On May 24, the President presented the government’s annual policies and programmes for the coming fiscal year 2018/19. It has accorded priority to National Pride Projects and priority projects, while giving equal importance to metro, flyover, tunnel way construction, among other infrastructure. The annual policies and programmes form the bases for the upcoming budget. The opposition parties have lashed out at the government’s policies and programmes claiming that the document completely lacks focus and priority. Anil Giri and Prithvi Man Shrestha talked to Minendra Rijal, one of the key members of the opposition on his views regarding the policies and programmes presented by the government.
The Oli administration recently completed 100 days in office. How would you evaluate these 100 days?
I feel the government has not done much. This is really not a time to evaluate what they have done. What they have done is continued to campaign. I would like to see the government do more. Having said that, I should also add that from the perspective of a common Nepali citizen, the government has presented its policy and programmes statement and basic principles of the budget. So the budget will be the real test of what the government wants to do and how it plans to do it. Until then, there is nothing substantial to evaluate them upon.
How do you see the recent unification of the two communist parties in Nepal and its ramifications on national politics? Also, how is the Nepali Congress observing it?
They had promised that they would become one party and have now fulfilled their campaign promise. But based on the complaints we have been hearing about the unification, like how one’s position has been compromised, how one was promoted and the other was penalised in the process, one can easily see that the marriage of such large parties—where one party has a very top-heavy structure that has to be managed with a party that is not as top-heavy but is pretty hierarchical—will face some problems. But that is their problem. We have no role in that, so we probably do not have to worry too much about it. But in terms of how they will function in government, how they will handle national issues, that is something that should interest us.
Prime Minister KP Oli thinks he is the only one who is right, anybody who disagrees with him is not right. Prachanda has not yet reconciled to his diminished role in Nepali politics. So looking at these two personalities, it certainly spells a problem in the future.
What are the major flaws you see in the policy and programmes presented by the government?
The first flaw is that it has not set priorities. The country needs improvements in health, education and infrastructure, better connectivity and new ways of connectivity and a well-designed social security programme. But this budget principles document and the national polices document promise everything. If you promise heaven on earth, you will not get anywhere. Making the budget is basically identifying your priorities. So the government could priorities some areas for this year and prioritise some other issues later, one, two years down the road—that is planning. But the government has not done that.
PM Oli thinks he has the right answers for every problem. I have to give him credit for what he has achieved, but now it’s time to deliver. And will he be successful in that? That is the problem. I am concerned about his policy speech too. The document promises everything. If you say you will do everything, it basically means you do not know what you will do.
Some people have been saying that since the budget is an annual financial programme, its focus should be on one year and not five years. There are some contradictions here. What would you say?
There are some very lofty statements in this policy and programmes presented by the government, but there are no programmes. So it is flawed in that sense. Also, the policies are not very clear. For example, the government says that the per capita income will be doubled in five years. For that to happen, there needs to be a certain growth rate. The policies and programmes document does not mention how they will achieve that. Same when the government says the agricultural output will be doubled in five years. The government should be ambitious, but it should not be daydreaming.
A real fear I have is that two-three years down the road, when KP Oli starts realising that some of these tall promises will not be fulfilled, he will start realising the limits. And once he realises that, they will start blaming the opposition, intellectuals, media, professionals, bureaucracy—everyone. The civil servants are willing to support and work with the government, but only penalties, threats and coercion are not going to motivate them. And so if they keep doing this and blaming everyone, there is a real threat of the country moving towards an authoritative direction. Dictators often don’t start with wrong intentions, but when they fail to achieve what they had set out to achieve, they resort to coercion and threats.
You have been raising this question that there is the construction of another road parallel to the Postal Road. The government has envisioned another Madan Bhandari Highway, what would like to say about that?
I am fully supportive of the Madan Bhandari Highway, but is that a priority now? If the government is going to name the east-west link Madan Bhandari, then I have no problems. But if the government is thinking of completing postal roads, fast track, mid-hills all within five years, will it have the resources to do so?
If you feel that there is a real chance of authoritarianism in the country, how would you want to respond to such a threat?
My apprehension is that the government may move in that direction. As an opposition member, my role would be to caution everybody. If I raise a very strong voice and warn the
government not to move in that direction, then I will be helping the government and the country. More importantly, I will be helping the prime minister to not miss the opportunity again. And that is the role of a strong opposition. I still think we are a very strong opposition, and we will speak our conscience. I can assure you that we would like to see this government succeed because there is a lot at stake. We want the constitution to have very strong roots in the country.
But the prime minister has been saying that they will work within the framework of a democratic setup. So why is there a psyche of fear in the Nepali Congress that this is going to go the authoritarian way?
I do not doubt the PM’s intentions. But he has not been able to prioritise what he wants to do. If you can’t prioritise, you probably will not be able to achieve what you would like to achieve. And with the support base that you have, if you cannot achieve what you set out to achieve, you will not be able to put the blame on anybody else. But you will also not be willing to take the blame yourself. So once you start shifting the blame and start passing the buck, that is when you start moving towards a totalitarian state.
You talk about how the government is turning to coercion and punishment for any wrongdoing, but a section of the people also believes that those who don’t work sincerely should be punished.
The punishment should be based on the rule of law. You can’t punish anyone based on your whim. And there is a big difference between mere punishment and threatening them with imprisonment. Due process and the rule of law are of paramount importance. If you start doing anything at the expense of the rule of law and due process, then that certainly is how any country goes in an authoritarian direction.
There are also some concerns from different quarters that the policies and programmes do not uplift the spirit of federalism.
One of the biggest drawbacks of this policy and programmes is that it has not quite internalised that Nepal is a federal country now. Very little has been mentioned about federalising and fiscal decentralisation, and the centre still maintain a hand in most matters. And in that way, it goes against the spirit of the constitution. I do not see the federal mindset in the policy and programmes. I hope that will change when the budget is presented.
Given the current government’s initiative to centralise all powers in the Prime Minister’s Office, doesn’t that sound unrealistic?
My take is a little different on this matter. If anything goes wrong in the country, the PM is responsible. He is the ultimate person to control corruption, to make sure that the policies and programmes are implemented and that the budget is implemented. Expanding the jurisdiction of the PMO is in itself not a problem; but if the PM still fails to deliver, what will he do with all the powers that were centralised in his office? He will be tempted to use them in an authoritarian way. That, in my opinion is, the real danger.