Nepal’s grand old party is in transition and appears to be in a dilemmaNepali Congress is preparing for its general convention to elect a new leadership, but with too many aspirants to lead the party, leaders are busy forming alliances.
Nepal’s grand old party seems to be in transition.
As the Nepali Congress is set for holding its 14th general convention, different equations are emerging, just as Sher Bahadur Deuba, the incumbent party president, is vying for one more term at the helm. Party Vice-president Bimalendra Nidhi too has announced that he would throw his hat into the ring. And there are Shashank Koirala, incumbent general secretary, and Prakash Man Singh, a former general secretary, who too consider themselves equally fit to lead the party.
On Monday, Nidhi invited Koirala and Singh to his residence for lunch to discuss possible cooperation between the three of them in the coming general convention.
“It’s part of an initiative we have taken to build a broader consensus on national politics as well as the party leadership,” said Singh.
Discussions between the three continued on Friday when Koirala invited Nidhi and Singh at his residence.
“There is a possibility of the three of us joining hands and forming one team,” Koirala said on Friday after the meeting.
The three leaders have planned to meet again at Singh’s residence to continue to plan their strategy.
Party insiders say while a healthy and democratic struggle within the party is nothing to complain about, it would be better if the leadership tries to build consensus.
“The best option is seeking a common candidate for the post of party president based on consensus,” said Ram Sharan Mahat, a senior leader and former foreign and finance minister.
Mahat considers himself a candidate for the post of party president, but he has not made a formal announcement of his intent.
“We should avoid factional politics and ganging up against each other,” Mahat told the Post.
Historically, the Congress party has been a divided house, with at least two factions constantly at each other’s throat.
There was a time when Deuba, the incumbent party president, had split the party in 2002, forming Nepali Congress (Democratic) after his fight against then party President Girija Prasad Koirala turned ugly.
The Koirala faction then was considered the “establishment” side. The two Congress parties, however, merged in 2007.
After his election as the party president in 2016, Deuba now represents the “establishment” side. The other camp is led by Ram Chandra Poudel, who once led the party from 2013 to 2016 as acting president.
Poudel wants to be elected president and on Friday called a meeting of central committee members close to him and sought their suggestions on how to move ahead.
After Nidhi, Koirala and Singh started to seek common ground between them, both Deuba and Poudel factions are feeling the heat.
Nidhi, Koirala and Singh have decided to request both Deuba and Poudel to take a rest and facilitate a smooth transition of the party leadership to the next generation.
Deuba is 75 years old and Poudel is 76.
As the Congress gears up for its 14th general convention in September, calls are also growing for handing over the leadership to a new set of people from the “young generation”, or the “youth leaders”.
But like any other party in Nepal, the Congress too faces a profound question—who actually are youth leaders?
As far as Nidhi, Koirala and Singh are concerned, they carry a family legacy. All are sons of the Congress stalwarts.
Nidhi, 64, is the son of Mahendra Narayan Nidhi; Koirala, 62, of BP Koirala and Singh, 65, of Ganesh Man Singh. The three leaders often face criticism for their “politics of legacy”. Insiders, however, say it would be injustice to them to label them just as sons of the great leaders. They have their own contributions to the party and the country’s democratic transition, according to observers and insiders.
“I am also claiming the post of party president as I deserve it,” Singh told the Post. “I was elected party general secretary in the 12th general convention defeating Nidhi and I have also served as party vice-president.”
Besides Shasank Koirala, his cousin Shekhar is also vying for the post of party president.
With a number of politicians from his camp aiming for the party leadership, Poudel sought their support during Friday’s meeting.
“I have served in the party for a long time and want to build this party,” Poudel said, according to Gagan Thapa, who was present at the meeting. “If not I am open to others leading the party too.”
But to come up with a consensus candidate may be difficult.
“Sashank is unlikely to accept anyone else as a candidate for presidency or it could be Shekhar Koirala at best but not Nidhi or Singh,” said political analyst Bishnu Sapkota, who writes a column in Kantipur, the Post’s sister publication.
Besides them, there are other leaders like Arjun Narsingh KC, Gopal Man Shrestha, Krishna Prasad Sitaula and Mahat who have expressed their desire to lead the party.
Sitaula had contested for the party presidency during the 13th general convention in 2016 and is seen as the ‘third pole’ of the party.
While Nidhi and Shrestha belong to the Deuba camp, the others support Poudel.
With Deuba already campaigning for the September general convention, it will be tougher for him if Nidhi contests for the party leadership, according to party insiders.
“Deuba’s position will be weakened if Nidhi contests,” said Guru Raj Ghimire, a central committee member close to Poudel. “I see a very little possibility of one single candidate from the Poudel faction but we have been advising Shashank to support Shekhar and in such a situation in the second round it could be Deuba versus Shekhar.”
During meetings called by Deuba asking for support he has said that he deserves to be the candidate from the camp because Deuba has already become prime minister four times and party president once, say party leaders.
During his meeting with Singh and Koirala, Nidhi has put forward three options, according to Minendra Rijal, a central committee member.
One, finding a unanimous candidate for party president after discussions among all aspirants; two, for Deuba, Poudel and Situala to find a way forward; and three, a consensus candidate among Singh, Shashak, Shekhar and himself.
“If all these options fail then our role comes in,” Rijal told the Post. “But one thing is sure that if Nidhi competes, then Deuba will face very steep challenges.”
In that case, Deuba would have to seek support from others like Sitaula, say leaders close to him.
“Nidhi is committed so he will contest the elections because he had declared it long ago,” Bhimshen Das Pradhan, a leader close to Deuba said. “Deuba can assure Sitaula of party presidency in the 15th general convention and seek his support.”
But none of these aspirants inspires confidence, according to Sapkota, the political analyst.
“They are part of the same old lethargic group and do not offer any freshness in their perspectives, passion and eloquence,” said Sapkota.
Meanwhile, younger leaders are waiting in the wings.
“If there is a consensus then the team of youths will fight for the party presidency and other office bearers,” said Chandra Bhandari, a central committee member.
Besides the party president, the general convention will also elect two vice presidents, two general secretaries, two joint general secretaries and 85 Central Working Committee members.
Among the younger generation of leaders are Thapa and Bishwo Prakash Sharma who are interested in running for top party posts.
During the last general convention, 17 youth leaders of the party tried to form an alliance but they did not succeed and finally contested from three different camps led by Deuba, Poudel and Sitaula.
“A trio of Thapa, Sharma and Pradeep Poudel or something like this would be exciting to see,” said Sapkota. “But that may just be wishful thinking.”