For a prime minister known for 'jumbo' cabinets, Sher Bahadur Deuba's past week was spent waiting to hear from interested parties, most importantly the CPN (UML). When the phone did not ring, he announced the name of two ministers from his own Nepali Congress (Democratic) at press time Thursday. He left the other posts dangling before would-be ministers in the UML, but it seemed unlikely that they would bite.
The anointed two were Deuba Congress stalwarts Bimalendra Nidhi and Prakash Man Singh who stood by the prime minister right since his split with the Nepali Congress nearly two years ago. Nidhi received two portfolios, Commerce, Industry and Supplies as well as Education and Sports. Singh got stewardship of the Ministry of Works and Physical Planning.
The lame appointment of just two ministers indicated obstacles in Deuba's efforts to get a major party to join him. Burdened with mandates assigned by the palace, as well as credible rumours that Narayanhiti was also incongruously pushing its choices, the prime minister found it difficult to woo parties still committed to fight royal 'regression'.
There remains the possibility that the UML leaders will push through a marriage, particularly the two who have eyes on the post of deputy prime minister (Bamdev Gautam and Khadga Prasad Oli). But the longer it takes for the party leadership to agree to join Deuba, the less likely it is that they will do so, as naysayers begin to build up opposition.
Indeed, the delay in building a cabinet fuels speculation that Deuba may follow the failed footsteps of his predecessors Lokendra Bahadur Chand and Surya Bahadur Thapa. If this happens, the primary responsibility will lie with King Gyanendra for not giving his third nominee prime minister a free hand. Deuba needs independence from the palace in order to build credibility among politicians and public alike.
In essence, the new prime minister is forced to speak the same language as his nominee predecessors Chand and Thapa because his terms of reference from the palace are identical: create an all-party government, seek peace (with the Maoists) and plan elections. Neither predecessor managed to get past the first stricture.
The Nepali Congress declined to support Deuba, even though the courtesy call he paid Girija Koirala upon being appointed prime minister on 2 June hinted at rapproachment. The CPN (UML), gung-ho about joining government, immediately withdrew from the streetside anti-'regression' agitation. But after four days of wrangling, its Central Committee decided to leave the decision to the smaller Standing Committee. Madhab Kumar Nepal, not in the running for a ministerial berth, is said to be reluctant.
One factor that made the left party wary was Deuba's slip in his first press conference two days after his elevation, when he announced he was not for a constituent assembly. This was an idea he had found favour with during the demonstrations. "That was when I was party president, but now I am prime minister," he said. The UML's trust in Deuba was further eroded after he began to stress elections and not the peace process. The leftist party desires an all-party roundtable, leading to a government with Maoist participation, an election and possibly a new constitution.
In his radio and television address to the nation on Wednesday evening, Deuba was in damage control mode saying he would do what the major parties wanted. He also refrained from specifying poll dates. But those who hoped for some drama-an announcement of a full cabinet or perhaps a ceasefire-were sorely disappointed.