FOURTH TIME IS NO CHARM
Nepal’s new prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, is a 71-year-old veteran who has held the office three times before. He returns to power at a delicate and challenging time for his country. Expectations are low. Each of his previous stints in power ended badly. Deuba got started as a Nepali Congress politician when the party was underground, opposing the then monarchist regime. In 1990, he and his colleagues restored multi-party democracy to Nepal. Like many leaders of that generation, his reputation plummeted in the years that followed.
His first, short-lived premiership was in 1996, and is best remembered for his decision to go on a foreign trip right after the Maoists declared a ‘people’s war’. He ignored it, and the revolution flourished. Nepal changes its prime minister roughly once a year—Deuba’s latest turn is the 24th premiership in 27 years. By the time he began his second stint, back in 2001, the insurgency had spread to large swathes of the country. He presided over a state of emergency marked by widespread ‘disappearances’ and torture in state custody.
Disastrously, Deuba allowed the then King Gyanendra to persuade him to dissolve parliament in 2002, opening the way to a royal coup. He was expelled from the Nepali Congress and formed the NC-Democratic, attracting a faction of leaders widely seen as corrupt and thuggish. The king fired him as PM for ‘incompetence’, only to briefly reinstate him for a third term, and then humiliatingly fire him again.
Over a decade later, Deuba is now the Nepali Congress president, the largest with just over one-third of the seats. His main coalition partner is the Maoist former rebels, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a.k.a Prachanda. Their partnership has
been blessed by India as a means to keep the belligerent K.P. Oli, of the Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) party, out of office.
A contentious new constitution, which particularly alienated Madhesi communities along the Indian border, was promulgated in 2015. According to the power-sharing deal between Congress and the Maoists, their coalition will oversee a difficult sequence of local, federal and national elections under the new charter. Deuba is supposed to oversee federal and national polls by January.
However, even the local elections are incomplete, and there are threats to boycott and disrupt the second stage. Madhesi leaders maintain their demand that the constitution be amended to address discriminatory provisions on electoral representation, provincial boundaries and a woman’s right to pass citizenship to her children. Those amendments are opposed by Oli’s UML, which has enough votes in parliament to make passing the bill difficult. Political sensitivities and technical complexities abound. If Deuba can’t amend the constitution, and also conduct a series of elections in the face of diverse challenges, all in the next few months, then the new constitution will be threatened before it’s even fully implemented, and the risks of future serious conflict will increase.
(Bell is the author of Kathmandu, a history
of the Nepali capital)
LITTLE PROMISE New PM Sher Bahadur Deuba greets supporters