Nepali Times Asian Paints

Political puzzle

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

page 1Forging electoral alliances in Nepal is getting to be far more difficult than solving a Rubik’s Cube.

While most people are immersed in Tihar-Chhat festivities, political leaders have had to stay up late at night to finalise candidates for Provincial and Parliamentary elections in November and December. It is not an easy job to balance factional interests with the needs to preserve electoral alliances.

Two weeks after announcing their alliance, the UML and Maoist (Centre) are still struggling to divvy up seats, even after the exit of Baburam Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti party. An intense battle is raging, not just within the Left Alliance, but also within its constituent parties between rival factions.

For example: the Maoists want the single-constituency Bhojpur for Gopal Kirati, who initially opposed the Left Alliance calculating that the deal might hurt his ambition to become Chief Minister of Province 1. UML Chair KP Oli has hinted that the Maoists can take Bhojpur, figuring that a deal could secure the political future of his acolyte Sher Dhan Rai at the expense of Rajendra Rai, who is backed by his party rival, Madhav Nepal.

Nepal’s two largest communist parties, who say they will unite after the polls, are also in direct competition for seats in many other districts.

Squeezed out of the Left Alliance, Bhattarai has gone over to the NC’s fold to help him win his home constituency of Gorkha-2. He has promised to support NC in Gorkha-1, but its cadres are unsure if it will be a good deal, given Naya Shakti’s humiliating defeat in the recent local polls.

After the surprise announcement of the Left Alliance, the NC is desperately trying to cobble together a ‘democratic’ alliance, tying up not just with Hindu royalists but even with fringe nationalist parties like Akhanda Nepal. The NC has welcomed Bijaya Gachhadar back into its fold, but forging partnership with other Madhes-based parties looks difficult. The RJPN and the FSFN have formed their own alliance in the Tarai, and are ready to partner with the NC only where they are weak.

Some of these are unholy alliances because parties are joining hands with those charged with, and even found guilty of, crime and corruption. Some parties are selling tickets to highest bidders, leaving their ideologically-committed cadre disillusioned.

The alliances could still go in any direction before Sunday’s nomination deadline. But no matter who wins the polls in 32 mountain districts on 26 November and in the remaining districts on 7 December, it looks like the new Parliament and Provincial Assemblies will be dominated by those most responsible for the current state of the country.
Om Astha Rai

Reshuffle? Not yet.

Monday, October 9th, 2017

Sher-Bahadur-Deuba-RSSPolitics is a game of possibilities, and who knows it better than Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal?

Dahal articulated this political cliché, tabling a no-confidence motion in Parliament against PM KP Oli in August 2016. He then succeeded Oli as PM with the backing of his foe-turned-friend NC President Sher Bahadur Deuba.

But last week, when the country was waking up from the Dasain slumber, Dahal stabbed Deuba in his back by announcing a coalition with Oli.

It was a wholly unexpected blow to Deuba’s plan to keep Oli’s UML out of power for at least five years, by forging a long-term ruling coalition between his party and the Maoists.

In what looked like a fit of rage, Deuba began consulting constitution experts and lawyers and even mulled throwing the Maoists out of the government, and reshuffling the cabinet by inducting new ministers from the RJP, the FSFN and the RPPs.

Deuba also initiated a move to cobble a ‘democratic’ coalition to counter the left alliance, and the ultimate unification between the country’s two largest communist parties.

Of the three fringe parties whom Deuba needs if he is to kick the Maoists out of the Singha Darbar, the RPP led by Kamal Thapa, as expected, became the first party to express its interest in joining a government which will soon be rendered as a caretaker.

Thapa reportedly wants the Home Ministry – a key cabinet portfolio currently held by Maoist leader Janardan Sharma, and three other ministries. But the Maoists, aware of the benefits of being incumbent during elections, are not ready to quit and give the opportunity to Thapa and other Madhesi leaders.

Initially, Deuba wanted to force the Maoists out of the government, paving the way for Madhesi-RPP leaders. But now, he seems to have regained his composure, weighing the pros and cons of reshuffling the cabinet without Maoist ministers.

It seems Deuba changed his mind after a meeting with Dahal on last Friday. Sources say Dahal reminded Deuba that politics is a game of possibilities, and the chances of the Maoists once again ditching the UML and forming another coalition government with the NC will still be alive after elections.

“What if the Maoists fall out with the UML and their unification does not take place? They need us, and we need them,” said an NC source. “So it would not be wise to further strain relations with the Maoists by throwing them out of the government.”

So, at present, Deuba is unlikely to kick the Maoists out, and induct Madhesi-RPP leaders. It seems his strategy is to engage everyone but UML in negotiations, and prevent the Left Alliance from winning a two-thirds majority.

If the Left Alliance simply wins a two-third – not easy though, it will form the government, and the NC will be left out of power longer than ever in the past. If it just wins a majority, the NC will have time and space to play and create rifts within the Left Alliance, and pull the Maoists away.

Possibilities are unlimited, and PM Deuba has kept all the doors open.

Om Astha Rai


Art of the impossible

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017
Pic: Gopen Rai

Pics: Gopen Rai

Nepal’s political love triangle got a new twist even as the country emerged from the Dasain holidays: the  UML and the Maoists baffled pundits by announcing an electoral alliance, which they say could lead to an eventual merger between the two largest communist parties.

Not one to be left out of all the action, ex-Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai’s New Force also joined the alliance at the last moment and was present with other senior comrades at a noisy press conference on Tuesday evening at the Nepal Academy. There were loud cheers from supporters as the leaders spoke, justifying the unity.

unified 2The three parties signed a six-point deal at the function under which they will first join hands to contest federal-parliamentary elections in November and announce a unified party later. They said the alliance was not directed against anyone, least of all at the Nepali Congress with whom the Maoists are in a coalition at present.

The UML and the Maoists will field their candidates in 60 and 40 per cent of the total constituencies respectively, allocating a proportion to the New Force and other parties that may later join the alliance.

PM Sher Bahadur Deuba appears to have been caught unaware and invited Dahal to Baluwatar on Tuesday morning to try to convince him not to go through with the alliance. But Dahal just assured Deuba he would keep the ruling coalition intact until elections.

unified 3In August 2016, Deuba had toppled the Oli government, talking Dahal into forming an alliance with the NC instead of the UML. Deuba backed Dahal as PM until the first phase of local elections, and supported his daughter’s mayoral candidacy in Bharatpur metropolitan city of Chitwan.

Deuba and Dahal had discussed at length ways of forging a long-lasting alliance, keeping the UML out of power. But Maoist leaders say Dahal felt ‘ignored’ and even ‘humiliated’ at times after Deuba became PM in June, especially during the last phase of local elections in Province 2 just before Dasain.

Wary of the long-term NC-Maoists partnership, and somewhat humbled by the results of the Province 2 polls, Oli approached Dahal, and the two leaders discussed the possibility of a communist alliance.

Times were when politics went into a six week hibernation during the Dasain-Tihar-Chhat autumn festival in Nepal. It was therefore a good sign that the leaders of the three-party cartel did not waste their Dasain, and indulged in more than just carnivorous merry-making.

Even the cleverest analyst could not have predicted the dramatic announcement on Tuesday that the UML and the Maoist Centre had agreed on an electoral alliance.  The UML and Maoists have proven once more that that there are no permanent friends and no permanent foes in politics, and that politics is the art of the impossible. Even so, the political promiscuity among the NC-UML-Maoists is getting shamelessly opportunistic.

There are several factors that prompted this new alignment. The UML lost the Tarai in the Province 2 elections, and needs to regain the plains vote bank for parliamentary polls. The Maoists did better than they themselves expected, which convinced K P Oli that he couldn’t yet write off Pushpa Kamal Dahal.  The strong showing of the NC in voting in the Tarai also seems to have spooked the Comrades. Besides all this, the NC and the Maoists seem to have belatedly realised that theirs was an unnatural relationship,  and two parties that are ideologically so far apart that they would just not be compatible.

After the initial euphoria of immediate party unity, reality appears to have set in and the UML and the Maoists decided against contesting elections under the same ballot symbol. They will, however, be coordinating the distribution of tickets and be hoping as Baburam Bhattarai said at the press conference “to win not just a simple but a two-thirds majority” in the new Parliament. They have also agreed to take turns leading the coalition after January 2018, if they win.

The leaders who spoke all said the ideology of the party was centered on ensuring political stability so that the country could move towards “socialist-oriented prosperity”.

Dahal and Oli have justified the new alliance as a partnership between ‘nationalist’ forces. Waving the flag against perceived external enemies has always been a good electoral strategy, and Dahal especially seems to want to benefit from hanging on to Oli’s coat-tails.

Om Astha Rai and Kunda Dixit


Remembering Rara

Monday, October 2nd, 2017

Pic: Kunda Dixit

Tufan Neupane in Himal Khabarpatrika, 24 September-7 October

Lok Bahadur Shah used to run a small store near Rara Lake. One day 40 years ago, a government clerk came door to door ordering him and everyone else in the village to pack up and move out. They were being resettled in the Tarai to make way for Rara National Park.

This was in the days of the Panchayat and there was no question about disobeying a royal decree issued by King Mahendra himself. Mahendra was mesmerized by Rara, and penned his famous poem Rara Ki Apsara sitting under a juniper tree on the southern shore of the lake in 1964. The king died before his dream of creating a pristine nature reserve could be realised, but his son Birendra fulfilled his father’s vision by evicting 314 families from around Rara Lake which was declared a national park in 1976.

Lok Bahadur, now 82, still remembers the day he had to leave his home for good. That morning, he lit a lamp, and put enough oil in it for the whole day. He secured his house with a big padlock as if his family was just going on a vacation, and would return soon.

The family had lots of cows, buffalos, sheep, mountain goats and mules. There were rumours that the sooner they reached the Tarai the larger would be the plot of land they would get. So he sold all his livestock at throwaway prices and headed down to Motipur village of Bardiya district in the mid-western plains.

Rara’s displaced families were told that the government had already built concrete houses for them. But that turned out to be just one of the many lies as they settled down in the malaria-infested jungles of Bardiya.

Not only were there no houses, there was no drinking water, and no easy access to nearby towns. The mountain dwellers could not adjust to the heat of the Tarai, and moved to Chisapani without asking for government permission.

Chisapani was a better place, but the Rara families faced resentment from locals. After a five-year long struggle, they finally got the land they were promised. The younger generation adapted to the new life, but those who had social, economic and cultural roots in Rara still pine for what they consider home.

Gagan kumari shahaGagan Kumari Shahi (pic right), now 86, was among those displaced and recalls it was snowing when she said goodbye to her lake-side home. In Rara, she used to go to the nearby woods to worship her deity every month, or so. But in the Tarai, the festivals and temples were unfamiliar.

“Even the gods were different in the Tarai,” she says. “It is like moving to another country.”

The heat of the Tarai is not the only thing that makes families yearn for their lost paradise. The identity crisis that they have faced here is equally more acute.

Lalit Jung Shah (pic below), now 81, was the head of the Shrikot village council, and was twice elected to the Mugu district council. Shah went back to Mugu to contest elections, but was defeated because his voters were no longer there.

Lok Bd shaha“Even today, whenever I go there, people respect me, and do not charge me a penny for food and lodging,” he says. “But here, I am nobody and nobody knows me.”

There have been some benefits of the forced transmigration to the Tarai. Shah’s grandfather died at 61 and father at 62. Had he stayed on in Mugu, one of the districts with lowest life expectancy, he says he would have probably gone by now.

Life around Rara was basic, with no hospital, school or roads. People depended on shamans. Today, the children of some of the Rara families have become doctors. Yet, for many of the elderly there is a deep dull ache for home that never goes away.

Happy Dasain

Friday, September 29th, 2017

Nepali Times takes its annual Dasain break this week. So there is no print edition of the paper on Friday 29 September. We wish all readers happy holidays.

Diwakar Chettri

Diwakar Chettri

A vote for amendment

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017
Photo: RSS

Photo: RSS

If the Province 2 polls were a referendum on the Constitution amendment, early trends show that the UML’s rejection to it was soundly defeated. The message from the trends so far is that opposition party may need to show greater flexibility, but the Tarai-centric parties, too, need to rethink some of their demands vis-à-vis the Madhes.

The picture is not completely clear yet, but it seems no party, probably except the Maoists, would be happy with the final results of the local polls in the eight districts of the eastern Tarai.

Madhes-based parties, which consider the Tarai their homeland, are struggling to be third or fourth positions behind the mainstream parties. If they had won by a landslide, they could have interpreted it as endorsement of their demand of the Constitution amendment.

The RJPN, which comprises six Madhesi parties, has won just 17 seats so far, and is leading in 7. The FSFN, which led the recent Madhes movement with the RJPN, has also won 17, and is leading in 5.

But early trends are even worse for the UML, which is facing off against Madhes-based parties over the Constitution amendment. Having emerged as the first party in the previous two rounds of local elections, the UML had predicted it would repeat  the victory in  Province 2, too.

But the UML is not just lagging behind other parties, but it has also faced humiliating defeats in its own strongholds. In Rautahat, the home district and constituency of top UML leader and ex-PM Madhav Kumar Nepal, it did not win a single seat.

Analysts say that the RJPN-FSFN’s joint performance cannot be seen as proof that they are the true representatives of the Tarai.

“Madhesi-parties did not win as many seats as they needed to assert their authority,” says Birganj-based analyst Indu Shankar Jha. “But if you add up the votes received by the NC and the Maoists, it would be clear that people in the Tarai want an amendment to the Constitution.”

Ahead of the Province 2 polls, the NC-Maoists coalition had tabled the Constitution amendment bill in Parliament, which was thwarted by the UML and the RPP. During their election campaigns, the NC and the Maoists emphasised the fact that they did try to address the grievances of the Madhesi people.

The NC, which views the Tarai as its bastion, had vowed to win 100 of the total 136 constituencies in Province 2. So far, it has won just 32, and is leading in 10 municipalities/village councils. This is not satisfactory for the NC, but it will emerge as the biggest party in Province 2.

The Maoists, whom the UML had written off, have done surprising well, winning 18 seats and leading in 4 seats so far.

“The NC and the Maoists benefitted from their failed efforts to amend the Constitution,” Jha says. “The UML was singled out as a villain not just by the Madhesi parties, but also by the NC-Maoists.”

Jha argues that the seats won by the UML are not because of its stand against the amendment, but because of its organisational strength. “Look at the RPP,” he says. “Parsa was its second stronghold after Kathmandu. But it faced a rout in here because it also stood against the amendment.”

Surendra Labh, a professor in Janakpur, says: “The message of the Province 2 results is clear: people in the Tarai want an amendment to the Constitution.”

Om Astha Rai

Doctors on strike

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

Doctors across Nepal have gone on an indefinite strike from Friday to exert pressure on the Government to withdraw a decision they say will make them liable for death or injury to patients that results from their negligence.

Read also:

Assaulting the caregivers, Agya Mahat, Madhusudan Subedi, David Citrin

Early this week, a cabinet meeting directed the Ministry of Health and Population to ‘address issues relating to independent investigation, personal and professional insurances and compensation in the case of deaths of or damages to patients due to sheer negligence of doctors’.

Although the Government decision is vague, and could be dubbed unnecessary because the guidelines of the Nepal Medical Education (NME) have already addressed these issues, doctors are alarmed that it could be used against them.

The NME issued a 72-hour ultimatum for the Government to withdraw its decision, which it ignored. As a result, doctors closed the out-patient departments (OPDs) of hospitals from Friday morning.

Patients, caught off guard by the medical strike, are returning without treatment from the OPDs.

The agitating doctors have also sought a stricter law against those who attack them and vandalise hospitals after the unexpected deaths of patients. They want a law that does not allow the court to release hospital vandals on bail.

Read also:

Cashing in on tragedy, Sonia Awale