Nepal is a hotbed of virus and politics

Illustration: DIWAKAR CHHETRI

The most glaring failure of the past year has been the state’s abdication of responsibility towards public welfare and safety during the country’s unprecedented health emergency.

Nepal’s leadership underplayed the seriousness of the pandemic, dithered, reacted too late with too little, peddled misinformation about quack cures, dabbled in superstition, held super-spreader political rallies, bungled on Covid-control measures, failed in implementation, tried to make money off contracts for medical material, engaged in a bitter blame game.

Countries that have fared the worst in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic have been the ones with elected populist demagogues: Trump’s America, Bolsanaro’s Brazil, Modi’s India. The United States is a dramatic example of how regime change and reorientation of national priorities by accountable leaders can directly save lives. Even semi-authoritarian states have been more successful in controlling the spread of the disease.

In Nepal, throughout the past year, Prime Minister K P Oli has been too busy fending a challenge to his power in government and in the party (first the NCP and then the UML) to pay much attention to governance. His rivals Pushpa Kamal Dahal, now back in the Maoist Centre, and Madhav Kumar Nepal in the UML’s dissident faction, also forgot about the country’s health and economic emergency in their single-minded focus on unseating Oli.

Commentators have likened this to a duel on the deck of the Titanic, or a quarrel about who gets to sleep in the master bedroom when the whole house is on fire. One has to hand it to the prime minister, he has turned himself into such an important player, that he split not just his own NCP and UML, but now even the NC and the JSP are divided between pro- and anti-Oli factions.

As fate would have it, the grande finale of this political circus is taking place just as Nepal’s daily Covid-19 case count and fatalities rise steeply to a peak. Public health experts predict that at the rate new cases are doubling, there will be 15,000 new daily positives and perhaps 100 fatalities per day by mid-May. And that will not even be the peak yet.

Not that all this seems to matter to those who want to dethrone Oli, or to a prime minister who has demonstrated that he will stop at nothing to keep his seat. To be sure, a Covid-19 tsunami of this proportion would have caught the most efficient country flat-footed. But that is no excuse. In fact, smart leaders can turn a crisis like this into a golden opportunity to reshape their sagging image through delivery and performance.

Prime Minister Oli’s dissolution of the Lower House on 20 December caught the Dahal-Nepal faction within the NCP off-guard. When the Supreme Court reinstated the House a month later, the two fed each other ladoo in celebration, but they felt tricked when the Court subsequently ruled that the NCP be split its constituent UML and Maoist Centre.

Even then, Dahal had not withdrawn support for the UML because he did not have the numbers to form a government without the NC and JSP, and it could not present an acceptable alternative to Oli as prime minister.

After Prime Minister Oli got the President to call a special session of Parliament for 10 May to face a confidence vote, Dahal finally pulled the rug from underneath Oli, effectively making the UML a minority government.

Oli thinks: head I win, and tail Dahal-Nepal lose. If he carries the confidence vote, Oli remains prime minister, if he loses he will call early elections—something he has wanted all along. Even Oli’s opponents grudgingly admire this audacious move, and rivals are scratching their heads.

Both Oli and Dahal have been courting the support of the opposition NC for the confidence vote. But the NC is divided between the Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Paudel factions, and the JSP also has former Maoists Upendra Yadav and Baburam Bhattarai on one side, and Mahanta Thakur and Rajendra Mahato supporting Oli.

Dahal and Nepal are in different parties now, and in the horns of a dilemma. There is too much bad blood between Nepal and Oli, but there is pressure to keep the UML united in the confidence vote, or if there is a snap poll.

A lot will now depend on the arithmetic of the House, where of the 267 current members, the UML has 121, the NC has 61, the Maoists are down to 49, and the JSP has 32 seats. Oli therefore needs 136 votes to win the confidence of the House. The UML’s numbers alone will not suffice, and there is a chance that the Nepal faction will either break away or cross the floor.

Oli will need to have the support of the NC and JSP, but he seems to be lobbying only half-heartedly, which has led some to think that he expects to lose so he can call early elections.

Recent public opinion polls show that most Nepalis could not care less about this power struggle, and with the pandemic raging  across the land, they would like the parties to bury their differences for now and unite in the fight against the deadly scourge.

If only Nepal’s political leaders had shown the same acumen in confronting the present health-economic emergency that they have demonstrated in undermining each other, Nepal would be in a much better place today.

Kunda Dixit

writer

Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).

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