By Maila Baje
When Sher Bahadur Deuba starts saying democracy is in trouble, well, that is saying something.
Never denounced as a dictator, the Nepali Congress president has been accused of facilitating despotism. In a political milieu so mesmerized by repetitions of history, critics often portrayed Deuba as the latter-day version of Dr. Tulsi Giri, i.e., a Nepali Congress luminary turned enabler of royal autocracy.
Temperamentally mild-mannered and at times self-deprecatory, Deuba, if anything, is a status-quoist. He began his first term as prime minister in 1995-1996 with an image of a conciliator, atop a coalition compromising votaries of the past and the future. But that label didn’t last long and the perjorative ‘Pajero’ became his legacy.
The Japanese SUV was emblematic of the corruption underlying the compromises Deuba expected to make to keep democracy alive. He had assumed office following a Supreme Court ruling that reversed the earlier, minority government’s decision to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections. The constitution emerged victorious at the price of polluting politics.
In that warped environment, Deuba’s exit was no less twisted. The prime minister was forced out of office not because he lost his legislative majority but because his own party president, Girija Prasad Koirala, conspired to prevent two crucial legislators from voting for the government.
What goes around comes around. In the aftermath of the Narayanity carnage, Deuba took back the premiership from Koirala, only to be accused of handing democracy on a platter to King Gyanendra in 2002 by first dissolving parliament and then postponing elections.
In between, Maoist leader Prachanda called him brave for declaring a ceasefire that allowed the rebels to reorganize to mount deadlier strikes against the state. Deuba declared a state of emergency, deployed the military against the rebels and set prices on their heads. When Deuba dissolved parliament and called fresh elections, that automatically disqualified him as a democrat for the Koirala faction of the ruling party. Deuba walked out of the Nepali Congress to form his own party. When Deuba postponed the elections, he got the royal sack. But he kept protesting that he wanted to hold the elections but was pressured by other parties to put them off. If anything, he pleaded, he was a latter-day B.P. Koirala. The country didn’t have the time or patience to hear him out.
As the opposition alliance refused to recognize him as part of them, Deuba returned to the premiership as a royal appointee. He stood accused of enabling a more assertive palace takeover by, it turns out, doing nothing. Never mind that the king had dismissed Deuba both times for incompetence (and resurrecting the real Tulsi Giri in February 2005).
After the April 2006 Uprising, Koirala seemed to have come to his (political) senses: If he could do a deal with the Maoists, Koirala could certainly afford to allow Deuba back into the Nepali Congress. The logical successor stepped in when the old man departed. Not many people were thrilled. And that’s always been the crux of Deuba’s woes.
You sense almost a visceral feeling in some Congress sections that Deuba never deserved to be where he is. Not quite a usurper, but something very close. Those with a Koirala pedigree have an obvious dislike. Others hate it that Deuba became the most prominent commoner Congressi who married into the reviled yet secretly coveted Rana clan. Poor diction and a drought of original though never stopped others, but they always counted against Deuba. In the post-2006 milieu, he has worked with the Maoists with the same facility he once worked with the monarchy. (Although he’d never admit it in public, Prachanda has probably wanted to repeat the B word.)
The Nepali Congress blowout in the last election was supposed to spell the end of Deuba. His critics have turned out to be their worst enemies. There are too many people ready to step in with the same eagerness they have in blocking everyone else. Ideologically, too, the party can’t figure out which Koirala brother to emulate: the newly republican Girija Prasad or the constitutional monarchist Bishweshwar Prasad. The Hinduism caper at the recent party conclave may have camouflaged that dilemma for now, but the Congress will have to make a choice sooner rather than later.
Ram Chandra Poudel seems to be the most aggrieved Congressi around. And he has good reason. When it came time to contest for the premiership amid the deadlock in the constituent assembly, the party put him forward over a dozen rounds of voting. From Poudel’s vantage point, being an incompetent prime minister twice may be better than not becoming one at all. But Deuba may never forget how Poudel promised to assume the presidency of his new party in 2002 before caving to Koirala.
The wide-body aircraft scandal has come in handy for Poudel. He’s been trying his best push Deuba into the net that has ensnared Oli and Dahal. Yet Poudel has the class to share the stage with Deuba to rail against the threat the communist government now poses to democracy.
Deuba might find that comforting, too.