At 75, Sher Bahadur Deuba is Nepal’s prime minister for the fifth time in 26 years — joining the ranks of other serial prime ministers Surya Bahadur Thapa and Girija Prasad Koirala.
That fact alone shows that the structural defects in Nepali politics remain intact, so politicians can keep returning to power without learning from, and atoning to, past mistakes.
Deuba first became prime minister of a coalition government under similar circumstances in 1995 after the Supreme Court overturned the decision to dissolve Parliament by Manmohan Adhikari, who was leading a minority UML government.
Since then, Deuba has led the country through key moments in Nepal’s history: during King Birendra’s reign, after King Gyanendra’s coup, in interim governments after the peace accord in 2006, and during the first federal elections in 2017 under the new Constitution.
But Deuba’s long political career is replete with mis-steps and controversy.
He must have had a sense of déjà vu as he challenged K P Oli’s leadership, since he himself dissolved Parliament during his second term in 2002, after which King Gyanendra sacked him for being ‘incompetent’.
Deuba was then dismissed by his Nepali Congress (NC), which led him to found a breakaway faction. The same kind of power struggle that brought down the UML also plagued his party: first with GP Koirala and currently with Ram Chandra Paudel as the NC prepares for its convention.
Deuba was in power when he waged war on the Maoists, who had placed a bounty, dead or alive, on his head. The fact that he now shares power with Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoist Centre proves the adage that there are no permanent enemies in politics.
In 2005, after his third tenure, Deuba was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for corruption, but was released after the court dismissed the case.
After the 2017 election, Deuba handed over prime ministership to K P Oli. But even while Oli fought off the leadership challenge from the Dahal-Nepal combine, Deuba did not join them till earlier this year. It must have been Deuba’s destiny to bookend Oli’s term as Prime Minister and succeed him.
Deuba’s fifth term is already off to a shaky start, and the choice of Pampha Bhusal and Janardan Sharma from the Maoist Centre in powerful ministries shows the kind compromises he has made with Dahal.
Deuba also has a month to face a floor test in the House. If he can get 136 votes out of 271 seats, he can govern till elections in 2023. If he cannot, then Nepal has to go for early elections in six months.
In May, the anti-Oli alliance under Deuba’s leadership had the support of 149 lawmakers — 61 from his own NC, 49 from the MC, 23 members of the UML Nepal faction, and 12 from the Yadav-Bhattarai faction of the JSP.
The 23 votes of the Nepal faction will be crucial for Deuba, and some Nepal loyalists know that the UML will split if they vote for Deuba. But party insiders say there is now too much bad blood for Oli to offer Nepal the olive branch.
Most Nepalis, while glad that the uncertainty in the UML has ended, are dismayed that the parties could find no one more promising than Deuba to lead the country.
Deuba’s first task is to bring his disparate Cabinet members to make up for time that the Oli government squandered in dealing with the Covid-19 health and economic emergency, obtain vaccines to prevent a third wave, and deal with a disastrous monsoon season.
They do not have high hopes.