Congress holds mass rallies to proclaim it’s back in business. But is it?Analysts say it’s already too late for the party to raise issues from Parliament and work as an effective opposition party that can hold the government to account.
The last few days have been busy for Bishwo Prakash Sharma, the spokesperson for the primary opposition Nepali Congress. From disseminating information on the demonstrations planned for Monday through various mediums, including social media like Twitter, to correcting the Nepal map on his social media video in which he was making a case for the rallies and calling on his party members to join, Sharma was doing all he could to make the Congress protests successful.
The party organised mass demonstrations in all 77 districts on Monday to, what it said, expose the Oli administration’s failures and hold it to account.
As Congress leaders were allotted different districts to address Monday’s rallies, Sharma was in Hetauda.
“Don’t try to tease a sleeping tiger,” Sharma roared.
A Twitter user was quick to react.
“So the spokesperson is admitting that they were sleeping,” the user wrote on the microblogging site.
The one charge the main opposition has been facing over the last three years is that it went into a deep slumber. Even as the Oli administration failed on multiple fronts, the opposition was barely seen, except for a handful of leaders on some occasions thundering at Parliament, making any impact.
But after the government prorogued the budget session on July 2, the party lost even that platform from where it could have questioned the executive.
Observers say the main opposition should have taken into consideration the Covid-19 threat and avoided mass demonstrations and instead pressed the government for the House session. Many say the Congress party seems to be taking a queue from some pro-monarchy, pro-Hindu forces that were on the streets recently.
“In just about two weeks, the House session will convene as per the constitutional provisions,” said Damannath Dhungana, a former Speaker. “I wonder why it has chosen to hold street protests. If it has indeed realised its mistakes, it can call out the government and hold it to account from Parliament.”
A divided house in itself, the Congress party has been struggling to get back on its feet ever since it faced a drubbing in 2017 elections. The party’s decision to protest against the Oli government was largely prompted by an incident in Tanahun on December 3 when its senior leader Ram Chandra Poudel was detained for three hours.
The Congress described the arrest of a senior leader, who had formerly served as House Speaker and deputy prime minister, showed the Oli administration’s authoritarian streak.
This was arguably for the first time the Congress party spoke publicly against the Oli administration, accusing it of trying to impose authoritarianism, even though the Oli administration since it came to power has been using different means to curtail freedom of speech, shrink civic space, curb the media and centralise power.
Most of the leaders who addressed rallies in different parts of the country on Monday censured the Oli government for trying to impose totalianarism, promoting corruption and impunity, failing to contain the coronavirus and attacking the system.
A political commentator said by holding mass rallies in the midst of the pandemic, the Congress party has actually prepared a readymade excuse for the Oli government should the coronavirus cases rise.
“Over the last six months, the Congress party never bothered to demand resumption of the House session,” said Puranjan Acharya, a political analyst who closely follows Congress politics. “Calling the House session should have been the major demand of the Congress party rather than going out on the streets. If Covid-19 cases spike, it can be easily blamed.”
Analysts earlier this month had told the Post how the Congress party lost the plot and became an ally to the Oli government–not only by failing to hold the executive to account but also by being hand in glove in some of its actions that were against the constitution.
Congress leaders themselves admit that the party is divided along different factions and hence it has been unable to perform the duty of the main opposition. The party has yet to decide on its general convention, which will elect a new leadership so as to guide the party during the elections which will be held in about two years.
Ahead of Sunday’s mass demonstrations, the party had given clear instructions to leaders on the issues to speak. They included exposing the Oli administration’s failure in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, rising cases of corruption, bad governance and issues related to public concerns and livelihoods.
None, however, spoke about the plight of the sugarcane farmers who are currently protesting in Kathmandu demanding that the Oli administration implement the agreement reached last year and ensure that their due payments from sugar mill owners are paid.
Very few leaders spoke about summoning the House session.
“We are sorry to say that we have been forced to come to the streets in the midst of the pandemic,” said Gagan Thapa, a central leader, while addressing the party gathering in Dhangadhi. “The government is escaping from calling the House session. We will keep on taking to the streets until the Oli government amends its working style.”
Speaking in Makwanpur, Congress President Sher Bahadur Debua accused the Oli administration of promoting corruption, mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic and politicising the judiciary.
He even questioned if the Oli government has been backing the pro-monarchy organisations which have been holding rallies in different parts of the country demanding the reinstatement of monarchy and Hindu state.
“Some people are on the streets today demanding reinstatement of monarchy. The Oli government is responsible for this,” said Debua. “The Congress is not for monarchy. We have to implement this constitution and make the current system democratic.”
Even as Deuba stressed implementing the current constitution, one of his party leaders, Shashanka Koirala, talked about holding a referendum on Hindu state.
“Once the Congress party forms the government after the elections, it will call a referendum for a Hindu state,” said Koirala at a press meet in Biratnagar.
Nepal abolished monarchy in 2008 and subsequently, in 2015, the country through the new constitution shed the tag of being a Hindu state.
“The opposition party should seek redressal of pertinent national and political issues from the House floor,” said Dhungana. “Some elements are resorting to violence, some forces are demanding reinstatement of monarchy and Hindu state. And in such times, the opposition is on the streets instead of demanding the House session.”
According to Dhungana, the Congress party should have pressed the government for resumption of Parliament long ago.
“I wonder what prompted the party to seek solutions to the problems from outside Parliament,” Dhuganal told the Post.
A Congress leader told the Post that the problem with the party is that the leadership is confused.
“Our leadership is not clear whether we want more street protests or a Parliament session,” said the central member who did not wish to be named, saying he did not want to appear to be one who is against Monday’s rallies. “I wonder why Deuba is not taking the initiative to call the House session.”
According to the central member, there are concerns within the party about the party president’s proximity with Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and some “tacit understandings” between them.
“Why is he looking for shares in constitutional bodies? Why is he negotiating with Oli without sharing details to the top party leadership?” the leader told the Post. “It’s high time our party acted as a strong opposition force.”