For whom the bell tolls

Photo: GOPEN RAI

On 16 June, a little over a month after Nepal’s local elections in May, tv anchor Rabi Lamichhane announced that he would be leaving his popular show Sidha Kura Janata Sanga to run for Parliament in the November’s federal elections.

He also resigned as Managing Director of Galaxy 4K television, and launched the Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP), an independent collective that brought together young Nepalis from professional backgrounds aspiring to challenge the establishment.

A little over six months later, Lamichhane is Nepal’s Minister for Home Affairs and one of three Deputy Prime Ministers in the 7-party governing coalition of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal. The RSP is the fourth largest in Parliament with 20 MPs, and is in line to get more ministerial positions in the coming days.

Lamichhane’s appointment as Home Minister has elevated him to one the most influential ministries in the Cabinet. His and his party’s political rise has been meteoric and unprecedented. Given to gimmicks like trying to set a new record in the Guinness Book for the longest tv talk show in 2013, and other populist sting operations on tv, Lamichhane is now one of the most powerful figures in Nepali politics.

It is understood that Lamichhane forcefully demanded the post of Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister in negotiations for Cabinet positions. This has raised questions of conflict of interest since he now commands the very police force that is investigating him over his Nepali citizenship after giving up his US passport.

The RSP is said to be getting at least three more ministerial portfolios, and is under consideration for Deputy Speaker as well. But even as Lamichhane looks to build his party’s political future in the next five years, the RSP’s decision to join the government has been met with dismay from civil society and some of his own supporters.

Lamichhane gained public trust through his tv show which often exposed injustice, corruption, abuses of authority. The RSP also piggy-backed on the success of independent mayoral candidates like Balen Shah and widespread public disenchantment with established parties.

Indeed, many voters, especially among the youth, rejected Nepal’s lifetime politicians, and RSP candidates fit the bill. For his part, Lamichhane maintained that if elected, his party would stay in the opposition. But after an election win that must have surprised him as well, Lamichhane was emboldened and decided to join the coalition.

It is clear now that even as he gave vague answers to joining the government, he was busy making backroom deals with the top leadership. While Dahal was on his way to Balkot to meet with the UML’s KP Oli last Sunday, Lamichhane was already there.

To be sure, not everyone in his party agrees with Lamichhane's moves. It has emerged that there was disagreement within the independent RSP over whether the party should join the government or stay in opposition, with party chair Rabi Lamichhane having the final say. One party official who openly expressed dissent is Central Committee member Ganesh Karki.

‘We campaigned to disenfranchised Nepalis frustrated with Nepal’s opportunistic leaders who selfishly chase power on a promise that we would be completely separate from them … How is our party any different now from the parties we criticised in the past?’ wrote Karki in a letter to party HQ.

The public backlash has also been sharp and swift, with many voters expressing betrayal in social media posts. In response, another RSP Central Committee member Arnico Panday tried to put a gloss on the decision: ‘To all the people disappointed in RSP’s decision to join a messy coalition: this was a decision that was debated and voted upon. Either coalition would have been messy. While staying in opposition would be safer for our reputation, joining govt challenges us to show good work.’

Even as voters continue to express dismay on public platforms, the circumstances surrounding the RSP’s decision to join the government and Lamichhane’s interest in the Home Ministry have come under intense scrutiny.

Lamichhane, who was previously an American citizen, has been accused of not renouncing his Nepali citizenship while he was a US citizen, as well as having obtained a Nepali passport while having been a US citizen. The police had been investigating Lamichhane after a complaint about the validity of his Nepali citizenship and passport reached the Home Ministry.

Now, as Home Minister, Lamichhane is in charge of the very law enforcement institutions tasked with investigating allegations against him. On Wednesday, the newly-appointed minister made a round of the Passport Department in Tripureswor, and the irony of this visit was not lost on observers.

On the other hand, even if Lamichhane were to be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to do meaningful work in government, the fact that he insisted on taking charge of the Home Ministry when he could have chosen other portfolios has raised a lot of red flags. At the very least, it speaks to a lack of political acumen and at worst it is an indication of recklessness and a cynical misuse of the public trust.

Indeed, many had felt that first-time MPs from the RSP and other smaller parties which also joined the coalition should have used their election win to be in the opposition to fulfill their promise to hold the old guard to account and gain some much-needed political experience.

After his appointment, Lamichhane from his new office proclaimed that he would “play the role of the opposition from within the cabinet”. And even this statement was met with derision for exhibiting a singular lack of understanding of how parliamentary democracy functions.

‘There are a maximum of 25 cabinet positions in Nepal, while the House of Representatives is 275-strong,’ said RSP member Ganesh Karki in his letter. ‘If we perpetuate a narrative that meaningful work cannot be done unless one has a ministerial position, aren’t we then saying that the presence of 250 duly elected representatives in Parliament is useless?’

For now, the Dahal-Oli coalition considers Lamichhane and the RSP as both a threat, and an important player to appoint them to plum political positions. By acceding to his demand for Home Ministry, the wily politicians have attempted to keep Lamichhane under a right leash, and also hoped that his very presence in government will make him lose his support base.

As Parliament prepares to sit on, it remains to be seen to what degree the RSP can or will fulfil the promises it made to anti-establishment voters from within the establishment.

Shristi Karki

writer

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