The predicament of the ruling party: It can neither split nor remain unitedLeaders are caught between a rock and a hard place. Parting ways has its fallout, but with relations so bitter now being under the same roof has become untenable.
Tika R Pradhan
The ruling Nepal Communist Party is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
The crisis in the party is deepening by the day with chairs KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal engaging in bitter exchanges–sometimes verbally and other times through political documents. It looks like sharing the same roof has become impossible for them. But neither can they part ways.
“We are stuck,” said Chakrapani Khanal, a Standing Committee member and former minister. “It’s true that the party is hanging in the balance.”
When the party held its Standing Committee meeting on Sunday, the Dahal faction, backed by Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal and Bamdev Gautam, appeared to be clearly in a position to call the shots.
Add Narayan Kaji Shrestha, who is on Dahal’s side, and the Dahal faction is pretty strong. Nepal, Khanal and Gautam are leaders from the former CPN-UML and they appear firm on taking down Oli.
Finding himself cornered, Oli on Sunday refused to attend Sunday’s Standing Committee meeting. Instead, he sent a letter, levelling allegations against his opponents, particularly Dahal, and prodded the committee members to take a prudent decision to save the party.
But insiders say the party may remain united for some time, at least until the general convention which will elect a new leadership, but the way the relations have soured between the top leaders, questions are being asked over the rationale behind protecting the party unity.
“If unity means power-sharing and benefits for some leaders, that makes no sense,” said a senior leader who refused to be named. “And if we decide to split now, no one is going to win.”
The Nepal Communist Party was formed from a merger between Oli’s CPN-UML and Dahal’s CPN (Maoist Centre) in May 2018. Before announcing the merger, the two parties had announced an alliance for the 2017 general elections.
Insiders say the merger would not have been possible if the electoral mandate had not been so huge.
In the elections to the House of Representatives, the UML received 121 seats and then Maoist Centre 53 seats.
Oli was tempted to lead a strong government and Dahal was in a bid to find his relevance in politics. After a drubbing in 2013 Constituent Assembly elections when the people relegated his Maoist Centre to the third position, Dahal was concerned if his days in politics were numbered.
Some leaders including Ghanashyam Bhusal, who represent the former UML, have often questioned the hasty union between the UML and the Maoist Centre, saying it was a marriage of convenience because of vested interests of Oli and Dahal.
The next elections are due in about two years and both Oli and Dahal know that they cannot go to the hustings to canvas for votes as leaders of two different parties.
And remaining together has become almost impossible, observers say. The day the two communist forces announced their unity, the Nepal Communist Party was something which had a wolf by the ears, according to them.
“The ruling party’s predicament for sure is huge,” said Shyam Shrestha, a political commentator who has keenly followed both the former UML and former Maoist Centre for decades. “There is a huge pressure from the party rank and file to keep the party united, but bitterness has grown a lot between the top leaders.”
According to Shrestha, the party is in such a mess that both options–splitting or remaining united–don’t seem to be working.
Oli’s UML adopted the parliamentary system in the 1990s, even though Oli’s political history dates back to the Naxalite movement around six decades ago. When Oli made his foray into politics in the 1960s, he was one of those radical communists who beheaded people in the name of class struggle. Dahal launched the “people's war” in 1996 to bring about socio-economic changes in the country. But Oli and Dahal could never see each other eye to eye. Oli always held contempt for Dahal and his Maoist party and he always discounted the decade-long war. Dahal believed people like Oli who call themselves communists had surrendered to the bourgeois parliamentary system.
They might have decided to merge in 2018, but there clearly were ideological differences.
Analysts say the current conflict in the Nepal Communist Party was bound to happen as the unity was hasty and it was done without addressing the fundamental differences.
“It’s difficult to say how the situation will unfold in the Nepal Communist Party,” said Mumaram Khanal, a political commentator who at one point of time in history used to be Maoist leader. “Both factions are engaged in exposing each other. The onus, however, lies on Oli to take the party forward. Anyway, it won't be easy for Oli to split the party.”
The ongoing conflict in the ruling party, however, has taken a huge toll on governance, especially at a time when the country is faced with an unprecedented challenge of fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
After being cornered, Oli, the prime minister, has been investing more time in dealing with party issues than on governance, as calls for his resignation are growing.
The Dahal faction this time seems to have made up its mind that it won’t relent until Oli resigns at least from one post–party chair or prime minister.
But insiders and observers say Dahal himself does not want the party to split, as it would not benefit him anyway. In case the party splits, there are concerns on what political plank Dahal will go to the polls–and with which party flag and the election symbol.
According to observers, the country has been held hostage and people are suffering because of the ongoing conflict in the ruling party.
“How can the ruling party leaders keep the country hostage for more than nine months?” said Hari Roka, a political commentator. “The ruling party needs to give a way out to the crisis the country is facing because of its leaders.”
No one, however, knows what the way out is.
According to a ruling party leader, the top leadership knows very well that there is no other option than to find a compromise.
“Leaders know that it has become difficult for them to remain united under the banner of the Nepal Communist Party,” said Mani Thapa, a Standing Committee member. “But no one will dare to split the party, as everyone knows, the day that happens, everyone will be on the streets.”