Storm in a teacup

The Council of Ministers has not assumed its full form over a minor point. In the first place, it took a full week after the election of Prime Minister even to swear in eight Cabinet members - four from the CPN-Maoist and four from the Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum (MJF). Though somewhat belatedly, the three parties had sorted out the differences over power sharing, signing, on Thursday, four key documents concerning a Common Minimum Programme (CMP), a code of conduct, modus operandi of the government and formation of a political coordination committee. But CPN-UML nominees for ministers not only refused to take an oath of office and secrecy on Friday but no UML representative attended the swearing-in ceremony, because of a last-minute row over the ministerial order of precedence. The CPN-UML leadership insisted on getting a second place for its ministerial team leader Bam Dev Gautam in the Cabinet, ahead of the CPN-Maoist’s minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai. The UML almost immediately issued a statement saying that unless the Prime Minister met its demand, it would not join the government.

Kicking up a fuss over a trivial point has not sent the right message to the public, which will find less reason to believe that the protracted disagreement among the parties has been over principles and policy towards vital issues facing the nation. Each of the CPN-M’s coalition partners had been demanding a deputy prime minister for itself; acquiescence in this claim would make three deputy prime ministers, including one for the CPN-M. Such a decision would be unlikely to impress the public. Gautam being a former deputy prime minister, the CPN-UML may have insisted on his coming before Bhattarai in order of precedence; or also because it will be the second largest party in the coalition, it should occupy a second place in Cabinet hierarchy. However, for the Maoists, the second place would also mean acting for the Prime Minister when he is away, as currently, and hence, partly at least, its argument that the second rank should go to somebody from the party leading the government.

CPN-UML leaders have made it clear that they will not join in unless the Maoist decision is ‘rectified’. The UML’s ministerial nominations have already caused disgruntlement among certain sections of the party, and dissatisfied leaders have publicly stated their stance, even threatening to ‘take further action’ unless a ‘correction’ is made to suit their preferences. A section in the UML is unlikely to be very unhappy even if the party’s cohabitation with the Maoists ends even before it has started. After everything else has been agreed upon, it does not behove the political parties to torpedo the work of a prolonged period that went into making this coalition possible. The country had been without a legitimate government for about four months after the CA election of April 10. And the people were increasingly giving way to disappointment. Now that the deadlock has broken, the parties must focus on bigger things that lie ahead, rather than on questions of ‘dignity’ and ‘self-respect’ over the procedural and practically psychological thing called order of precedence.