Two-thirds empty

Bikram Rai

The Oli administration is arguably the strongest government Nepal has had since 1990. It wields de facto control over the legislature, executive, the judiciary and the security agencies. In addition, the constitutional organs are heavily influenced by the Prime Minister’s Office. With a two-thirds majority, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) is virtually oppositionless.

Which is why, given its stranglehold on power, it is surprising the government is behaving like it is a fragile coalition on the verge of collapse. Recent actions and pronouncements by the Prime Minister and his supporters to lash out at critics show that the Communists have a low tolerance for criticism. Instead of being two-thirds full, the government is behaving like it is running on two-thirds empty.

This week, at a close-door meeting of a media club loyal to the government, both Prime Minister Oli and Prime Minister-in-waiting Pushpa Kamal Dahal blamed the messenger: exhorting reporters to go all out against detractors, enticing them them with government advertising as reward.

Information Minister Gokul Basnet, a former journalist himself, axed an NTV talk show after the anchor grilled him on live television. When Bhaktapur was inundated earlier this month, ruling party MP Mahesh Basnet in Parliament denounced those poking fun at the Prime Minister on Facebook, threatening to book them under the cyber crime law. Government lackeys have unleashed trolls, and spread fake news on social media to discredit critics.

The NCP started it all last month by leaning on the President to grant a Republic Day pardon to convicted murderer Bal Krishna Dhungel. The state is thumbing its nose at war victims seeking truth and justice, and establishing impunity as the new order of business.

The PMO then went on to ban all demonstrations in so-called ‘restricted areas’, reversed appointments made by the previous Nepali Congress government, stopped the vice-chancellor of the Sanskrit University from travelling to Canada and bundled him to the PMO for interrogation, and ex-guerrillas kidnapped a doctor at the Trauma Centre who refused to sign a letter certifying them for handicap compensation, on Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa's orders.

When Govinda KC took his hunger strike to Jumla, the local government fired rubber bullets and teargas inside a hospital. And when a policeman was hit in friendly fire, Police deliberately spread fake news that he was dead -- as a pressure tactic to force Govinda KC back to Kathmandu.

To be sure, the government is behaving no differently than all previous ones in shifting the blame, faulting anyone but themselves, and smearing hunger strikers by accusing them of being politically manipulated. It is a national trait to play victim, after all.

This is a pity because PM Oli was given an overwhelming mandate as a prize for having stood up to the Indians. Since then, he has united his party with the Maoists, won infrastructure deals with China, patched up with New Delhi, raising hopes that he would be as statesmanlike domestically. Half a year on, that euphoria has nearly evaporated.

All is not well within the NCP, either. Former UML leaders have expressed misgivings in private that the ex-Maoists are out to trip up the Prime Minister. Indeed, at every step from the government’s failure to rein in transportation syndicates, to the non-investigation of gold smugglers, or the unfulfilled pledge to punish the corrupt, the buck has stopped at the PMO. Dahal is in the sidelines, biding his time, and letting Oli stew in his own juice.

Oli has a reputation for being a sharp-tongued and shrewd politician, and he probably knows the blame is being heaped on him. Which is why he seems to be finally acting to correct his over-reach.

He convinced Gangamaya Adhikari to call off her hunger strike. That crisis will not be over until the other person accused of killing her son in 2004, Rudra Acharya, is extradited from Northern Ireland. Interpol has put out a Red Corner notice, but the UK government wants reassurances he will not face torture and capital punishment if sent back.

Interestingly, the UK acted much more swiftly to detain Nepal Army Col Kumar Lama at Heathrow in 2013 for wartime excesses. And no assurances on capital punishment and torture have been sought from the Americans this week for the extradition of two UK nationals accused of terrorism charges.

The government also finally became proactive in negotiating with Govinda KC, who called off his 15th fast on the 26th day of his hunger strike, on Thursday evening. Law Minister Tamang has stepped down after an outcry over his derogatory remarks about female Nepali medical students in Bangladesh.

Taken together, these are silver linings in otherwise dark monsoon clouds.

10 years ago this week

Nepal’s first ceremonial president was elected this week ten years ago. And although the post is ceremonial, it was a bruising competition between the parties that portended what was to come. Columnist Prashant Jha wrote this in his column Plain Speaking in the Nepali Times issue of 25-31 July 2008, #410:

No one has come out clean from the presidency fiasco. The Maoists tried to fool all the people all the time. Girija Prasad Koirala’s ego and obstinacy held the country hostage. Upendra Yadav confirmed suspicions he is a political opportunist who wants MJF to be a kingmaker.

What is certain is that the realignments spell bad news for the peace process, democracy, constitution-writing, and even Kathmandu-Madhes relationship … unless the more fundamental aspects of the peace process, governance and state-Madhes gap are addressed, it may be premature to characterise Nepal as a ‘post-conflict’ country.