once again took on India. His move of releasing a new map depicting Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura within the Nepali territory vexed New Delhi, but within the country, that earned him praise.
But as his position became untenable, he quietly set the territorial issue aside, stoked fresh controversial issues.
Observers say Oli miserably failed on foreign policy fronts as well. Though he had initially tilted towards China, in later years his affinity grew towards India. It would take a while for the new government to fix Oli’s lopsided foreign policy, according to observers.
“During his initial days in power, Oli was doing good. But gradually he adopted a hawkish foreign policy. He has left behind several issues unresolved,” said Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, a former foreign minister and ambassador. “There are now misunderstandings with India and other countries.”
Ever since Oli took the reins, his constant refrain was prosperity and stability, which in later years turned into a joke, as he busied himself with petty partisan politics, completely ignoring the fact that his primary duty was to strengthen governance. As pandemic ravaged the country, Oli was scheming ways to put his opponents down.
Many say Oli’s ouster and Deuba’s entry do not make much of a difference unless the incoming prime minister focuses on fixing what has been broken and improving governance.
“Deuba has an uphill task in front of him,” said Koirala, the former chief secretary. “Improving public health, focusing on economic recovery and strengthening governance should be Deuba’s priority, which were totally ignored in the last three years.”