The old edicts go, a barking dog does not bite. After several months of high expectations, my friend, a former senior government official, wondered with me recently, on the condition of anonymity, about the KP Oli government.
Indeed, Nepali people had high hopes from the government because it was a majority government after a long time and Prime Minister Oli had made tall promises, which to his critics sounded deluded and even insane. There were reasons for optimism.
The electoral coalition of the CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist Center had won a clear majority in the federal parliament leading the two parties to a merger and unification. This communist unification is a rare event in Nepal’s political history for which Prime Minister Mr. Oli and to a certain extent, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the co-chair of the CPN without any appendix, deserve appreciation.
While there are many economic and social challenges to progress in Nepal, one thing is different this time in terms of leadership. Prime Minister Oli does not have children to engage in personal corruption to amass wealth for his children, which has been the case with former prime ministers with children. This gives hope that the government would formulate and implement policies promised in the manifestos of the coalition partners.
I do not agree with the regressive elements in their manifestos. For instance, you need consolidation of agricultural land so that mechanized agriculture with high production and productivity becomes possible, not further fragmentation of land in the name of land reform to please communist voters and hold the country back.
Similarly, I do not agree with their promise to let the political workers engaged in revenge killings, like Bal Krishna Dhungel, to be released or not persecuted and jailed. Neither do I agree with their anti-industry labor militancy, the type the Maoists have promoted.
But many elements in the CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist Center manifestos are what Nepal needs to make a leap forward. Just to name a few, it is a great idea to depoliticize civil servants and teachers, focus on transport and other physical infrastructure, and pursue a balanced foreign policy. But the performance of the KP Oli government in the first three-plus months gives little room for optimism because whatever started with a bang had ended/may end with a whimper.
For instance, dismantling syndicates in various sectors — every sector of Nepal has syndicates, starting with politics — was a great idea. But as the efforts to this effect started having a bite, leaders have begun to peddle back. Once the existing transport syndicates were weakened to introduce new transport companies owned and blessed by communist leaders, the Transport Minister Mahaseth removed the man from the Transport Department who had been instrumental in doing it.
Similarly, the newly-minted Communist Party of Nepal co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal has threatened Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa not to punish the non-performing contractors because he lives in a house given to him by a contractor. Given the Maoist cadre’s strong-arm tactics in contract awards, Dahal could very well be at the top of the corrupt construction syndicate.
We all know Mr. Dahal is at the top of the crime syndicate. He pushed for the release of his supporter and a convicted murderer Bal Krishna Dhungel from jail and paved the way for the culture of impunity. Prime Minister Oli said his case was just a strand. A great and pithy orator must have known that even oceans are collections of small drops.
Mr. Dahal has been trying his level best to save Maoist criminals who engaged in revenge killing from the law. If the government releases politically connected criminals, then what moral right does it have to jail politically unconnected criminals? Even Mr. Oli was found crying over the persecution of those thugs who were connected with the CPN-UML.
On a broader and more important level, Mr. Oli promised a nimble government, but he ditched the promise and expanded his government to make it a coalition government, which are the epitome of corruption. But Mr. Oli will not have the same level of control on the cabinet members from the Federal Socialist Forum. He had shown wisdom in not appointing a deputy prime minister, but as the first sign of corruption, he had to appoint two deputy prime ministers who would jockey for power.
While the Oli government is engaged in these little things, his big promises — making provincial and local governments effective and sustainable, ending tuins (ropes to cross rivers) in two years, connecting Kathmandu by rail, Nepal having its own ship, etc. — have not gone forward much or gone in the wrong direction.
The recently presented budget of 1.31 trillion rupees has abandoned many of the key promises Mr. Oli had made before and after the election. Yet, the budget is quite good with the customary weaknesses of a developing country. Unfortunately, it is being opposed from within the ruling party because it does not reflect their personal priorities. I hope Mr. Oli rises over this bickering.
Speaking of budget, most notable among the things gone wrong is related to provincial and local governments. The Oli government has failed to check these where it must and checked in areas where it must not. For instance, these governments have set salaries, allowances and other facilities that their revenue cannot sustain, which will leave no money for development activities and make Nepal more dependent on foreign assistance for development than ever before.
It brings me to foreign relations. While the Oli government seems to strike a new balance between India and China, which is necessary, it has yet to grapple with winder foreign relations issues. For example, US President Donald Trump has upended the existing global governance, which will have direct and indirect impacts, most of them adverse, for Nepal.
Mr. Trump has withdrawn from the Transpacific Trade Partnership and the Paris Treaty on climate change. Likewise, he has threatened to pull the USA out of the North American Free Trade and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He has triggered a trade war with the imposition of tariffs on the import of aluminum and steel, which has prompted China, European Union, Japan, Canada and Mexico create similar protectionist barriers against American products.
He undercut the recent G-7 meeting over the trade dispute with other countries. Not only he called on other members to invite Russia to join the G-7 again, he also riled against other members of the exclusive club of rich countries and withdrew the United States from the joint statement released at the end of the summit.
All this is pushing the world towards trade war, which will impact Nepal directly and indirectly through China and India. While our neighbors and the rest of the world are taking steps to minimize disruption to their trade and to maximize their benefits in the midst of adversity. I doubt Nepal has done anything to protect itself from this fallout.
Mr. Oli’s adage-filled speeches must not only entertain but also deliver if he wants people to believe him. I hope my friend, who has begun to give up on Mr. Oli and his government with some justification, would be proven wrong.