Oped

Oli’s overtures

  • Oli has shown prudence in ministerial selections; but the infeasibility of his electoral promises is worrying
- ACHYUT WAGLE
Oli’s recent sincerity of purpose, modus operandi and the kind of offices he has chosen to bring under his immediate supervision has raised a few eyebrows; the onus of proving that he doesn’t harbour any vindictive designs lies entirely on him

Mar 6, 2018-Singha Durbar, the iconic personification of Nepal’s state power, has undergone a number of jolts after the arrival of KP Sharma Oli on its premises as the first prime minister of a federally restructured Nepal. The Nepali people were fed-up with the severely fragmented political landscape caused by over two decades of political instability. And this instability in turn was caused by the entropic bickering of political factions, the Maoist insurgency, the suicidal misadventure of monarchy and excessively extractive politicians. Therefore, any movement, for better or worse, triggered by Oli’s desire to rule now seems welcome. Since he commands an emphatic popular mandate in federal parliament, it is natural that this has given rise to hope of ending the proverbial ‘stateless state’.

Optimistic outlook

Some of Oli’s initial overtures are optimistic. For instance, he picked the benevolent Lal Babu Pandit and well-trained economist Yubaraj Khatiwada as his ministers. By choosing Pandit in the very early phase of government formation, Oli is perhaps sending a message that he is not always in favour of clever yet ‘unclean’ politicians. By choosing Khatiwada as finance minister. Oli ends the almost one and half decade-long practice (barring the short intermission of Ram Sharan Mahat at the helm) of appointing a crony of a so-called big leader to the post, who more often than not turns out to be totally illiterate in basic economics. The realisation of the need to assign professionals and technocrats to key posts, and the political acumen that is required to push these appointments through are undoubtedly commendable tenets. 

Oli’s fresh bid to consolidate the prime minister’s office is, at least in theory, another important step to improve democratic governance. It was a task long overdue. This should have been done as soon as the prime minister became the chief executive of the country in the immediate aftermath of the restoration of democracy in 1990. Oli’s recent sincerity of purpose, modus operandi and the kind of offices he has chosen to bring under his immediate supervision has certainly raised quite a few eyebrows. The onus of proving that he doesn’t harbour any vindictive designs lies entirely on him, and he will be tested by time.

Oli, as prime minister, sits in a very cosy power saddle with an almost unprecedented political advantage. He leads a government with a two-third majority in Parliament. In Nepal’s history, only BP Koirala had led such a strong government in 1959, albeit with King Mahendra’s sword hanging over him. Oli is free from such a risk and is also exempt from the obligation of sharing power with anyone. He enjoys at least three distinct political edge-overs. If he could identify these edge-overs and harness them, his chance of success as a prime minister would increase exponentially.

First, the country’s communist-indoctrinated political class, across entire divisions, is highly bullish when it comes to their expectations of Oli. Needless to say, three-fourths of Nepal’s political landscape, from Parliament to the public in general, is under the influence of some shade of communism. Second, the strength of the main opposition party, the Nepali Congress (NC), in all layers of legislature—federal, state and local—is numerically inadequate, and thus does not pose any threats to the government. Also, internal squabbles in the NC gerontocracy have rendered it totally incapacitated and so it is quite unable to take on any qualitative debates. And third, sub-regional diplomacy is in Oli’s favour as both of Nepal’s giant neighbours, China and India, are now exerting great efforts to woo him. China is allegedly determined to save and support its apparent brainchild, the government borne of the left alliance, at any cost. India is equally keen to placate the Oli-led government to prevent it from visibly aligning with China, or at least to manage the potential backlash of such an alliance. The demonstration of a little diplomatic dexterity might help Oli to deliver as the prime minster.

Impediments to delivery

All said, the downsides of the Oli government are even more excruciating. They may be classified under three broad headings, namely credibility, creativity and chauvinism. Oli and his government’s credibility might be put under the microscope at different levels—philosophical, personal and operational. Assuming that both the CPN-UML and the CPN-Maoist Centre would merge soon, as per their ‘official’ understanding, their decision to retain a ‘communist’ identity is anachronistic and, thus has resulted in the first dent to the left alliance’s democratic credibility. Such a penchant for ideological identity will have multifaceted ramifications, including in economic and foreign policies, foreign aid and foreign direct investment.

At the personal level, Oli has earned disrepute for over-promising. One recent example is his overhyping a possible Chinese rail link to Kathmandu. Not only did he barter votes in the elections with this promise, he also made a point to visit the Rasuwagadhi Nepal-China border point to reaffirm the project. But, last week, a Chinese technical team virtually quashed the possibility of the project, citing several reasons that make it infeasible. Long timeframe for construction, too steep a topography for a rail track, high costs, inadequate reverse cargo and passenger flow, and geopolitics as an obstacle to extending it across India are some of such reasons cited. There are dozens of other impossible dreams Oli has sold.

At the operational level, his party has an acute dearth of expert hands, particularly to work on the policy front. This will be a defining factor as the country enters into a critical phase of implementing the federal eco-political structure. This is precisely why the UML’s commitment to implement federalism has often been taken with a pinch of salt. An extreme politicisation in project selection but an overdependence on the bureaucracy for their implementation, as experience has it, can only deliver unimpressive results.

Lack of creativity in planning, governance and service delivery have already been seen on several fronts: from deputing the personnel in state and local level governments, disbursing funds, formulating required laws to devolving power to sub-national and local governments. The economy has reached a precarious stage and is in want of an immediate remedy. It would be unfair to blame bad intentions alone for this mess, as it is also caused by a lack of creativity, skills and receptiveness at the highest political level.

Likewise, heightened arrogance, self-righteousness and one-upmanship in Oli’s personality pose additional challenges for the functionality and effectiveness of the government. He may have chosen experts hands like Khatiwada, but what if he refuses to listen to them? Isn’t the way the Nepali stock market is bleeding a composite outcome of all these lacunae?

Published: 06-03-2018 08:18

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