By M Rama Rao
“In any normal democracy, it is the prime minister’s prerogative to pick and chose his ministers. But, Nepal is not a normal democracy. In fact, it is taking baby steps in democracy. More over even in established democracies, the prime minister has to factor in the views of his colleagues and the organizational needs”.
Having come to be in the hot seat of Prime Minister through backdoor dealings with the Maoist leadership in particular the Prachanda, who is no longer as fiery as he was in guerrilla avatar, the UML leader Jhalanath Khanal was never expected to enjoy a free rein. This image of a beleaguered leader glued to the chair has been reinforced right from day one. The week long public display of bickering, statements and counter-statements and not so subtle manoeuvres have not enhanced his image and of Nepal’s fledgling democracy. Yes, on August 2, the prime minister expanded his cabinet by inducting 10 faces but the exercise is a cave in to the pressure exerted by the Maoists who staged their own ‘resignation saga’ – Prachanda had handed over bulk resignation of his cadre-Ministers in the cabinet in order to force his way.
Peace with Maoists alone doesn’t ensure a smooth run for Prime Minister Khanal. In that sense, he must gear up to face a political storm. As the UML Secretary Shankar Pokharel told reporters in Kathmandu, the standing committee of the party was (and is) opposed to the reshuffle. By his decision to expand cabinet, Khanal has tested the endurance level of his comrades. The UML Central Committee is meeting on Aug 6. Main item on agenda will be Khanal’s exercise of prime ministerial prerogative ignoring the party diktats. He may be the party chairman but UML seniors Madhav Nepal and KP Oli hold sway over the CC.
In any normal democracy, it is the prime minister’s prerogative to pick and chose his ministers. But, Nepal is not a normal democracy. In fact, it is taking baby steps in democracy. More over even in established democracies, the prime minister has to factor in the views of his colleagues and the organisational needs. This is the reason why often the Prime Minister is described as the first among equals in a cabinet and he is repeatedly counselled to carry all shades of opinion in decision making.
On his part, Khanal had taken the elementary precaution of sounding the UML seniors and requested them ‘not to prevent him from administering oath of office to new ministers. When the request was turned down by the Standing Committee, the obvious move should have been a request to the President to delay the scheduled swearing in and entering into a fresh round of consultations with his own UML colleagues and telling the Maoists to hold their fire for some more time. So, when he drove to the President’s office, the organisational leaders construed as, Secretary Pokharel said later, that ‘the prime minister went to the Office of the President to stop the swearing-in ceremony as per the standing committee meeting’
Interestingly, by the time Pokharel was making this comment, nine Maoist and one MJF-N lawmakers had already taken oath as ministers. The new composition shows that the scales are tilted heavily in favour of the Maoists and that Khanal’s prerogatives are not even academic. Key portfolios – Home, Information, Land Reforms, Peace and Industry are with the Maoists; their vice-chairman, Narayan Kaji Shrestha, designated as the Deputy Prime Minister and given charge of Home.
Expectedly, the main opposition, Nepali Congress, has taken serious exception to the cabinet reshuffle. It sees the move as a challenge to the five point agreement that had ended the political stalemate and paved the way for Khanal government. If one goes by the stand taken by the NC leaders, it is safe to say that the interim parliament will have no smooth sail with the opposition continuing to stall its proceedings. “It’s highly objectionable that the prime minister has embraced the seven-point deal that was signed between him and Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal,” said NC Parliamentary Party leader Ramchandra Paudel. His party has been stalling the House proceedings for the past one week. More protests are in the offing.
The blame for the impasse in drafting Nepal’s Republican statute should rest at the door step of Maoists. Not at the Prime Minister’s door since Khanal has only succumbed to the lure of the office Prachanda heads the key sub-committee of the Constitution Assembly that has been set up to pave the way to reconcile differing perceptions and prepare an acceptable draft. But the Dispute Resolution Sub-committee has held just four meeting since July 3. In his capacity as coordinator of the sub- committee, Prachanda is expected to expedite the work on the draft and beat the August 31 deadline.
State restructuring, form of governance and electoral system have to be settled at the earliest and the parties should also forge consensus on peace process. Prachanda has not shown any urgency in this task. Instead, he has busied himself in engineering his return to Prime Minister’s office. That success has not come his way is a different thing.
Unveiling the statute draft without consensus on state restructuring will hold no meaning since, as UML senior Chitra Bahadur says, it is the ‘backbone’ of the new constitution. Delay in determining the modality, number, rank harmonisation, standard norms and rehabilitation package for Maoist combatants also will not bode well.
Prime Minister Khanal is acutely aware of the writing on the wall. Addressing the media at his official residence in Baluwatar, an hour after his Maoist centric cabinet expansion was completed, he said his government would lose its raison d’etre ‘if the parties failed to conclude major tasks of peace process and forge consensus. So, ‘it will be my political and moral duty to step down if we fail to conclude the major tasks of peace process by August 13,” said he conceded.
In the English speaking world, the number13 is not considered as a good number. What it has in store for Khanal will be known soon.