Raghuji Pant: If we do not put the people and the country at the centre, politics will turn into an evil gameThe Nepal Communist Party leader speaks about current party dynamics, the Bamdev Gautam affair and a way out of the infighting.
Two years since the formation of the Nepal Communist Party, the ruling party is at a crucial juncture today, with its two chairs at loggerheads in the wake of a proposal, pushed by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, to send party vice-chair Bamdev Gautam to the National Assembly. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli was reluctant, but the Dahal camp insisted that Oli abide by the Secretariat decision. Oli instead decided to continue with Yubaraj Khatiwada as finance minister, upsetting Dahal and Gautam’s plans. Gautam was supposed to replace Khatiwada in the National Assembly and eventually make his way to the prime ministership. Dahal had pushed a constitutional amendment towards this effect only a few weeks earlier to disastrous results, as the public and legal experts had all come down heavily against the proposed amendment.
Before things could escalate any further, Oli went into the hospital for a kidney transplant. With Oli still recovering at the hospital, there is currently a semblance of calm in the party, but a potential conflict could erupt at any time.
It is in this lull, as Oli recovers and the Dahal camp seethes, that Tika R Pradhan spoke to Raghuji Pant, a standing committee member of Nepal Communist Party. Pant, a former journalist, is known for speaking his mind. At times, he does not hesitate to take on leaders from his own party on certain issues. Pant spoke about current party dynamics, how things could evolve once Oli returns from the hospital and a way to resolve the infighting in the party.
The interview has been condensed for clarity.
Why do you think the Secretariat decided to request the government to recommend party vice-chair Bamdev Gautam for the National Assembly?
It all started from the last Standing Committee meeting in December. Chair [Pushpa Kamal] Dahal proposed a discussion on an amendment to the constitution to allow a National Assembly member to become prime minister, as per Gautam’s demand. No one else said anything, so I said that I felt suffocated by the proposal. I believed it was a serious issue that had been presented without taking into consideration its larger political consequences. I said that such an amendment could weaken our democracy and make us look immature. My concern was that it could increase conflict within the party.
Even if Gautam was to join the Upper House, his condition [for constitutional amendment] was inappropriate because there is already a host of issues under discussion—secularism, Hindu state and federal structures, to name a few. Without discussing those issues, it would be inappropriate to amend the constitution to make room for one person’s political aspirations.
[Prime Minister KP Sharma] Oli saw the entire exercise as a ploy to topple his government. At a time when the government has not been able to deliver on its promises, this development created an unusual situation. The timing of the proposal was wrong, and the way it was presented was also wrong.
Why do you think this agenda was presented at that specific time?
People understood that the Nepal Communist Party wanted to make Gautam prime minister. There are already three former prime ministers from our party in the Lower House. But Gautam alone cannot be blamed. It was Prime Minister Oli himself who had assured him that he would be made the party chair and then prime minister at some point in time. Gautam’s ambitions were further nurtured by Dahal. The two chairs themselves were responsible for nourishing Gautam’s ambitions. This is not good politics.
Could the proposal have come out of Dahal’s own political ambitions?
I don’t want to question his intention, but he is also one of the candidates to become the next prime minister. Another appropriate candidate is Madhav Kumar Nepal. Jhala Nath Khanal is also appropriate for prime ministership, but it seems he is more inclined to become president.
How can the proposed amendment be resolved now?
There is only one way. Our party should remove this agenda altogether—either from the Central Committee or Standing Committee. The ruling party should assure the people that amending the constitution won’t be our agenda at least for the next five to seven years.
Why do you think both the chairs took such a big risk for one leader?
I think it was mathematics. All political and organisational decisions are being taken by the Secretariat, and a single vote in the nine-member Secretariat can have a serious effect. Due to this circumstance, both the chairs didn’t want to antagonise any of the Secretariat members. Both Oli and Dahal wanted to appease Gautam. But this is not good in politics. You can be flexible in practice, but on principles and political issues, we must be clear about our way forward.
Some party leaders have been saying that party unity was basically orchestrated to fulfill the interests of top party leaders. Do you believe that?
It’s obvious that gaining power was one of the major objectives behind party unity. But we should not look at politics in isolation. Politics is a power play and all political parties strive to gain power. But power for what purpose? If we do not put the people and the country at the centre, politics will turn into an evil game. For this [party] unity, both chairs were on the same page when it came to short-term and long-term interests. So unity in itself was not a bad idea, although it lacked necessary preparations—in terms of theoretical, political, ideological and organisational, among other, grounds. That’s why even two years after the merger, the unification process has yet to be complete.
How do you see the current power dynamics in the party?
The CPN-UML played a pivotal role in democratising the country’s left politics. So the UML itself must remain unified while becoming liberal towards the former Maoists. With this, it will be easier to democratise them. If the UML leaders are divided, that democratisation process will be weak. I have long been saying that Nepal and Oli must unite and move forward while taking Dahal into confidence. Theoretically, politically and on the organisational front, if the top three leaders work in tandem, the party can be run smoothly. But there will be an imbalance if any two leaders try to corner the other. If that happens at any point, party unity will be affected.
Until a few months ago, Dahal and Oli took decisions without abiding by any norm. Even when the UML and the Maoists forged an electoral alliance, tickets were distributed on an adhoc basis by the top leaders. Ministers were picked accordingly. In that whole process, Nepal and leaders close to him were ignored. A probe committee even tried to frame Nepal in the Lalita Niwas land grab case. But he didn’t react. He only reacted when he was driven into a corner and forced to take a stand. As a result, Gautam, Nepal, Khanal and Dahal happened to come together. Oli seems to be isolated now which is not good for the party.
What is the role of Madhav Nepal now? Is he playing the role of an interlocutor?
He has always served the party’s and the country’s interest. He is a leader who doesn’t know how to run a faction. He tries to manage the leaders regardless of which factions they belong to. Even in this crisis, the party seems to be moving on to the path he has prescribed. So the current situation has necessitated Nepal’s role in the party, as he is one leader who can keep the party unified. But the issue of constitution amendment must not be taken ahead. If that moves forward, conflict will further escalate.
Then why did Nepal agree to lead the task force to do the groundwork for the amendment?
That is his weakness. He could not outright reject a proposal brought by the top leadership. When I asked him later, he told me that the decision was taken in consensus. Even Oli did not say anything against it. But later everyone was against it.
What do you think are Nepal’s political prospects in the party?
I don’t think leadership will move away from the existing generation of top leaders, even at the upcoming national convention. There is no possibility of any second-rung leader becoming the party chair. Either Nepal or Dahal will become the party chair as Oli has already announced that he is not going to stand for the party leadership. But right now, these two leaders should not think about gaining power. They must groom new leaders to lead the party.
Do you think former UML members in the party will accept Dahal as the party’s sole chair?
It seems like Dahal is still the chair of the former Maoists while Oli is leading a faction of the former UML. They have not presented themselves as the chairs of the entire party. If Dahal wants to lead the unified party, he must widen his circle and start discussions with all the leaders and all factions.
Oli has made references to a conspiracy to collapse his government, and given the recent developments, it doesn’t seem like he is completely wrong. Do you think there is substance to his claims?
When it comes to the government's performance, there is dissatisfaction. But I don’t think leaders have come to a conclusion for a change in government leadership. Also, it is not good to make such attempts. There could be dissatisfaction; the government may not have worked as per its strength; there could be many shortcomings. Despite all these, it’s not the time to topple our own government. It has only been two years and the party can give the government some time to improve. But if the government fails to improve and the party feels that it could affect the next elections, leaders should discuss changing the guard.
What should leaders do to strengthen the party and the government?
I think the prime minister should focus on the government’s activities and unburden himself from party activities. Questions will be raised if he fails to perform on both fronts. The government is the most decisive front where he should show his performance.
Prime Minister Oli is currently in the hospital and there seems to be a semblance of calm in the party. What will be the political situation after Oli returns?
Oli must return from the hospital healthy and fully recovered, as the political situation depends on his health. Any complication in his health could mean political instability. This won’t be in the larger interest of the country. After his return, he should work to make the party’s health better as he is currently the main actor in Nepali politics.