When King Gyanendra sacked Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba on 4 October last year, he said Deuba had been incompetent in not being able to hold elections as promised. But everyone knows that wasn't Sher Bahadurji's fault.
His real incompetence was not using legal provisions to extend the terms of VDCs and DDCs by a year. Local elections couldn't be held because of the raging insurgency, but Deuba thought he could kill two birds with one stone: appease the king as well as demolish the domination of the UML over grassroots bodies.
By this one act of wilfull inaction, Deuba let the terms of more than 50,000 elected officials lapse. In one fell swoop, the administration of 75 districts, 58 municipalities and 3,913 village committees fell into the hands of this country's notoriously inefficient bureaucracy.
As it turned out, Lokendra Bahadur Chand didn't prove to be any more competent in reviving the first tier of democracy. As a result, for more than a year now, Nepalis are without local representation. Development has ground to a halt, no one is accountable anymore to citizens, and the vacuum has been filled by the Maoists who now hold sway beyond the perimeter of district headquarters.
So, despite the ceasefire, political activity outside urban areas is now limited solely to Maoist extortion drives. From field reports in this paper over the past weeks, we catch a glimpse of a country with two systems. Nearly half the budget allocated to local government units for development remained unspent this fiscal year. That means no money for schools, health posts, trails, bridges and emergency relief.
It's encouraging that the present government is concerned about this abysmal state of affairs and is moving an ordinance to empower itself to "make alternative arrangements" in running local government units. The malaise has been correctly diagnosed, but the prescription is wrong.
To replace government officials, the Thapa government wants to take a leaf out of Deuba's book of political tricks and hand over the administration of VDCs, municipalities, and DDCs to all-party committees. Even if local units of the political parties agree to go along, the government is going to further alienate the mainstream parties and rankle the Maoists at one go. The treatment is more dangerous than the disease.
The right road is still the one that Deuba didn't take: revival of the elected local government units. Many of the elected local UML leaders have either voluntarily crossed over to the Maoists or have been coerced into doing so. The moderate left will get a much-needed boost from such a move, and it may even prevent an undesirable party split. This time, the Nepali Congress will not complain since it is in an alliance with the UML. The revival of local bodies will be a win-win situation for everyone-most of all for the Nepali people.
Thapa needs to kick-start the political process at grassroots: first, by reviving VDCs, municipalities, and DDCs, and then by creating an environment for local elections. This can be a beginning of the rapprochement between the government and the parliamentary parties. For all we know, crafty Thapa may have been cooking dhido all this while to feed politicos on relay hunger strikes. If that is true, then let's hope our harsh comments last week about the lack of direction of his government are way off mark. We would be happy to eat our words.