Congress at a crossroads— party must hold convention by September, but howNepali Congress has already exhausted provisions that allow the delaying of general convention, and it cannot push it any further. And there is a pandemic.
The Nepali Congress, a key political force in the country, seems to be all over the place. For more than the last three years, it faced criticism for failing to stand up to KP Sharma Oli’s poor governance and not doing enough to hold the government to account.
Its credibility also came into question when it could not cobble up a coalition after Oli lost a vote of confidence in the House on May 10. President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s refusal to party President Sher Bahadur’s claim to form a new government on May 21 left a bad taste in its mouth. The party has gone to the Supreme Court to challenge Oli’s May 21 House dissolution and the President’s move of calling Deuba’s claims for the post of prime minister insufficient.
The House dissolution case is currently being examined by the Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court, with the hearing set to resume on June 23.
Amid this, the Congress leadership has its work cut out, and time is running out. The party has to hold its general convention by September to save itself from getting invalidated. But the country is in the midst of a pandemic.
Deuba is under immense pressure, say party members.
“We have called a meeting of present and former office bearers on Saturday to discuss ways to hold the party’s 14th general convention,” said Purna Bahadur Khadka, a Congress general secretary. “The meeting will make some suggestions and recommendations which will be discussed at the party’s Central Working Committee.”
The Congress held its 13th general convention in March 2016. Deuba was elected the party president in a run-off, defeating Ram Chandra Poudel, who was then acting party president. Deuba had made it to the leadership in his third attempt.
After getting elected, he had told the Post that he would focus on ending factionalism and unifying the party. That, however, never happened. A little over a year after his election to the top post, the party lost the 2017 elections. Deuba, however, refused to step down.
Deuba is now eyeing yet another term as party president. But he faces challenges from his party rivals led by Poudel.
As per the constitutional provisions and the party’s statute, the Nepali Congress needed to hold its general convention by February last year. But it did not. And then came Covid-19.
The party then decided to extend the terms and mandates of present central, district and local committees by one year as per the party’s statute, until February this year. But in February this year, it again decided to extend their terms and mandates by another six months, as per the constitutional provisions, and proposed the convention dates for August 23-26.
Now there is no escaping. The party cannot cross the September deadline.
Observers say it’s a shame on the part of the Nepali Congress that it failed to hold its periodic general convention, a democratic process to elect the new leadership, even though the party calls itself the champion of democracy.
That internal democracy has been on the wane in the Nepali Congress has also been scoffed by many—analysts as well as the party's well-wishers.
Kishore Nepal, a journalist who has a long experience of reporting and writing on almost every party in the country, says the Congress leadership has failed like never before.
“The Congress leadership, including Deuba, is a desperate failure,” Nepal told the Post. “Had Deuba been ready, the party could have held its general convention.”
Nepal also blamed Congress members for failing to challenge Deuba and piling pressure on him.
“Now, in the midst of a pandemic, the party has to hold its convention, which is a very difficult task. But the Congress is left with no other option,” said Nepal.
The Nepali Congress faced an unprecedented drubbing in the 2017 elections. It could win only in 22 constituencies—out of 165—under the first past the post system. It was because of the proportional representation system that the party had some face-saving, due to which it could have a representation of 63 members in the lower house.
The party’s arch-rival, the CPN-UML, had formed an alliance with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and swept the elections. Together they had 174 members in the lower house—a little shy of a two-thirds majority.
Despite being the main opposition, the Congress was weak in the House. As Oli used his electoral mandate to run the country as per his wish, wilfully ignoring the rule of law, the Congress by and large remained a mute spectator.
When Oli dissolved the House for the first time in December last year and declared snap polls, the Congress saw it as a godsend, even though it called the move unconstitutional.
The snap polls declared for April 30 and May 12 would also give Deuba a leeway not to hold the general convention. But the House was ultimately restored in February.
This time, the Congress has vehemently opposed Oli’s fresh House dissolution, also because its party president was denied the prime minister’s post. The Congress party now is hopeful of getting its president Deuba appointed prime minister after the House is restored.
The general convention, however, continues to remain a headache.
Radheshyam Adhikari, a senior Congress member, says the party leadership wasted four years.
“The convention could have been held last year when the pandemic had not taken hold,” Adhikari, who has overseen at least two general conventions as the head of the election committee, told the Post.
Though the first coronavirus case was reported in Nepal in January last year, the virus had not spread up until February.
To hold the general convention, the party has to conclude the assemblies at various levels—ward, local (rural municipalities, municipalities, sub-metropolitan cities and metropolitan cities), district, region and province.
Congress members say there is no time to conclude all these amid the pandemic.
After the leadership’s continuous reluctance to hold the general convention, a group of youth leaders on Monday reached out to Deuba.
They demanded that the party must hold the general convention by September anyhow—by using technology if need be. They also suggested that voting be held in districts by following required safety protocols to elect the leadership there.
Pardip Poudel, a young Congress politician, said the youth group advised the party president to cut short some processes so as to ensure that the general convention could be held by September at any cost.
“Setting up multiple booths in districts and local units so as to avoid crowding could be a way,” said Poudel. “We suggested making arrangements for representatives—those fighting for the party president, vice president, general secretary, central working committee members—so that they can vote from the district headquarters.”
Deuba on Wednesday issued a statement that he is committed to holding the general convention by mid-September.
One major issue that the Nepali Congress is facing is distribution of active membership. The row over distribution of active membership is yet to be resolved. The party had earlier declared that it will distribute active membership to at least one million who are considered primary voters of the party.
According to the party central committee, only 800,000 applications have been filed for active membership and 900,000 people have filled the forms.
Party leaders believe that the delay in distribution of active membership is the key reason behind the postponement of the general convention, as active members are the primary voters who first elect office bearers at lower levels.
“We missed the deadline for holding the conventions at the local level so the party needs to make a new decision,” said Khadka, the party general secretary. “The Central Working Committee of the party should review the calendar and come up with a new one now.”
Even as the Congress leadership has committed to holding the general convention, uncertainty continues to loom large. Whether the House would be restored depends on the Supreme Court. Whether Deuba can become prime minister depends on the Supreme Court. Whether the Madhav Nepal faction, which had offered support to Deuba with 26 signatures for his prime ministerial claim, and which has given signatures of 23 members in Deuba’s petition at the Supreme Court, will continue to throw its weight behind Deuba is also uncertain.
For the Congress to skip the general convention in September, constitutional provisions need to be amended, and the only way to do that when the House is not there is doing it through an ordinance.
Adhikari, however, said there is no point in extending the term of the present elected committees by another one year through an ordinance.
“In principle, the Nepali Congress has been opposing Oli’s way of governing the country through ordinances,” said Adhikari. “How can we accept that idea?”
According to Adhikari, if the leadership shows the will, the general convention is possible by September.
“We as a party must set an example to others by following democratic processes,” said Adhikari. “We should be unwavering in our commitment to the system, constitution, democratic values and principles. General Convention is not just a technical process, it is a democratic process.”