Major triumph for Nepal Maoists in cabinet reshuffle

Sudeshna Sarkar

Kathmandu, May 4 (IANS) Exactly three months after they helped communist leader Jhala Nath Khanal become the new prime minister, Nepal's Maoists won a major triumph Wednesday with the indebted premier conceding the coveted home ministry to them despite protests by the opposition and the public.

Khanal expanded his 18-member cabinet for the fourth time, swearing in almost a dozen new ministers from the Maoist party as well as a new ally, ending a three-month tug-of-war and capitulating wholly to the former rebels.

The reshuffled cabinet now has three deputy prime ministers and less than a month's tenure.

It was a moment of triumph for the Maoists whose MP Krishna Bahadur Mahara was sworn in as home minister, making him the head of the police force that had been the worst victims of Maoist attacks during the 10-year communist insurgency.

Mahara, already a deputy prime minister, handed over the information and communications ministry portfolio that he had been holding to fellow Maoist lawmaker Agni Prasad Sapkota.

Only last year, Mahara was involved in a vote-buying scandal. He had sought NRS 50 million from a well-wisher in China to buy MPs' votes during the ongoing prime ministerial election and help Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda win.

But the mysterious emergence of an audio tape that recorded Mahara's conversation with a middleman put paid to Prachanda's chances of winning the election.

With the Maoists blaming India's external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) for the debacle, his elevation is likely to be a source of concern for New Delhi.

It is also a slap in the face for prominent human rights activists and media personalities who had campaigned against it, saying it would pave the way for the Maoists withdrawing all criminal cases against party men.

Nepal's second largest party and the main opposition, the Nepali Congress, had also asked Khanal not to concede the home ministry to the Maoists.

The appointment created a rift among the Maoists themselves. In a dramatic movement, Maoist Peace and Reconstruction Minister Barshaman Pun, whose name had also been mulled for home minister, resigned.

However, Pun's portfolio was immediately re-allocated to fellow Maoist leader Biswanath Shah.

The other new Maoist ministers are Shakti Basnet (health and population), Ram Charan Chaudhary (land reforms), Mahendra Paswan (commerce), Hit Bahadur Tamang (youth and sports), Prabhu Shah (law and constitutional affairs) and Jayapuri Gharti Magar (woman, children and social welfare).

Naming the new ministers had been a hugely contentious job with Prachanda and his two deputies at daggers drawn.

The induction of the new ministers comes at a time the fate of the Khanal government is growing increasingly uncertain.

The government has only 24 days to promulgate a new constitution. However, the statute lay forgotten while the major parties continued to fight over power-sharing.

A third party, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, also threw its fractured weight behind the Khanal government after months of bickering.

The regional party from the Terai plains has sent its chief and former foreign minister Upendra Yadav as the third deputy prime minister as well as new foreign minister. Mohammad Ishtiaq Rai (labour and transport management), Harinarayan Yadav (agriculture and cooperatives) and Nandan Kumar Dutt (state minister for agriculture and cooperatives) are the other ministers from the party.

To add to the new rumblings, the Maoists have called a show of strength nationwide for 10 days from May 15.