Deuba’s double trouble: timely party convention and managing coalitionPressure building on Nepali Congress president to keep house in order and expand the Cabinet.
When the Supreme Court installed Sher Bahadur Deuba as prime minister, ousting KP Sharma Oli over his misadventures, on July 12, it was by and large apparent that the Nepali Congress president was set for a bumpy ride.
It has been four weeks since he assumed office, but he has not been able to expand his Cabinet, largely because of his struggle to manage the coalition partners. He is also facing a tough time keeping his house in order.
Deuba’s indecision could now lead to deferral of the party’s 14th general convention to November. Senior party leaders admit that both the party and government have become hostage to such indecisiveness and they worry that this could fuel frustration not only among party workers but also the members of the public.
“There is no decision yet on holding the 14th general convention. And the September 1-4 deadline is almost impossible to meet,” said Shekhar Koirala, a senior party leader. “It’s high time we started looking at how to address constitutional issues that are tied to our general convention.”
All elected bodies of the party have already completed their extended terms as well, and as per the party charter and constitutional obligations, it must elect new bodies by September 8.
Since Deuba himself is making a pitch for running for party president again, factionalism has deepened in the party. Shashanka Koirala, Bimalendra Nidhi and Prakash Man Singh too are vying for party presidency, but with no decision on the general convention, concerns are growing over the party getting invalidated. All three are sons of the party stalwarts–BP Koirala, Mahendra Narayan Nidhi and Ganesh Man Singh.
On Friday, both Deuba and Shashank Koirala, the party general secretary, made it clear that the party’s general convention could be deferred and a new timeline announced soon.
During a meeting with some leaders of the party on Friday evening, Deuba hinted that holding the general convention on September 1-4 appears to be quite impossible and that alternatives need to be discussed with the Election Commission as well.
According to Dhan Raj Gurung, Deuba told some youth leaders that life is more important than the party’s general convention so in the midst of a pandemic, it may not be a good idea to hold the convention in September.
“But whatever the decision, it will be taken on the basis of consensus within the party after taking into consideration all legal and constitutional aspects,” Gurung told the Post.
The party has yet to conduct conventions at the ward, district and provincial levels, despite announcing the dates several times in the past. The party has not been able to resolve the issue over the distribution of active membership. Active members are the primary voters during the conventions.
An official at the Election Commission, who did not wish to be named, said that some Congress leaders had approached the commission to know possible legal and constitutional consequences if the party can’t hold its general convention in September.
There could be some way out like paying a fine of Rs50,000 for the failure to hold the convention, according to the official.
Dinesh Thapaliya, the chief election commissioner, told the Post that as per the law, the commission has the power to fine up to Rs50,000 to any political party and order it to correct the mistake within six months.
“We have published a notice in the name of political parties to hold elections of office bearers on time,” said Thapaliya. “We, however, don’t publish any notice for a particular party or ask any party about their plans to elect new committees as everything has been laid down in the law.”
The faction led by senior leader Ram Chandra Poudel has been demanding that a “special convention” be held, as after September 8, the elected committees’ tenures and mandates will be over. There, however, is no clarity on the modality of the special convention–how it should be held and who will be the voters.
Insiders say Deuba’s indecision on general convention and failure to expand the Cabinet could hugely tarnish the party’s image.
Debua, now 75, in the past has led coalition governments with a quite bloated Council of Ministers. But the existing constitutional provision does not allow more than 25 ministers, including the prime minister. And there are too many aspirants.
While Deuba has to satisfy the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and the Janata Samajbadi Party, his two key coalition partners, he has to manage factions within his own party led by Poudel and Krishna Prasad Sitaula. The ruling coalition is also wondering what to do with those 22 lawmakers from the CPN-UML who had voted for Deuba during his floor test on July 18. Of them, 14 belong to the Madhav Nepal faction of the UML, which played a crucial role in Deuba’s ascension to power.
Nepal is currently in talks with his party chair Oli and he has not given a word to the ruling coalition on his faction’s plan to join the government. The Nepal faction itself is divided, with some saying it should join the government and others calling for UML party unity.
Those lawmakers who voted for Deuba are interested to join the government but those members from the faction who are no lawmakers are making a pitch for continuing struggle against Oli by remaining within the party, according to a leader close to the Nepal faction.
“We are still in a dilemma; we have not taken any decision yet,” said the leader who is also a Central Committee member of the UML. “We may join the government if talks with party chair Oli fail and we decide to form our own party.”
Since the Nepal faction lacks control over 40 percent Central Committee and Parliamentary Party members, for them to split the party, the Political Parties Act-2017 needs an amendment.
Nidhi, the party vice-president, said that the Nepal faction’s indecision also is a reason that the Cabinet expansion has been delayed.
“It is not Nepali Congress’ exclusive government,” said Nidhi. “A coalition government is a complicated process.”
But no matter what, according to Congress leaders, failure to expand the government and hold the general convention on time will reflect badly on Deuba.
Shekhar Koirala, another senior leader, said that if the government led by his party cannot provide business to Parliament, it could be seen as a serious sign of failure.
The House session has been postponed until Tuesday for a lack of business. There, however, are close t0 five dozen bills pending in Parliament. The Deuba government itself is not sure whether it controls enough numbers in Parliament to pass any bill.
The Congress and the Maoist Centre together have 110 votes in the House. Though all 32 lawmakers of the Janata Samajbadi Party had voted for Deuba during his confidence vote, there is no clarity if the Mahantha Tahkur-led faction, which controls around 10 seats, will vote in case the government presents any bill in the House. What will the 22 UML lawmakers do when it comes to voting on the Deuba-led government’s bills is also not clear.
Deuba’s failure on the governance front may have an impact on elections. And if the Congress party fails to hold its general convention on time due to Deuba, it will raise serious questions over the grand old party’s internal democratic processes.
Analysts say the Nepali Congress should make its position clear both on general convention as well as governance.
“The government’s performance has already come into question and the Congress party is struggling to keep its house in order,” said Uddhab Pyakurel, an associate professor of political sociology at Kathmandu University. “Deuba should sort out his party's issues at the earliest and focus on governance. He has already had a bad start.”