‘Nepali Congress should neither be nervous nor complacent’Nepali Congress Central Committee Member Minendra Rijal on recent rumours about a change in ruling coalition as well as internal Congress politics after most recent national elections and by-polls.
Nepali Congress Central Committee Member Minendra Rijal is reputed for his straight and scholarly take on issues of national interest. He is also a strong internal critic of the Congress. The Post’s Anil Giri and Nishan Khatiwada sat down with him to discuss recent rumours about a change in ruling coalition as well as internal Congress politics after most recent national elections and by-polls.
What are the messages of the recent bypolls in three constituencies in which the Nepali Congress fared badly. What lessons did the party learn?
The results and messages of the bypolls do not differ from those of the general elections. The Rastriya Swatantra Party gained one seat from the bypolls—yet people have been saying that the party has doubled its presence since the general elections because the constituency in Tanahun it won was a Congress bastion. Swarnim Wagle, who won from the constituency, was a former Congress professional and his defection to the RSP and win in the bypolls were important. His victory is a reason people have been overreading the election outcomes and for the amplification of the general elections’ message.
That said, the message of the general elections was clear enough. They showed mounting public disenchantment with the mainstream and traditional parties. The Congress lost around seven percent of its voters. If we look at the last PR elections, other big political parties also met with the same fate. The message the public gave us is ‘we are not very happy with you but we will give you a second chance’. The public has mandated us to improve governance and the way we deal with them. “If you change and come out with new energy, vigour, new programmes, new and convincing ways of governing, then we will pick you in the next elections,” they were saying.
How is the Nepali Congress preparing to meet the challenge of the new forces in the next election?
As the largest governing party in all three tiers of government, we must concentrate on delivery and good governance. Better performance will definitely attract the public. So the first order of business is to run the government the way the people want us to.
Second, to emerge stronger in the next election, we must strengthen our base. Getting the traditional support back and bringing young voters into our fold is a long and continuous process. We need to proceed in a united manner, revamp our organisation, listen to the public’s concerns and make the governments we lead functional.
The Congress itself seems to be in a sorry state. The central committee has not been convened for long and several party departments are only partly full. Sister organisations have also not gotten concrete shapes. How do you rectify this state of affairs?
Our party is not in a sorry state, but in a sound state. Yes, there are challenges. We need to do a lot of work. You might have seen a disarray owing to two phenomena in party leadership. First, there is a feeling of complacency. If you are complacent, you look only at the positive aspects: “We are the largest party running governments in all tiers,” our leaders could say.
The second phenomenon is nervousness—the urge that the party needs to be changed in a revolutionary way, otherwise it has no future. In Latin, “experiri” means combination of experience and willingness to experiment. Neither should we be complacent nor feel the party needs to change everything and experiment with something entirely new. If we combine the experience and willingness to experiment with party leadership, we will get back the support base and attract the younger generation. As such, we will be in good shape not only in terms of running the government but also ensuring that we will fare better in the next elections should we run single-handedly.
There are rumours of a break up in the current ruling coalition. Even the Congress general secretaries are talking about a change of guard.
I have not heard them talk about the need to change the current coalition. But they sometimes sound impatient. It seems our party president is being a little complacent and the general secretaries a little impatient. We need to work on this and combine the experience of Nepali Congress with the willingness to experiment.
We are very happy with the ruling coalition. There is no reason we should move away from it. Once the budget is passed in all tiers, we can work based on the Common Minimum Programme and budget, and hence enhance governance. Moreover, CPN-UML leaders have been portraying themselves as “saintly”, unwilling to join the government, and happy with their opposition status. Even if we wish to, how can we entice the “saintly” party?
We will question the high moral grounds they are preaching: “Are you only saying it for public consumption? What are you up to?” Yes, on governance and issues that need national consensus, they will be made a part. We respect them as the main opposition, as one of the important political parties in the country. But beyond that, we are not looking at them as a potential ruling coalition partner.
The Congress is reportedly having a policy convention in a few months. Will it bring the required changes?
Policy convention is a new idea in the party statute. Previously, after the general convention, we used to hold the General Committee (Mahasamiti) meeting. I prefer the General Committee as it can do everything that a general convention can except remove or elect new officials or central committee members. It will be much easier to manage and discuss issues crucial to the party and the nation in such a committee.
Yet, whether to hold a policy convention is a call of the party leadership. What matters is that we concentrate on reviewing our policies, and discussing how we fine tune them, and how we realise our objectives and how the organisations will be revamped. As long as the policy convention is limited to revamping the organisation, it sounds like a reasonable option.
Some Congress youth leaders have been campaigning for the party’s transformation and for reuniting cadres. They say there is a call from local leaders and cadres to change current leadership. How seriously will the party take the call?
I have got the message from the youth leaders that we should focus on governance and reinvigorate the party. The youth leaders met the cadres and leaders at grassroots, listened to their grievances and gave them messages. That was actually far-reaching. They have returned happy and energised with messages from the grassroots to be forwarded to the central leadership.
I am the wrong person to ask about the call for change in leadership. I ran as a candidate for party general secretary from a different camp and lost. If I had my way, I would like to see somebody else as the party president. We did not have enough support. And we have not garnered enough grounds to turn from the group with less than a majority to a group with two-third support. Most importantly, we should not lead the party into a turmoil and waste our time. There is dissatisfaction with each other, against leadership, against camps. But if we fall prey to blame games, we will not be able to work for the greater good of the nation and the party. The message is loud and clear that we should run the government and at the same time, revamp the party. For that, we must move forward together.
A socialist front has been forged by the leftist forces in the ruling coalition. Many see this as a tactic to increase bargaining power vis-a-vis Congress. What do you say?
I was one of the first, if not the first, to float an idea that some of these parties should come together as a socialist alliance and run as the third pole for the local elections. I did so before the general elections.
But now, I ask: There are no elections close at hand, so why did they not wait a little longer? If they feel the same about the ruling coalition and their view on national problems match, they should have spent a few more weeks discussing and made serious efforts to form a new political party rather than settle on a halfway solution.
Strong-worded remarks of the ruling leaders against each other over the budget and the government reflect their disenchantment. How should the ruling coalition cope with this challenge?
I hope this is not hubristic on my part to say they have to look at their strength, support base and bargain for what they deserve. Bargaining for more than you deserve would only add to the problems. So, my advice for them is as this is a coalition, a party can get only as much as it deserves.
If it does not sound self-assuming, I would also ask them to address the intra-party dissension in their own party, rather than bringing such issues to the coalition. The coalition will not address intra-party problems.
Are you confident that this coalition will sustain four more years?
No, I would not say I am very confident. But the Congress will stay true to its commitment to the coalition. And if coalition partners feel that this is the way to go forward, they should feel pretty confident that the ruling coalition will sustain. They may have reasons to run away, move away from the coalition. For our party, we stay honest, we are happy.
The interview has been edited for clarity.