Monday, September 19, 2011

The Relevance Of Being Deuba

“They took four years to hand over the keys of the containers with their weapons; how long will
they take to hand over the actual weapons,” Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba mused the other day. Some took that as an intelligent inquiry from a former prime minister widely dismissed as dreary.
The three-time premier has had much calumny heaped on him primarily because of his purported lack of acumen. Shortly after he took the oath for the first time in 1995, someone happened to mention casually that he was Nepal’s first western-trained head of government. The howls of derision erupted all at once.
Sure, Deuba had a brief stint at the London School of Economics, once critic conceded, but he spent most of his time out of academic circles. Others recounted the number of unskilled and tedious jobs he had held in and around the British capital all the while presuming to be a student. Still others claimed that the Nepali Congress had merely exiled him away to prevent him from joining the Panchayat system and that London – with or without the School of Economics – simply happened to be the first opportunity available.
Deuba managed to keep his coalition afloat through a variety of underhand means. Today, he can count some of the key beneficiaries of his patronage among those who continue rail the loudest against the vileness of his politics. Yet it has become easy to forget that his government was brought down through the foulest of means. Deuba was egged on by his party leader Girija Prasad Koirala to hold a vote of confidence he was not constitutionally obliged to seek, only to have Koirala prevent two ruling party MPs from voting, thereby depriving him of the crucial votes.
Deuba’s second stint, as the head of a majority government, proved more tumultuous. He held peace talks with the Maoists and, once they failed, mobilized the military against the rebels. He met the sitting U.S. president in the Oval Office and became the first Nepalese head of government to organize a regional summit. Besieged, he split the party and pressed ahead with his plan to hold elections, all the while reviled as a tool of the palace. The fact that he ultimately fell victim to the palace did little to rehabilitate his image. He tried to shame the leaders who pushed him to postpone the elections and resist resigning, but it proved futile.
Shunned by the fraternity, he became a palace-appointed prime minister of a multiparty coalition. At this point, he began losing some of his steadfast supporters. But Deuba knew they were with him primarily because they either opposed or had been shunned by Koirala. Again, Deuba sought elections above everything else, while his deputy prime minister, Bharat Mohan Adhikary, pressed for peace.
When the palace sacked Deuba a second time, he didn’t say much because it wasn’t too hard for him to accept that he had been a royal appointee serving at the pleasure of the monarch. He did end up on the receiving end of a high-profile corruption case.  Buried in the recent dump of Wikileaks cables Maila Baje found an interesting nugget.
Shortly after his release from detention in the twilight of the royal regime, Deuba was quoted as telling US Ambassador James F. Moriarty that five years down the road, people would stop blaming the king for the affairs of state, regardless of how things unfolded. Amid the general jubilation over the sidelining and eventual ousting of the monarchy, Deuba rued the absence of proper mechanisms to contend with the Maoist steamroller. In their comments, embassy diplomats seemed to discount his sentiments as the grandeur of someone struggling to retain his relevance.
Deuba never exuded exclusivity. When party colleagues cited his poor command of the English language as host of the SAARC summit, he conceded that he had a hard time with Nepali as such. Deflected by his self-deprecation, critics continue to cite his elite matrimonial relations, his general geopolitical orientation and a host of far less pertinent tidbits to denigrate his relevance. But to little effect.
Deuba may have lost his bid to become a consensus prime minister, but not without forcing his principal rival, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, to step down from his self-constructed pedestal and become a mere mortal majority premier.
In the larger scheme of things, Deuba may have dismissed Dr. Bhattarai’s 40-point charter because of the exigencies of the Mahakali Treaty. Yet unlike most in his fraternity, Deuba is still is willing give the Maoist leader a chance to implement the vision that document championed. That may not necessarily be smart politics, but it is by no means irrelevant.