On their own meritIf talent is discouraged in political parties, those committed to public service will seek alternatives.
One widely noted aspect of the November 20 elections has been how most of the second-rung leaders cosy with party leadership have lost. These second-rung leaders had gotten various favours, including election tickets, mostly due to their unswerving loyalty to party leadership, rather than because of their competence or popularity. Conversely, most of the candidates who have proven their competence in running the party organisation and in maintaining public touch have won, despite them not always being in the good books of party chiefs. In a way, there is nothing surprising about popular candidates winning elections. But in a country where elections are often won and lost on the back of money and muscle power, this has come as a wonderful surprise.
Both Gagan Thapa and Bishwa Prakash Sharma were popularly elected as two general secretaries of Nepali Congress in the party's general convention last year, even though they weren't candidates from the grand old party's establishment faction. They had in fact often dared to speak out against what they saw as the top leadership’s excesses. Both have now won parliamentary elections with big margins. On the other hand, the likes of Shankar Sharma and Dev Gurung, who were handpicked as the general secretaries of CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Centre), respectively, lost the general elections from their home constituencies.
Similarly, Home Minister Balkrishna Khand of Nepali Congress and Senior Vice-chair Ishwar Pokharel of UML, two other election candidates known for their proximity to their respective party leaders, also lost. These cases speak volumes about the extent of internal democracy in our established parties. But they also show that the voters are becoming increasingly discerning; they increasingly prefer candidates who they believe can work independently based on their own conscience rather than orders from above.
These election results should make the leaderships of old parties reconsider their criteria for now they appoint office-bearers and choose election candidates. It basically comes down to putting in place a system of robust internal democracy. CPN-UML, which was earlier commended for its rigorous democratic process while choosing leaders from local to central levels, started appointing important office-bearers on ad hoc basis since KP Sharma Oli became party chair. Intra-party democracy is even worse in CPN (Maoist Centre), where leaders are rarely selected through elections. In Congress, some young leaders like Thapa and Sharma have forcefully risen through the ranks, overcoming hurdles placed in their way by the sheer weight of their personality.
If promising politicians are not encouraged and promoted in certain parties, talented people who are committed to public service will seek alternatives, as some have done this time by joining the Rastriya Swatantra Party. The old parties, bereft of new leaders with new ideas and visions, could soon become relics if they don’t change their old ways. Hopefully, the public’s clear signalling this time will serve as an eye-opener. The signal is that just as in other professions, politics also needs periodic influx of new ideas and personalities, and that democratic parties cannot be run as fiefs of a handful of leaders.