Why the Congress is hemming and hawing, failing to make a firm stanceThe party that had been licking its wounds after the 2017 electoral defeat is suddenly licking its lips at the thought of returning to power whichever way the situation unfolds–either the House is restored or the country goes to polls.
On Sunday afternoon, senior leaders of the Nepali Congress held an almost four-hour-long meeting at the residence Sashanka Koirala, the party general secretary, at Maharajgunj, and discussed at length the contemporary political situation in the country, what role the party should play, most importantly, why there is confusion and contradiction within the party over KP Sharma Oli government’s decision to dissolve the House.
At least two Nepali Congress leaders who were present in the meeting said that senior leaders, including Ram Chandra Poudel, General Secretary Koirala and former party vice-president Prakashman Singh, expressed their concerns over the growing unease in the party for not taking a firm position on Oli’s December 20 House dissolution move and the party’s dilemma over whether or not to go for massive protests.
The discussion revolved around, among other contemporary issues, whether the party should make the House reinstatement its bottom line, according to a Central Working Committee member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing the party’s internal matter.
Oli has set in motion a series of events by suddenly dissolving the House–and declaring snap polls for April 30 and May 10–and thrown the country into uncertainty.
After the dissolution of the House, Oli’s Nepal Communist Party has split in two–with the other faction led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal taking to the streets, calling the move unconstitutional.
Janata Samajbadi Party, which was the third largest force in the Parliament, too has announced a series of programmes to protest against Oli’s “unconstitutional” move.
The Congress party on December 26 held demonstrations in all 165 constituencies. It held another round of protest in all 330 provincial constituencies on Saturday.
The party, however, rejected the proposal for a joint agitation with other parties.
Congress leaders say a lack of clarity on the part of party President Sher Bahadur Deuba is creating a lot of confusion.
“At Sunday’s meeting, we also reviewed Deuba’s role and his Saturday’s speech in Budhanilkantha where he appeared to be favouring midterm polls proposed by Oli,” the Central Working Committee member of the party told the Post. “Now everyone–the media, civil society, the party’s well-wishers and the public– is asking what our position is.”
The faction led by Poudel in the Congress, however, has been demanding that the party must launch stern agitation to demand that the House must be restored and that Deuba should stop favouring Oli’s election calls.
Party insiders say Deuba has maintained but one position–that the Nepal Communist Party has not [officially] split yet. And Deuba has been reluctant to call Oli’s move “unconstitutional”, saying that the matter is with the court, according to them.
Within the Congress party, no leaders, however, seems to have found a counter-argument for Deuba, as he appears to be right on both–that it’s the Election Commission which will decide whether the party indeed has split and it’s the Supreme Court that will pass a verdict whether Oli’s move is constitutional or not.
Deuba faces allegations from within his own party members that he has been the biggest ally to Oli, providing his tacit support for the latter’s moves, including on the ordinance on the Constitutional Council Act to the House dissolution.
Leaders from the Deuba camp, however, rebuff such allegations as baseless. According to them, there is no contradiction in the party.
“I do not see any confusion when it comes to stances of Deuba and Poudel,” said Ramesh Lekhak, a Central Working Committee member, who is considered close to Deuba. “The party has already concluded that Oli’s move of dissolving the House is unconstitutional and undemocratic.”
But many say Deuba has refrained from saying so publicly, which has been evident in his public statements.
There is no point in making conjectures, according to Lekhak.
“The House is not going to be reinstated just because Poudel wishes so. Nor are elections going to be held as per Deuba’s wish,” said Lekhak. “While the House reinstatement is something the court is going to decide. And whether the elections will be held on the dates declared by Oli will depend on multiple factors.”
Since both outcomes are not in the party’s control, according to Lekhak, it would be wrong to say there are differences between Deuba and Poudel.
The Nepali Congress in 2017 elections faced a spectacular defeat. Never in its history had the Nepali Congress been in such a shambles. Even three years later, the party was still licking its wounds. But after Oli’s sudden House dissolution and declaration of polls, the leadership is licking their lips at the thought of making a comeback, and more than anyone else, Deuba seems to be finding his prospects to be better.
While addressing the party’s mass meeting at Budhanilkantha on Saturday, Deuba said if the Supreme Court upholds the House dissolution move, the party must be ready to face elections.
Some leaders in the party say both Deuba and Poudel factions are guided by their personal interests and future political opportunities, making it difficult for the party to make a common stance.
Deuba appears confident that he would get a chance to lead the government, backed by Oli, in the event of House restoration. Insiders say Poudel too is somewhat convinced that in that case, he could make his way to Sheetal Niwas, as the Dahal-Nepal faction would move on impeachment against President Bidya Devi Bhandari.
According to a Congress leader, for Poudel that’s a far better prospect in his fag end of his political career.
“Actually, for Poudel there is not much to gain if the elections happen,” said the leader who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution from the leadership. “The odds, however, seem to be stacked in Deuba’s favour.”
Deuba is buoyed by the confidence that the Nepali Congress could emerge as the single largest party if elections happen, as the Nepali Communist Party has been cleaved in two.
“In that case, Deuba’s road to Baluwatar will be smooth and easy,” said the leader. “It’s but natural for Deuba to stay mum or make minimum comments against Oli’s House dissolution move and take a middle path while speaking something–like wait for the Supreme Court decision.”
But there are some in the Congress party, who are concerned about the party’s wavering position on the current situation.
“Our leadership still has a myopic attitude. There is little foresight in how the party president is behaving,” said Krishna Prasad Sitaula, a Central Working Committee member. “I am extremely worried about the situation if elections do not happen on the declared dates.”
According to Sitauala, as Deuba himself has been admitting that the Nepal Communist Party has not officially split, who knows how its leaders devise their strategy.
“What if both the communist factions come together again or even form an alliance for the election purpose if polls do happen?,” said Sitauala. “Our top leadership, especially both Deuba and Poudel, must consider that situation as well and focus on the party rather than their personal prospects.”
A section of intellectuals and civil society leaders has argued that the Nepali Congress should step up to protect democracy and constitutionalism and stand for a free and open society and rule of law rather than looking at short-term prospects that seem to be suddenly on the horizon due to Oli’s extraconstituitonal moves.
“The Congress seems to be suddenly happy at the prospect of returning to power,” said Daman Nath Dhungana, a former House Speaker and civil society member. “At a time when constitutionalism has been attacked and democracy has been put at risk, the Congress should rise to the occasion and hold the government to account.”
According to Dhungana, who lost the 2017 House of Representatives elections on the Congress ticket from Bhaktapur, the Nepali Congress and its leaders must not forget the party’s roots and fundamental values and stop running behind power.
Nepali Congress spokesperson Bishwo Prakash Sharma said the party leadership should devise both short- and long-term strategies and act accordingly as the situation evolves.
“It will be wrong to say Deuba is right and Poudel is wrong or vice versa,” said Sharma. “The party is weighing all options and both leaders at the top should think in the larger interest of democracy and constitution.”