Conjoined twins

In a recent meeting with editors of Nepal’s mainstream media, six months after assuming office, Prime Minister K P Oli was grilled about fears the monolithic Nepal Communist Party he leads was drifting towards authoritarianism. Editors listed the government’s recent moves constricting the democratic space.

The prime minister assured editors that his party had not deviated from its belief in liberal democracy, and maintained that his party was impatient to bring about an economic and political transformation of the country. 

Prime Minister Oli appeared worried that Nepalis were apprehensive about the future. He asked the media not to spread hopelessness by harping on the negative, because the resultant instability would once more derail his government’s efforts to steer the country towards prosperity. 

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For a leader dubbed the most powerful since Jang Bahadur, and a prime minister commanding two-thirds majority, Oli’s sense of insecurity was puzzling. He hinted at forces intent on destabilising the country, and was reminded that those forces were within his own government.

In particular, it has been the Home Ministry, led by former Maoist Commander Ram Bahadur Thapa, that has been at the epicentre of most actions dragging Oli into controversy. A university vice-chancellor was prevented from flying to Canada for a conference, and abducted from the airport for interrogation at Baluwatar. A former child soldier was similarly prevented from boarding a flight to Thailand, on direct orders from Minister Thapa. A doctor who refused to sign a fake report for medical compensation was kidnapped by goons hired by the Home Minister’s adviser. And, this week, a journalist was handcuffed and jailed for a report he filed (pictured).

Prime Minister Oli was the lightning rod in all these incidents. The way the crises are piling up, thick and fast, it would be logical to assume that someone is deliberately trying to undermine the prime minister. The PMO has taken the flak for the police’s inability to resolve a high profile gold smuggling scandal, even though the investigations come directly under the Home Ministry. 

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The Kanchanpur rape case has been grossly mishandled by police, who seem complicit in the crime, framing an innocent person and doing everything in order not to catch the culprit. Nepal's police was brazen about killing suspected kidnappers in a broad daylight, encounter-style, recently in the capital. The buck has stopped at Baluwatar.

The Oli administration’s backing for provisions in the Criminal Code and the proposed Privacy Bill, constricting the space of free media, also casts doubt on the prime minister’s assurances he will protect freedoms. It is surprising that a leader who has been jailed for the defence of democracy should, himself, now go on the offensive against a free press.

Let us remind ourselves that the NCP was created following an electoral alliance between the Maoists and the UML. The unification process itself was touch-and-go thanks to fierce bargaining for party leadership and rotational prime ministership.

Many in the ranks of both parties were against unity. In fact, the NCP has been described as a political party that was born with KP Oli and Puhspa Kamal Dahal conjoined at the head, but the two torsos are still separate. 

All is not well in the NCP leadership. Even while Prime Minister Oli has been suffering sustained attacks, and is being blamed for mishaps along the way, Dahal has been strangely silent. Not only has he not supported his colleague, he has publicly announced that the leadership of the NCP has been a failure. 

Dahal is probably getting his protege and former comrade-at-arms, Ram Bahadur Thapa’s Home Ministry, to undermine and embarrass Oli every step of the way. To be sure, as leader, the PM should know he is ultimately responsible for the conduct of his Cabinet and he has to take the blame. 

Dahal, on a visit to Delhi this week, received a welcome almost worthy of a prime minister. Baburam Bhattarai asserted at a book launch last week that the real reason for India’s blockade was not support for the Madhesi autonomy demand, but pressure on Nepal to roll back secularism from the new constitution. Is there a connection between that and Dahal meeting a Hindu right RSS think tank in Delhi? 

Dahal is now off to Beijing and it is clear he is positioning himself for succession by ensuring that North and South are fine with it. Within Nepal, especially within his own party, Dahal’s strategy is to not let Oli leave a successful legacy.

The fear is that under Dahal, and given the history and ideology of his Maoist party, the NCP will be even more authoritarian and will consolidate some of the restrictions on Western agencies in Nepal. The only check on this is to strengthen the hand of some those former UML leaders in the NCP who have solid democratic credentials.

Read also: 

Two-thirds empty , Editorial 

 Gagging the press in installments, Sewa Bhattarai

10 years ago this week

Prime Minister-in-waiting, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, was in New Delhi this week, just as he was in India on a state visit as prime minister ten years ago this week. In a Comment in the 12-18 September edition of this paper (#417) Deb Mukharji, India’s ambassador to Nepal from 2000-2002, had this to say:

The proposition of India as a threat to Nepal’s integrity and sovereignty, first elaborated by the palace in the early sixties to justify its absolute rule, was later to be used by all mainstream political parties to a greater or lesser degree. The Maoists are no exception. But a continuation of the same approach, justified at times as reflective of the views of the people, does not lead to constructive engagement. Besides, a democratic framework in India and a vigilant press do tend to ask uncomfortable questions on such issues.

Unfortunately, it is likely that elements in Nepali politics as well as in India would look for signs of a cooling in Nepal-India relations during the prime minister’s visit. One would hope that his openness and ability to face with candour the responsibilities of office would silence critics.’

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