The crimes Alam has been accused of are grave, but his party has little to sayNepali Congress leaders continue to insist that an individual’s crimes do not reflect on the party.
Despite the arrest of party lawmaker Mohammad Aftab Alam for murder, the Nepali Congress has largely maintained a stony silence, except for incidental remarks saying that the guilty should be punished.
Instead, senior leaders have made irresponsible remarks regarding the arrest of Alam for a grisly mass murder that took place in Rautahat 12 years ago. Party President Sher Bahadur Deuba, earlier this week, described the arrest as a “conspiracy”, only retracting the statement after massive criticism. He has since said that the Congress will support an independent investigation into the case.
Party General Secretary Krishna Sitaula, who was the home minister when the incident took place, said he could not recall anything like that occurring during his tenure.
The Post spoke to at least five Congress leaders, none of whom appeared to consider Alam’s crimes very serious, despite their heinous nature.
For the Nepali Congress, which is still licking its wounds after a grievous loss in the 2017 elections, the arrest of a prominent lawmaker for a crime so nefarious does not look good, party leaders say.
Alam faces charges of masterminding the mass murder, which took place after an explosion on April 9, 2008, just a day ahead of the Constituent Assembly elections. Alam has long enjoyed the Congress leadership’s patronage, winning the mid-term elections in 1994 to secure a seat in the House of Representatives, winning the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections, and later becoming a minister.
Though the Supreme Court in 2012 had ordered that Alam be taken into custody for investigation, the state agencies had failed to act, with Alam’s party continuing to carry him. The party fielded him in the 2017 elections from Rautahat Constituency 2. He won again.
Now, with questions being asked of government agencies for failing to act for 12 long years as per the court order and ensure justice for victims, the Nepali Congress has also come under scrutiny for protecting Alam.
Congress leaders, however, believe that they are not responsible for Alam.
Ramesh Lekhak, a central working committee member, said that the party cannot take responsibility for a crime committed by one of its leader.
“Just as criminal liability is on the individual and not on family members, the leader himself has to face the consequences for his crime,” Lekhak, who is also a former minister, told the Post. “Why should the party bear the brunt of one individual’s wrongdoings?”
But political analysts say any leader’s criminal activity reflects poorly on the party.
“It’s not a new thing in Nepali politics to have people from criminal backgrounds under party wings,” said Jhalak Subedi, a political observer. “Alam managed to win the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections when the Congress party was in crisis.”
The 2008 elections were held two years after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which brought the Maoists into the mainstream. The Congress was resting on its laurels even as the Maoists campaigned for the first time. The election results stunned the party. The Maoists swept the elections, relegating the grand old party to the second position. Of the Congress’ 115 seats, Alam was one from a district in the Tarai, which the party always considered its stronghold.
Since Alam’s arrest, more information is filtering in as to the kind of clout he carried and how he was able to terrorise people.
According to Subedi, parties patronise criminals to influence elections, and this appears to be the case with Nepali Congress.
Dhanraj Gurung, a Congress central committee member, said that the arrest of the party’s lawmaker in a heinous crime is shameful and admitted that the case shows how Nepali politics is on an immoral path.
“But he's already on the funeral pyre and the party is not going to jump in after him,” said Gurung.
But for the Congress, things are easier said than done. The party, over the last few months, has been organising awareness campaigns across the country to reconnect with the people and rebuild party structures. The upcoming by-elections scheduled for November 30 would have been a test for the party.
But Alam’s arrest could potentially impact the upcoming by-elections, which are just a month away. It could now give an edge to the ruling Nepal Communist Party, which earlier appeared to be on the backfoot after Krishna Bahadur Mahara’s arrest over rape allegations.
Pradip Poudel, also a central Congress member, said that Alam’s case has already affected the image of the party.
“Earlier, some issues related to the ruling Nepal Communist Party had emerged. Now we are also embroiled in a case that looks grave,” Poudel told the Post.
Poudel, however, was quick to add that the Congress will extend full support to the investigation.
“We are a party that is committed to the rule of law. If any party member is convicted by a court of law, that person should be punished as per the law,” he said.
Subedi, the political observer, believes that statements from senior leaders like Deuba and Sitaula have done even more damage to the party.
“It will surely become an issue of discussion during the [by] elections. Voters will definitely talk about it,” said Subedi. “All Nepali parties have some leaders with shady backgrounds. The longer the parties carry them, the more damage they will do.”