Asked what he thought was his greatest accomplishment during his first tenure as prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba loved to recall how he steered three parties facing different directions for 18 months before Kangresi saboteurs brought him down. When he returned to the job in July, Deuba understood how the magnitude of his challenge had multiplied. After all, the Nepali Congress is a case study in how managing the competing interests of disparate lobbies within a majority party is far more exacting than keeping together a fractious coalition.
By the time the government-Maoist peace talks had entered their second round in October, the cover of camaraderie contrived at the Nepali Congress parliamentary party election was blown off. Party chief Girija Prasad Koirala and his lieutenants directed the wobbling prime minister to speed up the negotiations and crack down on the rebels in view of the favourable post-September 11 international environment. When the rebels' blitz forced Deuba to call out the army, Koirala acolytes, egged on by their patron, instantly began pressing the government to lift the state of emergency as soon as possible. Three weeks later, Koirala felt it was time to take personal charge. Much as the Congress president tries to project his latest call for national consensus as a solemn undertaking towards solving the nation's problems, he can't make it sound like anything better than a third-rate scheme to undermine his successor.
Just when you were about to give up on Deuba's determination to take on his detractors, the prime minister launched his counteroffensive last week. Affable he may be, but Deuba, too, has to factor in a tolerance level that has its limits. When the prime minister has to learn of his deepening differences with the palace on the emergency from remarks by party rivals who are clearly on a fishing expedition, can you blame him for going ballistic in Butwal? When his administration detains editors and publishers for printing what would be considered specimens of sloppy speculation even in normal times, can you expect Deuba to accept charges of muzzling the press by the same politicians he believes sponsored those stories? If the premier has hardened his resolve, maybe it's because his critics are crossing too many red lines at once.
This is not to suggest that Koirala's consensus call lacks merit. Ever since Rastriya Prajatantra Party president Surya Bahadur Thapa made that plea in Pokhara two years ago, most mainstream politicians have come out with their own versions. Koirala, who had announced a 14-point agenda during his last weeks as prime minister, was in the process of reconciling it with the main opposition UML's 22 points before he decided to skip a morning meeting to record his resignation speech. What makes Koirala's fresh call disquieting, though, is its timing and almost exclusive focus on sharing power. What is disgusting is the easy acceptance the proposal received among the same leaders who not very long ago were boycotting public functions Koirala attended as part of their effort to bully him out of Baluwatar.
Deuba realises how endemic political instability amid growing public scepticism creates the conditions for wider discord. He probably didn't draft the final report of the blue-ribbon panel on resolving the Maoist insurgency he headed. But he has read enough of it not to expect Nepalis to maintain a long-term perspective while they are struggling to survive. Deuba is compelled to find enough cash to keep the country quiet while hanging on to whatever credibility he can. Koirala knows better than anyone else how delicate this balancing act can be because he's been in the driver's seat the longest during these 12 uneasy years. But he can afford to pretend he doesn't. It's Deuba who has to go cap in hand around donors who lecture him on the cancerous spread of corruption before giving him a fair hearing.
Since the mobilisation of the military and the promulgation of anti-terrorism legislation have curtailed constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, they have raised legitimate concerns about the future of Nepal's democracy. Narayanhiti and Singha Darbars have called the state of emergency a compulsion because that's what the constitution envisages it as. Perhaps it becomes tempting to provide Machiavellian twists to transparent assertions when you can't torch tyres on the streets or dislocate sewer slabs. During extraordinary times likes these, even the masters of mendacity must spell out how they expect the military to accomplish its mission while the emergency remains a political football. Discussing a sensible exit strategy is quite different from setting arbitrary deadlines.
To be sure, a successful military campaign alone cannot address the corruption, criminality and cynicism that have gripped mainstream politics and galvanised the Maoists. However, the people don't need politicians for such platitudes. They expect their leaders to come out with specifics on tackling the root causes of the insurgency, not to scramble for power in a way that only complicates the crisis.
Deuba must have expected something like this to happen. Remember how he walked his retinue of Kangresis to the party's office in parliament to register a no-confidence motion against Koirala on a Valley bandh exactly a year ago today, while the rest of the nation was trying to make sense of the anti-Hrithik Roshan riots? But make no mistake, the prime minister sees a monumental challenge here. He feels his opponents want him to trim his jumbo cabinet to make room for them. If Deuba's rivals in the ruling and opposition parties were to get into a government of national unity, he would have to learn to refine his coalition-building skills with each cabinet session. With Pajeros thoroughly discredited and the security budget absorbing much of the outlays, Deuba doesn't have much room for manoeuvre. Besides, who knows what kind of early-detection skills advocates of probity in our burgeoning civil society have acquired since his last stint in Singha Darbar?
Deuba's opponents continue to challenge him to justify why his government needs emergency powers to fight terrorism. Doesn't it look like they're doing that job for him?