Ballot puts leadership acumen to test in NCAs Nepali Congress delegates from across the country vote on Sunday to choose new leadership that will steer the party for next four years, the leadership acumen of all three contenders for the party presidency is increasingly in the spotlight.
As Nepali Congress delegates from across the country vote on Sunday to choose new leadership that will steer the party for next four years, the leadership acumen of all three contenders for the party presidency is increasingly in the spotlight.
Acting Party President Ram Chandra Poudel, Senior leader Sher Bahadur Deuba and General Secretary Krishna Prasad Sitaula all have made competing claims to offer strong leadership in dealing with the multiple crises facing both the country and the party, including addressing the concerns of Madhesis, implementing the constitution amid strong protests from minority groups and take the party to new heights by ending factional politics.
With three leaders deciding to enter the fray, it’s certain that the party is split into three camps, but the main question is whether they really want to steer the party towards a right direction or their decisions to run for the top job were an outcome of their sheer personal ambitions.
When it comes to Acting NC President Poudel, he believes he is the one who should get the opportunity to lead the party after the Koiralas. But this comes with a drawback—Poudel has always lived in the shadows of the Koiralas.
A man who comes from a humble background of a farming family in Tanahun, Poudel is often accused of limiting himself to a narrow circle. While he is known for being prolific in thinking and writing about major issues facing the country, very little of his writings are memorable. But his supporters see him as someone who embodies simplicity and has an untainted image.
“He has a clean image in the party,” said Nabindra Raj Joshi, a Poudel supporter.
People who have observed him in the party and ministerial positions, however, see him as someone who struggles to take decisions.
He has held several key positions in the party and government over the years, including Speaker of the Parliament and two innings as deputy prime minister, yet he has left very little imprint of his leadership style on the institutions he ran.
“Poudel was an able administrator when I worked with him at the Ministry of Home Affairs,” said Shree Kant Regmi, former home secretary. “He seldom imposed his will on us, and it was relatively easy to work with him.”
During his tenure as deputy prime minister and minister for peace and reconstruction in 2007, he was blamed for failing to convene meetings of half a dozen Cabinet Committees related to the peace process for an extended period of time, and thereby delaying the implementation of the agreement reached between the Maoists and the government.
He had taken strong position against the Maoists and vehemently disagreed with the accommodative approach adopted by his former boss and late prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala.
Among the current crop of NC top leaders, he is seen as a better orator, yet none of it was on display during the inaugural session of the General Convention on Thursday. In fact, many cringed when he said he “felt like committing suicide at times”. He was commenting on the criticism of the political leaders in social media and image of politicians in general.
“Party leadership’s image has been tarnished for failing to keep up with the changing context,” Poudel had said while addressing the inaugural session, offering himself as a progressive and competent person to lead the party for next four years.
“Within the Nepali Congress, he is known for holding left of the centre views,” said Puranjan Acharya, a political analyst close to NC, concurring with Poudel’s self perception.
In contrast, Acharya describes Deuba as holding right-of-the-centre views.
“But during key moments, he has taken really progressive decisions,” said Acharya. The Deuba government abolished the Kamaiya system (bonded labourers) in 2002 and formed Dalit and women’s commissions to address the grievances of marginalised groups.
Deuba’s supporters describe him as an accommodative and flexible leader who often delegates authority to his aides. He is famous for “blindly” signing off on decisions made by his aides on even complex issues. “I hired you for the expertise you have, bring me a solution, and I will sign off on it,” a close aide once recalled being told by Deuba.
In that vein, Deuba has projected himself as someone who does not procrastinate on important issues. He rued the inability of NC’s current leadership in taking decisions, blaming the indecision for missed opportunities for the party. In an interview with the Post on Tuesday, Deuba vowed to change that trend and to bring the NC at the centre of politics by expediting decisions on grievances on the Madhes issue and by playing the role of an effective opposition to push the government to implement the inclusive principles of the constitution.
Some describe him as impulsive and see it as a risky trait in a leader who does not vet decisions made by assistants. Many also accuse him of no-holds-barred approach to ensure his political survival. They point at a decision taken by him to provide duty-free Pajero jeeps to all parliamentarians in 1994. But that has not deterred his supporters who find many likeable traits in Deuba.
“He is simple, down-to-earth and has no ego,” says Udaya Samshere Rana, a Member of Parliament and youth leader who supports Deuba. And there is Krishna Prasad Sitaula.
Sitaula, who saw a sharp rise in the party in the run-up to peace deal in 2006, surprised many when he decided to run for party presidency. Sitaula was relatively unknown entity until 2006 when late Girija Prasad Koirala worked closely with him to bring the Maoist to the peace process.
He is seen as a new comer in the party (he entered Nepali Congress in 1981) who has decided to “punch above his weight.” Many of the party’s old hand resent him for his temerity to take a shot at the top position.
Though very little is known about him, those who have worked in close quarters with him find him persuasive. There are those who call him a shrewd political operator who has sharp instincts.
“Together Krishna Sitaula and Gagan Thapa have formed the most progressive alliance within the Nepali Congress,” said Acharya. “In many ways, only these two represent the change the country has gone through in the last decade.”
Sitaula argues that he is the only heir to the legacy of Girija Prasad Koirala and Sushil Koirala.
“He is a competent administrator,” said a former government secretary who has worked closely with Sitaula on the condition of anonymity, given that he is serving in another position. “He gave us a freehand to work in the ministry.”
While most former civil servants have positive things to say about all three contenders, they barely recall any remarkable leadership quality they saw in them. Even supporters inside the party say nothing of the intellectual rigour of the leaders.
The 3,218 delegates who will vote for the party president and other key positions on Sunday face a difficult choice if they all decide to vote on the basis of individual merits of the candidates. But they are unlikely to cast their votes beyond the factions they represent.
“These are not three factions of the Nepali Congress,” Nepali Congress leader and intellectual heavyweight Pradeep Giri was quoted by an online portal recently as saying.
“Devoid of ideological and intellectual grounding, these are more like three gangs of the party.”
A brief history of presidential hopefuls