KATHMANDU, May 25: Many had doubts about Pushpa Kamal Dahal when he assumed the office of prime minister for the second time on August 3, 2016. Breaking his alliance with the CPN-UML, which had earned huge public support for its 'nationalistic stance' during and after the Indian economic embargo, and teaming up with Nepali Congress (NC) that is soft towards New Delhi was no easy choice. But Dahal did break with the UML, alleging that then prime minister K P Sharma Oli was not sincere about resolving the Madhes issue and holding local level elections to pave the way for implementation of the new constitution.
As he stepped down as PM Wednesday as per the informal understanding with the NC, Dahal could count himself largely successful. To his credit he held the first phase local elections despite various odds and uncertainties, normalized bilateral relations with both India and China and ended power outage in a few major urban areas including the Kathmandu Valley.
Dahal's second tenure as prime minister was fundamentally different from his previous nine-month stint at Baluwatar in 2009. Known for bad-mouthing rival parties and the southern neighbor during his previous tenure, Dahal skillfully avoided these failings this time. He avoided scolding UML in public forums including in Wednesday's address to the nation, despite the trail of acrimonious relations. Such a show of restraint helped him win the confidence of the agitating Madhes-based parties and bring them closer to a consensus for polls. While he has been able to earn a measure of respect, he also set a good precedent of honoring an understanding to hand over power.
Prime Minister Dahal did not promise anything big nor did he act under emotion as in the past, barring a few instances. He was more pragmatic and more mature. In his nearly half-hour televised address to the nation, he ticked off a number of achievements.
Citing the first phase of local elections as a major achievement, Dahal maintained that the election has not only paved the way for implementation of the new constitution but also given rise to leaders from various marginalized communities including Dalits, women and minority groups. It is no exaggeration that Dahal's government caused some positive vibes despite various odds and uncertainties. This was in the aftermath of the big earthquake and the big blockade. Easing load shedding, expediting various major hydropower plants, handing over responsibility for building the Kathmandu-Tarai fast track to the army and the World Bank projection of 6.9 percent economic growth for Nepal redound to his credit.
Another feather in Dahal's cap is mending relations with India and China. While relations with China were getting closer, those with India had reached a historic low when Dahal became prime minister again. Bilateral relations are now at a new normal. The decision of Dahal's government to be part of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative and the signing of two separate agreements with China to build the Kerung-Kathmandu-Lumbini Railway and expand the Kerung-Syphrubesi road have effectively ended Chinese skepticisms.
Dahal's premiership also had its downside. The appointment of Jaya Bahadur Chand as the new police chief and the decision to register an impeachment motion against Chief Justice Sushila Karki remain highly controversial. Both moves were stayed by the apex court. Dahal's government has also earned criticism for repeatedly flouting the election code of conduct, including in making budget transfers from one head to another on the eve of elections. Although Dahal promised to expedite post-quake reconstruction, progress on this front has remained dismal.
In severing his alliance with the UML, Dahal had alleged that Prime Minister Oli had not done enough to bring the agitating Madhes-based parties to a consensus and hold elections. He also alleged that Oli's government had failed to expedite the settling of conflict-era cases. But as he steps down after 10 months in office, these key tasks remain either half-done or not done at all. While the grievances of the agitating parties remain largely unchanged, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP) have done little to provide justice to conflict victims. Since he will remain part of the governing alliance even after NC President Sher Bahadur Deuba takes over as prime minister, let us hope that Dahal will help his successor fulfill these tasks.