Days after the supreme commander of the erstwhile Maoist People’s Liberation Army, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, accepted responsibility for 5,000 of the 17,000 deaths inflicted by the decade-long insurgency, Sapkota became the unanimous choice of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) to become the next speaker of the lower house of parliament.
The decision created a new stalemate. Civil society, human rights activists and conflict victims have taken to the streets to protest the ruling party nominating someone accused of murder for such a dignified position in the state. A murder case was filed against Agni Sapkota by the wife of Arjun Lama in the Supreme Court in 2011, where the case is subjudice.
NCP general secretary Bishnu Poudel, however, defended the party secretariat’s decision to propose Sapkota and rebuffed all charges against him as baseless. “There is no case pending against Sapkota. He is an eligible candidate for speaker,” Poudel was quoted as saying in published reports. “He is an elected people’s representative who served as minister twice in the past.” Sapkota also won all three national elections since the Maoists joined the mainstream in 2006, Poudel might have added.
Now senior advocate Dinesh Tripathi has filed a writ petition demanding that the Supreme Court order not only a halt to the election but also to arrest Sapkota. Activists will agitate as long as they can, while Sapkota and his supporters will continue to reject any suggestion of disqualification. Given that the NCP almost split over the candidacy of the next speaker – with the former Maoist faction insisting that it should retain the speakership following Krishna Bahadur Mahara’s exit in infamy – Dahal is taking a victory lap.
You could argue that Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli may have accepted Sapkota, after pressing for months the candidacy of his Marxist-Leninist ally Subash Chandra Nemwang, in the knowledge that the murder accusation would continue to encumber the ex-Maoists.
Theoretically, the NCP’s numbers in the house virtually assure Sapkota’s ascension. The main opposition Nepali Congress hasn’t made loud noises on Sapkota’s candidacy. What’s more, it did not field a challenger to Sapkota and is unlikely to contest the post of deputy speaker. The inside story is that the development is part of a larger deal between Oli, Dahal and Nepali Congress president Sher Bahadur Deuba on transitional justice and who knows what else?
Congress leaders privately concede that, in return, Deuba expects a stronger voice on the Constitutional Council, where he sits as the leader of the opposition, in such crucial appointments as ambassadors and officials of constitutional bodies. The unspoken imperative is the Nepali Congress’ eagerness to have parliament endorse the Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement at the earliest.
Publicly, the erstwhile UML strand in the NCP will emphasize the imperative for unity during these critical times for the nation. How far Sapkota’s speakership will go in appeasing the ex-Maoists is as unclear as its potential to fan discontent among former UML members wary of Dahal’s growing clout in the unified party. Oli’s own failing health can only heighten apprehensions and anticipation of a new front in the broader CPN power struggle.
It would be imprudent to rule out Oli’s ability to astonish us. Depending on what legal course the Sapkota case takes, Nemwang could yet seize the spotlight. He could plausibly play up the pretense of having joined the ex-Maoists to gain the speakership, should that office fall vacant again. (We still do marvel at his ability to pull off that ‘magna carta’ trick – complete with secularism – in 2006 without anyone else in the interim parliament or outside knowing how.)
Or Nemwang could leverage his experience of having presided over two constituent assemblies consecutively to make a bid for the premiership. We all have our jobs to do.