When KP Sharma Oli took over as Nepal’s prime minister in February, expectations among the people ran high. His Nepal Communist Party had garnered a near two-thirds majority in the parliament after last year’s election, repeating a feat last managed by the country’s first democratic government in 1958.
Oli’s strong nationalist (read anti-Indian) rhetoric during the campaign, his outreach to China after India blockaded Nepal in 2015, and his promise of stability and economic growth helped catapult him to Singhadarbar, the seat of power in Kathmandu.
But six months on, Oli is under fire for his increasingly authoritarian ways.
Here are a few examples. Soon after taking office, Oli began centralising power. In one of its first meetings, his cabinet approved rules consolidating several powerful departments under the Prime Minister’s Office, including, notably, the country’s spy agency National Investigation Department. The Social Welfare Council, which regulates NGOs, was also put under Oli’s office, as were the departments of Revenue Investigation and Money Laundering Investigation, both tasked with probing financial crimes.
In April, Oli’s government issued an edict called the National Integrity Policy. Ostensibly designed to ensure “corporate governance” in various sectors and to prevent abuse of power and conflict of interest, the policy seeks to control NGOs, domestic and international. The policy makes it difficult for NGOs to register and operate in Nepal. While one cannot possibly vouch for all of the country’s more than 20,000 NGOs, many provide vital spaces for the advocacy of civil rights. Oli’s government appears bent on eroding this space.
Next, the government targeted foreigners living in Nepal. The Foreign Nationals Monitoring Directive empowers every District Coordination Committee to monitor and arrest “suspicious foreigners” and seize their travel documents. It allows officials to prosecute foreigners living illegally in the country and detain those “involved in suspicious activities”. Given its vague wording, the state can use the directive selectively to suppress its critics. That it comes at a time when xenophobia is running at an all-time high in Nepal only compounds the problem.
After it was done issuing a series of rules giving sweeping powers to the authorities, the Oli administration turned its gaze towards the few public spaces in Kathmandu that people have used to express dissent. It banned protests at Maitighar, which is a few blocks from Singhadarbar, prompting Govinda KC, a hunger-striking surgeon demanding reform in medical education, to shift his protest to Jumla, a remote district in the country’s northwest. The government tried to forcefully airlift him to Kathmandu for talks, but failed. (He later flew to the capital on his own fearing violence as his supporters clashed with the police in Jumla.)
Striking at institutions
The Oli government’s latest target is the Supreme Court. It is supposed to be one of the country’s few remaining independent institutions, but thanks to political interference over the years its credibility has hit rock bottom. Last month, a parliamentary committee dominated by the ruling party’s lawmakers turned down the acting chief justice Deepak Raj Joshee’s nomination for chief justice. By all accounts, Joshee was not competent enough for the job. Some of his rulings have come under scrutiny for alleged financial malfeasance. Yet, the committee’s decision, which had the backing of the prime minister, was seen as the latest blow to the judiciary’s independence.
All this has happened at a time when the main opposition in the parliament, the Nepali Congress, is weak and divided. Since its defeat in last year’s election, the party has been struggling to craft a coherent strategy to challenge the government’s assault on civil liberties and the increasing use of state institutions to consolidate power.
It has also come at a time when Nepal’s major newspapers, which play a key role in holding public officials accountable, are in transition following leadership changes. In the past month alone, chief editors of three major newspapers have resigned and new leaders have taken over. And while the newsrooms turn their attention to internal matters, the rulers might find it easy to infringe upon people’s rights and freedoms.
Like elsewhere in the world, the Oli government is using its electoral mandate to justify its heavy-handed policies. But a mandate only reflects the people’s trust that their chosen representatives would exercise power responsibly. Hence, the bigger the electoral victory the more strictly the government needs to be scrutinised.
Deepak Adhikari is a journalist in Nepal. His Twitter handle is @DeepakAdk.