Pressure mounts on PM Oli
Hungry, tired and broke, videos of migrant workers walking for days on end to go home from Kathmandu have fuelled public outrage against the government. And the buck has stopped at the office of Prime Minister K P Oli.
This is just the latest in a series of missteps by the government that has eclipsed even some of the effective steps it has so far taken to contain the spread of the virus. Physically weak after his second kidney transplant, Oli also senses that his political rivals with his NCP are using these lapses to remove him from office.
On Monday, Oli got the Cabinet to endorse a surprise ordinance allowing political parties to split if 40% of their parliamentary party voted for it. This appeared to be a move to counter his NCP rivals, and distract from the crisis at hand. But it has backfired with his detractors seizing on public criticism of an unconstitutional move at a time when the nation is going through a crisis.
The government’s mishandling of daily wage-earners on the move, the Nepali workers stranded in India, and allegations of corruption in medical procurement have exposed political fissures at many levels. The Prime Minister’s Office has always been at loggerheads with the bureaucracy and the ministries, the High-Level Coordination Committee for the Prevention and Control of COVID-19 led by Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel has an ongoing turf battle with the Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa.
There is a tussle over jurisdiction between the central government in Kathmandu and the federal provinces that pre-dates the coronavirus crisis. Then there is the overarching power struggle between Oli and his NCP co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal that broadly reflects the growing gap between the former UML and ex-Maoist components of the party.
The thousands forced to walk to distant districts after the lockdown was extended on 15 April were just pawns in these great games. It typified the insensitivity of the government and its slowness in protecting citizens, and exposed politicians as being only interested in enriching themselves on procurement of medical equipment to fight the epidemic.
Even the government’s efforts to address the dire situation of the people, especially women and children, walking along the highways has been mired in political infighting. The Minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Shivamaya Tungbahamphe raised the issue with Prime Minister Oli, who promptly convened a meeting of ministers and a Coronavirus Crisis Management team last week.
Instructions were given to coordinate between local government bodies and police, to escort those on the move along the highways safely to their destinations. Criticism against the government’s inaction was building up even within the ruling party.
“This lack of urgency eroded the people’s confidence in the government,” says political analyst Puranjan Acharya. “There was lack of foresight in planning, and negligence in addressing the needs of the most vulnerable sections of the population during the lockdown.”
Under fire for this perceived lack of urgency, Defence Minister Pokhrel got a meeting of the High-Level Committee on 11 April to put out a tentative strategy to transport people wishing to leave Kathmandu for their districts under the assumption that no cases had been detected in the capital.
But the plan was never taken to the Cabinet, and there was disagreement within the committee between Defence Minister Pokhrel and Home Minister Thapa whether the plan was logistically feasible.
Despite this, Pokhrel’s secretariat and the Prime Minister’s Office issued a notice via Facebook that Friday and Saturday had been designated for those wishing to leave Kathmandu, and that transport would be provided.
However, the Chief Minister of Province 5 Shankar Pokhrel took to social media to express his reservations, and called the Prime Minister to say that the centre could not violate its own lockdown. Pokhrel then issued a perplexing notice on Facebook, denying that any such order had ever been issued. Passengers who had already been waiting for buses in Kathmandu Bus Park, were ordered back by police.
This was not the only contentious decision made by the high command at the High-Level Committee however. Orders to not allow Nepali students studying abroad to return, stopping Nepali workers at the Indian border, and the alleged corruption in the purchase of essential health equipment from private firms had already drawn considerable flak from the public in social media.
Then on Sunday, the Prime Minister accused the media of being partisan and accused reporters of exaggerating the plight of those walking on the highways. The government’s inability to help those most affected by the lockdown, and the lack of accountability displayed during the crisis have fed public perception that the government is inhumane, and politically weakened Prime Minister Oli further and put him even more on the defensive.
Long road home, Bikram Rai and Suraj Kumar Bhujel
The India connection in Nepal’s COVID-19 status, Nepali Times