The importance of being Deuba

“Deuba has the tendency to bend, but sometimes he bends so much that his backbone cracks. As a leader you need to have a strong back bone.”




To his supporters, Sher Bahadur Deuba has some outstanding leadership credentials. The man from the Far-Western mountain district of Dadeldhura is accommodating to dissenting views, progressive in adopting new agendas, and a tolerant person. He has demonstrated the capacity to reach out to the opposition. In the early 90’s, as he began to assert his leadership, this quality made him stand out from party president Girija Prasad Koirala who was a firm communist baiter and showed distinct intolerance to intra-party dissent. Later, he consistently reached out to the Maoists. His supporters also like to point out that he has maintained excellent rapport with the international community.

To his critics, however, Deuba is a person lacking in intellectual gravitas; a wishy-washy politician who can be cajoled into doing anything. The Maoists, who have made more than one assassination bid on him, in fact used him to gain political and military ascendance, according to these critics. Deuba was such a weak head of government that he could do little to stop the former King Gyanendra from usurping power. “He is much more cunning than he looks and roots less for ideology than for political pragmatism. If his interests match, he does not think right or left,” says a senior NC leader.

While there can be differences over his political and ideological—or lack thereof—convictions, Deuba has consistently demonstrated one quality: he wins elections, assiduously courting various forces. In the first general election after the restoration of democracy in 1990, he led Nepali Congress (NC) to a landslide victory in the Far West. Inside the party, he has won two elections as the Parliamentary Party leader.

Deuba is now contesting for the party presidency in the General Convention slated for Sept. 17-21. There are already signs that people, who were only a few weeks ago against him, are now joining his faction. For instance, Khum Bahadur Khadka—someone who openly stood against Deuba earlier—joined his camp on Sept. 5.

As three-time prime minister (Sept. 1995—Mar. 1997, Aug. 2001—Oct. 2002, and June 2004 until the royal takeover on Feb. 1, 2005), Deuba got many opportunities to demonstrate his leadership skills, which sometimes drew him into some controversies. 

Many would praise him for taking the leadership in ratifying the February 1996 Indo-Nepal Mahakali treaty, though the treaty is now confined to paper. Perhaps the worst charge against Deuba, who headed a coalition government in 1995, is that he went far to keep his government afloat. He would let MPs import duty-free vehicles (a practice that subsequently became infamous as “Pajero Culture”), and at one point, when his government faced a no-confidence vote, he sent six dissenting NC MPs abroad to keep them from voting. 

“In that respect, Deuba’s premiership has some parallels with Madhav Kumar Nepal's government—both head a coalition government, and both are weak prime ministers who have failed to assert the prime ministerial authority over their colleagues. And both preside over a bloated Cabinet,” says an NC leader who did not want to be named. 

But for many, it’s Deuba’s failure in 2005 to assert himself against then king Gyanendra that stands out as his biggest political failure. Many say, and that’s largely true, that Gyanendra would not have gained so much traction under the nose of a strong prime minister, say someone like G.P. Koirala. Deuba was too gullible. “Deuba has the tendency to bend, but sometimes he bends so much that his backbone cracks. As a leader you need to have a strong back bone,” says the NC leader.

Despite all these controversies, he has a number of positives to his credit.  

Probably the most important aspect of his leadership is that he is a self-made man. Born on June 13, 1946, to a farmer’s family, Deuba had virtually no political legacy to flaunt. In 2002, Deuba started building up his faction inside the party, standing in defiance of the “authoritarianism” of the Koiralas, and finally split to form a new party—NC (Democratic). Now back in the unified NC, his presence still serves as a “balancing force”. 

Many who have observed him closely say he wields his power from his deep understanding of local politics that tells him how to communicate and gain support from his opponents. Never a good orator, he knows the art of mixing politics with humour while addressing large crowds.

Besides, his ability to accommodate, according to NC leader Prakash Saran Mahat, puts him in a position to cash in on the sentiment of inclusion, for instance the new constituencies representing Dalits and Adivasi-Janajatis in the party’s General Convention. “It was during his government that the Dalit and Women’s commissions were founded,” says Mahat

Also, Deuba has been comparatively more flexible when it comes to dealing with the Maoists. Though it was during his premiership the Maoist head hunt began, he also started negotiations with the Maoists. “This very skill of negotiation would be crucial in leading the stalled peace process to its logical end,” says a Deuba confidante. “Unlike him, Sushil Koirala has been talking tough to the Maoists.”

Despite all this, Deuba faces a daunting challenge. Being a leader of an erstwhile splinter faction, he will have to convince the Koiralas, who have never learned to be led. In fact, some NC leaders close to Koirala family say the Koiralas would rather form another party and continue to rule than to be ruled by someone else. But Deuba’s strength cannot be underestimated as history shows that he has been an inveterate winner in all sorts of elections that have made him the country’s prime minister thrice.

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