The longest serving and a stable government post-2008 has failed where it should have succeeded and succeeded where it should have failed
So how should we evaluate two years of the government led by K P Sharma Oli? His supporters have nothing to say except good and his detractors see nothing good in his administration. Some indicators, however, suggest he has not failed the country. In democracy, we are doing better, if we are to believe in Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index 2019, where Nepal has climbed to 92nd position from 97th. Whether this happened because of or despite Oli government is another question. We are doing better in Doing Business Index of the World Bank. Whether to give credit to Oli for this or not is another thing.
These facts are good only so long as they reflect the reality on the ground. Poverty index, for example, says we have significantly reduced poverty. But that might sound like a cruel joke to those who have to struggle to make ends meet.
To be fair, some major developments have happened because of Oli. He brought CK Raut to mainstream politics and seems to be making progress in taming the violent outfit led by Netra Bikram Chand. His government was successful in bringing Chinese President Xi Jinping to Nepal in October last year. Social Security System is also being implemented. But to show for two years, and for the government that does not have to worry about longevity, frankly, these are not enough. Two years is a long time to accomplish many more things.
Safe and strong
I had some premonitions about this government until a year ago. There was a question of what would be India’s position on Nepal. There was a concern that India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which blockaded Nepal in 2015 accusing Nepal of promulgating the constitution without addressing India’s concerns (we still do not know exactly what those concerns are, there are only speculations), could harden its position. There was a fear that it would play ‘Madhes card’ against Kathmandu. This fear has been dispelled.
Another fear was about ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) itself. Given his unpredictable moves and a number of past precedents (of course including with Oli) there were questions as to whether Pushpa Kamal Dahal would continue supporting Oli even at the cost of him not becoming the prime minister. Informal understanding between Oli and Dahal, we were told, was that Dahal would succeed Oli after two-and-a-half years. Now the chances of NCP split are remote. Dahal’s public iteration that Oli will lead the country for the next three years is a big relief for Oli’s premiership. Dahal seems to have realized that stakes are high for him if he chooses conflict with Oli.
After Upendra Yadav’s Samajbadi Party pulled out support, it once seemed he would face vote of no confidence in the parliament. He did not have to. He quickly roped in Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN), which might soon join the federal government. With RJPN by its side, Oli’s administration will be as strong as before.
Foreign policy conduct is a tricky and a delicate affair for any government—irrespective of who leads it—in Nepal. Given the rivalry between the US and China, plus the gaze from the south, Nepal’s engagement with any of these powers is likely to raise eyebrows in Washington, Beijing and New Delhi. Engagement with Washington naturally attracts the attention of Beijing. Engagement with Beijing will naturally be under watch from New Delhi and Washington. When every big power is thus watching, the government can also be labeled as pro-China, pro-America or pro-India, or anti-China, anti-India or anti-America. In such a situation, the government also becomes susceptible to mistakes. But so far, it is walking the tightrope.
Thus from every angle, the government is in a safe position. This government has, by now, outlasted all administrations post 1990—except two terms of Girija Prasad Koirala (1991-1994 and 2006-2008). Because the government is safe, it should deliver more. Because the government is safe, people naturally demand and expect more from it. But the longest serving and a safe government has failed where it should have succeeded and succeeded where it should have failed.
Badge of dishonor
The government tried to end the syndicates and cartels in public transportation. It willfully failed to execute this decision. And it has no compunction about it. It tried to execute National Integrity Policy, which is about ensuring all sectors, including NGOs and INGOs, operate as clean, transparent, healthy, competitive and systems-based institutions. It is not even talking about it now. Hope lies on contribution-based Social Security Scheme. It is yet to be seen how far the government can go with it.
The government invited hostility with media, both through public speeches and bills. It brought the bills which could not be endorsed by the parliament without amendments and which only contributed to making authoritarian image of the government. I am talking about Media Council Bill.
Melamchi project was to be completed way back—the road digging had started almost on a war footing in 2016 when Pushpa Kamal Dahal was the prime minister. We had been promised of water within a year. But Melamchi is not happening. We don’t know when it will be accomplished, or whether it will be accomplished at all.
Perhaps the biggest dishonor the PM earned for himself and the country was in the appointment of Speaker of the House of Representatives. Why did a leader accused of crime have to be picked among all the leaders in the party? The damage it has resulted in the government’s commitment to justice to conflict victims has been huge.
In two years, much debate was centered on authoritarianism as if the county has become North Korea. Perhaps because of such exaggerated claim or because of realization, the government has started to say it will revise the contents of all controversial bills.
But I was not and am not worried about authoritarianism. Oli cannot become authoritarian at least for three reasons.
One, NCP, which is dominated by former UML faction, has risen to this position because of democracy. Its post-1990 grassroots expansion—through NGOs and cooperatives—has democracy at its core. This base which, in part, is sustained by Western donors, will collapse once Oli becomes authoritarian.
Second, public criticism against political parties is in the blood of our democratic exercise. No ruler can change that.
Third, these two years have shown that more the government tries to, or even seen to, restrict democratic space, the more media and public become vocal. Perhaps because of this, when you raise the specter of authoritarianism, people tend to dismiss it. Opposition leaders cry foul and say the country has regressed. People simply do not believe in it. They know Oli can misuse power, become intolerant to public criticisms and even try to restrict freedom but at the end of the day he won’t succeed.
Reason to rage
The real reason to fear and worry is that the government has failed on its basic duties. It takes the prime minister to direct the authorities to fill up the potholes and yet this does not happen. Nearly two months after Visit Nepal 2020 was inaugurated, many streets of Kathmandu are still blowing dusts. What do you call the government that cannot maintain cleanliness of the city even during the tourism year?
We pay much more tax to the government cutting down on our personal expenses. But the quality of services we get has not improved. For all the money we pay to the government we are compelled to send our kids to private schools and go to private hospitals for education and health services.
The government’s focus is not on improving public health and education institutions.
The other real reason to fear is this government could become thoroughly corrupt. Look at how the PM is favoring business groups close to his party by awarding lucrative contracts. He seems to admit wrongdoing in Yeti scam and also commits to book the guilty but only if the wrongdoings of his predecessors are also investigated.
War of words on Lalita Niwas land scam between ruling NCP and opposition Nepali Congress is quite revealing. The CIAA implicated 175 people including Congress leaders in this case. Main grievance of Congress is against having its leaders implicated and NCP leaders spared. The two sides seem to be saying to each other: I may be corrupt but so are you.
Prime Minister is often angry with media. ‘Media portrays me in bad light, media hides my success stories and blows up failures disproportionately,’ he has said multiple times. Prime Minister does not need to be scared of media criticisms. Accomplish a couple of projects like Melamchi, spare not a single person who is corrupt, whether inside the party or outside, and see how media will report. If media misreports, the government has to rebut and prove them wrong. Gone are the days when a couple of media outlets monopolized the news. Good deeds cannot be hidden for long.
Naturally, the government does not admit to failing. It presents ‘all is well with Nepal’ picture. The opposition magnifies failings and claims everything is wrong with Nepal. They compete to disprove each other. The citizenry should not fail to see through facts and lies.