Political pantomimes

  • Constitutional proscription on cabinet size will be problematic if coalition governments are to be the norm in Nepal
- Deepak Thapa

Aug 24, 2017-

There are many distinctions Sher Bahadur Deuba can be credited with: some positive, many negative. On the plus side, it was during his second stint in 2001-02 that he established the national commissions for women and Dalits, outlawed the practice of untouchability, and made a half-hearted attempt at land reforms. Of course, it was not some sudden enlightenment that impelled Deuba to be pro-women, pro-Dalits and pro-landless. The Maoist insurgency was raging then and different efforts were being made by whoever came into government to find ways to neutralise the appeal of the Maoists.

Deuba had also headed the Cabinet-appointed committee charged with seeking ways to resolve the Maoist conflict, and among the steps that committee had recommended were finding ways to address the grievances that appeared to be fuelling the insurrection. And, so, for Deuba it was just one more step to put some of those recommendations into action when he came to power in 2001. One does not know why he did not try out all that had been spelt out in the committee’s report. But, one has to admit that he did make a start, and, of course, peace talks had also begun with the first ceasefire that followed Deuba’s ascension to prime ministership. Progressive measures taken under political compulsion thus served to bolster the credentials of the same prime minister under whose earlier watch the Maoists had taken up arms.

Problems of excess

The negatives are too many. There have been so many assessments of Deuba’s different tenures over the years that there is no point even repeating the highlights. The one aspect that does stand out though is Deuba’s penchant for surrounding himself with huge cabinets. Questioned about it during a previous stint, he had responded, half in jest, that he has become used to driving jumbo cabinets.

Granted that Deuba has generally headed coalition governments and the imperatives of such an arrangement would perforce lead to humongous cabinets. But, even when he took charge of an all-Congress government in 2001, he had more than 40 ministers. So, there is something about Deuba and jumbo cabinets. He has already made history by hitting 50, and with more parties expected to join the government, that number is going to rise further. Assuming this is going to be the last cabinet of the transitional period following which the constitutional provision limiting the cabinet size to 25 will take effect, Deuba can rest assured that his will be a record no one is going to be able to better.

As quoted in this newspaper, one of Deuba’s confidants, Prakash Sharan Mahat, explained matter-of-factly: ‘This is a coalition government. The PM has to manage all the parties.’ Very true indeed, but one does wonder how the federal governments will function in days to come with the constitutional proscription on cabinet size. 

Despite the bluster from politicians from the three major parties of coming out tops in the general election, and despite the provision of a minimum threshold to be recognised as national parties, coalition governments are going to be the norm in Nepal for the foreseeable future. This tendency will be even more probable with the likely emergence of one or more regional parties as well as some provincial ones over the years. Holding together an inter-party alliance as well as satisfying all the factions within their own parties with just 25 cabinet posts to go around will be a big test for anyone who aspires to become prime minister.

Defining priorities

Mahat was equally candid when he also said that more ministers had to be appointed, since many CA members ‘wished to have some experience’. He was presumably referring to experience running a ministry. Yet, with elections due in about three months and a change in government soon afterwards, one wonders if Mahat was instead alluding to the new cabinet inductees garnering experience of being a minister with all the pomp and ceremony that comes with the position. By the time many of them figure out what it is that their assigned ministry actually does, it will be time to head home. They will have gained some experience, although at a great cost to the country’s exchequer.

In the larger scheme of things, one would have to go further than Mahat and contend with the fact that most politicians get nothing more from becoming a minister than the experience of it. It does not really matter who heads this ministry or the other since there is hardly any change in the way state provides its services. In most cases, the only difference is in how much or less ministers can abuse their positions of authority for personal benefit, including but not limited to doling out perks to one’s cronies and other hangers-on. It is a sad commentary on our political leadership that anyone who turns out not to be a crook gets viewed favourably, howsoever ineffectual he or she may be.

There are exceptions though, and we saw at least three examples of proactive leadership in the last government. Although they had their detractors, Janardhan Sharma as the energy minister along with Nabindra Raj Joshi in charge of industry and Gagan Thapa the health ministry did make a difference in one way or another. That is much more than can be said of the hundreds who momentarily warmed ministerial seats and left with nothing more than the life-long tag of mantrijyu to show for their tenure that put them in charge of a government department that could potentially make a difference in the lives of millions of people.

It is telling of how cabinets are formed that neither Joshi nor Thapa was brought back to continue with their initiatives that had begun to show some impact. Perhaps it was precisely to undercut any popularity they might be gaining that Deuba or the leader of the faction each belongs to chose not to induct them into the government again. Unfortunately, the more likely reason is what Mahat mentioned above—that it was time to give someone else a chance to experience ministerhood, the country be damned.

This is not to imply that none of our new ministers have the country’s interests in their hearts; just that the time is too short for even the more committed ones to achieve anything of substance. They will have gained the experience that would stand them in good stead if and when they were to come back as ministers. Except that at a future date, the same logic will apply again and it will be time to give some others a chance to become mantrijyu.

Published: 24-08-2017 07:59

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