KATHMANDU, Feb 14: In the early days of his life in politics, he was seen as a staunch anti-monarchist who spent 14 years behind bars for opposing the party-less Panchayat system.
In mid-career, he came to be known as an opportunist who brokered the Mahakali treaty, a landmark agreement with India which many here believe has undermined the national interest.
In his later years, his penchant for jokes and innuendo has made him the darling of social media, which would devour his every speech and comment. These circulated through hundreds of fan clubs.
As the country got over the bumpy road of constitution drafting, Oli transformed himself into an ardent nationalist and visionary, someone who stood up to Indian hegemony and sought much-needed balance in Nepal’s foreign policy.
Oli’s fierce rhetoric against bullying from the south and a slogan of “prosperous Nepal in our lifetime” swept him back to power, barely a year and a half after being unceremoniously removed from office. He now had an unprecedented mandate to steer Nepal into era of political stability and economic growth.
But now, as he celebrates his first full year in office on Friday, Oli is increasingly seen as a blabbermouth who “over-promises but under-delivers”.
By any standard, this first year has been hardly any different from the record of predecessors, who were mired in political instability and coalition wrangling.
Compared to his first term, Oli’s second innings did kick off on a high note. The government launched an all-out attack on transportation syndicates and big contractors, while also taking steps to curb anomalies at I/NGOs, government offices and in the private sector. Efforts were made to improve relations with India through bilateral visits at the highest level. Oli also beat all the odds and made the left parties’ merger a reality, albeit the marriage remains a work-in-progress.
At one point, it appeared the all-powerful government was striving to take the high road of prosperity, good governance and rule of law. But the excitement with which people cheered the first three months of the government has given way to widespread dissatisfaction as it remains mired in corruption scams and misrule and miscellaneous crises at home and abroad.
The economy is perhaps the worst victim of Oli’s rule. Finance Minister Yuba Raj Khatiwada, despite his vows to bolster the ailing economy which, in his words, was a mess left behind by the past government, has been an absolute disappointment. The interest rate on bank loans continues to hover over 15 percent as his ministry struggles to spend the annual budget. Khatiwada’s inconsistent policies have caused havoc in the stock market, while the government hasn’t been able to do enough to boost confidence among small enterprises, one of his top priorities.
Much-hyped projects like Budhigandaki and the Nijgadh International Airport have failed to make headway, and others like Tamakoshi Hydropower and Melamchi Water Supply Project are running far behind schedule while draining the already depleted national coffers.
The Oli government, despite its “declared policy not to tolerate any form of corruption”, has hardly walked that talk. Oli looks reluctant to sack Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari, who has landed in the vortex of the wide-body aircraft scam. And in capitulating to the transport mafia and big contractors like Kalika Construction and Pappu, the government has only further emboldened them.
“The way government is turning a blind eye to corruption is astonishing. It’s setting a bad precedent. The government should be doing something,” said Tanka Karki, Nepal’s former ambassador to China.
Despite relative success in improving ties with India, Oli has made one mistake after another – followed by subsequent corrections – on the international front. The government has failed to keep foreign policy free of the ruling party’s ideological baggage.
After a successful conclusion of the Bimstec Summit here, the government bungled over the Nepal Army’s planned participation in joint military exercises in India. The historic meeting of Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali with his US counterpart Mike Pompeo was soon overshadowed by Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s ‘reckless statement’ denouncing US involvement in Venezuela.
“The foreign policy was marked by inconsistencies, largely due to lack of a coherent foreign policy,” said former foreign ministry secretary Madhuraman Acharya, while appreciating the government’s efforts to increase its outreach in the international arena.
However, Foreign Minister Gyawali said Nepal’s foreign policy has been heading in the right direction. “We have been consistent in our policies. Nepal’s visibility has increased on the international stage. We are being heard,” he said.
Conflict victims and civil society members have expressed concern over the government’s deliberate efforts to sabotage the work of truth and reconciliation. Some new bills – relating to mass media, I/NGOs and civic responsibilities – have stoked fears of a massive crackdown on dissidents, media and civil society. In August last year, the government had barred Lenin Bista, a former child soldier, from visiting Thailand to attend a conference on child combatants. This came on top of unsuccessful attempts to restrict protesters from using key public venues in the capital including Maitighar Mandala.
The government has also failed in upholding the rule of law, combating corruption and maintaining law and order. Seven months after the rape and murder of Nirmala Panta, Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa is still unable to say whodunnit.
Madhes-based parties have been voicing concern over the delay in the promised amendment of the constitution, raising fears of fresh instability in the country’s soft underbelly. “If the government keeps ignoring our demands, we would be forced to launch fresh protests,” said Rastriya Janata Party Nepal Chairman Rajendra Mahato. Mahato, however, clarified that the party would wait a few more months before deciding what to do.
The newly-formed federal provinces have not been able to function properly due to lack of the required laws and resources.
The government’s sluggish functioning has put Oli on the back foot even as pressure mounts to deliver on election promises. Party seniors like Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal have openly criticized Oli for doing so little.
There is huge discontent over the performance of some cabinet ministers, including Physical Infrastructure and Transport Management Minister Raghubir Mahaseth, Minister for Communication and Information Technology Gokul Baskota and Home Minister Thapa. If sources are to be believed the prime minister himself is not satisfied with the work of some ministers, notably Lal Babu Pandit, who was initially projected as the face of the cabinet.
The prime minister appears defiant while accepting his failures.
“I have been to big (global) forums. I have been to UN forums. In Davos, I talked about work happening in Nepal. The world is surprised at what we have achieved,” Oli said in a recent address in his home district, claiming credit for the institutionalization of federalism, the social security scheme, integration of government employees and other works related to federalism.