Off the Record 015: Deuba for the fifth time

Issue 015 • 16 July 2021

It’s July 16, 2021, and you’re reading Off the Record, the weekly newsletter from The Record. We are an independent, ad-free, digital news publication out of Kathmandu, Nepal. 

I’m Pranaya Rana, editor of The Record, and in this newsletter, we’ll stop, take a deep breath, and dive into one singular issue that defined the past week. 

You can read Off the Record for free by visiting this link or subscribe on our website to receive this newsletter in your inbox every Friday. 

Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening from Kathmandu in transition.

This past week has been a rollercoaster of political happenings. The Supreme Court has reinstated Parliament, ordered Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli to step down, and appointed Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba as prime minister. Oli left Baluwatar but he did not go quietly, hosting an address to the nation before departing. In his address, which was a thinly veiled harangue of the Supreme Court, Oli laughably claimed that he was not someone who sought publicity. All I am reminded of are these:

The Oli era is effectively over, at least for now. But the removal of one man alone will not change all that is effectively wrong with the system. That, however, is a conversation for another day.

In Covid-19 news, Nepal this past week obtained a slew of vaccines — 800,000 of 4 million doses of the Verocell vaccine purchased from China and 1.5 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine through COVAX. The Verocell doses are being given out to any who come at many vaccination centers, even though the government has officially said that it is only for certain populations. When the rest of the shipment of Verocell vaccines arrives from China, they will be distributed across the country, according to the Immunization Department. The Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which are single-dose vaccines, will also reportedly be given out to people aged 50 to 54. Sadly, there are still no AstraZeneca doses forthcoming, leaving the over 1.8 million elderly who received the first dose of the Covishield vaccine still waiting for the second.

With the vaccination drive well underway and most prohibitionary orders lifted from across the country, there is a sense that Nepal has gotten over the worst of the second wave. That could well be true but there are already warnings of a third wave. Anecdotal evidence suggests that cases have started to rise again with increasing hospital admissions. This past week also had an auspicious date for weddings, meaning large gatherings surely took place.

But with the changes of the past week, there is politics on everyone’s minds. So let’s dive into the Supreme Court’s Monday decision, what it portends for the future, and the character of Nepal’s new prime minister — Sher Bahadur Deuba.

The deep dive: Deuba for the fifth time

A momentous decision from the Supreme Court this past week has necessitated significant changes in Nepal’s federal power structure. Responding to nearly 30 petitions, the Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court, on Monday, ordered that the dissolved Parliament be reinstated within a week and that President Bidya Bhandari appoint Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba as prime minister.

I’m no legal scholar but this decision might just be the most significant ruling the Supreme Court has handed down since the new constitution came into force in 2015. The ruling is far-reaching in its interpretation of the constitution, squarely pointing to an overreach on the part of the president and the former prime minister.

Since the decision is slightly complicated, let me try to break it down.

The entire process to elect a prime minister is outlined in Article 76 of the constitution. The first two sub-sections — 76 (1) and 76 (2) — are fairly straightforward:

After the 2017 elections, KP Sharma Oli, as leader of the CPN-UML’s parliamentary party, was appointed prime minister. The parliamentary party consists of all the Members of Parliament elected from one particular party, with the chief of the party usually leading the parliamentary party. As Oli was chair of the UML, he was also leader of the UML’s parliamentary party and as Deuba is president of the Nepali Congress, he led the Congress parliamentary party.

Since his elevation to prime minister in 2017 and his ignominious exit in 2021, much changed. Oli’s UML party merged with Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Maoist Center to form the behemoth Nepal Communist Party. The party lasted for three years before it too was dissolved by the Supreme Court over a naming issue. Oli, once a confident chief executive, began to alienate his party members, especially the senior leadership. Faced with intractable opposition, Oli dissolved Parliament — once in December 2020 and again in May 2021. In both instances, the Supreme Court stepped in to reinstate Parliament.

Before he dissolved Parliament for the second time, Oli had lost a vote of confidence. That alone should’ve led Oli to step down but he persevered. In the wake of his loss, President Bhandari invoked Article 76 (2) of the constitution, asking any Member of Parliament with the support of two or more parties to stake a claim for the prime ministership. President Bhandari gave a 72-hour deadline and the opposition parties and factions were unable to come up with a viable candidate. Subsequently, President Bhandari reappointed Oli under Article 76 (3), which reads:

As the UML has the most members in the House of Representatives, Oli was reappointed prime minister but the following Article 76 (4) required him to undergo another floor test within 30 days. Oli, who had just lost a floor test, decided to ask President Bhandari to invoke Article 76 (5). He did not resign and he did not face a floor test.

Article 76 (5) and 76 (6) state:

The opposition cried foul but as article 76 (5) had been invoked, Congress President Deuba, on May 20, arrived at Sheetal Niwas, the President’s House, with a petition containing the signatures of 149 Members of Parliament from the Congress, the Madhav Nepal faction of the UML, and the Upendra Yadav-Baburam Bhattarai faction of the Janata Samajbadi Party. But Oli presented his own claim with the support of 153 Members of Parliament — all 121 MPs from his UML party and all 32 members of the Janata Samajbadi Party. His argument was that as leader of the UML parliamentary party, he could issue a whip directing all his party members to vote in his support, as could Mahanta Thakur, parliamentary party leader of the Janata Samajbadi Party, and Thakur supported Oli.  

President Bhandari, on May 21, decided that both claims were lacking in substance and on Oli’s recommendation, once again dissolved Parliament and called for elections in November.

In its July 12 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Oli’s continuing claim to the prime ministership was “unconstitutional” and that Deuba be appointed prime minister, endorsing his May 20 petition to the President. The decision overturned the president’s decision to dissolve the House on the prime minister’s recommendation and ordered that the reinstated House of Representatives meet within a week’s time.

The full text of the Supreme Court decision can be read here. Be warned, it is 167 pages of dense Nepali legalese.

The court further ordered that any party members who vote for Sher Bahadur Deuba’s election as prime minister cannot be censured by their party for crossing party lines, an order aimed squarely at Oli for expelling Madhav Nepal and others from the UML for allying against him. Though Nepal and others have been welcomed back into the UML, the threat of being expelled by the party was ever present. Now, with the Supreme Court’s order, MPs will be able to vote as per their individual choices and not the party whip.

There is, however, debate over whether this particular order applies only to the election of the prime minister and not to any subsequent business. After the decision on Monday, Sher Bahadur Deuba was appointed prime minister on Tuesday. But he will need to obtain a vote of confidence from the reinstated House within 30 days. Now that Madhav Nepal appears to be back in Oli’s fold, Deuba chances of obtaining a majority vote are slim. His party has 63 MPs while the Maoist Center has 53, equalling 116. An assortment of members from the Janata Samajbadi party is not likely to provide the necessary 138 votes in his favor, as it only has 32 members.

Deuba has a month to rally support to his side to pass a floor test. If he fails the floor test, then Article 76 (7) of the constitution comes into force:

Parliament will once again be dissolved and elections declared, this time to be held under Deuba’s watch.

For the foreseeable future of 30 days, Deuba is Nepal’s prime minister — for the fifth time. Although there were petty hiccups before his inauguration — the Office of the President issued a terse note regarding Deuba’s appointment, without quoting the relevant constitutional articles as is proper practice and without an issuance date — Deuba took the oath of office alongside his Cabinet members Bal Krishna Khand as Home Minister, Janardan Sharma as Finance Minister, Gyanendra Karki as Minister for Law, Justice, and Parliamentary Affairs, and Pampha Bhusal as Minister for Energy, Water Resources, and Irrigation. Sharma and Bhusal are Maoist Center members while the others are from the Congress party. He is expected to expand his Cabinet to around seven members in the coming days, inducting more Maoist Center and Janata Samajbadi members.

But let’s talk a little about Sher Bahadur Deuba the man. He is 75 and has been an influential actor in Nepali politics for decades now. He has been prime minister four times before, under all of the major political dispensations of modern Nepal.

Photo: RSS

Deuba first became prime minister in 1995, after rising through the ranks of a Congress dominated by the Koirala family. His first premiership was eventful, as he signed the controversial Mahakali Treaty with India and witnessed the beginning of the Maoist ‘people’s war’. On February 4, 1996, Baburam Bhattarai and Pampha Bhusal met with Deuba at his office in Singha Durbar to present him with a 40-point list of demands and a two-week ultimatum before the launching of an armed movement against the state. Deuba listened but dismissed them. Nine days later, on February 13, 1996, a small group of Maoists armed with vintage rifles and knives attacked the Holeri police station in Rolpa, marking the beginning of the 10-year civil insurgency. Deuba also presided over a 48-member Cabinet, one of the largest in Nepali history.

That first stint lasted until March 1997. His second time as prime minister was in July 2001, months after the royal massacre. The Maoist insurgency was at its peak and Deuba was forced to enter into negotiations. A ceasefire was called but failed and Deuba took a hardline stance against the Maoists, declaring them a ‘terrorist organization’ and instituting a state of emergency in the country. The Girija Prasad Koirala-led Nepali Congress was increasingly divided, eventually leading to a split with Deuba forming the Nepali Congress (Democratic). The weakened Nepali Congress allowed the palace a greater role to maneuver and when Deuba dissolved Parliament and called for elections, an increasingly emboldened Gyanendra Shah, in October 2002, dismissed the Deuba government for incompetency and replaced it with one led by Lokendra Bahadur Chand.

Third time around was two years later, in June 2004. Deuba was appointed prime minister by the very man who had sacked him earlier — Gyanendra Shah. But less than a year later, in February 2005, he was sacked again, as Gyanendra seized power in a coup and placed all politicians under house arrest.

Deuba became prime minister for the fourth time in 2017. By this time, the Koirala hold on the Congress had softened considerably with the deaths of Girija Prasad and Sushil Koirala, the last of an elder generation of Koiralas. Deuba managed to take control of the Congress party, defeating rival Ram Chandra Poudel. He entered into an alliance with the Maoist Center but the Maoists abandoned him halfway to ally with Oli’s UML. Deuba, nevertheless, conducted the first three-tier elections in the country’s history and handed over the reins of government to Oli.

Will the fifth time be the charm? Not very likely.

Deuba’s previous terms have not been marked by anything markedly progressive. His political stances have been run-of-the-mill and while he hasn’t been grossly incompetent, his previous tenures have left a lot to be desired. He is not a man known for his speed, his foresight, or even his demeanor. Deuba is known for losing his temper at the public, often his own party cadres. Perhaps the most infamous of these instances occurred during a BBC Sajha Sawal interview when Deuba berated audience members and even the host Bidhya Chapagain for asking him difficult questions.

In the past, Deuba has displayed a tendency to go to significant lengths to preserve his government. His massive Cabinets of the past were aimed at placating rival parties by offering them ministerial berths. He once again needs the support of the Maoists and the Janata Samajbadi party. He’s already given away two crucial ministries — Finance and Energy — to the Maoists and he will likely attempt to woo the Janata Samajbadi similarly.

But many in the Congress party and among the public are rooting for one specific person for one specific position — Gagan Thapa for Health Minister. The Covid-19 pandemic has not gone away, and in fact the third wave might already be beginning, and the Health Minister is likely to remain a crucial appointment in the months to come. Thapa, who was Health Minister in the past, has been very vocal in his criticism of KP Oli’s handling of the pandemic. Many consider him the right man for the job.

Oli displayed many regressive tendencies, even a willingness to revisit some of the basic achievements of the past decades, namely federalism and secularism. These hard-fought wins will not be wholly safe with the Congress. While the party proudly flies its socialist flag, it is the party of Ram Saran Mahat, Nepal’s neoliberal-in-chief, and his acolytes continue to champion the doctrine of free market, trickle-down economics. There’s even a subset of Congress politicians who are vehemently pro-Hindu rastra, like Shashank Koirala. And despite the popularity of younger politicians like Gagan Thapa and Congress spokesperson Bishwaprakash Sharma, the party is dominated by old fogies like Ram Chandra Poudel and Krishna Prasad Sitaula. Deuba might not be so very different from Oli.

Regardless of whether Deuba wins the confidence vote or not, his leadership in the near future will be crucial as to how the pandemic progresses. Even if he wins the vote, his stay will not be longer than 18 months, as once the five-year term of this Parliament expires, Nepal will have to go to polls. After the drubbing the Congress took in 2017, here is an opportunity for Deuba to show leadership, gain plaudits, and establish a firm base for victory in the next elections.

Oli bungled the pandemic response as he was too caught up in intra-party politics and attempting to preserve his own stay in power. If Deuba can put politics aside and focus squarely on vaccinating a majority of the population and keeping the pandemic at bay, he will have made something out of his fifth time as prime minister.

May Deuba prove all us pessimists wrong.

On The Record this week:

Aahuti on the Rupa Sunar affair and the links between Dalits and Newars

Nishi Rungta on the lessons in teaching and learning that the pandemic years have taught

Tom Robertson on learning to write well

Happenings this week:

Saturday - Twenty-five days after the floods in Sindhupalchok and Helambu, Prime Minister Oli finally visited the area via helicopter. He pledged Rs 50,000 to each household affected by the floods. The losses to most households are estimated to be in the millions.

Sunday - The KP Sharma Oli and Madhav Kumar Nepal factions reached an agreement that promised to ‘maintain party unity’ while moving forward. This is likely to mean that Madhav Nepal will be siding with Oli over Deuba.

Monday - The Supreme Court delivered its verdict, stripping Oli of the prime ministership, reinstating Parliament, and elevating Deuba to the head of the executive.

Tuesday - Deuba took the oath of office with five other members of his Cabinet. He will face a vote of confidence in the restored House within a month. If he passes, he will continue as prime minister for 18 months until the end of the House’s term. If he loses, the House will be dissolved and elections held in November. Deuba will be reduced to a caretaker prime minister.

Wednesday - Just a day after the Congress government was installed, Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar, a senior Congress politician, turned himself into the Special Court on charges of corruption of over Rs 96 million. Gachhadar had been implicated in the Baluwatar land grab scam but had not responded to the court’s summons. He was almost immediately released on Rs 1 million bail.

Thursday - The terms of both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission to Investigate Enforced disappearances were extended by a year, but very few are happy. The commissions are largely seen by both conflict victims and rights activists as partisan. They were formed in 2015, nine years after the end of the conflict in 2006, and have nothing to show as of yet.

Friday - Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi met with Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and announced a gift of 1.6 million vaccine doses for the Nepali population.

Read of the week

Neglected by the state, broken by the pandemic’ — Marissa Taylor writes about the sorry state of the country’s madrasas, which are often the only means of education for Nepal’s impoverished Muslim community.

That’s all for this week. I shall see you Friday on the next edition of Off the Record

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