Nepali Times Asian Paints

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

Local polls wrapped up

Monday, September 18th, 2017
Pic: Jiyalal Sah

Pic: Jiyalal Sah

Nepal successfully held the last phase of local elections — trickier than the first two phases — in its most volatile region on Monday.

Province 2, where local elections were postponed three times before, witnessed a significant turnout, with men and women lining up to cast their votes since early morning.

Election Commission’s preliminary estimate is that 70 % of voters turned out to elect their local representatives in eight plains districts of Province 2, where Madhes-based parties had not allowed voting even as six other provinces went to the polls before the monsoon.

There was a minor clash in a village council of Rautahat district, but the voting was largely peaceful throughout the region, largely because Madhesi parties participated in the process.

Monday’s voting will elect 6,627 local representatives in 136 local councils, including one metropolitan and three sub-metropolitan cities. Results are expected to arrive in one week’s time, before Dasain festival begins.


Briefing or briefcase?

Monday, September 18th, 2017

BREAKING: Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC) Managing Director Gopal Khadka was sacked by the cabinet today. This op-ed was published before his removal

Guna Raj Luintel in Nagarik daily, 17 September

A newly appointed minister summons the Managing Director of a Public Enterprise under his ministry for briefing. The MD reaches the ministry with progress reports and future plans, but the minister is not interested in his briefing he is more interested in the briefcase.

“Mr MD, what’s in it for me,” the minister asks.

When the MD says there isn’t anything, that is the end of the briefing. The MD returns to his office, and weeps. The minister then asks his confidantes how to replace an MD who is “too honest” with someone who can siphon kickbacks to him and his party.

This is the pitiable state of affairs in Nepal today. Only those who deliver briefcases full of money to ministers and their parties can hold top government positions. This bare-faced corruption is leading to democratic decay and impunity.

Until 2006, we blamed the monarchy for everything that was wrong in our country. That was not completely untrue, but the kleptocracy of one king has been replaced by the plunder of multiple kings.

In 1995, Prime Minister Manmohan Adhikari picked a UML cadre Lok Krishna Bhattarai to head the Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC). But Adhikari found out that all his predecessors used to pay Rs 120 million to the queen to get the appointment. Adhikari told me about how he was kicked out of the NOC after he exposed this corruption.

If NOC executives used to pay millions to the palace two decades ago, they now pay billions to political parties. This explains why the ruling and opposition parties are mum even when media is awash with exposés of corruption within the NOC.

Since Gopal Khadka’s appointment as the NOC Chief in January 2015, the state-owned petroleum monopoly has been rocked by a series of mega scams. Several parliamentary committees and probe panels have found him guilty, but neither the Minister of Supplies or the anti-corruption watchdog dare take action against him.

In November 2015, the NOC Board of Directors, chaired by Supply Minister Ganesh Man Pun, held Khadka guilty in a corruption case. Pun publicly vowed to remove Khadka, but he was protected by then-CIAA Chief Lokman Singh Karki.

Karki is gone, but Khadka has kept the CIAA on his side and no one else dares to touch him. The government is afraid to sack him, UML Chair KP Oli also doesn’t dare utter a word against him.

The same government that has allowed Khadka to loot the country is preparing to sack the Civil Aviation Authority Nepal General Manager Sanjeev Gautam without substantial charges in which the state stands to lose billions.

Gautam terminated an agreement with Spanish contractor Constructora Sanjose for upgrading Tribhuvan International Airport, citing non-performance and failure to meet deadlines. Sanjose filed a lawsuit demanding Rs 4.60 billion in damages, and two local courts in Nepal, a Spanish court and one in Singapore have already ruled in its favour. Gautam’s removal will weaken CAAN’s defense against Sanjose’s lawsuit. There appears to be a nexus between politicians and Sanjose to remove Gautam.

If Sanjose wins it can get back a Rs 7 billion compensation and surety bond seized by the government, and probably everyone will get a share. That the government began preparations for Gautam’s removal just when Sanjose representatives were in Kathmandu is no coincidence.

These two examples of NOC and CAAN show just how broken our system is, and only a new revolution can fix it.

(Gun Raj Luintel is the editor of Nagarik Daily)