Man Power

The two alpha males of Nepali politics finally sorted out their differences, ending months of deadlock that had brought governance to a standstill.

They agreed on the one-job-one-person principle, so K P Oli will serve out his term as prime minister, and Pushpa Kamal Dahal will head the party. To drive the point home, Dahal held the party secretariat meeting last week not in Baluwatar, but at Paris Danda HQ of his erstwhile Maoist party in a room festooned with hammers and sickles, and life-size busts of Marx, Lenin, Mao and Stalin. Yes, Stalin.

The senior leaders are now senior citizens, and the masked men had a hard time climbing the fire escape ladder to reach the green-carpeted third floor meeting room. The secretariat membership consists only of men, most of them Brahmin communists.  

Predictably, Oli and Dahal are on the verge of falling out again over various overdue appointments to constitutional bodies, university chancellors, ambassadorships, as well as the much-anticipated reshuffle of the Cabinet. The two men are dividing up the spoils, and needless to say, most of those being considered for top jobs are men.

What an irony that after a ten-year war that was fought to drain Kathmandu’s swamp, the political calculus is the same, and the main actors are still all males from the dominant community. Corruption has now trickled up to a level where some of these appointments are reportedly ‘pre-paid’ -- offered in exchange for pounds of flesh.

This is necessary to balance the nefarious factions in the ruling party because whoever is going to be a minister now will be an incumbent during the 2022 election, and command the machinery of state during campaigning.

Over at the opposition Nepali Congress, things are not much better. Party honcho Sher Bahadur Deuba has been feuding with Ram Chandra Poudel for the better part of the past two decades, and that power struggle is still going on. Both are septuagenarians, and there is not a woman leader in sight.

The Constitution and its mandatory provisions for inclusion, quotas, and reservations have become a formality. Much more important for the ruling clique in the reshuffle, is to balance the interests of cronies, appease factions, and woo leaders from fringe parties needed to keep the two-thirds majority intact.

Only after that, if at all, will women leaders be appointed to ministries, and they will usually be marginal portfolios. Even those women are probably going to be relatives, like the wife of Bam Dev Gautam who needs to be appeased after the Supreme Court thwarted his plans to use his new Upper House seat leapfrog into a cabinet position.

It must be said that even if more women are appointed to the cabinet, they rarely behave any differently than their male counterparts. Minister of Water Supply Bina Magar is Dahal’s daughter-in-law, and presided over the eviction of an Italian contractor last year just before it was to complete the Melamchi project. Minister of Land Management is Padma Kumari Aryal, who this month decided to lift the three-year ban on fragmenting land holdings – allegedly at the behest of the real estate mafia.

Radha Gyawali as Energy Minister in Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s government in 2012 sacked Kulman Ghising from the Chilime Hydropower Project because he was doing a good job, and replaced him with a crony. 

We do have Shiva Maya Tumbahangphey who would have been an excellent Speaker of Parliament, but fell victim to Oli-Dahal infighting last year, and was made Law Minister. There are women deputy mayors who are performing admirably in managing the Covid-19 crisis in municipalities. And Nepal now has five female ambassadors who are flying the flag around the world.

Implementing constitutional provisions for gender parity and ethnic diversity in government should not be tokenism, there has to be an acknowledgement of meritocracy in appointments. Unfortunately, the Oli-Dahal bargaining over the cabinet reshuffle is all about wheeling-dealing at a time when the country faces the Covid-19 emergency. We need politicians with technocratic backgrounds in high office, not warlords perpetuating the pillage of state coffers. 

That does not seem to be what is happening. Oli and Dahal reportedly want to split ministries so there are 24 berths to accommodate candidates from their respective factions. If that is the arithmetic, then enforcing constitutionally-mandated affirmative action becomes meaningless.  

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