Deuba’s silence has resulted in status quo— and it is benefiting OliCalls are growing within the Nepali Congress that the party president must take initiatives to form an alliance with Maoist Centre and Janata Samajbadi Party to unseat Oli.
Anil Giri & Binod Ghimire
Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba has left everyone guessing. Deuba’s silence has put the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) at its wit’s end while it appears to be providing Prime Minister and CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli ample comfort.
Calls have been growing within the Congress party that Deuba must make a move to unseat Oli, who has refused to step down despite the Supreme Court overturning his December 20 decision to dissolve the House of Representatives.
It has been exactly two weeks since the House convened its first meeting after it was reinstated. With the Supreme Court on March 7, the same day the House was set to convene its meeting after reinstatement, reviving the CPN-UML and the Maoist Centre by scrapping the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), politics has become complicated.
There is a general understanding among Congress leaders that Deuba should take a decision on forming a government with the Maoist Centre and the Janata Samjabadi Party so as to send Oli packing.
A meeting of the Ram Chandra Poudel faction of the Congress party on Sunday decided to pressure Deuba to act so as to unseat Oli.
“We have been saying that Deuba should take an initiative to form an alliance against Oli,” Sita Devi Yadav, treasurer of the party, who was present in the meeting, told the Post. “This government, which has been continuously attacking the constitution, must be unseated.”
The party’s office bearers' meeting two weeks ago also had decided to back Deuba to lead the government. But he has been reluctant.
Leaders close to Deuba say the Congress needs support of other parties to form a new government, but neither the Maoist Centre nor the Janata Samajbadi Party has formally made an offer to him.
“As of now, no party has officially proposed that we lead the new government,” Bimalendra Nidhi, the Congress vice-president, told the Post.
The Congress party has 63 members (two suspended) in the House. For Deuba to become prime minister, the Maoist Centre, which has 53 members (four currently on Oli’s side) and the Janata Samajbadi Party with 34 members (two suspended) must back him.
A Congress central member said Deuba is not fully convinced about getting the Maoist Centre’s support, as it is yet to withdraw its support to Oli.
Oli became prime minister in February 2018 with the support of the Maoist Centre. The UML and the Maoist Centre had then merged in May that year to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), which was scrapped by the court earlier this month.
“Deuba was expecting the Maoist Centre to move a no-confidence motion against Oli, but it did not do so,” the leader who wished to remain anonymous told the Post.
The Maoist Centre has two options—either withdraw its support or move a no-confidence motion. In both cases, Oli will have to seek a vote of confidence which can fail if both the Congress party and the Samajbadi Party stay neutral.
Meanwhile, Oli has been making overtures to the Janata Samajbadi Party.
With UML’s 120 seats in the House, Samajbadi Party’s support to Oli can make him continue leading the government.
Insiders say Deuba is waiting for confirmation from the Maoist Centre and the Janata Samajbadi parties and he is in no hurry because even if a situation is created for early polls, he does not mind it.
Many in the Nepali Congress also have no gripe about having an early election.
But the Poudel faction believes that Oli should be unseated first.
According to Poudel, the Maoist Centre’s indecision has delayed the process of forming a new government.
“The point is our party shouldn’t remain indecisive on crucial political issues,” Poudel told the Post. “The party must make some decisions. The Congress should lead the government to bring the system and democracy back on track. Our priority should not be elections but the government.”
Leaders from the Poudel faction say they will raise the issue at the party’s meeting of the sitting and former office bearers. Deuba has called the meeting for 2pm Monday.
The longer the status quo continues, the more time Oli will get to make his strategy to remain in power. Oli has already started consolidating power in his UML party, gaining strength to bulldoze any decision he wants to.
A section in the Congress party believes Deuba is in close consultation with Oli.
Another Congress leader said that Deuba is fully aware that Oli is trying to rope in the Janata Samajbadi Party.
“Some tactical understanding between Oli and Deuba cannot be ruled out,” the leader who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Post. “That’s why Deuba is reluctant to show his cards.”
Along with Poudel, party General Secretary Shashank Koirala, former general secretary Krishna Prasad Sitaula, and central member Gagan Thapa, among others have been saying that the Nepali Congress should lead the next government.
But party insiders say Deuba is also concerned about retaining the party president’s position and he is calculating if he will be able to do so if he becomes prime minister now.
Shekar Koirala, another senior Nepali Congress leader, said chances of an early election are high.
“Though I am in favour of forming a coalition between the Congress, Maoist Centre and the Janata Samajbadi Party, we cannot rule out early elections,” he told the Post.
Political analysts say there are several factors that make Deuba reluctant to take initiatives to pull down the Oli government.
“Deuba clearly holds a soft corner for Oli and he wasn’t against the House dissolution,” said Puranjan Acharya, a political analyst who closely follows Congress politics. “Second, he wants snap polls in hopes that the Congress will make a comeback as the communist parties are divided.”
In the 2017 elections, which the UML and the Maoist Centre fought under a left alliance, the Congress faced an unprecedented drubbing.
Deuba, according to Acharya, might be thinking that he, as the party president, will be credited with a good performance in the elections which could easily open the door for him to lead the government, maybe for the full five-year term.
“The third and the most important factor is that Deuba doesn't seem to fully trust the Maoist Centre, which is yet to withdraw its support to Oli,” Acharya told the Post. “A divided Janata Samajbadi Party has added to the confusion.”
If the current status quo continues, Oli may dissolve the House again, and he has already made his intentions clear. During an all-party meeting called by President Bidya Devi Bhandari on March 16, Oli said that the House is failing to deliver, hence the parties should go for early elections to seek a fresh mandate of the people.
A Congress leader said if snap polls happen as per Oli’s design, in November, Deuba has his own plan.
“If elections are declared, the Congress party could get a chance to skip its general convention that is due in August,” the leader told the Post. “As the situation has changed, with communist parties divided, Deuba sees a good chance of faring well to return to power with majority seats.”
But within the Congress, there are some leaders who say Deuba should not be looking just for his personal political gains and rather invest in protecting democracy and the constitution.
“We believe Deuba will come up with a concrete position very soon,” said Yadav, the party treasurer. “Our party has always championed democracy and rule of law so we must take the leadership for safeguarding democratic values which are under threat under Oli’s regime.”