Congress conundrumNepali Congress (NC) President Sher Bahadur Deuba is the most powerful political leader in present-day Nepal.
Nepali Congress (NC) President Sher Bahadur Deuba is the most powerful political leader in present-day Nepal. NC is the major partner in the coalition government led by the CPN-Maoist Centre Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal. As the elected president of the oldest democratic political party, and as the leader of the largest party in Parliament, Deuba is calling the shots in state affairs.
The authority Deuba enjoys is something unprecedented in the history of NC itself. Right from its inception 70 years ago, the party authority was exercised, or effectively balanced, by two or more heavyweights at the helm. The Koirala clan always had authority until the demise of Sushil Koirala year ago, but even it had to face formidable opponents. But, at present, Deuba’s authority is seldom contested or challenged by the party rank and file. The ‘other’ camp in the party, led by the virtually spineless, perpetual whiner Ram Chandra Poudel, appears absolutely toothless.
Ideally, Deuba with this “unprecedented” authority is easily in a position to leverage the country out of its “unprecedented” political chaos and uncertainty. The current NC-Maoist coalition was created exactly with this objective. The roadmap it drew while forming the government under Dahal’s premiership in August 2016 was clear. One, the constitution would be amended to address the demands of the agitating Madhes-based parties, including the realignment of the boundaries of the contested provinces. Two, the elections to all three levels of government—local, provincial and federal—would be completed before January 2018 as stipulated in the constitution. And three, the country would be effectively pulled out of the abyss of protracted political transition.
However, not only is the country nowhere near accomplishing these goals, it barely seems to be heading in that direction. The much-touted local elections proposed for May 14 are looking increasingly impossible. They will definitely not take place on the scheduled date—at least not all over the country. A political consensus on constitution amendment that can placate the protesting Madhesis is now almost impossible. The Madhesi Morcha has already withdrawn support from the Dahal government. As such, the government and main opposition CPN-UML’s rhetoric of ‘holding the local polls at any cost’ either means organising them wherever possible or using excessive force to contain disruptors so as to enable voters to reach the polling stations. Neither of these propositions will contribute to lasting peace and resolve the current political stalemate.
Deuba’s priorities now seem to have shifted from solving the country’s political problems to becoming prime minister at any cost, and the sooner the better. As soon as the Madhesi Morcha withdrew its support from the government, thus making bleak the prospect of a majority in the House in favour of the coalition, Deuba pulled the Rastriya Prajtantra Party into the coalition, promising the senior most deputy prime ministerial berth to its Chairman Kamal Thapa. This promise was at the expense of his own party’s Bimalendra Nidhi.
On the surface, it seems there is only a protocol row between Nidhi and Thapa. But, in fact, Deuba’s unwillingness to protect Nidhi is a clear policy shift on Deuba’s part. Nidhi, presently the only Madhesi at the highest leadership level in any major political party and also the architect of the present NC-Maoist coalition that pulled down the KP Oli-led UML government, has since been the target of acrimonious attacks from the UML rank and file. More importantly, this coalition was built with the aim to resolve the Madhes issue and pave the way for smoother implementation of the constitution. Nidhi’s influence in the NC’s relatively accommodative Madhes policy is obvious. Now, Deuba has chosen Krishna Sitaula as his political interlocutor instead of Nidhi. Sitaula’s political line is strikingly different from Nidhi’s, particularly on the Madhes issues.
It may be because the determination of the Madhesi parties to oppose any polls before constitutional amendments in accordance to their demands is an agenda Nidhi holds close to his chest. This could have caused Deuba, Dahal and Oli to view Nidhi as an irritant in their “considered” political course. At the behest of Oli’s party, even the use of force to make local elections a success is also “seriously considered”. Local polls are viewed as a precondition for Deuba to re-enter Singha Durbar as prime minister, replacing Dahal.
This puts Nidhi in an extremely precarious position as he now heads the crucial Home Ministry, which is responsible for mobilising the entire security apparatus for the polls. Apparently, the main target of such security operations will be the Madhesis, who have vowed to show “resistance” and make these polls a failure. The UML’s insistence on employing force while Nidhi is the home minister is a ploy to use him against fellow Madhesis. If politics actually takes this ominous course, the present government’s very raison d’être will essentially be defeated. Many tend to think that Deuba’s current moves might relegate Nidhi—like many other Madhesi leaders formerly in national politics—to regional politics. But it is surely not a desirable scenario for a country that is about to take toddling steps towards federalism.
Against its long cherished ideals of an independent judiciary, the NC under Deuba is embroiled in unnecessary battles with the judiciary on issues as trivial as a regular appointment of the police chief. Despite Deuba’s potential to become an icon of integrity, vision and a leader for true change, his image is gradually turning to that of a ruthless politician who can compromise to any extent to further his self-interests and who does not hesitate to sacrifice even the closest of friends just because of differing viewpoints on certain issues.
There are two questions that stand out today. Will the NC remain a democratic force when it is so rapidly shedding its democratic values, norms and practices? And, will Deuba become prime minister again if leaders like Nidhi continue to feel betrayed by him?
Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst