Deuba's denouement

Nepali Times issues #53 (27 July-2 August 2001) and #67 (9-15 November 2001).

Sher Bahadur Deuba became Nepal’s prime minister last week, and won a confidence vote in the House on 18 July. This is familiar terrain for a man who has been on this road four times before in the last 26 years.

And so have we, here at Nepali Times. Combing through our archives, we dug up the reports, commentaries and cartoons from the past 20 years about Deuba’s previous tenures as prime minister.

Few national leaders are offered so many chances to get it right. Yet, as we can see from his past tenures including this one, Deuba has struck when the iron is hot to manoeuvre himself to prime ministership. However, there have not been too many examples of successful governance that stand out.

And we hear that Deuba’s astrologers have told him he will be prime minister two more times after this!

When Deuba became prime minister for the first time in 1995-97, it was still looking like the restoration of democracy and open economy would allow the country to finally take a great leap forward. Foreign Direct Investment was flowing in. His high-profile wife, Arzoo Deuba, was a key link to the international community.

Local elections were beginning to devolve political power to the grassroots, ensuring more accountability and spurring development. But that was when the Maoists decided that parliamentary democracy was too slow to bring an end to a feudal monarchy.

Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai handed Deuba a 40-point demand (that included end to Gurkha recruitment and ban on Hindi movies) and an unrealistic deadline of a week to fulfil them. 

This was essentially a declaration of war, and sure enough on 13 February 1996 the Maoists launched their armed struggle. Deuba ignored the insurgency, and treated it like a law and order issue. But when he finally acted, it was to get the police to launch campaigns code named Kilo Sierra 1 and 2. Ordinary people in the western mountains were terrorised, and this drove them into the Maoist fold.

During his second term as prime minister in 2001-02 following the massacre of the royal family, the army was dragged into war and casualties escalated. More people were killed in the year after the Royal Nepal Army joined the conflict than in the previous six years.

Nepali Times issues #199 (4-10 June 2004), #229 (7-13 January 2005) and #859 (9-15 May 2017).

In 2002, Deuba dissolved Parliament (much like Oli did this year) declared a state of emergency and was eventually sacked by King Gyanendra who in a televised address called his prime minister “incompetent”. 

The king used and disposed of Deuba like a raggedy doll, bringing him back as prime minister for his third time (2004-05) and then promptly putting him under house arrest for corruption after he staged a royal-military coup on 1 February 2005.

Despite the ignominy, Deuba kept resurrecting himself. He returned to Baluwatar after 12 years in 2017 after consolidating his grip over the Nepali Congress and cobbling a coalition with the Maoists. Being prime minister between two phases of the election, Deuba after much bargaining with Dahal handed over the Home Ministry to the Maoists.

He must have had a strong sense of déjà vu when he had to undertake identical negotiations last week with Pushpa Kamal Dahal over the Cabinet. This time, not to repeat the mistake and with an eye on the 2023 elections, Deuba kept the Home Ministry but had to relinquish Finance to the Maoists. Now that he has won the vote in the House, there will be more parties to reward and appease with ministerial posts.

There are no permanent friends and foes in politics. But it is an irony of ironies that Deuba is now at the helm with the help of 'Prachanda' who tried to assassinate him, and on whose head he had announced a ransom during the conflict.

The return of Sher Bahadur Deuba signifies a break from the paralysing power struggle that prevented the Oli administration from addressing the people’s everyday concerns during the pandemic. The confidence vote this week also saves the exchequer an estimated Rs100 billion for an early election that will now not be needed.

And because this is essentially an election government, Deuba will have to get his disparate coalition to perform and deliver like never before. If he can maintain discipline in the Cabinet, showcase transparency, make breakthroughs in vaccination, job creation and disaster relief, voters may take kindly to him.

The signs are not good. Even before he won the vote, Deuba got his Nepali Congress colleague Bijya Kumar Gachhedar who had been convicted of corruption released on bail, and he has vowed to release another party member, Aftab Alam, who is in jail for murder. 

With this kind of track record, and given that this is a coalition with the Maoist Centre, we cannot expect meaningful progress on transitional justice for the victims of the conflict either. 

If the Deuba government behaves like it has before, it will only give the UML the chance to exploit the NC's incumbency disadvantage to return to power in 2023.