FOURTH TIME IS NO CHARM

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Thomas Bell

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

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