How a rudderless Congress became an ally in communist regime’s follyWhen the Oli administration continued to work against the system, the opposition failed to rise to the occasion and remained a mute spectator, observers and leaders say.
Ask any Nepali Congress politician—from among the seasoned lot to the “next generation” ones or the young crop of leaders—about the party, their answer will, nine out of ten times, start from “BP [Koirala] had this vision”. The two things that Congress leaders are never tired of talking about are the party’s motto “nationalism, democracy and socialism” and “BP’s vision.”
But when the country went to historic elections in 2017—the polls were historic because they were being held for the first under the new constitution that guaranteed Nepal as a federal democratic republic, the party was out on the hustings with a new-found slogan—that the communists are bad for the country. The Congress party campaigned with the warning that if the communists, an alliance of the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre), were voted to power, they would ruin the system, curtail people’s rights and shrink civic space.
“If the communist alliance forms the government, we won’t be even able to ‘cry’,” is what Congress President Sher Bahadur repeated as he toured various parts of the country while canvassing.
But people gave their mandate to the left alliance. The Nepali Congress faced a drubbing like never before.
Almost three years after the elections, the party is still licking its wounds. And on Monday, something happened. Senior Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel was detained for three hours in Tanahun for defying prohibitory orders.
Congress leaders seem to have been shaken to the core and they have suddenly woken up from their deep slumber.
The party has taken serious exception to the incident and vowed to launch stern protests because the Oli administration has been using the electoral mandate to threaten democracy.
Congress leader Shekhar Koirala even alleged that the Oli administration has been attacking the constitution and the system.
Calling the Tanahun incident one more step towards authoritarianism, the party has decided to hold nationwide protests on December 14.
Analysts say what the Congress party is saying now is nothing but a farce, as it failed to keep a check on the Oli administration over the last two and a half years. If the Oli administration’s actions are a threat to democracy and the system, then the Congress party is equally complicit, according to them.
“The Nepali Congress invariably failed to play the role of a good opposition. It lacked what every opposition party must have—the determination to hold the government of the day to account,” said Lokraj Baral, a professor of political science at Tribhuvan University and former ambassador. “It’s because of the Congress party’s failure that Oli got emboldened and had his way.”
Observers and Congress leaders say there are multiple reasons why the party failed to perform as an opposition.
So devastated it was by the election loss that it struggled hard to get back on its feet—the party is actually still tottering. As the party heads towards its general convention to elect a new leadership, it is a divided house. Factional feud has been on the rise.
Despite being the main opposition, observers say, the Congress party seems to be the best ally of the Oli administration.
While some Congress leaders did not want to speak openly, some were vocal in their opinion that the party president’s “backdoor dealings” are to blame for the mess the country is in today.
“I can say without hesitation that there seems to be some understanding between Oli and Deuba on power-sharing issues,” said Sujata Koirala, a central leader.
Media reports suggest several meetings have been held between Oli and Deuba over ambassadorial as well as constitutional appointments. Various ambassadorial positions are vacant for months while half a dozen constitutional bodies are without office bearers even five years after the promulgation of the constitution.
Last month, when Oli fell into a crisis in his own Nepal Communist Party (NCP), he held a meeting with Deuba, seeking the latter’s support should the situation take a turn for worse, including a split in the ruling party. Insiders had told the Post that Oli was testing waters if the Congress party would support him to remain in power in the event his party split.
“The way some Nepali Congress leaders appear to be ready to join the government shows what a pretty pass the country’s politics has come to,” said Baral. “Such posturing by the opposition is not for the parliamentary system and democracy.”
When the Congress faced a historical loss in 2017, Deuba was the party president. But despite the defeat, Deuba refused to resign, defying the widely practised tradition of stepping aside by taking the responsibility.
As the party is preparing for the general convention, Deuba is aiming for yet another term as president.
But by now, he has some strong challengers in the form of Bimalendra Nidhi and Shekhar Koirala.
Infighting is so deep in the Congress party, observers say, that it could never put up a united face to challenge the Oli administration and its actions.
Even when Oli suddenly prorogued the budget session of Parliament on July 2, aimed at scuttling the plan, if any, of his opponents to remove him through a parliamentary process, the Congress chose to remain a mute spectator.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Parliament was the only platform the opposition had to raise its voice against the Oli government’s inaction to control corruption and actions to destroy the system.
“In the 1990s, when the Lauda Airlines corruption case was exposed, then CPN-UML had obstructed the House for 57 days,” said Lokesh Dhakal, a district leader of Nepali Congress from Kathmandu. “Have you seen the Congress obstructing the House for even 57 minutes at a time when the Oli government is embroiled in various corruption scandals?”
According to Dhakal, since Deuba has chosen not to speak against the government’s wrongdoings, the party too is keeping mum.
“There is no dearth of issues for the Congress party to raise in Parliament,” Dhakal told the Post. “Now there is no Parliament, the most legitimate place from where we can hold the government to account. I wonder why our party was waiting for the Tanahun incident to happen.”
The arrest of the senior leader, 76, who is a former Speaker and deputy prime minister, has met with fierce criticism and has been described as the Oli administration’s blatant display of authoritarian streak.
Observers, however, say the Congress party deserves an equal share of blame for such a situation. If it is thinking that its protest after the Tanahun incident will change everything, they are daydreaming, as it looks like it’s too little too late, according to them.
“What will happen with one day’s protest?” said Kishore Nepal, a veteran journalist known for his sharp comments on contemporary political issues. “The Nepali Congress needs to put its house in order first.”
According to Nepal, the current nexus between Oli and Deuba is out into the open, and their relationship revolves around power-sharing.
Congress insiders say the party is adrift and rudderless. BP’s socialism may be everyone’s refrain which they often repeat in the passing, but in reality it has been lost in the din of infighting, according to them.
“The party is suffering and Deuba should be held accountable for all this mess,” said Dhakal, the Congress leader. “Since the opposition is in disarray, and Deuba is playing like Oli’s best ally, the government has a free rein.”
According to Dhakal, the Congress needs to hold its general convention at the earliest so that it can reorganise and play the role as a responsible party to safeguard democracy and work towards protecting the system.
Nepal, the journalist, also said the general convection is the best way forward for the Congress party.
“The Nepali Congress is a confused party and this confusion will persist until it holds its general convention,” said Nepal. “I expect the convention may inject some energy into this party by electing a new crop of leaders.”