For an inclusive CongressCaste, class, culture and gender diversity is imperative to end the status quo.
With election season beginning in Nepal and the Nepali Congress in convention mode, party leaders and workers have started meeting their counterparts. Leaders are organising luncheons and dinners to lure leaders and workers alike. Despite the Covid-19 threat, crowds can be seen outside party leaders' homes. Congress means 'the action of coming together'. In the national context, coming together would embrace people from different castes, communities, cultures, costumes and cuisines. The Congress party claims to be a centralist political force with values such as pluralism, inclusion and liberalism; but the composition of the active members of the party suggests otherwise.
The population of youths in Nepal, the 18-40 age group, accounts for more than 45 percent of the total population in 2021. While in the Nepali Congress, the representation of youths is around 33 percent. It is alarming to see such a discrepancy between national demographics and the composition of the party. The upcoming elections will see the most extensive participation of youths in the history of Nepal. Against such a backdrop, it seems unlikely that Congress will be able to capitalise on the youth dividend. The under-representation of young people at the primary level will gradually increase in the party's pyramidical hierarchy. It shouldn't come as a surprise if the youth composition in the party's apex body, the central committee, is less than 20 percent.
The Nepali Congress from its early days has had overwhelming support and representation from Adivasi Janajatis. Stalwarts like Bal Bahadur Rai, Bhim Bahadur Tamang and KB Gurung have been in the party since its early days. Janajatis made up 38 percent of BP Koirala's cabinet. Following the Panchayat era, there has been a gradual decline in the representation of Adivasi Janajatis in the party and state institutions. According to Professor Hari Bansh Jha, Adivasi Janajatis account for around 35 percent of Nepal's population. But according to the latest active membership data released by Congress, they make up only 24 percent of the members. With such a small representation at the base of the pyramid, one can only imagine their representation in the top leadership positions.
The Tarai Madhes has been a broad support base of the Nepali Congress since the parity's inception. In its maiden cabinet, the Congress had 19 percent representation from the Madhesi community. Leaders like Ram Narayan Mishra and Surya Nath Das Yadav were members of the cabinet. This was Nepal in the 1950s, which can be argued to be more conservative. But today's Nepal is, at least on paper, more inclusive and liberal. Pitambar Sharma has written in his book Some Aspects of Nepal's Social Demography: Census 2011 Update that the Madhesi ethnic group accounts for 19.3 percent of the total population but Madhesis in the party's base make up only 9.5 percent. A lot has changed in Nepali polity since the 1950s. From being a party for the common Nepalis, the Nepali Congress now has to face stiff competition even in Madhes which earlier used to be its dedicated garden. With a rise in identity politics all over the country, one can only wonder how the Nepali Congress can ever make amends with the people of Madhes.
Women's representation has always been an issue, but it has never been resolved. A problem which could have been addressed much earlier has been prolonged for more than 30 years. Today, the situation is such that women who comprise 54 percent of the population have a mere 23 percent representation in the Nepali Congress. Without adequate representation at the base, there is no scope for their participation in decision making. A quick analysis of world politics suggests that women are being treated as a different class in politics. Addressing the question of women and giving them agency has translated into political and social advancement for parties and nations around the world. But Congress has not been able to cultivate women at the leadership level, and attract women to the base of the party.
The Khas-Arya community has been ruling the nation since its inception. The Nepali Congress has been no exception to that. All of the seven presidents the party has seen have been from the Khas-Arya community. The hegemony of this ethnic group has steadily increased over the years to the point that today they form 43 percent of the total active members of the party. The representation of this community at the national level is just over 28 percent. The hegemony of this community is visible across all parties; the CPN-UML and Maoist Centre share equal representation. It is the very hegemony of this community that prevents the diversification of the party's political base. Although from a strictly strategic point of view, this ethnic group is like an interest group in the 21st century with less political and more material ambitions. The very fact that this group can overturn its own inhibitions committed in the past 200 years seems to be a façade.
A leadership change in the party is a necessity, but it does not mean a mere replacement of the person at the helm. Caste, class, culture and gender diversity is imperative to end the status quo. Today's Nepal needs revolutionary leaders with evolutionary ideas, and the leader at the helm of the Congress is likely to rule the nation. Thus, at this critical juncture with destiny, the party has to choose whether it wants to be part of a virtuous circle of inclusivity and diversity or remain part of the vicious cycle that has resulted in darkness for the party as well as the nation. Will the Nepali Congress live up to its meaning of 'the action of coming together' or will it be like in the Nepali adage: 'Jun jogi aaye pani kannai chireko' (regardless of who is at the helm, the situation remains unchanged)?