One has to hand it to our politicians for their seemingly uncanny knack of being able to disappoint at every given opportunity. After weeks of government drift and a scandal over the finance minister, the Sher Bahadur Deuba government suddenly introduced a bill to amend the Constitutional Council Act. Amendments to laws are routine in government business except that the proposed changes were pretty much along the lines for which his party had lambasted KP Sharma Oli’s brazen attempt at what was increasingly looking like an autocoup.
Having endured Oli and his theatrics during one of the most crucial junctures in modern Nepali history with the transition to a federal state, the prime ministership was most unexpectedly handed to Deuba on a platter one year ago. If one were to sift through the reportage and op-eds from the time, I daresay there is even one that harboured any illusions Deuba’s fifth outing would miraculously find him ready to pivot towards becoming a statesman and crafting a legacy future generations could marvel at.
All Deuba had going for him last year was that he was not his predecessor. With Oli having become insufferably imperious by the day, all who wanted him out were more than ready to overlook Deuba’s past transgressions for the sake of the country and what remained of constitutional norms. Not much was really expected of him but basically to keep warm the top executive’s chair and seek a fresh mandate when the time came. Old habits die hard though.
The last time Deuba was prime minister, he single-handedly blew the Nepali Congress’ chances at the elections by staking his entire personal capital in unsuccessfully trying to appoint his preferred candidate as the chief of police. Then, instead of accepting responsibility for leading his party to an unprecedented rout and resigning as some of us dunces thought he would, Deuba shamelessly clung on as party chair, blaming the tie-up between the two main communist parties for that most shameful showing. It did pay off in the long run though. For despite having at times played willing handmaiden to Oli’s onslaught against constitutional propriety in his capacity as leader of the opposition, when a replacement had to be sought Deuba stood out in a field of one.
Having achieved so much personally, one does wonder whether Deuba ever sits down and cogitates over what he has given the country. Let’s start from the very beginning. His first stint was marked most assuredly by the Pajero Scandal, the time-tested resort by governments in the developing world to grant the ruling class duty-free access to fancy vehicles. He also oversaw the initiation of the Maoist insurgency besides the ignominy of being blindsided by a vote of no confidence.
That was the era of coalition governments and the rot of corruption that was slowly developing a stench grew even worse when the Nepali Congress came back to power as a majority government in 1999. The manner in which Congress leaders strutted about like they owned the country was there for all to see. The fag end of that stretch of extreme arrogance was what Deuba presided over in his second coming.
Deuba’s second term as prime minister was, of course, most infamous for having been sacked by the king, a feat that was to be repeated in his third one as well some years later. And, oh, yes, he did set up the three commissions—for human rights, for women and for Dalits—as he and his minions never tire of reminding us. But only because the Maoists were breathing down his neck, and he had to throw out something progressive to blunt their appeal.
His fourth innings was unremarkable unless one grants Deuba brownie points for holding constitutionally mandated elections. He did leave on a sour note of having appointed provincial heads, which he had a legal right to do but certainly not the moral one. On his fifth, Deuba is quite emphatic that it was he who got the Millennium Challenge Corporation Nepal Compact passed. He should count himself lucky that some lawyer came up with the idea of an “interpretative declaration” to provide a fig leaf to his communist partners even though we all know the declaration is worth zilch should it actually come to arguing with the United States on what the Compact actually says.
Corruption and the party
If the Nepali Congress under both Deuba and Girija Prasad Koirala institutionalised corruption, the UML came up with a holier-than-thou approach to it. That was in greenlighting corruption to fund the party, which somehow made it seem all right. The practice had begun very early. It is somewhat well-known that the party’s SUV that plunged into the river killing the UML General Secretary Madan Bhandari was purchased through such organisational corruption by a UML minister in the Interim Government of 1990-91. But because it cannot be proved, it will always remain in the realm of gossip and rumour.
Take another more recent example of how similar both parties are when it comes to gutting the state. The current police chief was appointed by the Nepali Congress over the heads of two of his seniors. One of the latter has gone to court against the supersession while conveniently forgetting that his own elevation to seniority had more to do with his being a relative of someone who happened to be the deputy prime minister in the Oli government.
It is our misfortune that the cast of characters has changed very little in the last three decades. On the bright side, it perhaps might do them well to reflect on where they were when the king took over. Knowing full well that the people were tired of their lies, they used civil society leaders to rouse the people yet again against the king in the months before the 2006 movement. They even went to the extent of promising to turn a new leaf under a new dispensation. In the end, it turned out to be lies and more lies.
Yet, our politicians felt no compunction in claiming to be appalled when they learnt about corruption in the judiciary. I presume it was less of a shock to them that these practices existed and more that the judge got found out. Otherwise, there should not have been any delay in moving forward with the impeachment case against the now-suspended chief justice, who is also accused of massive corruption.