Biswas Baral and Kamal Dev Bhattarai talk to political scientist Krishna Khanal about the two years of Oli government, its interna¬tional outlook, and its major achievements and failures.
How do you evaluate Oli government’s performance in the past two years?
The government performance is average. In Nepal’s modern political history, after the big majority government of BP Koirala in 1959, it was only the second time that a government was formed with such a conducive environment. The current government has a strong mandate with almost two-third support in parliament and it has popular support as well. There is virtually no opposition as well. In this situation, people expect more from the government.
For instance, the Oli government has come up with a new education policy but it is doubtful any education expert has gone through it. The policy is a mess but no one is challenging the policy, neither from inside the party nor from outside it. Previous governments had no such luxury.
The Oli government is undertaking only day-to-day tasks. But such things could also have been done by any of the previous, and far-weaker, governments. It is a tragedy that there is no substantial difference between previous short-lived governments and current stable one.
Why has such a strong government performed so poorly?
There is a lack of homework, and our state machinery is also weak. When Oli was electioneering, I had asked whether the big promises he was making could be honored by our weak state machinery. Why are our development projects so slow? There could be political and other vested interests and there also could be some financial issues. But the main thing is that we do not have the required manpower to run them. We have insufficient project management skills. We have the manpower who have studied management but project management is a different area altogether. There are other countries too that are both corrupt and that witness a high level of political instability, and yet they are making good progress on development projects. So we cannot entirely blame corruption and political instability for our project delays.
Development projects have certain characteristics. To achieve targets, people in leadership should enjoy a level of autonomy. We do not have the concept of autonomy here. Whoever becomes project head has to constantly appease their political masters. Look at the current Millennium Challenge Corporation compact debate. If you look at the MCC compact, there has been an attempt to assure the management’s autonomy in order to ensure the project’s timely completion. In our projects we do not have such autonomy, and hence they often fail.
The government, however, claims it is well on its way to achieving its goal of national prosperity?
The major slogan of the Oli government is ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali’. But the key question is: what are the indices to measure prosperity? What does the government want to achieve in education, health, and other sectors? The figures included in budget speech are abstract. After the elections, the Nepal Communist Party had a month in which to internally prepare to make their electoral promise a reality. Even though the election results where yet to be declared, KP Sharma Oli was sure to be prime minister and he was in a position to lay out his government’s vision. Yet there was no such homework. This suggests the political leadership of Nepal is of average quality. And this is true right across party lines. It would not make a huge difference if Madhav Kumar Nepal or Prachanda took over PM’s chair tomorrow. They have already been tried and tested and found wanting. Our leadership has a weak vision and even weaker capacity to come up with policy actions to realize this vision. We cannot expect more than average work from an average leadership.
What is your take on the media’s rather harsh response to Oli government’s functioning?
During the 2017 elections, there was massive opinion in media in favor of the left alliance. But the media got progressively critical even before the federal government had completed a year. See the news reports and analysis covering the government’s two years, they are overwhelmingly critical. This clearly shows that there are weaknesses in government functioning. The government has also failed to take the public into confidence. This is dangerous. The government has become too defensive. It should convince people with its deeds, not its rhetoric.
But there must also be some positive things that have happened in the past two years.
Two years are not insufficient to evaluate a government but they are also not sufficient. We have to wait for some time yet before we reach a conclusion. I feel happy in the sense that we promulgated a new constitution by overcoming big challenges. The constitutional and federal processes have moved forward and the credit goes to political parties. There may be some problems as federalism is not something that can be implemented overnight. So, yes, you cannot also say that nothing good has happened in these two years.
Do you also think the conflict between the two NCP co-chairmen Oli and Prachanda hampers government functioning?
After the unification, Prachanda has been giving voice to some alternate views. Otherwise, there were no alternate voices to Oli in the former CPN-UML. These days, Prachanda is close to PM Oli. Prachanda is saying Oli will be at the government’s helm for five years. There are some internal conflicts but it is not at the level of paralyzing the government. For the first time, internal conflicts came to the surface during the selection of the speaker of the House of Representatives. The issue of MCC is yet to be settled. Otherwise, there is no internal ideological challenge to the government. For example, Ghanshyam Bhusal, a possible ideological challenger, has now become part of the government. There is a sense of insecurity on Prachanda’s part and he is impatient about his turn in power but he is not challenging the government yet.
How has Nepal’s international relations changed in the past two years?
We have seen a visible change in our geopolitics. The relation with China has moved ahead apace, more swiftly than we anticipated. At the same time, the level of dependence on China has also increased. We say the rail will come only if China builds it with its own money. The Chinese side has not assured us about the rail and has proposed better roads as an alternative. But we keep emphasizing railway. With China, we made a leap forward. But do we have enough capacity and preparations to sustain this new level of engagement? If we do not, it could be counterproductive. We are in a sensitive geopolitical location and it is not easy to take both our neighbors into confidence. We need their support but at the same time our options should remain open.
What about Nepal’s relations with other powers?
With other powers, our relations have shrunk. The activities of the European Union are slowing down. We are in increasing disputes with the United States. For instance, there was no need to link the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the MCC and blow up the issue.There is no possibility of our joining an American security alliance as non-alignment is a cornerstone of our foreign policy. Internationally, Nepal is increasingly thought of as close to China and as a communist country. There are five declared communist countries: Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba and China. Some now think of Nepal as the sixth one. The difference is that unlike in those countries, in Nepal the communist party has come through a democratic process.
In the past, international actors in Nepal were not in conflict. Nepal was a pleasant place for all powers but the situation is gradually changing. The Europeans are not happy though they have not said so directly. It also seems that we are trying to create a distance with the US, creating unnecessary disputes.
How do you evaluate the role of the opposition parties, particularly the Nepali Congress?
There is a huge majority government and the opposition does not get much space in such a setup. Despite this, the opposition is failing to carry out its expected role. Consider the prime minister’s recent address to the parliament. After the PM’s address, the leader of the main opposition should have spoken. Instead, some opposition lawmakers only asked innocuous questions over his address. In a parliamentary system, the opposition is an alternative to the government in two ways. First, in its role in the current parliament and then as the potential ruling party after the next election. The opposition should come up with alternative policies, programs and ideas, not just with facetious questions.
The government has made several attempts to curtail freedom of expression but with only limited success. Is it particularly difficult to curtail free speech in Nepal?
Despite the many criticisms of Nepali democracy, over the past 10-12 years it has succeeded in creating a vibrant civil society. People immediately take to the streets if the government tries to shrink civic space. There are also instances of street protests forcing the government to withdraw some of its plans. The people who have come out on the streets are not committed NCP voters. This is the biggest plus point of our democracy.
Separately, the government works should be analyzed from two angles. In line with the policy commitments it made in election time, the ruling party is free to bring policies and programs. The government can introduce new policies in education, health and other sectors, and which are liable to change in the coming days. The opposition can only protest but it cannot block those measures. But the key question is whether the Guthi Bill, the Information Technology bill, and the National Human Rights Commission bill are such policy commitments. They are not. They are constitutional commitments rather.
For example, the issue of human rights is related not just to a party or the government; it is a constitutional commitment. Press freedom is also a constitutional commitment. The government should realize that there is a difference between electoral commitments and constitutional commitments. The parliamentary majority-minority is not applicable to constitutional commitments and electoral mandate should not affect them