The difficulty of being Madhav NepalThe leader who steered the CPN-UML for 15 years now grapples with one question—to be or not to be with Oli.
Madhav Kumar Nepal may be facing the toughest time in his political career.
A former prime minister, a position he managed to hold despite losing an election in 2008, Nepal led the CPN-UML for 15 years from 1993 to 2008 as the party general secretary. The UML, however, was “dissolved” in 2018 when in May that year it merged with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
But the Supreme Court on March 7 this year scrapped the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and resurrected the UML and the Maoist Centre. KP Sharma Oli, Nepal’s long-time adversary, now fully controls the UML.
The court decision left Nepal, who had found a great ally in Pushpa Kamal Dahal in the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), with no option than to return to the UML.
Ever since the UML was resurrected, Oli has made himself even more powerful in the party, with sweeping powers to initiate action against anyone. And on March 29, Oli decided to suspend Nepal as a general member of the party for six months.
The charges: Nepal is involved in anti-party activities and has been working against the spirit of the party unity and forming parallel committees instead of “seeking forgiveness for his mistakes”.
So far, Oli has suspended Nepal, Bhim Rawal, Surendra Pandey and Ghanashyam Bhusal. Jhala Nath Khanal, also a former prime minister and currently Nepal’s ally, however, has been spared.
Nepal is in a fix now. It’s not easy to part ways with Oli and form a new party, and remaining under the UML roof with Oli is even harder.
“We are the UML and the UML means us,” said Raghuji Pant, a Standing Committee member close to Nepal. “Much depends on how Oli behaves in coming days.”
Many say Oli currently is paying Nepal with his own nickel.
In the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), Nepal provided full backing to Dahal who was seeking to weaken—even unseat—Oli.
The Dahal-Nepal faction, which had a sizeable number of UML leaders, had managed to drive Oli into a corner. At one point of time, Oli’s position—both as prime minister and party chair—had become untenable.
Finding himself cornered, Oli suddenly dissolved the House of Representatives, attracting widespread opprobrium. The hullabaloo was so huge, with experts on constitutional affairs, former chief justices and civil society decrying Oli’s move, that the Dahal-Nepal faction gained ground. It launched a series of protests demanding Oli’s resignation.
On February 23, when the Supreme Court overturned Oli’s House dissolution move terming it unconstitutional, Dahal and Nepal took it as “their” victory. They thought they had already won the battle against Oli. But the celebration was short-lived. The March 7 Supreme Court verdict reviving the UML and the Maoist Centre came as a bombshell for Dahal and Nepal.
The decision, in effect, broke the Dahal-Nepal faction.
Dahal now leads the Maoist Centre, the third largest force in the reinstated House, minus four seats the party had won in the 2017 elections. Four of the 53 leaders who were elected to the lower house have defected to Oli.
Nepal, on the other hand, is struggling to find how many members in the lower house and how many members in the party committees he actually commands.
“Oli won’t give space to Nepal and his faction’s leaders. Their future is bleak if they remain under Oli,” said Shyam Shrestha, a political analyst who has followed Nepal’s leftist politics for decades. “If Oli had considered some space for Nepal within the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), things wouldn't have reached this stage. Nepal now either has to part ways with Oli to form a separate party or merge with other parties.”
Oli, 69, and Nepal, 68, have shared the same party for over four decades. However, while Nepal saw his rise in the party, Oli had his fair share of struggles. Nepal resigned as the party general secretary in 2008 after he lost the Constituent Assembly election in Kathmandu Constituency 2 and Rautahat Constituency 6 to Maoist candidates and his party became a third force. Until then, the UML did not have the system of party chairman and the general secretary led the party.
In July 2014, Oli defeated Nepal to become the chair of the UML. He succeeded Khanal. Since then there has been no looking back for Oli.
When Oli became prime minister after the constitution promulgation in 2015, he had already become strong in the party and had started working to consolidate power.
The 2017 elections further emboldened Oli. When he decided to merge his UML with the Maoist Centre, he had already asserted that in the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) he was the No. 1 chair, superior to Dahal. In due course, Oli would not miss any opportunity to run Nepal down—he relegated Nepal to the fourth position in the party and on one occasion even refused to accept his former party leader’s good wishes before flying to Singapore for treatment.
Insiders say Oli’s highhanded behaviour pushed Nepal towards Dahal who was scheming to bring down Oli. Things were going fine and Dahal and Nepal were on course to making a good force together against Oli until the Supreme Court passed the verdict on March 7, they say.
According to Shrestha, the analyst, the more time Oli gets, the more difficult things will become for Nepal, as the latter is losing strength by the day.
“Nepal is poor at making quick decisions,” said Shrestha. “The delay in decisions could cost him dearly.”
Oli so far has taken action against just four leaders, but in doing so, he has already asserted how powerful he is in the party. Since Oli controls the government and the UML, it may not take long for him to steal a majority of leaders who are currently aligned with Nepal, insiders and analysts say.
When the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) was intact, the Nepal faction in the party was believed to control around 48 seats in the House of the 121 won by the UML and 53 by the Maoist Centre. Since the UML was revived, Nepal’s strength has been on the wane.
Those who closely know both Oli and Nepal say the latter is left with few options.
“If Nepal remains with Oli, he must surrender. And forming a new party is not easy,” said CP Mainali, a senior communist leader under whom both Oli and Nepal once worked. “For Nepal to create space of his own in the UML when Oli is there is quite impossible. If Nepal decides to form a party of his own, what party will it be?”
According to Mainali, who is the general secretary of the CPN-ML, having two UMLs with the same ideology does not work.
The CPN-ML was formed after Mainali and some leaders including Bamdev Gautam and Ghanashyam Bhusal had split from the CPN-UML in 1998. Both claimed People’s Multi-party Democracy “their” ideology. In the subsequent election in 1999, the CPN-ML failed to win even a single seat. Gautam and other leaders except Mainali returned to the UML in 2002.
Leaders from the Nepal faction agree that they are in a huge dilemma.
“What most of our leaders fear is that Oli will end their political career if we stay with him,” said a Standing Committee member of the Nepal faction. “But a split also does not look like a good option. In that case, it will be a setback for the whole communist movement, and both parties, even the one led by Oli will suffer.”
But even if Nepal takes a risk and forms his own UML party, a profound question is what appeal will he be able to create among the masses, according to analysts.
Then there are concerns if the Election Commission would allow him to register a party with the UML name or with any other tag for that matter, as it has already faced a rap on its knuckles from the Supreme Court for giving the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) to Oli and Dahal despite a party with similar name already registered with it.
“Nepal must be able to come up with a different identity if he were to keep his politics alive,” said Rajendra Maharjan, a commentator who writes on contemporary politics and social matters for the Post’s sister paper Kantipur.
Presently, the Nepal faction has decided to continue the struggle against Oli by being in the UML. It has decided to form parallel committees at all levels, from the centre to the grassroots. But given the way Oli has been taking actions, with the sweeping powers he secured recently, he is likely to start using coercive tactics, asking all to pick a side.
“If it becomes too difficult for Nepal to remain with Oli, he may join hands with Dahal,” said Mainali. “But there also, he will have to share the leadership with Dahal and tussles could arise soon.”