Why Gagan Thapa’s candidacy can be good gesture for Congress—and other partiesAmid growing leadership handover debate, Thapa is set to contest for party general secretary, five years after an unsuccessful attempt for the same post.
Gagan Thapa has decided to throw his hat into the ring.
Last week, Thapa, a central member of the Nepali Congress, said he would contest for the party’s general secretary, a post that he lost five years ago. During the party’s 13th general convention held in March 2016, Thapa, then 40, was pitted against Shashanka Koirala, then central working committee member, and Arjun Narsingh KC, then central working committee member. Thapa’s candidacy created quite a hype, not only because he was one of the youngest persons vying for the leadership position in the party but also because he was fighting against KC, his father in-law. Koirala won.
As the party gears up for the 14th general convention in November, Thapa once again is making an attempt for the same post. No other leader has announced candidacy against him yet, but there certainly will be, given the factionalism in the Nepali Congress. Thapa had contested from the Krishna Prasad Sitaula camp, Koirala from the Ram Chandra Poudel group and KC from the side of Sher Bahadur Deuba, the party president.
General secretary in the Nepali Congress is considered a powerful position, after the party president, and Thapa’s candidacy, many say, inspires hope, as his win would upend the trend of same old faces making it to the leadership in the grand old party.
“It’s a very good decision by Gagan,” says Poudel, who is vying for the party presidency. “The decision has sent a positive message at the ground level in the party and we have received quite encouraging messages.”
On August 30, Thapa was present at a press conference organised by the Poudel camp, in an indication that he would represent this group during the general convention. He himself has not declared his candidacy from any side though.
Thapa, now 45, was the face of Nepal Student Union, the Congress’ student wing, during his college days. He was a rabble rouser. He was blessed with great oratory skills. During his college days he was projected as the new face of the Nepali Congress.
His rise in the party was meteoric. He was elected to both constituent assemblies in 2008 and 2013. He won the 2017 elections to the House of Representatives from Kathmandu Constituency 4.
When he was elected to the party’s Central Working Committee during the 12th general convention in 2010, he had garnered the highest number of votes.
He served as minister for health from August 25, 2016 t0 May 21, 2017 in the Pushpa Kamal Dahal government, which was backed by the Nepali Congress. When Deuba returned to power in July this year, backed by the Maoist Centre, many had thought Thapa was seen as the best candidate to lead the Health Ministry, given the pandemic crisis the country is facing. Deuba, however, himself is leading the ministry by installing a state minister.
Many within the party and observers outside say it would be in the larger interest of the Nepali Congress as well as Nepali politics if Thapa wins the election. Over the past few years, Nepal’s senior politicians have ruled the roost, despite the country producing a host of “young and promising” politicians.
The failure of young generation leaders to challenge the top leadership, however, has allowed the same old politicians to govern the country, without inspiring much hope.
Gururaj Ghimire, who was president of Nepal Student Union when Thapa was secretary general, says it’s about time the young turks took leadership positions not only in the Congress but other parties as well.
At 75, Deuba, the party president, is eyeing yet another term. In the CPN-UML, KP Sharma Oli does not seem to be in any mood to hand over the party leadership. Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been leading the Maoist party for over three decades and there does not seem to be anyone to challenge him anytime soon. Even in the CPN (Unified Socialist), newly formed by Madhav Nepal who led the UML for 15 years, a leadership handover is unlikely for at least five years.
“Thapa’s victory can inject freshness in the party. He fits the bill perfectly as we are talking about handing over leadership to the young generation,” said Ghimire. “To transform Nepali politics, there is a need to transform parties and it is possible only if youths come forward and take the lead.”
But there are challenges ahead for Thapa. Factional feud is so rife in the party that the Deuba camp is likely to announce its own candidate against Thapa. Sources inside the party say Bishwa Prakash Sharma could be pitted against Thapa. Sharma, also a former president of Nepal Student Union, is currently serving as the party’s spokesperson.
Sharma, 51, has dropped some hints about his candidacy but he has not clearly said which post he’ll be running for. He was elected the party’s Central Working Committee member during the last convention.
Political analysts and observers say Thapa’s candidacy—and win—can help Nepali Congress, which appears to have lost touch with the younger generation, revive its image that it is a party for all.
“If he wins, it will immensely help in the transformation of the party,” said Kishore Nepal, a journalist who has followed Congress politics for decades. “Thapa makes an ideal candidate for the general secretary post.”
In an interview with the Post two years ago, Thapa said that he was not quite happy with the manner in which his party was functioning.
“Who is the Congress now?” he said. “We keep talking about BP [Koirala] and the past. The young people of today can’t connect with the Congress.”
Our party appears to be at a loss and it does not know what it wants, he had said.
At that time, the Congress was in the opposition, and quite ineffective to show its presence in Parliament, except on some occasions when Thapa and Minendra Rijal delivered some fiery speeches holding the then Oli government to account.
Though he is seen as a person who tells what needs to be told and who is not afraid of criticising his own party, Thapa has received a fair share of criticism for failing to stand up to the leadership.
As a politician with a huge fan base within his own party, Thapa has not been able to keep himself out of factional politics in the Congress. Many believe this time around, Thapa could win the election fairly easily with the backing of the Poudel camp, comparatively a larger and forceful group compared with the one led by Sitaula.
Ram Kumari Jhakri, 44, is Thapa’s contemporary in Nepali politics. Until a few weeks ago, she represented the CPN-UML. Her contribution has been immense in pushing Madhav Nepal to register CPN (Unified Socilist) by splitting the CPN-UML, and she is now being seen as the face of the newest communist front.
“At a time when we are talking about leadership handover to the new generation, Thapa’s candidacy could inspire young leaders in other parties also to challenge the old guard,” said Jhankri. “After an earlier unsuccessful attempt, it’s really a bold move from Thapa. He is a youth icon and an established politician. If he is elected—and he should, it will not be good just for the Congress but also for Nepali politics.”
Thapa also represents one group of Congress leaders who do not have a family legacy in the party, and he is someone who has risen through the ranks starting as a student leader.
“At a time when almost all the politicians vying for the leadership are above 60, Thapa’s decision to contest the election is a good move,” said Indra Adhikari, former deputy director of the Institute of Foreign Affairs who comments on political and security matters. “His win can be a message for aspiring leaders not only in his party but others also.”