Anti-India rhetoric probably helped UML during elections but it cannot be used in long-term politicsWhat is your initial assessment of the recently formed government, which has a near two-thirds majority?
With the formation of government under KP Oli and the communist party, the country’s grand old party, Nepali Congress, begins its life as the opposition. The elections were not kind to the Congress, with the party suffering its worst defeat ever.
This, even as the left alliance won enough votes to allow the new government to come into power as the strongest one in three decades—with a near two-thirds majority in Parliament. Nepali Congress has major challenges in store before it can attempt to revitalise its image, with internal, factional disputes coming to the fore.
Mukul Humagain and Kamal Dev Bhattarai talked to Minendra Rijal, Nepali Congress member and former Minister of Information and Communications, about his views on the new government, Congress’s future and Nepal’s relationship with its two neighbours.
What is your initial assessment of the recently formed government, which has a near two-thirds majority?
I don’t think we are in a position to evaluate the government, or speculate how it’s going to function tomorrow. It’s too early to make a call. But some of the signs that we have seen in the beginning are not very encouraging. Two communist parties have come together to form a single party, and the underlying principle of communism will be the guiding principle behind this party. The underlying principle behind communism is that the end justifies the means. If they are convinced that the end is justified, they would not hesitate to use any means. We have a fundamental difference in that. You cannot achieve a right end by using incorrect means. This has made us a little apprehensive. But we hope that the government will still function democratically and based on the foundation of the constitution that we wrote together, and remember that they were voted in by the people. If they do this, they will serve the nation and themselves well.
The Oli government is trying to rope in the two Madhes-based parties into government. This would easily push them over the two-thirds mark in Parliament and form the most powerful elected government seen in the last 30 years. This would also leave the Nepali Congress as the only opposition in Parliament. Given that the Nepali Congress has been the torch bearer in every democratic movement...
Before you finish your question, let me talk a bit about the premise of the two-thirds majority government. There are two things, one of which is very positive. I would like to add that, by any standards, we have one of the finest constitutions in the world. Some people of certain ethnicities have shown dissatisfaction towards some articles in the constitution—not the entire document. So if a two-thirds majority is required to strongly implement the constitution, Nepal will move towards prosperity. The negative side: Some of the comments made lately by KP Oli and PK Dahal point to how they are using their strength in Parliament as a means to intimidate a variety of institutions, from the courts to the press. This has also influenced the latest decision of the Supreme Court. Both these leaders come across as people who have a very strong feeling of self-righteousness—KP Oli more than Dahal. Prachanda still seems to be amiable to compromises, but Oli is a very self-righteous leader. Now, self-righteousness, two-thirds support, communist philosophy—if you put these all together, there is every reason to be worried. But I hope that I am wrong.
Going back to the role of the Nepali Congress in Parliament.
The Nepali Congress has a very strong constituency in the country. As long as we represent that constituency as the opposition in Parliament, we will be okay. Being in opposition will also allow us the opportunity to champion the cause of the common man. This will hopefully allow us to reenergise the party across every rank. But do we have the strength to do so? Based on overall support, we do. Based on our numbers at the centre and across the provincial assemblies, we do not. So the numbers will be a handicap for us. But Parliament is not only about numbers. By articulating the situation in this way, you might think I’m trying to hide the failures of our party or the failures of our leadership. But I’m not trying to do so. It is very clear that we lost badly. But in terms of what our future looks like, we still have a strong support base. Our support hit rock bottom in the 2008 elections. But in every election thereafter, our support base has continued to expand. Even compared to the recently concluded local elections, our support base has improved since then. However, the UML improved on their base much more than we did. The unified communist party has a support base of 47 percent, whereas ours stands at 36 percent. The difference of 11 percentage points is huge, but it allows us an opportunity to revitalise. It especially gives an opportunity to leaders in my age-group or younger to restructure the party to meet the aspirations of the people-something the younger leaders strongly believe in. I would, therefore, take the situation as a challenge, and an opportunity.
Post the election debacle, there was a call to reconvene the Central Working Committee to review the situation and to change the party leadership away from leaders such as Ram Chandra Poudel and Sher Bahadur Deuba. How do you take the demands of the younger lot, such as Gagan Thapa, in this respect?
After the last general party convention two years ago, I came out strongly with the message that there should be a change in leadership. I have said in the past that in the next convention, scheduled for 2020, we will see the leadership handed over to someone from General Secretary Shashank Koirala’s age-group or younger. I still strongly believe that the next convention will not be a repeat of the 13th convention where RC Poudel and Deuba competed over the leadership. There is nothing stronger than the currents of time. Though being older may make you wiser, it also means that your energy diminishes. Up to a point, wisdom compensates for energy—but only up to a point.
However, I do not think the leadership can be changed currently. In a democratic system, you have to have the numbers behind you to make changes. And in the aftermath of the failures in the elections, it is time to come together as a party. I would be more comfortable convincing the older leadership to retire than to challenge them. And we don’t know how this strong communist government will behave. If we do something that can put our party in further disarray, we probably will not be able to rise up to the challenges the nation may face. If we keep these things in mind, I believe that we will have a smoother transition at the next convention.
A leadership change is one thing, but there is growing dissatisfaction over the working style of the party leadership. There have been calls within the party for more effective leadership, even if it is to continue under Deuba for the foreseeable future. Also, there were calls before NC elected a Parliamentary Party leader to end the factionalism that has ripped the party apart from within. What do you think is needed to make the leadership effective and vibrant, and to make NC a strong opposition party?
I very strongly detest that factionalism and factional groups have become permanent. In a democratic party, groups are formed on the basis of interests and issues. But in the NC for the past 25 years, you see the same faces sticking to the same groups permanently. There is increasing realisation within the party that the factionalism that has taken hold from the days of KP Bhattarai and GP Koirala has to go. The time has come to reach out across groups. Deuba needs to do it more, because he is the president of the party. And if Deuba moves in that direction, Poudel has to be the first one to reciprocate. If they do not do it, someone else will.
Do you think that the young groups calling for changes in the working of the party will be able to topple the leadership in the immediate future?
If the younger groups—meaning 10 to 15 years younger than myself—do not inherit the characteristics of the old guard, they will be able to do so. I would not be exaggerating when I say that the credibility of the younger leaders of our party is much higher than the credibility of the younger leaders of other parties. But will they be able to exhibit adequate maturity to make that happen? I do not know. However, if the younger groups follow the current patterns of factionalism, it will not solve the issues that we face.
It has already been three months since the elections. The NC leaders must have reviewed the loss, which was the worst in party history. It was the work of the NC and GP Koirala that allowed the Constituent Assembly to be formed and the ultra leftist Maoists to enter the peace process. It was under the NC’s leadership that we promulgated the new constitution, and it was under the NC’s leadership that the last part of constitutional implementation—elections—were concluded. What went wrong? Did the NC eventually lose the battle of narratives?
At this stage, I will probably not be able to answer your question fully. Because I would like to present my evaluation, and be more forthcoming, after the central committee meetings are concluded. But I can say this: The Congress leadership was very complacent. You cannot widen your support base by being complacent. The outcome of the two communist parties coming together was very clear. But our job was to not let the two parties’ voter base come together, which we didn’t do. The credit goes to the UML and Maoist leaderships, more to the UML and KP Oli, for being able to achieve this.
Then, when the communist parties did get together, we should have been more effective in allying with the Madhes-based parties: Not just because of the numbers, but because our parties were already aligned strongly in at least one dimension. But we also failed to do that.
This does not mean that one person is solely responsible for the election outcomes. This is not the time to run away from responsibility. Everyone in the party should recognise their roles in this. I too recognise the role I play and the influence I have on decisions. Based on how much influence each person has been able to exert, we should all be willing to take the blame. If we do not construe this as witch hunting, then the first responsibility should be borne by Deuba, as party president. RC Poudel should also equally accept responsibility after Deuba. From there, we would be able to create a conducive atmosphere to evaluate the outcomes and then chart out the future course for the Nepali Congress and, in that sense, Nepal.
Critics have also said that the Nepali Congress’s loss can be partially attributed to its not putting up a message questioning against the Indian economic blockade, while KP Oli and the UML established a strong stand on the matter. Was that also a factor in the loss?
A strong, anti-India rhetoric did probably help the UML during the elections. Oli used this to his utmost advantage. But they cannot use this in the long term. We all know that there is a strong anti-India undercurrent in Nepal. The Panchayat system cultivated that. Then king Mahendra too continued to cultivate it. The Kathmandu-based urban elite very strongly feel that way. And to be fair, any average Nepali would naturally have grievances against India. But how we use this to our advantage is important.
We cannot change our neighbours. We have always been an independent country. This is not so because we have used our loudest voice constantly against our neighbours. It is because we have cultivated a shrewd relationship with both of them. Jingoism or Southernism may win you votes in one election, but it will not earn you a lifetime of politics. KP Oli is a smart politician; he probably understands this. If he does, he will serve himself and the nation well. If he does not, we have not seen the worst of times yet.
Coming back to our relationship with our neighbours, India and China—in that order—are very important. We need to cultivate a very friendly relationship with India and China—again in this order—to serve the nation well. The Indian and Chinese leaderships are not fools to do battle in Nepal, should we try to play one off against the other. I do not see why Chinese policy would not take into account and accommodate our relationship with India; and vice versa. There has been a lot of talk about opening up the Nepal-China border for trade since the blockade. Unfortunately, the Tatopani border point was damaged during the 2015 earthquake. However, after all this time, access through Tatopani has not been restored, let alone talks of opening new routes to China. Both our neighbours understand their roles and limitations concerning Nepal very well. And I guess they are probably more forthcoming about discussing Nepal among each other that with us. Will Nepal benefit by opening up more to China? Yes. Will we be able to do so while being antagonistic towards India? No.
But there was a blockade?
Yet the Congress was unable to say so.
I was also criticised for this, and unfairly so. I was asked by a journalist, while I was away, about the blockade. My statement was that, “India had said that there is no blockade, and if India behaves the way it says, there is no problem.” I was misquoted as saying otherwise. Technically, our government’s stance then was to call it a stoppage of traffic. If you go into the definition of a blockade, in World Trade Organisation terminology, this was not one. But to every Nepali person, this was definitely a blockade.
In the context of rumours pointing to China being close to the new government, and with the Indian external affairs minister coming to visit KP Oli even before the formation of the government, how important will it be for the new government to maintain a balanced relationship with our neighbours?
Balance is not equidistance. The Chinese and the Indians both know this. At the same time, we should be mindful of the fact that there is a general grievance against India. India should also understand this. When Modi first came to Nepal as Indian prime minister, there was euphoria. I was minister-in-waiting, and I saw in the eyes of the people
the level of support and the expectations people in Kathmandu had of Narendra Modi. From then to the last elections, the situation became upside-down. Also, the Eminent Person’s Group has been meeting to have a comprehensive look over Nepal’s bipartite agreements with India. We should use this opportunity to form closer ties with the south, and to extract more from them.
What about China?
China is our neighbour and a trusted part in our development efforts. It supports the existing and incumbent government. But it has supported past governments and will continue to support Nepal in the future. We should be smart to understand that China will follow its foreign policy in Nepal as wisely as it has done the world over, including with the US. As Nepalis, we should always be thankful towards India and China. We should always try to be a bridge between these two nations. We can create numerous opportunities, economic or otherwise, for our people if we can connect India and China. As leaders of the nation, that should be on our minds, not trying to play one off against the other.