Congress convention: No ideological debate, just kerfuffleThe grand old party seeks transformation but the gathering is purely technical to elect new leadership without any discussions on programmes, principles, goals.
The Nepali Congress kicked off its 14th general convention in Kathmandu on Friday with the slogan “enthusiasm, unity and transformation”. While enthusiasm is understandable in the party over the national gathering, the latter two appear to be missing.
The fractious grand old party has gone into the convention amid a kerfuffle over the leadership, while it has no plans to debate how it is going to transform.
Every Congress leader—at all levels—agrees that the party is in a dire need of transformation. The party’s convention this time, however, is purely technical, aimed at electing the new leadership.
Insiders and observers say since this general convention is the first since the country transitioned into a federal republic, the Nepali Congress leaders should have discussed plans, policies and principles to transform the party and should have come up with political programmes for the country.
The Nepali Congress does have a mechanism called “Mahasamiti”, which is formed with half of the elected representatives for the general convention, to debate on ideological issues.
Though the party’s statute envisions holding its meeting every year, the party has held the Mahasamiti meeting only once in the last five years.
“The Nepali Congress was gradually shifting towards a leadership-centric party from a policy-oriented party, but this time it has validated that point,” said Geja Sharma Wagle, a political commentator who keenly follows Congress politics. “I think this time Nepali Congress made a wrong move.”
Since its inception, the Congress has carried “nationalism, democracy and socialism” as its motto.
But during every general convention in the past, the party came up with its future plans and strategies as per the changing time and context.
Observers say if the party was unable to debate its ideological issues during this general convention, it could have at least held its Mahasamiti meeting.
“A policy must be formulated before the leadership selection. That’s the way to do it,” Shree Krishna Aniruddh Gautam, a political commentator, told the Post. “The Congress seems to have put the cart before the horse.”
The Congress has historically been a party rife with factionalism. And there has been infighting within the factions.
This time around, there are clearly four factions—led by Sher Bahadur Deuba, Bimalendra Nidhi, Ram Chandra Poudel and Krishna Prasad Sitaula.
While Deuba is eying a comeback as party president, Nidhi is in a bid to pull out all the stops to scuttle his plan. The Poudel faction has not been able to select a consensus candidate to field for the party president post, hence Shekhar Koirala and Prakash Man Singh have launched their own campaigns. Sitaula so far has held his cards close to his chest.
Late in the evening, Deuba managed to forge an alliance with Sitaula for the general secretary and joint general secretary posts.
Pradip Poudel and Umakanta Chaudhary would now contest for the two posts, which could mean Sitaula would support Deuba’s bid.
None of the aspirants for the party president post has so far communicated their vision to the party members.
As many as 4,743 delegates will be voting on December 13 to elect the new leadership—one party president, two party vice presidents, two general secretaries and eight joint general secretaries. Nominations have to be filed by 5pm Saturday. Voting will take place on Monday only, according to leaders.
Since there has been no ideological discussions and none of the leaders, except for Gagan Thapa, has come up with their plans for the party, the country, democracy, constitution and the system, delegates are likely to vote on the basis of face value.
Thapa, who is contesting for the post of general secretary and is seen as a strong candidate to lead the party after the next convention, on Thursday came up with a 60-page document.
In his paper, Thapa has outlined his proposal for the party’s transformation.
Thapa has proposed “social democracy” explaining in 15 points how it is different from liberal democracy that the party has been adopting.
He has said that implementing it would help the Nepali Congress bring the country out of the existing political instability. He has also laid down a plan to strengthen democratic institutions and address the impact of geopolitical rivalry on internal politics.
Parties hold conventions usually in the lead up to major elections, such as general elections, that install a new dispensation to govern the country. Hence, political parties during their general conventions or national congress craft a platform and lay down a set of principles and goals. The parties then strive to achieve those goals within the set principles and values.
“Party general conventions in Nepal have become a ritual. It looks like they organise conventions only to avoid getting invalidated, as they are bound by the constitution to organise the gathering,” said Lokraj Baral, a professor of political science at Tribhuvan University. “I wonder what kind of trend political parties are following. The Congress has no policy and the CPN-UML revised its statute within months [of adopting it].”
When the UML held its statute convention in the first week of October, it was largely hailed as a democratic practice. Around 6,000 delegates had debated on the party's policy, plans and political ideology. But when the party held its 10th national congress, the statute was revised, at the behest of UML chair KP Sharma Oli, to adjust the leaders close to him.
“UML’s election was all about handpicking leaders by Oli,” said Baral. “But I don’t think the Congress’ election will be like UML’s, as there is a fierce competition. However, it is also true that there are no plans and policies in the Congress.”
Many say the UML at least debated its policy and programmes, but the Congress is going directly to voting after the convention inauguration.
Leaders admit that the ongoing convention is just a technical one as the party was under pressure to elect a new leadership before the party ran the risk of getting invalidated.
The Congress should have held its general convention in March 2020, but it continued to delay it due to the Covid-19 pandemic and infighting in the party.
“It indeed is just a technical convention as we have to elect new leadership right away,” said Jivan Pariyar, a Central Working Committee member of the party. “The new Central Working Committee will decide when to call a meeting of the Mahasamiti to discuss the party's policies and plans for the next four-year term.”
It’s not that the Congress did not hold a closed session.
But it ended with party General Secretary Purna Bahadur Khadka presenting an organisational report on the party’s activities in the last five years while Treasurer Sita Devi Yadav presented a financial paper.
Even party delegates say the leadership selection process has dominated the party’s general convention, which is reflective of the fact that the leadership is least interested in ideological discussions. They say the closed-door sessions are nothing but ritual.
“I see no interest in the leadership to discuss the party’s plans and policies. Top leaders are squabbling over how to grab party posts for them and their allies,” Hari Bhusal, a delegate from Dang, told the Post. “The youths, however, want intense debate 0n party ideology and its roadmap. Sadly, that is not going to happen though.”
Party President Sher Bahadur Deuba has set his sights on the party top post, one more time, and a comeback as prime minister from the next elections. He has not spelt out why the delegates should let him lead the party again.
Despite a spectacular loss in the 2017 elections, Deuba refused to step down as party president.
A series of events over the last three and a half years, however, installed Deuba as prime minister, for the fifth time in July this year. Deuba is well aware of the fact that he became the prime minister as per the Supreme Court order, and he wishes to take the government reins as an elected leader.
There is a strong group that wants to stop Deuba from becoming party president for the next four years, but the group appears to have become weak because of factionalism.
While the party held its closed session, the Poudel camp continued its meeting till late Friday to find a consensus candidate, to no avail.
There is disenchantment among some Congress members with the party leadership. Some of those in Kathmandu to participate in the party convention expressed their unhappiness at the party leaders for failing to discuss core issues and squabbling over positions.
“It has become clear that our leaders say one thing from the stage and do something else. This has really saddened me. This is a day of celebration, but our leaders are not working together within the party,” said Kusswar Yadav, 67, from Siraha district. “The convention has started, but a faction is still struggling to find a candidate for the party president post.”
Somdatta Ghimire, 84, a party well-wisher originally from Gorkha, who came from Hetauda Bazar, was concerned about the way leaders have changed.
“I myself fought for the 2007 (1951AD) revolution to usher in democracy in the country,” said Ghimire as he watched leaders on a big screen at Bhrikutimandap, the convention venue.
“The Congress is a party with a long legacy, and leaders should not forget that people elected them for the betterment of the nation,” Ghimire told the Post. “But it seems they are more concerned about themselves. This is really sad.”
If Deuba manages to win, he will be the first non-Koirala leader to hold the party’s top post twice.
The Congress, which held its first convention in Bhawanipur of Kolkata in India in January 1947, has seen BP Koirala, Matrika Prasad Koirala and Girija Prasad Koirala lead the party for more than one term.
Deuba defeated Poudel in the last convention in a run-off with Sitaula’s support.
Though Deuba has claimed that his victory as party president again will ensure Congress’ victory in the upcoming elections, he has not said how.
Even insiders say Deuba has not made any clear assessment of why the party lost last elections to become a distant second party from the single largest party.
During his address, Deuba called on his party members to vote for him so as to ensure the party’s victory in the upcoming general elections.
“From villages to the centre [Kathmandu], we will form governments,” said Deuba. “We are holding [party] elections tomorrow but internal differences should not affect local and national elections.”
He, however, stopped short of saying what makes him the ideal party president to lead Congress to victory in the upcoming elections.
Deuba is not a politician in Nepal known for his oratory skills. He is a man of few words who rarely zeroes in on debates that surround ideologies, policies and programmes. But he has risen through the ranks to secure the top party post and become the country’s top executive. Many in the party recognise him as a leader who challenged the Koiralas in the Congress.
Analysts, however, say time has come to rejuvenate the grand old party. It’s not about Deuba or other leaders, it’s about how the party focuses on debates, ideology, policies and programmes, according to them.
“If the new leadership organises a convention within some months after their election to devise programmes and guide the party, that too will be a new practice in Nepali politics,” said Wagle, the political commentator.
Insiders say the party will discuss its programmes and policies in the coming days before the general elections.
“It’s true that the party is following the traditional way of electing leadership without discussing its ideological issues,” said Shankar Tiwari, one of the candidates for the party’s Central Working Committee member, whose book ‘Who will fix the Congress?’ was launched recently. “The party was under pressure to hold its convention so it went ahead with electing the leadership first.”
Anil Giri and Anup Ojha contributed reporting.