Government moves indicate effort to centralise power in prime minister

In March 2016, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli made an announcement at the Kathmandu University senate that he would work to revise legal provisions, which would make the country’s executive head the ex-officio chancellor of all the universities.

The commitment made at the senate meeting, held on the occasion of the silver jubilee of the university, was recorded in its minutes.

Exactly three years later, the Oli government has now come up with an amendment bill to revise the Acts governing the 13 universities in the country, giving the authority to their chancellor--who is the prime minister at the moment--to start the process to sack the vice-chancellor, rector and registrar if one-fourth of the senate members concerned agree.

The change envisioned through the amendment contradicts Oli’s commitment to appointing academicians as chancellor. It is also against the academic practice worldwide where varsities are considered autonomous entities.

But there is more to this than meets the eye.

Experts and analysts say there seems to be a pattern in the incumbent government’s moves, which ultimately boils down to efforts to centralise power in the prime minister.

Ever since Oli started his second stint as the head of government in February last year, his Cabinet has been taking steps--in quick succession--which, experts said, show his ambition to “centralise” power and that such moves can subvert democracy in practice.

Amendments to the existing university Acts are yet another example in that direction, they said.

Last week, the government registered a Bill on Work, Responsibility and Rights of the National Security Council in Parliament, authorising the prime minister, as the chairman of the council, to recommend Army deployment in case of a grave emergency in the country, even without calling a meeting of the council.

Clause 6 (3) of the bill states that irrespective of what is mentioned in Sub-clause 2, the chairman [of the security council] can recommend the government deployment of the Army if there is a serious national crisis--or such crisis could happen if the Army is not deployed--in the event that a meeting of the National Security Council is not possible.

Sub-clause 2 of the bill includes the provision which Article 267 of the constitution says--that the President will declare the mobilisation of the Army as per the Cabinet decision on the council's recommendation.

Article 267 (6) states: “The President shall, on recommendation of the National Security Council and pursuant to a decision of the government of Nepal, Council of Ministers, declare the mobilisation of the Nepal Army in cases where a grave emergency arises with regard to the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Nepal or the security of any part thereof, by war, external aggression, armed rebellion or extreme economic disarray. A declaration of the mobilisation of the Army must be ratified by the House of Representatives within one month after the date of such declaration.”

Bipin Adhikari, a constitutional expert, said though it would be premature to say that present revisions in the laws are aimed at further empowering the prime minister and giving him absolute power, it does give ample room to question the intent.

“Some of moves of the government show Oli is deviating from his earlier commitments after getting a thumping majority from the elections,” he said. “Authorising the prime minister to start process to sack top officials of universities is one of the many moves the government has been making to centralise power. This latest bid is pure nonsense... and cannot be justified on any pretext,” Adhikari told the Post.

The communist-led government’s power centralisation bid started immediately after Oli became the prime minister.

A month after he assumed office, the government decided to bring the National Investigation Department, the Department of Revenue Investigation, and the Department of Money Laundering Investigation, which were under various ministries earlier, under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The Cabinet in March last year revised different rules to increase the prime minister’s jurisdiction on issues of foreign policy, national security and financial and economic crimes.

Former chief secretary Bimal Koirala said the tendency to centralise power cannot be put in a good light.

“Absolute power always yields negative results,” he told the Post. “Even if Oli is taking initiatives with good motive, chances are there that they could become a burden for himself in the long run,” said Koirala, who served as the government’s chief secretary from September 2002 to August 2005.