‘We may have been a weak opposition last year; we need to learn from our mistakes’No matter what differences we have within the party on various issues, the entire party is united when it comes to fighting against an autocratic system: Shekhar Koirala
Dr Shekhar Koirala, a central leader of the Nepali Congress, is currently touring the country, travelling from East to West. After facing a drubbing in the last elections, the country’s grand old party is in a bid to regain its lost charm. And the Congress has not been able to hold its 14th General Convention due to the widening rift in the party. While the party has been struggling to fight factional feud, it has largely failed to play the role of the main opposition in Parliament, for which it has often faced criticism from a section of leaders from within the party. The Post’s Avasna Pandey spoke with Koirala to talk about contemporary national issues, his party’s current activities, its role as an opposition and his vision for the party.
You are currently touring the country. What is people’s perception about the incumbent government? What do you find the people are looking for?
While travelling across the country and talking to people in various districts, I have found that the general public wants reduction in inflation, peace and security and an end to impunity and corruption. But at the same time, some people who are educated and can be critical—the intellectual circle—want something more too. They notice that there is a power imbalance in the legislative, executive and judiciary and that the government has not been able to walk in the path of democracy.
The Nepali citizenry have a democratic mindset—be it a layman or someone who claims to be an intellectual. Their way of expressing may be different but all are democratic by nature. So no one seems to be in a mood to succumb to a rule that has shades of autocracy in it. In general, most people are worried if the current government will take regressive steps and adopt an autocratic system against which they fought themselves to get here.
What about the mindset of the Nepali Congress cadres in the district? How do they view the activities of the current government and the role of Sher Bahadur Deuba—the party president?
First, a slew of bills that this government has come up with, say for example, the Media Council Bill, the Bill on Work, Responsibility and Rights of the National Security Council that includes a provision vesting the power to recommend deployment of the Army in the prime minister without even holding a meeting of the council, the proposed amendment for the National Human Rights Commision Act and so on. The Congress cadres are quite critical of these developments.
There is no conducive environment for peace and security, and corruption has been institutionalised. So the Congress cadres have been taking serious note of these things and are of the view that whoever indulges in such activities, be it someone from the ruling party or from the opposition, must be penalised. There should be no discrimination when it comes to booking perpetrators and bringing them within the purview of the law. But now they feel even the judiciary—which is supposed to be an independent body—is retreating from its role. This is what has started to worry the cadres the most.
Coming to their perception of the party president, there are three main bodies in the Congress. First, is the general convention, then the mahasamiti and then the central committee. We had a meeting of the mahasamiti last winter. In the meeting, party President [Sher Bahadur] Deuba and a senior party leader, Ramchandra Poudel, clearly assured the party members that the two clauses that have been brought up will be amended. What I fear is if we are charting an undemocratic path in the party as well. From the party president to the central committee members, all of us need to fight from the base level to reach the top position. Being the president of the Nepali Congress is no small feat. Everyone needs to show respect for the position. Hence, its selection must follow a democratic process.
We, the party members, tend to preach others about democratic practices, but since we have failed to practice what we preach, this has brought about problems in the party. Such activities make the party weak. The only way to form a strong party is by holding the general convention on time.
The party recently launched ‘Rastriya Jagaran Abhiyan’ (public awareness campaign). What is this all about?
The position that the Nepali Congress is in right now, we faced a similar situation during the time of the monarchy as well. Even after the election for the first constitutional assembly, we faced an electoral drubbing. But we tried to energise the party and emerged as the single largest party in 2010. To make a strong comeback, we started the awareness campaign. The cadres have conveyed to us that they are energised and full of vigour, so the party leaders must feel the same and work in tandem so the presence of the Nepali Congress can be strongly felt in the Nepali polity.
So this is not a bad thing in itself.
There are two things we aim to achieve from this campaign.
First, inform the Congress cadres and Nepali people of the activities of the incumbent government. Second is to strengthen the organisation. But the party still functions in a unitary manner. Now we have three tiers [of government]—local, provincial and federal. So we have an organisation but we have not been able to set up departments in the last three years. Nor are there any bodies at the provincial and local levels. If one starts a ‘Jagaran Abhiyan’ without proper organisational structure in place, it’s going to be problematic. There is no Nepal Student Union; nor is there Tarun Dal in a real sense. Mere four people do not form a committee; I do not agree with it. In short, there is no foundation. Sometimes, I also doubt if this Jagaran Abhiyan was devised only to postpone the general convention yet again. It is not going to work if the cadres do not feel motivated and enthusiastic.
You said “communist rule” has begun in the country. But the Congress as the opposition has been divided and silent on most of the issues. Why is it so? Is the Congress party really a weak opposition?
In the initial days of Parliament, the party could present itself the way it should have done and pointed out the wrongdoings of the government. This is a fact. Second, when any government presents is policies and programmes, the opposition has to be critical of it. When the government unveiled its first policies and programmes, we were unsuccessful in looking into it from a critical viewpoint. So it’s imperative to realise where we lost our way. Yes, as an opposition we were weak in the first year but we need to realise that and not repeat the mistake. That’s why this time around when the government presented its policies and programmes, we objected to the document issue-wise. Therefore, the Nepali Congress is slowly coming in its old form as an opposition. Having said that, it is important for everyone to realise that no matter what differences we have within the party on various issues, the entire party is united when it comes to fighting against an autocratic system.
You admit that the Nepali Congress has been a weak opposition. But how would you define a constructive opposition? For instance, in western democracies, the opposition prepares bills and creates cross-party alliances to turn them into acts. Here, the role of the opposition seems limited to obstructing Parliament or giving speeches. What role do you see the opposition playing apart from speeches and House obstructions?
The Congress party at the moment has formed a shadow Cabinet. I don't quite know how well it is functioning. Hopefully, it will start functioning effectively. Whatever bills might be coming in, I feel the Nepali Congress’ ideas and thoughts on these bills should come in early—during the drafting itself; not when they are already prepared. Say, a bill on universities is coming up. In the proposed bill itself, we can see autocratic tendencies. And I have mentioned a few other bills above also. So beforehand, the Nepali Congress needs to form an opinion on those bills and disseminate information to the cadres and the public alike. Doing so, I think, would count as being a constructive opposition. We used to be proactive before. Now we have become reactive. The Nepali Congress needs to start being proactive again.
You have demanded the 14th General Convention by amending the party statute. What is it going to take to fix the organisational infirmities that ail the Nepali Congress?
To fix the organisational infirmities within the party, the party president should play an important role. Other members are also important and they need to do their part. I have constantly been pushing for holding the general conventions on time. But only when the party president becomes serious and realises his responsibilities, can the party be strong and functional.
But there is too much factionalism in the party. Given that, how likely is a general convention? Whose fault is it? Who is to blame? Just the party president’s? Or other position holders in the party?
As a central committee member, I am responsible too. People will come and ask me what I have done. But I will also have to ask someone what have they done. In that case, I will have to go to the party president. Since the party president is the one behind the wheel, he needs to steer the vehicle in the right direction. His role becomes more important than others since he is in a leadership position. The general convention must be held on time, but the party leaders have failed to realise the gravity of the situation. This is quite serious. But we on our part have failed to convince him why the 14th General Convention is of utmost importance. All of us need to introspect, but the onus lies on the president.
Shashank Koirala, the party secretary, once mentioned about holding a referendum on Nepal as a Hindu state before retracting it later. How did the party come to such a conclusion in the first place?
It's important to make it clear that it is his personal opinion and that it does not reflect the position of the party. But the majority of the people in the country are Hindus. Since the inception of the Nepali Congress, we have been advocating for religious freedom. In fact, out of the four stars in our party flag, one of the stars represents freedom of religion. Yes, there is a clause of the referendum in the constitution, like if there is an issue over which there are differences, we can hold a referendum. But to hold a referendum, a two-thirds majority in Parliament is required. It's important to understand whether the Nepali Congress has that kind of majority or not. The answer becomes clear from there. But the constitution has three provisions when it comes to religion. So yes, we need to assert them.
The current government has been in office for over a year now. What is it that you think it has been doing right?
The government is moving away from the fundamental principles of a democratic society. Given that, how can I say the government has been something good? The prime minister himself says one thing and does something else. Granted, there have been some good decisions in the past year. For example the agreement on the text of the Protocol to Transit and Transportation between Nepal and China. But the new development is not without its difficulties. Lack of proper roads and customs infrastructure on the Nepali side of the border, say, is a cause for concern. The fact that the nearest port is located more than 2,600km from the border is another issue. There should be a proper evaluation of these factors. Otherwise, the benefits of this trade and transit agreement might not seem feasible right away. The government must, therefore, be making informed decisions that are practical and easy to implement.
You wish to run as the next party president. What is your vision for the Nepali Congress?
Everyone who has been involved in the party dreams of running the party one day. But only one person will be able to reach there. When it comes to the vision, the Nepali Congress’ ideology of nationalism, democracy and socialism was propounded by BP Koirala. The socialism we ascribe to maintains that no person should die of hunger. For this, the agricultural production should improve, the government should provide subsidy to farmers, improve road connectivity and so on. Second is no one should die due to lack of money, meaning, healthcare should be affordable for all. The communists say the same as well, but to these things, we also add one more element, which is: no person should die or decide to end one’s life owing to restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. The communists do not believe in this third component. If the society has all of the above-mentioned criteria, then we will be able to uphold the idea of democratic socialism as BP had envisioned.
Second, there is a need to strengthen the definition of nationalism so that it incorporates the people from the hills, mountains and Tarai. The third is to create a culture where democracy can thrive rather than wither.
Fourth would be to close the rift inside the party. True, there will be diverse opinions within the party. But as the party president, it becomes his/her responsibility to entertain diversity of thoughts and bring everyone together rather than indulge in groupism. These are the issues one should pay attention to.
In addition to this, one of the biggest weaknesses of the Nepali Congress is that it has failed to attract youths and women to join the party. Every day almost 1,600 people fly abroad in search of a better opportunity. Annually, 500,000 people become ready for the job market. Hence, our focus should be on capitalising on this demographic dividend that we have by creating enough employment opportunities for them at home.