It is yet to be seen whether the general convention ends up electing new leadership or also debates on the party’s policy and future strategy.
--BY VISHWASH THAPA
Until last month, it seemed Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba had taken his faction into confidence to present himself as a presidential candidate for another term. He being the only presidential face from the establishment faction had elated his cadres and well-wishers who want him to take up the party’s leadership again from the upcoming general convention.
However, one of his long-term confidants has emerged as a barrier in Deuba’s path. Little had he expected that Bimalendra Nidhi, the party’s vice-president, would challenge him in a race for the next term. With the party gradually entering into the preparation phase for the next general convention, Nidhi last month met Deuba seeking his support in the party’s presidential race. He reportedly asked the party president to rest, opening the door for the second rung to come into the leadership race.
Deuba, however, said he would like to take up the party leadership for the last time and would support him in the 15th general convention. Nidhi, who is already in his mid-sixties, fears Gagan Thapa or Bishwo Prakash Sharma would be ready by then making the leadership for the party tougher. Having realised that the upcoming party’s convention could be the only opportunity to grab the party’s command, he has started reaching out to the leaders from both factions. He is making every effort to build a strong panel comprising the leaders from the establishment and dissident faction. Pradeep Giri and other leaders with their constituency in the Tarai /Madhes are pushing him from the back.
Nidhi has always supported Deuba be it while splitting the party in 2002 or during the 13th general convention held in 2016, which brought Deuba the leadership of the grand old party for the first time. He, too, has been rewarded for supporting Deuba. He was picked as the party’s vice-president keeping other aspirants waiting while it was Deuba’s backing that brought him plum ministerial positions.
The symbiotic relationship between the two seems to be fading with the general convention approaching closer. Nidhi actually has opened Pandora’s Box for the party president race by revealing his aspirations. Gopal Man Shrestha, another confidant of Deuba, also has announced he will contest the race. Deuba’s victory will depend on how well he manages the aspirants of not just the presidential position but also for deputy-president and general secretary among others.
The picture isn’t clear who the race will be between in the grand old party as it’s still six months for the general convention scheduled for February 19-22 next year. However, it is clear that never in the history of the Nepali Congress has there been this many candidates for the party president.
It is because all the aspirants have grown old and they see competition becoming tougher. “We have so many leaders either in their sixties or seventies therefore, it is obvious for them to think now or never,” said Nain Sigh Mahar, former chairperson of Nepal Student Union.
Incumbent president Deuba is 74 while senior leader Ram Chandra Poudel, an obvious aspirant for the leadership, is 75. Similarly, Nidhi is 63 while Shrestha is 73. Among the other aspirants Krishna Prasad Sitaula is 71, Shekhar Koirala is 69 and Prakash Man Singh is 64. The youngest among the aspirants is party general secretary Shashank Koirala who is now 61. Ram Sharan Mahat, 69, and Arjun Narsingh KC, 72, who lost the general secretary’s position to Shashank in the last convention, too have expressed their intent to fight for the leadership.
The main opposition party has a history of factional politics but mostly two. However, starting last general convention there are clearly three factions led by Deuba, Poudel and next by Situala.
But there are clearly a number of sub-factions within the factions. Whichever side smartly manages the sub-factions will be victorious. In the 13th general convention Poudel had managed to team up with the Koirala family which still commands a sizable vote. The fact that Shashank won the election as general secretary while Poudel from the same panel got defeated at the hands of Deuba shows the grip the family has on the party.
That is why both Shashank and Shekhar believe they have the ground to bring the Koirala clan into the leadership of the party formed by KP Koirala. Talking to the media recently, Shashank said he is the only one who can defeat Deuba. He went on to say that even Poudel does not hold that ground. He, however, hinted that he could leave the seat for Shekhar who has been doing groundwork for the last two years.
Breaking away from the Koirala family would be a devastating development for Poudel who wants to lead the party once he retires from politics. Nobody understands better than him that losing the party’s leadership will also take away his prospects of becoming the executive head of the country.
He cannot wait longer because of his age. By the 15th general convention he will already be in his 80s. The party insiders say Poudel will have to bite the bullet to manage the dissident factions within the party. Managing the Koirala family and Singh is a huge battle and he will have to be victorious before announcing a fight against Deuba. People close to Poudel believe KC and Mahat’s announcement is nothing but a bargaining tactic for a better position that of either deputy-president or general secretary.
There is also a dominant view within the party that wooing the youths would be crucial in securing victory. Thapa is a popular youth face within the party, therefore all the factions will be trying to bring him on their side. Last time he had bagged a sizable vote as a candidate for the general secretary when he contested under Sitaula’s panel, which was formed just a few weeks before the general convention.
It is not sure which side he stands on this time though he has announced that he will contest for president if he gets the support from the youth leaders but that doesn’t seem possible at least in the upcoming general convention.
The political experts say in principle the general conventions are platforms to debate a party's ideology, its strengths and weaknesses and plans. The aspirants for the leadership therefore, should come up with a road map at least for the next general convention and have debates on that. But, no aspirants for the leadership so far have presented their vision explaining why they want to be the party leader. “This isn’t a problem limited to Nepali Congress. This is dominant across other parties too,” said Chandra Dev Bhatta, a political commentator.
Despite strong demand, the party didn’t seriously debate its humiliating defeat in the last general election, in which the party managed to win just 23 seats out of 165 in the first-past-the-post system and 40 of the 110 seats in the proportional representation system. The party never properly analysed the reasons for the defeat but just ended up sacking a few leaders from the party claiming they conspired for the defeat of some of the leaders.
The party leaders agree that principle counts for more than a leader in the party. They say one with the vision should get to command the party. However, there are no signs yet to show the ‘grand old party’ will have an intense debate on the party's policy and new strategy in the general convention.
Time will tell if the 14th general convention just ends up electing a new leadership or also formulates a strategy for the future.