Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba became prime minister for the fourth time on June 6. Such things don’t usually happen in well-functioning democracies, but nobody ever accused Nepal of being one. Deuba’s last three terms are notable for chaos and corruption, and there’s reason to believe that his return to power signals a return to the politics of the late 1990s when political institutions rapidly disintegrated.
Deuba was at the helm in 1996 when the Maoists handed him their ultimatum: a list of 40 demands to be met otherwise they’d take up arms. He ignored the threat, of course, and the civil war began. Back then Deuba was famous for allowing tax-free luxury vehicles to MPs and horse-trading them to form governments of vested interest. After his first term (1995–97), Deuba’s popular perception was that of a man who would cut a deal with anyone to remain in office.
Deuba’s second and third terms (2001–2 and 2004–5) were cut short by the ambitious king, Gyanendra Shah, who ousted him and assumed absolute control. Growing Maoist activity had become a thorn in everyone’s side, and Deuba tried to tackle it first with peace talks and later with munitions imported from the George W. Bush government. Like Bush, Deuba was flexible about human rights. Before getting the boot by the monarch, Deuba managed to squeeze in a couple of reforms. Caste-based discrimination and bonded labor were outlawed, with mixed results.
Deuba made a comeback after the death of NC President and former Prime Minister Sushil Koirala. In 2016, he achieved his dream of becoming president of a united Nepali Congress (he’d led a breakaway faction from 2002–7) by defeating rival Ram Chandra Poudel. Since then, he has consolidated his grip on the party.
Shortly after being elected NC president, Deuba persuaded the CPN (Maoist Center) to break its alliance with the UML and together they formed a new power equation that has the all-important blessing from New Delhi. With this coalition, Deuba not only warranted his return to power and secured his party’s electoral interests in the Terai, but also managed to keep the UML out of power.
Deuba’s political journey has been long and dramatic. He was born in 1946 to a conservative middle class family in the remote Dadeldhura district of western Nepal. For a young student from the Far West, Delhi or Deradhun were more accessible than Kathmandu, where Deuba ended up, passionately advocating democracy as a student. He eventually joined the NC to fight against the partyless Panchayat system, ignoring threats to his life. He was repeatedly jailed and tortured. After becoming the first elected president of the Nepal Student Union in 1971, Deuba grew close to NC President B.P. Koirala and climbed the party’s leadership ladder.
All that is history. The reins of government are once again in Deuba’s hands, and he has a lot on his plate. How much of an appetite he has for addressing systemic issues is unclear. Today’s politics, consumed with party squabbles, cabinet shuffles and reshuffles, is the spawn of the late 1990s political era that Deuba helped shape. Corruption and abuse of power are considered normal. Clear violations of human rights go unpunished, and the Nepali state remains exclusive toward marginalized communities. Deuba, like the PM before him, Maoist leader Prachanda—whom he once declared a terrorist but now rubs elbows with—is implicated in some of the worst human rights abuses of the war. In all likelihood, he will delay investigations into wartime crimes.
Deuba said he wanted to address Madhesi demands for a constitutional amendment. But that was before he became PM. Now he wants the Madhesis to be good sports and join the local elections, pushing a decision on the amendment to after the polls on June 28. In response, the Rastriya Janata Party has vowed a wave of protests to disrupt them. Deuba must be careful that his fourth term does not lead to another protracted conflict the way his first did. The arbitrary arrest of hundreds of cadres belonging to the splinter Maoist group led by “Biplab” and other disgruntled groups is eerily reminiscent of the late 1990s. In addition to the local election, Deuba will need all the tricks up his sleeve to ensure provincial and national elections are held before January 2018, as mandated by the constitution. He surely hasn’t forgotten that he twice lost the PM’s chair because he couldn’t hold elections on time.
Cover photo: Bikas Rauniar Collection/Nepal Picture Library