18-24 January 2013 #639

Get used to it

Battered Bhattarai will remain the stumbling block for consensus and elections
Damakant Jayshi

The reputation of Nepal’s first PhD prime minister lies in tatters, and it’s all his own doing.

His ‘records’ include making the state treasury pay more for his publicity stunt of travelling in a Mustang vehicle, having the largest-ever cabinet in Nepal’s history, withdrawing cases against more than 1,000 people including those accused of rape and murder, having the most number of murder-accused in his cabinet (at least four), and inviting the largest number of people to his official residence at state expense. Now, he has also become the biggest obstacle to finding a way out of the current impasse, demonstrating that he will stop at nothing to cling on to power. 

The question is what gives him the confidence to continue? After all, he failed to hold elections in November, a date he proposed while conspiring with his coalition partners from the Madhesi Front to let the CA expire in May last year without necessary changes in the Interim Constitution. He has cashed in on the lack of foresight of the NC and UML since he knew they would not accept an election government led by him. It now looks like he doesn’t want an election at all. And to prove how far he can go, he is now openly obstructing justice over conflict-era abuses. 

Bhattarai’s confidence seems to stem from the fact that Nepal handlers in New Delhi think there is more merit in Bhattarai continuing than otherwise. The Madhesi Front holds the aces, and as long as Madhesi leaders in the government see more of an advantage in staying in the coalition for political and monetary gain, Bhattarai is safe. 

Madhesi ministers now don’t even try to hide whose advice they heed. Home Minister Bijaya Gachhadar passed on a press release about the parties’ strong objections to remarks by an Indian official in Birganj last year to the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu even before it was made public. So asking the Madhesi Front to ditch Bhattarai is asking for a lot. 

This will change only if all the parties outside the coalition and Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal come together, with all of them supporting a move by President Ram Baran Yadav to end the deadlock. Other than that, it will take a genuine popular movement to unseat Bhattarai. Both are unlikely at present, and here is why. 

With the exception of NC President Sushil Koirala, there is no leader of national stature who can stand up to the Indians and their representatives in Nepal. He not only took Indian Ambassador Jayant Prasad to task without mincing words over the Birganj remarks, but also pointedly asked him whether he considered Nepal a sovereign state or not. Koirala has also refused to compromise on his party’s core ideals for the sake of power. One may accuse him of lacking charisma and being uninspiring, but the man has integrity and steel.

Even if the parties came together behind the president, the crucial support of the Nepal Army is not guaranteed. Bhattarai is courting the top army brass, and his sharp reaction to the arrest of Colonel Kumar Lama in the UK and approving promotion of Colonel Raju Basnet (the main accused in the torture and disappearance of over 100 Maoists in the Bhairabnath Battalion) tell the whole story. It also helps that both the Maoists and the army agree on at least one objective: to provide amnesty to conflict-era abuses, irrespective of who caused them or how severe they were. 

One trump card that the opposition parties had (cornering the Maoist-Madhesi  coalition to announce elections) has been squandered. An election by May is now almost impossible, which means Bhattarai will continue for the foreseeable future. 

Twitter: @damakant

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