The men in the ministry

From The Kathmandu Post (28 February, 2014)

Koirala cabinet is unrepresentative in terms of available capacities but it must still deliver on critical areas

The relief that Prime Minister Sushil Koirala was at last able to put together a Cabinet was dampened somewhat by the fact that it was inclusivity-challenged. One does not want ceremonial tokenism when it comes to the executive function but the weight of the Bahun community is heavy on this government, representing 13 percent of the population but with 50 percent presence in the Cabinet. Among the 21 ministers named thus far, three have the surname ‘Acharya’.

The suggestion that pandits make natural leaders because of learning and power of oratory no longer holds. There are enough national-level leaders from the Janajati and Madhesi fold within the Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML who make the grade. But weak and fractured leadership within the two lead parties, and the in-extremis jousting during the government formation, seem to have made them forget the campaign for identity waged over much of the last decade.

The intelligentsia and media, which could have influenced the debate, were transfixed by the acrimony that erupted unexpectedly between the NC and UML right after the election results were announced. First, the UML decided to press for election of Head of State, not having raised the matter before. Once that was sorted out, it was the NC’s turn to create a ruckus by refusing to give the Home Ministry portfolio to the UML. There was no other way but for the two parties to go into coalition embrace but needless damage was done to their relationship, so vital for constitution writing.

Amidst the power play, it was every ministerial candidate for himself and no one was talking of a capable and inclusive Cabinet. Certainly, the Congress leaders were not looking back to the 1959 government of Bishweshwor Prasad Koirala, whose colleagues were: Subarna Shumshere, Ganesh Man Singh, SP Upahyaya, Ram Narayan Mishra, Parashu Narayan Chowdhury, Shiva Raj Pant, Tulsi Giri, Min Bahadur Gurung, Prem Raj Angdambe, Suryanath Das Yadav, Shiva Pratap Shah, Dwarika Devi Thakurani, Yogendra Man Sherchan, Lalit Chand, Dewan Singh Rai, Jaman Singh Gurung and Neb Bahadur Malla.

We have regressed some over the past half-century. Of course, a country with such enthralling diversity cannot have all communities represented in a Cabinet but here, even cohorts have been neglected. One Dalit, two Madhesis, two women and three Janajatis in a Cabinet of (thus far) of 21 is not something to be proud of.

As the critical task of constitution writing looms, it is best to regard this non-inclusivity as an aberration, hoping that the new government after the constitution promulgation will better represent the electorate. And we may also count our blessings vis-à-vis the Koirala cabinet: it is small in size and marks the movement towards the polity’s ‘normalisation’, being answerable to the elected Parliament.

While the Constituent Assembly begins work on the drafting, Koirala should get cracking on governance. This writer’s shortlist of urgent and pending matters include the following—Chure destruction, rights accountability, foreign affairs and local


Chure plunder

The ransacking of the Chure (Shivalik), the first line of low hills in the Tarai, has continued unchecked for nearly a decade (as also reported recently in extensio in Nagarik daily). The construction boom in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh has spurred this plunder, including the building of highways above the flood line. Rather than go south to the Deccan, rock and boulder contractors came north, invading the Chure. The resulting devastation sets the stage for desertification of the Nepali Tarai and flash floods further downstream, also reducing aquifer recharge all over.

Realising the extent of the upcoming calamity, in 2010, President Ram Baran Yadav convinced the government to start what is known the President’s Chure Conservation Programme. However, not much seems to have been achieved despite much money down the dry riverbed. On Wednesday, Congress lawmakers Gagan Thapa, Ganesh Mandal and Sunil Yadav (Kathmandu, Siraha, Rauthat) castigated the authorities for lack of movement on the Chure environment. The alertness of the three MPs is hopefully a harbinger of revived parliamentary process, with people’s representatives once again beginning to direct and watchdog government.

Back to accountability

The new government has its work cut out in terms of reviving the criminal justice system, which has been run to the ground by the Maoist juggernaut. The police, district attorneys as well as the entire court system have been weakened, the proof of it to be found in the disinclination to pursue conflict-era atrocities by both state and insurgents. A case in point is the police refusing to provide fortnightly reports as demanded by the Supreme Court on the case against UCPN (Maoist) spokesman Agni Sapkota (re the murder of Arjun Bahadur Lama).

Today is the 127th day of a hunger strike satyagraha by Nanda Prasad and Gangamaya Adhikari. The special investigation team headed by police DIG Ganesh Rai does not seem to have visited the place of the murder of Krishna Prasad Adhikari in 2004, at Bakular Chowk in Chitwan. Other police officers claim that the killers have been identified but are not moving beyond that. They are obviously waiting for instructions from on high, and so, as the couple becomes weaker (kept alive by intravenous protein feed), all eyes are on Prime Minister Koirala and Home Minister Bam Dev Gautam.

Foreign shambles

Nepal’s international affairs have been in continuous decline during the ‘transitional period’ since 2006, quite a deceleration for a sovereign country. Ambassadorial appointments have been a national embarrassment, Barakhamba Road in Delhi has been devoid of a plenipotentiary for three years running and the pressing demand for diplomatic representation in the Gulf states and Malaysia (to serve more than two million migrant workers) has not been met. The past few years saw the two neighbours muscle in on the polity, even as donor organisations defined the terrain on which they would operate in Nepal, including in constitution-writing itself.

Nepal needs to convince the world that this society is resilient and that it is on the mend following the November 19 elections. The Koirala government must ramp up diplomacy to bring Nepal’s image up to where it truly represents the people’s spirit, so that the economy gets a boost and—inshallah!—our passport gets more respect. Let us hope that there will be enough to show by the time of the Saarc Summit, which Kathmandu gets to host in November this year.

Electing locally

Elections for local government (villages, districts and municipalities) have become critical. The last polls were held 16 years ago and we have not had elected local representatives for 11 years. This has led to a distortion in our democracy, corrupted political actors from the villages on up, derailed development works and blocked services from reaching the poorest.

Prime Minister Koirala has promised local elections by April-May and the donor community fortunately is active on this front, but the shoals are visible. Some Madhesi leaders and the UCPN (Maoist) as a whole are dead-set against local elections in the spring, and their resistance needs to be overcome. There is also the danger that the UML as the main coalition partner will become preoccupied with its upcoming general convention, enough to push back elections. Those who worry that local polls will vitiate the constitutional agenda need to be convinced that only some district boundaries could change (if at all), for which provisos can be made. The citizenry at the grassroots in mountain, hill and plain cannot be short-changed any longer.

The road to normalcy in Nepal would be guaranteed if the November elections were to be followed up by April-May local level polls. Given that Nepal’s ‘season of discontent’ has traditionally been springtime, on that score as well, local elections would be more productive.

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