Nearly a year into his job, and more than a month and a half since the president declared his government a ‘caretaker’, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai shows no sign of making a voluntary exit. When he dissolved the Constituent Assembly hours before its term officially expired, there was a belief among a section of the populace that it might have been all pre-planned. Bhattarai knew all too well that in the absence of a legislature, there would be no constitutional way to remove him from office. In other words, CA’s dissolution on May 27 had more to do with the PM’s reluctance to let go of a hard-won post than the parties’ inability to forge consensus on federalism at the eleventh hour. This line of belief is being vindicated by the day.
Bhattarai has been insisting that he is ready to make way if other parties can put forth a consensus candidate. Whether or not he means it, it is true that if at least NC and CPN-UML could agree on a common PM candidate, there would be enormous pressure on Bhattarai to step down for a Nepali Congress PM candidate as per the May 3 five-point understanding between the four major political blocks. As things stand, UML’s top leadership has its hands full just keeping the party intact. NC, likewise, is being pushed by its Madhesi and Janajati leaders on single-identity based provinces. But with NC, the biggest stumbling block to its claim to the top post—and formation of consensus government—might be its failure to pick its prime minister candidate.
The vibes from NC establishment are confusing. Party President Sushil Koirala insists NC would have no trouble picking its candidate, only if Bhattarai will make way. But surely, it could not have been lost on him that if his party went ahead and settled on a candidate, and if the candidate got the backing of UML (very likely given UML’s outspoken support for an NC nominee), there would be added pressure on Bhattarai to stand down as per the five-point agreement. NC’s failure to propose a unanimous PM candidate suggests that despite the recent détente between Koirala and Sher Bahadur Deuba, the house is more divided than it appears. Otherwise, if Koirala has the backing of both Ram Chandra Poudel and Sher Bahadur Deuba—the two other likely NC contenders for prime ministership—as party leaders have been hinting, why don’t they simply go ahead and announce Koirala’s candidacy?
That said, as things stand, the ball is still in Bhattarai’s court; for his resignation at this point would be the biggest impetus to breaking the current deadlock. He also has the most to lose by sticking to his obdurate ‘first consensus then resignation’ stand. Bhattarai’s carefully cultivated image as the architect of the peace and constitution agenda within the Maoists—and someone who, in his own words, is more interested in scholarly pursuits than dirty power games—has witnessed severe erosion in recent times. As has his image of an agent of change on whom people pinned great hopes.
True, he helped take the peace process near its completion. But this achievement, meager by no means, has been undermined by an even a bigger failure: The inability of his government to deliver a constitution. Let us not forget that while assuming the post, Bhattarai had made it clear that his was not a regular tenure and it was unrealistic to expect his government to address all important challenges facing the country in its short term. But in the same breath, as has not been lost on his critics, he had also promised to invest all his energy in a timely constitution, failing which he would avowedly resign.
Bhattarai has clearly failed on the constitution front. And with the growing anxiety of former combatants who chose integration threatening to bubble forth, completion of the peace process— on which Bhattarai expended so much of his political capital—is by no means complete either. In this situation, it would have been in Bhattarai’s best interest to accept his failure and resign.
On the surface, there is some weight to his argument that if he resigns now, the country will be rudderless, as happened during the tenure of caretaker PM Madhav Kumar Nepal as the legislature failed to pick a prime minister even after 16 rounds of parliamentary voting spread over seven months. But things are different this time: With the expiry of CA, the country is now in a political and constitutional vacuum, which was not the case during Nepal’s tenure. As it is, there is no legal way to remove Bhattarai short of a political consensus on the motion that has to include UCPN (Maoist).
Another reason Bhattarai should put in his papers is that he has nothing to gain by clinging on to his post of a caretaker prime minister and appearing to be the biggest hurdle to consensus. His resignation, if it achieves no bigger purpose, will at the least provide new impetus to forging consensus and clearing the way for future elections.
But even Bhattarai knows there will be no election on Nov. 22. If he refuses to budge from his stubborn stand, he risks losing even the little political capital he has managed to salvage in the aftermath of CA’s demise, also because his caretaker government will not be able to push through significant policy measures, nor can it, as things stand, facilitate consensus in any way.
By continuing to stick to his chair, he risks appearing like any other post-1990 PM—who are seen as a debauched lot that scarified national interests in the pursuit of their petty personal goals. Every move Bhattarai makes from now on as the (contested) head of government, however well-intentioned, will bog him down in further controversy. The sooner Bhattarai understands this, the better.