14-20 February 2014 #694

Another crossroad

He may have once hijacked a plane, now Sushil Koirala needs to steer the country towards stability

We have just done a search in the Nepali Times online archives of all editorials over the past 10 years for the word 'crossroads'. It is one of the most frequently used words to describe this country’s prolonged political transition. We described various ceasefire agreements during the conflict as ‘crossroads’, the post-royal massacre period in 2001 was a ‘crossroad’, the make-or-break events of April 2006 and the ceasefire later that year were also ‘crossroads’, and we referred to the country being at a critical ‘crossroad’ after the dissolution of the first Constituent Assembly in May 2013.

Now, with Sushil Koirala being sworn in as the country’s new prime minister, there is a feeling we are at another crossroad. The country can travel ahead towards a new dawn of stable democracy and prosperity, it can be mired once again in chaotic political infighting, or it can go over the edge into an abyss.

The fact that it has taken nearly three months after the elections for parliament to even convene and elect a new prime minister does not bode well for the future. Negotiations between the NC and the UML to form a coalition cabinet have run into predictable difficulties over ministerial slots, which probably mean further delays in government formation. So, for now, we just have Sushil Koirarla and Ram Sharan Mahat being sworn in.

If he had asked for our advice, we would have suggested to Koirala that he do a Sonia Gandhi and be a kingmaker by pushing forward a younger protégé, but neither Sher Bahadur Deuba nor Ram Chandra Poudel. The Nepali people would have respected Koirala even more for personal sacrifice, which has been the hallmark of his life. He would have set a wonderful precedent by bringing in new blood and would have earned respect and authority far beyond the temporary glory of prime ministership. But in the dog-eat-dog world of Nepali politics, that would have been asking for too much, even of Sushil Koirala. However, Koirala has let it be known that he intends to stay in Baluwatar only for one year, or until the constitution is written, whichever comes first.

The prime minister's first order of business is to provide the kind of leadership and statesmanship for compromise and accommodation shown by his cousin in the post-2006 period so that the new constitution is written, printed, and bound by deadline. It is not as difficult as some of the politicians make it sound with their grandstanding. The only real issue holding up an agreement is what kind of federalism we should have. Here the election results give us a sensible roadmap: devolution to elected autonomous local units that are economically viable and politically feasible.

Working out a consensus on the constitution would need the prime minister’s full attention, but he is already mired in the familiar power-sharing games of coalition formation. In this, he has to contend with challenges within his party as well as from the UML, which has already shown how petty-minded it is by boycotting the prime minister’s swearing in. One thing Sushil must try to avoid is his late cousin’s habit of the cynical and ruthless squelching of rivals within the NC, which ended up weakening and splitting the grand old party and setting the country’s democracy back a decade.

Koirala has always been in the shadows of his more charismatic, ambitious (and sometimes corrupt) relatives and in that sense is an unknown entity. One thing is for sure though, as long as he heads the government we will not be able to say that corruption in this country ‘starts at the top’. Behind that hirsute, enigmatic visage and mumbling diction may still be the man the country needs at a time when it is once more at the crossroad.

Read also:

Whose Home is it anyway?, TRISHNA RANA

The year of living dangerously, ANURAG ACHARYA

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