How Nepal’s first lady is becoming the country’s de facto ruler

Image for representation only

Of late, lineage is no more advantage in Nepal’s grand old Nepali Congress party. Apparently, the political life of people like Shashanka Koirala, Sujata Koirala, Prakash Man Singh and Sirjana Shrestha Singh is approaching the denouement.

Arzu Rana Deuba, the “scholarly” wife of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, however, is trying to be an exception. If you look at her recent actions, it is evident that she is trying her best to make the most of her husband’s positions to make a statement in Nepali politics.

If you look at it from a political standpoint, she is the country’s first lady. So her active role in politics is not unnatural as she has even been a Constituent Assembly member in the past. 

But, what is strange is her active role in party politics and state affairs as if Arzu Rana Deuba is the de facto ruler of the country.

The new queen

File: Sher Bahadur Deuba and his wife Arzu Rana Deuba
File: Sher Bahadur Deuba and his wife Arzu Rana Deuba

“It’s impossible to object or speak against Arzu madam,” says a Nepali Congress leader. “It feels like we’ve gone back in time. People would be petrified to say anything against Queen Ashwariya Shah (King Birendra’s wife) during the monarchy. Arzu has a similar effect.”

The NC leader says Arzu Rana Deuba’s network in the government and the party has grown stronger and stronger in recent times. Helping her become influential are industrialists, contractors and businesspersons, says the leader.

“Her concerns are mostly about financial affairs,” he says.

The NC leader says businesspersons and NC members like Binod Chaudhary, Anil Rungta, Umesh Shrestha, Indra Baniya and Deepak Khadka are her main motivators.

Another Nepali Congress leader accuses Arzu of controlling the country’s administrative mechanism after her husband became the prime minister.

“She showed that she was the one controlling bureaucracy. It all started with the Planning Commission,” says the NC leader.

PM Deuba had reportedly called economist Shakar Sharma from the US to make him the vice-chair of the National Planning Commission. But, after Arzu Rana Deuba intervened, the prime minister reluctantly made Biswo Nath Poudel the vice-chair of the commission. It is not that Poudel was not eligible; he is more than capable of leading the commission. It just left a bad taste as he entered the commission through the backdoor.

Arzu Rana Deuba is the chair of Ullens School while Poudel was its board member. 

But, people close to Poudel say he was Deuba’s choice too. A source close to Poudel tells Onlinekhabar that Deuba had called Poudel two days after being the prime minister telling him he would be the new vice-chair of the planning body.

“Prime Minister does listen to others, but he does what he wants. I don’t think Biswo Poudel got the position due to Arzu madam,” he says.

After being unable to make Sharma the vice-chair of the commission, Deuba appointed him Nepal’s ambassador to India

Arzu Rana Deuba played a major role in appointing ambassadors too. Sources say it was her who recommended the names of Shreedhar Khatri and Durga Bahadur Subedi to become ambassadors to the US and Japan respectively.

“We’re not questioning their ability, but the manner in which they have been appointed is questionable,” says an NC leader.

Focus on finance and foreign affairs

Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) foreign affairs department chief Vijay Chauthaiwale meets Nepal Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's wife Arzu Rana Deuba in New Delhi, on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Photo: https://twitter.com/vijai63
Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) foreign affairs department chief Vijay Chauthaiwale meets Nepal Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s wife Arzu Rana Deuba in New Delhi, on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Photo: https://twitter.com/vijai63

Umesh Shreshta, who was appointed the state health minister on July 25, 2021, is someone who is close to Arzu Rana Deuba. Sources say Arzu played a major role in the promotion and transfer of people within the ministry during his tenure.

After the Health Ministry was given to the CPN-Unified Socialist, PM Deuba gave Shrestha the role of looking after the Prime Minister’s Office. Following that, Arzu then started to keep a keen interest in the promotion and transfer of officials in ministries that were being led by the Nepali Congress leaders.

Examples of this are the appointment of Umesh Prasad Thani as the executive director of Nepal Oil Corporation, Bikal Poudel as the executive director of Security Printing Centre, Sunil Poudel as the managing director of Nepal Telecom and Pradeep Adhikari as the director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal.

She has also started to show a keen interest in the Department of Revenue Investigation and the Department of Money Laundering Investigation.

The director-general of the Department of Revenue Investigation usually reports to the chief secretary of the government. But recently, the official has been constantly meeting Arzu Rana Deuba to brief her.

A source says Arzu’s brother, Bhusan Rana, also has a keen insertest in cases related to revenues. Hence, a source even says Arzu even tried her best to interfere in a case against a multinational company. But, officials from the Department of Revenue Investigation did not allow her to do so.

Sources also say that cases in the Department of Money Laundering Investigation have not gone ahead due to interference from Arzu Rana Deuba.

Prithvi Bahadur Shah’s case is one of them,” says a source.

Kuldev Thapa, who was on the verge of retiring from the National Investigation Department, got promoted as the additional chief investigation officer thanks to the first lady’s favour. 

Narayan Khadka is the Minister for Foreign Affairs. But, when it comes to relations with India and the United States, Arzu Rana Deuba looks more active than him.

She has personally tried to mend relations with India’s Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), which was angry with Nepal over the new map.

Last year, she even met BJP’s foreign affairs department chief Vijay Chauthaiwale and tied a rakhi. Since then, she has been regularly visiting him in New Delhi.

Her actions have created frictions within the party as people have accused her of bypassing the official channels and not adhering to protocols.

“She’s not the prime minister. Neither is she a minister. She cannot be going around, doing what she pleases,” said a Nepali Congress leader.

Control over the party

L-R: Arzu Rana, Narad Muni Rana and Laxman Chaudhary, key contestants of the 2017 elections in Kailali-5
L-R: Arzu Rana, Narad Muni Rana and Laxman Chaudhary, key contestants of the 2017 elections in Kailali-5

Arzu Rana Deuba became a central member of the Nepali Congress during the party’s 14th general convention in December 2021. If you look at it, she was very new to party politics. But, she was actively involved in picking people during the general convention.

“She called people and asked them to be ready to contest the party election from the Deuba panel. Many people won thanks to her,” says a source from Nepali Congress.

Out of the 148 central committee members of the prime minister’s party, 82 per cent are from Deuba’s panel. As the number of central members increased, many new people got the chance to be central committee members. But, most of the new members from Deuba’s panel are close to Arzu.

“These new people dance to Arzu madam’s beat,” says a source. “If there is a vote within the party, I think Arzu will win to be the most popular leader.”

But, central member Rajeev Dhungana feels people are spreading unnecessary gossip about Arzu Rana Deuba.

“People protest for the sake of protesting because her meeting anyone is being subject to criticism,” says Dhungana.

Another central committee member Ram Hari Khatiwada says it was stupid to think PM Deuba did everything his wife told him to do.

The next prime minister?

File: Nepali Congress leader Arzu Rana Deuba
File: Nepali Congress leader Arzu Rana Deuba

A lot of members of the Nepali Congress have been calling Arzu Rana Deuba the future prime minister. According to them, there is talk of Nepali Congress and Maoist Centre sharing the government leadership in turn. If that happens, according to them, it is highly likely that Arzu will be prime minister at least once.

But, to be prime minister, one has to be a member of the House of Representatives. However, Arzu, during the 2017 elections lost to Narad Muni Rana when she contested the elections from Kailali-5. 

Whether she will contest the elections from the same place or choose another one remains to be seen. But, sources claim her contesting the elections from Kailali is the safest option.

Nonetheless, things are not going to be straight forwards as independent candidate Gopal Hamal won over Arzu Rana Deuba’s pick in the recent mayoral election in Dhangadhi, a major chunk of her constituency.

“Unless she can find a way to get Hamal on her side, it is not going to be straightforward for her,” says a leader from Kailali.

To gain popularity among the locals, Arzu Rana Deuba has made Jeevan Rana, a local Tharu leader, a central committee member of the party. But, how much that helps her remains to be seen as Prakash Bam from the Deuba panel will pose another threat to her.

“It won’t be a surprise if she doesn’t contest the elections directly,” say NC leaders.

This story was translated from the original Nepali version and edited for clarity and length.

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Dumre is an Onlinekhabar journalist covering politics.

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