Rout to revivalElites in the power corridors of Kathmandu are baffled more by the ‘unexpected’ rout of the Nepali Congress (NC) in the recently concluded parliamentary polls than by the emphatic win of the UML-Maoist communist alliance by almost a two-thirds majority.
Elites in the power corridors of Kathmandu are baffled more by the ‘unexpected’ rout of the Nepali Congress (NC) in the recently concluded parliamentary polls than by the emphatic win of the UML-Maoist communist alliance by almost a two-thirds majority. In its 70-year long history, NC’s political manoeuvrability in national politics has now hit its lowest point. Moreover, the results of the very first elections of the federal republic of Nepal mean that the presence of this historic party in provincial assemblies will be abysmal and 40 out of the 63 seats it has obtained in federal parliament will have come from the proportional representation (PR) system.
The defeat of the NC could be anything but unexpected. One may certainly debate on the scale of loss, but conclusions were certainly foregone. The list of reasons for a defeat of this scale could be endlessly long, but there are about half a dozen glaring issues in particular that drove the voters away from this party.
Recipe for defeat
First, Prime Minister and NC president Sher Bahadur Deuba’s indecision both in the party and in government was epic. Two years since the party’s 13th general convention, he could not even appoint key office-bearers including a vice-president, a general secretary and co-general secretaries. About four dozen subject-committees that were supposed to function under the central committee were never constituted. Provincial units of the party were not created to match the country’s federal set-up. The party functionaries, including the president himself, would seldom visit the party central office.
Internal democracy in the party was so badly compromised that Deuba alone made the decisions. And, worst of all, there was no force left in the party to resist these dysfunctions and malfunctions. His indecision as the Prime Minister was pervasive. Deuba’s failure in regards to the timely appointment of province chiefs, instituting the finance commission, and assigning the transitional provincial capitals are a few fresh examples of this indecision. Instead, he took a personal interest in high-stake appointments that were supposedly lucrative.
Second, as Prime Minister, Deuba took a back seat in governing the country and let a coterie of rent-seekers, comprised of his close relatives and a few henchmen, decide on his behalf. These rent-seekers took particular interest in key appointments and large public contracts. He chose to remain largely incommunicado; impatient to listen to any complains or suggestions even from senior party functionaries. He often chose to make his decisions on the basis of purposefully-designed, misleading briefings from the vested interest groups surrounding him, and blasted whoever had the courage to criticise these decisions and their inherent implications on the overall future of the party. He labelled these critics as personal enemies.
Third, he put in an extra effort to transform himself from a democrat to an aristocrat. His demeanour, body language and the circle he chose to dine and discuss with was dramatically altered to this end. He rubbished all media reports by claiming that they were means to propagate the vested interests of the media, and in a way, he issued a challenge by completely ignoring these reports and carrying on, unperturbed. He never thought of the need to address the nation as the elected Prime Minister, and he used his deliberate pithiness to evade explaining the reasons behind several controversial public decisions that he made. He took a helicopter and toured the nation for the election campaign, but he had not a single key message to convey.
Fourth, he made a mess of policies, both on the domestic and foreign fronts. In terms of the domestic policies, particularly in state restructuring and constitution amendments, the NC allowed itself to be dragged by the agenda of other political forces. The party apparently lacked a firm position, for example, on the number, size and boundaries of the provinces, which was expected to be devised based on fact-based inquiry. The NC was made to accept the narrative that the Tarai-Madhes is far more deprived and backward than impoverished mid-western, far-western and northern hill districts; this was meant to justify the need for further amendments to the constitution. This compulsive acceptance did not please the Tarai and actually angered the hill population. That was reflected in the ballots. On the foreign front, his extra efforts to appease New Delhi have lately irritated the Indian establishment and, obviously, angered the Chinese. The reports of rampant corruption by his ‘trusted’ decision makers were despised in Delhi and Beijing alike.
Fifth, the NC’s election campaign management was horrific. No province-specific manifestos were drafted. Key campaign messages were not formulated, speakers with mass appeal were not assigned and the role of media was taken for granted. Mobilisation of cadres with good public repute was deliberately avoided as the new breed of stalwarts installed in the party apparatus had a problem with giving due respect to those belonging to the ‘freedom fighters’ generation. This was clearly reflected in the voting patterns, as votes were cast for the party under the PR system, but tainted faces were not lent similar support in the direct ballots.
Sixth, the creation of the UML-Maoist alliance created election euphoria that added to KP Oli’s nationalism plank, which was the main campaign tool before the alliance. Exhausted by frequent changes in government, people want to experiment with the communist alliance’s prescription for a stable government. So, a glib communist propaganda machine filled the vacuum left by a dumb Congress.
Will the NC reinvent itself to mend the modus operandi that is aimed at a revival? The simple answer is ‘NO’! There are only two possible processes, from within and without, which would lead to such a transformation. The ‘within’ process would commence only when the top leadership accepts its mistakes and wholeheartedly realises the need for such a change. This is unlikely, because Deuba and his trusted lieutenants do not appear to be ready to accept the fact that the defeat was a result of their mistakes and weaknesses. Secondly, there is no incentive for them to take responsibility. Thirdly, with about 63 members in the House of Representatives, a role as the main opposition party, the party presidency saved and PR votes almost at par with the UML, Deuba and family have enough space to continue with their political enterprise.
The reform from outside, mainly through pressure and demands is even more difficult. Whether Deuba should take a moral responsibility is his personal choice, not a legal compulsion. There is also a question of legitimacy for a duly elected president to relinquish the position and nominate someone who is handpicked. Besides, there is a question of availability of such a persona in the party. Voices of change from some ‘young’ leaders, too, lack a clear roadmap for reform. In traditional outfits like the NC, any change is, therefore, unlikely to come through revolutionary reinvention. Instead, there is a need for a compromised mid-way of slow and gradual reform. The simplest prescription is: press to initiate corrections on the first five shortcomings mentioned above and, for the sixth, wait for people’s disenchantment to surface against the communist alliance, if it does not fall under its own weight.
Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst