Nepali Congress is in decline because its leaders are corruptRevitalising the party would threaten the interests of these leaders and dismantle the mechanisms through which they accumulate power and money.
For democracy to sustain and strengthen, a robust opposition party and strong democratic alternatives are a must. Given the difficulties faced by new and emerging parties, Nepali Congress stands as the lone competitor to the Nepal Communist Party and a standard-bearer of democratic values.
Nepali Congress appears to have lost ground to the Nepal Communist Party in recent years, especially after the merger of the Maoists and the CPN-UML, who have been able to project what Professor Lok Raj Baral calls 'resentful' nationalism.
While the communists are embarking on the wrong path, Nepali Congress, supposed to be the saviour, is becoming decadent. Nepali Congress must deal with the elephant in the room—corruption among party leaders—before it can embark on reforms to revitalise the party. The only thing that is sustaining the party is its extensive base and the lack of a strong alternative.
Poor results in the by-elections indicated that new parties have yet to win the people's trust. The government led by the Nepal Communist Party is travelling a path where the desire for political control is eroding the values of openness, freedom and rights. The ruling regime is squandering opportunities for economic development. In such a situation, Nepali Congress must stand up to its machinations in order to ensure democracy and development.
Party in decline
According to an internal assessment by party members, Nepali Congress party has seen a gradual decline in vote share, especially after 1992. Proportional representation votes since 2008 indicate that while the Maoists slowly lost their political base, the UML gained popular support. Nepali Congress, despite losing a considerable amount of seats in the last round of elections, increased its political base.
While Nepal's political landscape has not shifted that much, the former UML had become a little more popular than Nepali Congress. The merger between UML and the Maoists, however, has transformed the poll-scape. According to nine Congress youth leaders, party members and supporters have not taken the electoral loss as an ordinary defeat, it has generated a sense of 'extreme hopelessness' which requires a new vision and leadership at a strategic level.
In order to revitalise the party, the Nepali Congress must address the different dimensions of party building. The first dimension is to build a strong institutional network: an efficient central office run by professional staff, a larger membership base, and a decentralised network of party branches.
In order to win elections, political parties also need enthusiastic, active and engaged party members; positive voter perception; a competitive, organised and well-funded party; and effective, dynamic campaigns. These, in turn, are directly linked to internal democracy and the ability to reach out to members and voters.
The third dimension is the ability to aggregate interests in strategic ways and create linkages with people's identities and feelings. The fourth dimension, perhaps the most significant in Nepal's context, is the ability to finance elections.
In addition to building a party that can win elections, Nepali Congress must develop a vision and public philosophy to address the challenges of the 21st century. By 2030, Nepal will come face to face with a host of new challenges as well as opportunities, ranging from challenges generated by issues of identity and insecurity to challenges generated by demography changes, corruption, climate change and capitalism. Nepali Congress must build a party that can lead the nation through these challenges and cash in on a window of opportunity which may no longer exist after 15-20 years.
Climbing back up
Party workers and leaders within the party have identified the problems and the required reforms. Several assessments, for example, have outlined weak leadership, wrong electoral strategy, internal conflict, flaws in electoral seat distribution, failure to attract the younger generation and the inability to deal with questions of identity and nationalism as the reasons for Congress's decline. All of these problems are linked to leadership and decision-making.
Nepali Congress is facing challenges in almost all areas, including political finance. While the top leaders and their cronies have access to political finance, a majority of the candidates do not, unless they are recruited from among the business community or the mafia.
But the party so far has refused to recognise the presence of top-level decision-makers who rely on collusion and patrimony to extract wealth and power. Revitalising the party would threaten the interests of these leaders and dismantle the mechanisms and processes through which they accumulate power and money. Reforms in the party are only possible if these decision-makers consent to the reforms. And the leaders will only consent if it is to their benefit. All of this boils down to one thing: party stakeholders must put enough pressure on decision-makers to opt for reforms.
There are only two ways in which the critical minded 'democrats' within the party can move ahead. One way is to develop strategies to deal with the party members who are hindering reforms and revitalisation. The other is to revitalise the party, earn people's trust, and prepare for the challenges of the future by pushing forward strategic policies and processes.
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