Why Mahanta Thakur is now in need of a makeoverThe Janata Samajbadi Party chair was the face of Madhes politics but after siding with Oli, he has to give some answers to his constituency, and time will tell how he fares.
He is a man of few words, known for his soft-spoken humility.
He is among the few politicians who have maintained a high level of integrity and political morality while almost every other major politician in the country has faced one controversy or another.
But towards the end of his decades-long career, Mahantha Thakur, 79, faces a political and ideological crisis of his own making.
On July 26, the Election Commission recognised the faction led by Upendra Yadav, the other chair of his Janata Samajbadi Party, as the legitimate representative of the party.
“Thakur has suffered a huge loss such as he has never faced before,” Vijay Kant Karna, a professor of Political Science at Tribhuvan University, told the Post. “He is in crisis.”
It all started with him choosing to side with KP Sharma Oli who was the prime minister until July 13.
The two were strange bedfellows—Thakur, a champion of Madhesi rights and Oli, the politician most criticised by Madhes-based political parties.
CPN-UML Chair Oli was the most rigid among leaders of the main political parties in addressing the concerns of Madhesi and marginalised communities. He tried to prove the Madhes protests in the aftermath of the promulgation of the constitution in 2015 as irrelevant. He became prime minister when Nepal got the new constitution, and his government used excessive force that took dozens of lives during the protests in the southern plains in 2015 and 2016.
But soon after the first restoration of the House of Representatives on February 23, Oli started courting Thakur. With the Supreme Court invalidating the May 2018 merger of the CPN-UML and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and a faction of his own party against him, Oli needed the support of Thakur’s Janata Samajbadi Party to prove a majority in the House.
But the faction of his party led by Yadav was dead set against joining hands with Oli. Despite the opposition, Thakur and senior leader of the party Rajendra Mahato continued to deal with Oli, winning concessions like withdrawal of cases against leaders and cadres of the party for their involvement in the Madhes protests, and amendment to the Citizenship Act through an ordinance. The ordinance was later scrapped by the Supreme Court.
Oli even formed a task force to recommend an amendment to the constitution.
The Thakur-led faction of the party even joined the Oli Cabinet on June 4, but again the Supreme Court on June 22 annulled the Cabinet expansion, arguing that Oli had—for the second time—dissolved the House of Representatives and a caretaker government could not appoint new ministers.
Earlier, when Oli had staked his claim to form the government as per Article 76 (5), Thakur had supported the then prime minister saying that the 32 lawmakers of his party were behind Oli despite 12 from the Yadav faction having supported Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba’s bid. When President Bidya Devi Bhandari refused to recognise either bid, Oli recommended House dissolution and midterm elections.
On July 12, the Constitutional Bench of the court not only reinstated the House but also said Oli’s claim for the prime minister’s position was invalid.
“Partnering with Oli right from his claim for prime minister to joining the government was Thakur’s blunder of his entire political career so far,” Surendra Labh, a political commentator, told the Post. “The moves have raised questions over his reputation as an unselfish politician and his commitment to the Madhes. He has already started facing its consequences, which will haunt him throughout his political career.”
He said Thakur is battling to prove his relevance as a political force after the Election Commission on July 26 decided to award Janata Samajbadi Party to the Yadav faction after a headcount of the central executive committee members. Among the 51 in the committee, 34 stood with Yadav.
The Thakur faction on Friday moved the Supreme Court with a writ petition against the commission’s decision. The faction on July 24 had filed a petition demanding an interim order against the commission’s decision to opt for a headcount. The court had refused.
Born in Mahottari district in 1942, Thakur started in politics as a founding member of the Nepali Congress-affiliate Nepal Student Union. He later ventured into a law career in Sarhali where he started being involved in party politics. He was elected a member of the House of Representatives from Sarlahi as a Congress candidate in the 1991 general elections after the end of the partyless Panchayat system and the restoration of multi-party democracy after three decades. He became the deputy Speaker. He was elected again in the 1994 midterm election and the 1999 general elections.
Thakur was a trusted lieutenant of the then Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala. This got him different ministerial stints—agriculture, communication, law, and science and technology. Thakur undeniably was the best-known Madhesi face in the Nepali Congress.
However, after the 2006 People’s Movement that toppled the monarchy and ended the decade-long Maoist insurgency, he opted to part ways with the Nepali Congress where he had a long political career.
He was the treasurer of the Nepali Congress and minister for science and technology when he quit to form the Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party in December 2007. Though his party fared well, he lost the first Constituent Assembly elections in 2008. He was later nominated by the government to the Assembly. He lost again in the 2013 Constituent Assembly elections to Congress candidate Amresh Singh.
Despite the defeat, he always remained one of the central figures of Nepali politics.
He fought the 2017 general elections from the Mahottari-3 constituency, his home town, and won as the candidate of an alliance of his, by now, Rastriya Janata Party with the Yadav-led Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum Nepal.
The two parties subsequently merged in April last year to form the Janata Samajbadi Party.
The Thakur faction of the party was in the majority in the Parliamentary Party when it decided to join the Oli government but now he hardly has 13 lawmakers on his side from among the 32. Only 16 members from the central executive committee stood by him in the headcount at the Election Commission on July 26.
The fall has been dramatic.
According to political commentators, Thakur was in a position to claim the position of the country’s prime minister after Oli fell into a crisis when he lost the vote of confidence in Parliament on May 10.
“Had he lobbied strongly, he could have been the prime minister,” Hari Roka, a political economist, told the Post. “He lost that opportunity by agreeing to join the Oli government, probably in the interest of some external forces. His political strength has been waning from the day the court reinstated the House and ordered the appointment of Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba as prime minister.”
When Deuba took the vote of confidence on July 18, Thakur’s support for him was a surprise.
Political analysts say Thakur has been compelled to take desperate measures like moving the court with one petition after another and supporting Deuba in the vote of confidence motion.
“It was to show that the faction supported Oli for a cause and it is ready to collaborate with any party that agrees to support its agenda,” said Labh.
According to analysts who have followed the Madhes politics closely, Thakur has three options: one, surrender before Yadav; two, retire from politics; and three, form a new party.
Tula Narayan Shah, a political commentator, says there is a high chance Thakur will form a new party even if that means lawmakers on his side will lose their positions.
As per the Political Party Act, 2017, support of 40 percent of a party’s central committee members and 40 percent of lawmakers of the party is needed to split the party. The Thakur faction lacks this strength and if it goes for a split without having the numbers, the party can sack the defecting lawmakers.
“Thakur definitely is in a crisis now but it's temporary,” he told the Post. "He has ground enough to make a comeback in the upcoming elections."
According to Shah, Thakur has ample room to defend his move to join the Oli government as it was ready to address many issues of the Madhes.
"Thakur has grounds to justify his support to Oli as only he addressed the agenda of the Madhes which other prime ministers hadn’t," said Shah.
However, not everyone agrees with Shah’s argument.
According to Labh, Thakur's voters aren't happy with his moves in the last few months.
"There will be questions for him from his people when he goes to seek their votes," he told the Post. "He doesn't have easy answers to them."
But in politics, outcomes are not easy to predict.
“It seems Thakur and his team are buying time to consolidate their power,” said Karna, the professor of Political Science. “Time will tell if he will succeed.”