Soon after his ten-month-long tenure as health minister came to an end, Nepali Congress Central Committee member Gagan Thapa was busy campaigning for the second phase of local elections. Now that the second phase results are coming in, Congress seems to be trailing its arch-rival, CPN-UML, in overall local level seats and it looks as if the party will have to settle for second place. What explains the losses of Nepali Congress, and what are the party’s strategies for the third round of voting? Separately, what were the achievements of Thapa’s ten months in health ministry, and how was his experience of working as a minister? Mahabir Paudyal and Ashok Dahal met with the Congress leader at his Ratopul home.
Congress seems to have lost both first and second phase of local elections to CPN-UML. Has Congress lost touch with the grassroots?
I would not say that. Our assessment was that we would lead in Province 7 and would win as many seats as our main opposition in Provinces 1 and 5. Our calculation was our lead in Province 7 would compensate for the loss in first phase and we would be almost equal to our rival party in the final tally. But this has not happened. The party thus needs to seriously assess first and second phase results.
But there are several factors behind this unexpected result. First, we failed to pick the right candidates. Voters in local elections do not necessarily vote along party lines. Yes, they might vote along party lines while electing a lawmaker or even a mayor or a deputy mayor. But at the ward level, they make their decisions based on the candidate’s history, character, personality, and ethnic and caste backgrounds. When we gave tickets to contenders form the center, we failed to consider those factors. We failed to properly scrutinize profiles of the contenders.
Second, it might be too early to say this but my analysis is that we failed to take into confidence even active members of our own party. In many places, even Congress cadres did not vote for its candidates. Nepali Congress may not ever have faced this level of intra-party lawlessness. Our own members have been found not to cooperate with party’s candidates. In some places, they even schemed to defeat Congress candidates.
Third, some controversial decisions of Nepali Congress, such as the impeachment of sitting Chief Justice and appointment of police chief, sent a wrong message. Congress had taken the right stand of accommodating Madhes through constitution amendment.
But we were projected among hill clusters in Madhes as standing against national interest. We were projected as pro-India party with no sensitivity for national interest. We could not counter those allegations. In fact, we could not forcefully defend our position.
The mistake we are making is that instead of looking at all these factors cumulatively, we are ascribing our loss mainly to betrayal from party rank and file. This will lead us to disaster in remaining elections as well. Yet given the kind of lawlessness that exists in our party right now, I would not say that the election results so far have been all that bad.
You have repeatedly talked about lawlessness in the party. Can you elaborate on it?
In recent times the party’s central committee has not had a single meeting. A few top leaders take decisions from behind closed doors. They have been taking controversial decisions which cadres on the ground are struggling to justify. Forget local cadres, even I, a central committee member, a lawmaker and a former minister, often come to know of party decisions through the media. That is how I knew of the party’s decision to impeach the chief justice as well as the decision to withdraw the impeachment. Whether these were the right decisions is beside the point. The point is that I am forced to justify party decisions that I come to know of through newspapers. This is the state of our party right now. This is why I said we need not be too disappointed with election results. After all, we are not distant second. We lag behind with only a narrow margin. If we work on the issues I have pointed out, I believe we can claw back some ground in the third phase. The second phase results serve as an alarm for us. If we cannot heed this warning and still take politics as business as usual, it would be insane to expect different results in the third phase as well.
But why is decision-making process in Congress so opaque at the moment?
Intra-party democracy has become weak in our party, and we have been warning our leadership of this. But top leaders tend to take it as something we do for our vested interest. Central Committee meetings and parliamentary committee meetings play an important role in consolidating a party’s strength. Such meetings allow rigorous discussions on vital political and electoral agendas. They keep leaders and cadres informed. An informed leader at the center keeps the grassroots leaders informed and local leaders in turn inform the voters. But this is not happening in our party. We failed to properly inform our local cadres on simple issues like allowance for the elderly. In many places that I visited on the campaign trail, they would hand me a note asking what Congress would do with this allowance. Rumors had been spread that Congress will reduce this allowance or scrap it altogether. Local cadres expected me to clarify on small issues like these. If, for example, we had conducted an orientation for our candidates on our electoral policies, they would not have to look to a central leader for answers.
Our cadres could not defend the party’s controversial decisions. They had to evade critical questions. Opposition parties became the source of information for the electorate. And those parties projected us in negative light.
I fear that this tendency could again harm us in the third phase. Already we are being projected as an anti-amendment force, and even an anti-Madhesi party. There are talks of RJPN and CPN-UML coming closer. Yet we are still to formulate our electoral strategy for Province 2. The party is running in ad hoc manner. Empowerment of cadres is vital for internal party democracy. But not a single Congress cadre felt empowered during this election cycle. Election is a kind of war. Only an informed and empowered team of cadres can fight this battle and win.
The kind of lawlessness you talk about is astounding. What do top leaders say when you remind them of this?
They don’t listen to us at all. They are under the illusion that only they know how to do politics and the rest of us know nothing. This generation of leaders is not ready to accept innovative ideas. They are content with business as usual. It sometimes feels like we do not understand each other; that the first and second rung leaders speak different languages. The gap between us and top party leaders has been widening in the absence of regular party meetings and discussions.
Earlier, you said Congress is now being projected as anti-Madhesi. Did this happen as the party failed to take a clear stand on Madhesi issue?
We are clear that the grievances of Madhesi parties need to be heeded and Madhesi forces and mainstream parties should stand together in constitution implementation. But there is confusion in our leadership regarding how to go about it. We said at the time of constitution promulgation that we would amend the constitution to make it acceptable to a broader section of society. And we did just that. We have been sincerely working to avoid confrontation with Madhesi forces. We were badly criticized for deferring elections in Province 2. But this was actually meant to bring the protesting RJPN on board. These were earnest efforts. But like I said, we have failed to clearly communicate to constituencies in Madhes what we are doing. And this lack of clarity has also raised suspicions among hill constituencies that Congress might take wrong decisions on language and citizenship. We are trying to win the confidence of Madhes but an impression is being created that we are doing all this to appease India. There is a perception in Madhes that the state has alienated Madhesi people.
Several misperceptions about the constitution are now being cleared. Yet there is bitterness and sense of alienation among Madhesi people. This needs to be addressed.
This has been our focus all along. Yet we have failed to communicate this, not only to Madhesis but also to our constituencies up in the hills. Our opposition is projecting us in bad light but Congress should stop whining about it. It should clearly inform people about its stand on governance, constitution amendment, Madhes and many other issues.
Then what is your electoral strategy for Province 2?
There is almost none so far. During the first and second phase, we went into election without proper electoral strategies. We did not do our homework. If we continue in this manner, we will meet with disaster in Province 2 as well. We need to go to Province 2 in a new way. We need to establish ourselves as the force that truly empowers Madhesi people. We need to devise clear strategies for third phase and properly communicate them to our Madhesi constituencies.
Let us now talk about your tenure as health minister. By and large, your short tenure was widely praised. What would you consider as your major achievements?
The first thing I found out when I became the minister was this: Nepal has among the highest ‘out of pocket expenditure’ in health services in the world. And we are the country where health service has been enshrined as a fundamental right in the constitution. So my focus was on enhancing the service of our government health facilities. If I could do this, it would significantly cut people’s health expenses. So I immediately started working on making health professionals available in health facilities across the country, and on procuring and sending medical equipments and medicines to those facilities. But this short-term measure was not enough. So we worked on an Act that makes it mandatory for MBBS graduates to go to government-designated rural areas and work there for at least one year. Without such a provision, it would have been impossible to make doctors available in rural areas even if we have thousands of them in the country.
I discovered that the cost of medicines in Nepal is really high and that with some work this cost could be reduced by as much as half, significantly reducing people’s health expenses. We were working on legal provisions to make this happen. Hopefully the cost of medicines will soon decrease.
Nepal has impressive track record in tackling communicable diseases. The result is there for everyone to see: our maternal and child mortality rates have decreased and life expectancy has increased. But burden of non-communicable diseases—such as heart and liver diseases, cancer and blood pressure—has overshadowed all those achievements. The Ministry of Health had barely started to work on prevention side of those diseases. So I started ‘My Health, My Responsibility’ campaign to raise awareness on prevention. The idea was to make people aware that they are the ministers of their own health. In rural areas, I started ‘pen package’ in health posts where people can go for health check up. In Kathmandu, I started ‘Janata Swasthya Kendra.’ It has started in Maitidevi of Kathmandu and needs to be expanded to other places. The JSK keeps database of people within its catchment areas, tracks the health status of every individual in that area and suggests treatment options. For me the most important work that I started was on health insurance.
I worked on a number of policy-related and legal issues. In ten months, I worked on 151 different issues.
How difficult or easy was it to work as health minister?
As a student leader and a lawmaker, I was quick to point at faults in the system, to blame institutions for doing nothing and at times I wondered if anything at all can be done in this country. As health minister, I learned that much more than I had expected could be done. In fact, much has already been done even though people on the outside may not be aware of these initiatives. Still, we could achieve much-much more. Past ministers have laid the groundwork for vital reforms. They are scattered but they are there nonetheless.
The same is true in other sectors as well. Thus I am not as worried as I used to be. If there is some political stability and if people are ready to work hard, we can lead the change and we can experience it soon.
Many had wanted you to continue as health minister even after government change. Why didn’t it happen?
When I assumed office as health minister, I knew I was there only for nine months. The understanding was that when government leadership changed, I would have to make way.
So if I had asked for continuity, I would have looked greedy. Yet I shared some concerns about the works I started with our party president. I said I need to take the initiative of health insurance to its meaningful end, that I still have work to make medicines cheap, to complete Integrated Infrastructure Health Development Project which I had started, so on and so forth. I said that with little more time I could complete at least some of these reform initiatives.
But top leaders and party president did not seem interested and I did not insist. But I won’t stay idle. I will help my successor with the projects I started. I will not hesitate to even intervene if that helps take those reform initiatives forward. After 10 months in health ministry, I have become a kind of health fanatic. Health sector has become my passion, my obsession. I have worked from early morning to late at night in the ministry, and lost contacts with friends and relatives. I won’t let the measures I started at this great personal cost go to waste. I believe my successor will continue from where I have left. I will be there to help him/her every step of the way.