Nepal's empty corridors of power

Prime Minister K P Oli visited Singha Darbar in nearly a year when he inaugurated the earthquake-damaged secretariat building on 15 February. Most of his Cabinet colleagues are also AWOL, and busy planning pro-Oli political rallies.

When Prime Minister K P Oli set foot in Singha Darbar on 15 February to inaugurate the Cabinet office rebuilt after the earthquake, it had been nearly a year since he had been to the seat of government.

In the courtyard of the palace first built by Chandra Shumshere Rana 100 years ago, he gave a two-hour speech highlighting his government’s achievements. Then he quickly drove back to his residence in Baluwatar.

Ostensibly, the prime minister stopped working out of his secretariat at Singha Darbar because his second kidney transplant in March 2020 made him vulnerable to coronavirus infection.

He did visit Singha Darbar briefly in April last year when he addressed the Non-Aligned Movement Conference from the Action Room of his office.

But ever since he dissolved the Lower House on 20 December and announced snap polls for April and May, Prime Minister Oli has been behaving as if he is on the election campaign trail. His public appearances have been limited to addressing street rallies, where he has lashed out at estranged Nepali Communist Party (NCP) co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal.

It is not just the prime minister who is AWOL from Singha Darbar. His Cabinet ministers also seem busy moonlighting. Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel, Minister of Industry Lekhraj Bhatta, Energy Minister Top Bahadur Rayamajhi, Education Minister Krishna Gopal Shrestha, and Law Minister Lilanath Shrestha have all been busy with firefighting within the NCP’s instead of attending to the country’s problems.

A secretary at Singha Darbar admitted to Nepali Times that ministers are rarely available for meetings at their ministries because they are too busy defending Oli from his rivals in the NCP.

“Prioritising internal party matters and a lack of government accountability poses a serious challenge to effective and impactful governance,” says former government secretary Khemraj Nepal.

The half-yearly review of the current budget released by the Ministry of Finance last week shows that only 14% of the capital expenditure allocated by the government for development (Rs50.8 billion out of Rs353 billion) had been spent as of December. This is less than what was spent during the first six months of the previous year.

Most development projects have also not met their spending targets. Figures show only Rs14 billion out of the Rs92 billion allocated to speed up the construction of 25 infrastructure projects had been utilised. Indeed, the Action Room set up at the Prime Minister's Office in Singha Darbar to accelerate national pride projects has not seen much action in Oli’s absence.

This means an economy already stagnant due to the pandemic is lagging behind in recovery because development projects are languishing due to government indifference.

Oli had pledged Rs300 million from government coffers to add a golden सुनको जलहरी pendant at Pashupatinath during his controversial visit to the temple in January. His decision, an impulsive response to the request by the Pashupati Area Development Fund, was made without prior discussion with advisers.

This is perhaps one of the few activities of the government that is actually being fast-tracked so the inner sanctum of the temple has the expensive gold pendant in time for Shivaratri on 11 March.

Pashupati was not the first time Oli dropped a surprise. A former secretary says the prime minister’s habit of making ad hoc spur of the moment decisions from Baluwatar without consulting experts is wasteful. Only Oli’s adviser and confidante Bishnu Rimal is said to have the prime minister’s ear on most matters.

Giriraj Mani Pokhrel, a former minister in the Oli administration, recalls many such impulsive decisions at Cabinet meetings that went against the government’s own strategy.

Even former Finance Minister Yuvraj Khatiwada, a workaholic who prefers to keep strict office hours, has criticised the ‘out-of-office’ culture of the prime minister and his Cabinet colleagues.

Another senior government official told Nepali Times said the state machinery was in complete disarray due to the prime minister’s lackadaisical attitude towards governance. Not only has Oli been out of touch with his ministers, but the ministers are also not discussing important issues with their secretaries, thus disrupting the entire chain of communication within Singha Darbar.

"Because the PMO in Baluwatar functions as a parallel seat of government, morale is very low in Singha Darbar,” the official says.

Former Finance Secretary Shantaraj Subedi says ministers have the responsibility of carrying through the government’s programs, managing the budget and making policy decisions. "If the minister does not show up, and does not take his work seriously, there will be no result,” Subedi says.

Most ministers these days do not even bother to come to Singha Darbar. They either work from their residences, or are attending political rallies in support of the prime minister, or planning them with their cronies.

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