Playing politics in a pandemic

Prime Minister Oli and NCP co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal maintain physical distance at a meeting on Wednesday of MPs from the Far-Western Province to discuss the Cabinet's two ordinances. Photo: PMO

K P Oli is now halfway through his term as prime minister  With almost a two-thirds majority, there was much hope that he would show the kind of statesmanship needed to fulfil his election promise of stabilising politics to focus on raising living standards.

The people believed him, and gave his party an overwhelming mandate. But the NCP predictably fell into the same rut as governments since 1990 -- tainted by cronyism, corruption, poor governance and an utter disregard for the poor and weak sections of Nepali society.

Pressure mounts on PM Oli, Saindra Rai

Although Nepal has so far, quite luckily and inexplicably, escaped the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic  it has exposed the structural imbalance and inequality in Nepali society. Poor state management and political failure have been the hallmarks of previous governments, but this virus has brought it up to the surface like nothing before.

It is not just Nepal, around the world the pandemic has exposed governance failure and poor leadership. Some analysts maintain that authoritarian states have been able to better control the spread of the disease, while democracies have floundered.

But for every China there is an India, and for every New Zealand there is an Iran. Just like the virus does not respect national boundaries, it does not seem to care about ideology either. In this war, what is important is the health strategy of the state, how strictly isolation is enforced and for how long. The virus does not care if it is a totalitarian government that does it or a democratic one.

Governments are also faced with a stark choice: protect the health of citizens or save the economy. The economy cannot be saved unless you make it safe for citizens first, but some governments have quite openly tried to keep businesses going. This is where politics gets tangled with the pandemic.

Prime Minister Oli heads back to his residence in Baluwatar after the Cabinet meeting on Monday that endorsed an ordinance to make it easier for political parties to split. Photo: PMO

Some democratic countries using the disease as an excuse to stifle dissent, squeeze the media  and abuse emergency powers. Other elected governments which have failed to manage the epidemic effectively, or have shown a disregard for the vulnerable, resort to extra-constitutional measures to cover up their deficiencies.

The Oli administration is guilty of both. The pre-coronavirus legislations on media control hang like a sword over the heads of journalists. The prime minister himself accused reporters this week of exaggerating the plight of tens of thousands trapped by the lockdown  He has accused the media of having a political agenda in exposing his secretariat’s nexus with businesses profiteering in procurement contracts of medical equipment from China.

Even before the pandemic, disillusionment was running high. The Oli government was wracked by one scandal a week – the real estate heist in Baluwatar, the access given to Yeti Holdings over former royal property, the security printing press deal in which Oli’s trusted Information Minister was caught on tape negotiating a $6 million kickback. And now, the blanket coverage in the media of people left hungry, tired and cashless by the lockdown has exposed the communist government’s lack of sensitivity to the proletariat.

Physically weakened by his second kidney transplant, the politically isolated within his own party, the beleaguered prime minister made a surprise move on Monday by getting the Cabinet to pass two ordinances, one of which will make it easier to legally split a political party. This sent a shock wave through the NCP, brought howls of protest from coalition partners and the opposition, and a wave of outrage from commentators and social media.

Indeed, the timing was all wrong. Why was Oli in such a tearing hurry to allow political parties to split, when the country, and the world, is going through one of its worst crises in recent times? This was the time to focus on figuring out a post-COVID-19 exit strategy, and getting the economy cranked up again. For this, the country needs all political parties to row in the same direction.

What the ordinance proves is that for the prime minister, his own political longevity is more important than the country’s ability to survive the pandemic and its economic fallout. His goal is still to prevent his arch-nemesis Pushpa Kamal Dahal from succeeding him as prime minister for which he is trying to thwart a possible no-confidence vote against him by holding up the threat of splitting the party.

But what the move exposed is a wholesale disregard for democratic norms, constitutionalism, and an undermining of an elected parliament. This will force the country into prolonged instability. And instead of making him stronger, the move has weakened Prime Minister Oli.

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