Congress is broken. It needs fixingAn overhauled ideology—and an organisational rejig—is a must to inject new blood into the grand old party.
On Sunday, Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba urged the general convention delegates to vote for him in the party president election.
“If I lose, everyone will create a ruckus… they will say how can someone who lost the party president post will govern the country,” said Deuba, who is also the prime minister leading a five-party coalition. “If I win the party presidency, this coalition will continue… until the next elections.”
Deuba, who leads the establishment faction in the party, is not only eying a repeat as party president but also yet another stint—sixth—as prime minister after the elections next year.
Four days ago, on Thursday, Gagan Thapa, a Congress youth leader, organised an event at Nepal Academy. In a jam-packed hall, Thapa, 46, made public his political document—a roadmap for the party, for the country. He has outlined some immediate measures for the next one year until the elections and long-term steps that the party should take for the next five years.
Thapa is contesting for party general secretary from the anti-establishment faction.
In his document, Thapa has said the party has almost given up the tradition of ideological discussions and debates.
“Even while taking important decisions in the party, wider discussions are rarely held,” reads the document. “Nor are there any debates on the decisions.”
Thapa appears to be clear why debates and discussions on a wide range of issues—political, social, economic, organisational—are a must in a party.
Party insiders and observers say how Deuba and Thapa, who represent two different generations, view the ongoing convention—what they want to achieve—shows the stark reality of today's Congress.
According to them, time has come for the party to transform.
But for that the party needs an idea. It needs principles and programmes. It has to set goals.
How the Nepali Congress, founded in 1947 with lucid principles and goals, became a party without an idea then?
One of the most revered leaders of the party, the late BP Koirala, had laid down the principles and programmes for the Nepali Congress. Democratic socialism was the goal.
The Congress still harps on nationalism, democracy and socialism, but ever since the restoration of democracy in 1990, it appears to have done precious little to make its members—and the public— aware of the essence of its idea and the core values of the party.
After the restoration of democracy in 1990, Nepali Congress came to power. But none of the leaders carried forward the party’s principles. Leaders engaged in power politics. Factionalism ruled the roost.
After getting frustrated at groupism and power politics, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, known as an austere leader, who held the party’s values and principles close to his heart, decided to detach himself from the Congress. He led the party from January 1988 to January 1992. The last two years of his leadership saw the country transition into democracy from Panchayat.
The late Ganesh Man Singh who gave his whole life to the party never held any office of profit. Nor did he run for party president. His son Prakash Man Singh is currently pitted against Deuba, Shekhar Koirala and Bimalendra Nidhi. Like Singh, both Koirala and Nidhi have their own family legacies—the former is the nephew of the late BP Koirala and the latter is the son of Congress stalwart Mahendra Narayan Nidhi.
Subsequent leaders helmed the Congress—Girija Prasad Koirala (three times from 1992 to 2010) and Sushil Koirala (from 2010 to2016)—barely gave priority to party ideologies. Many may ascribe that lacking to political upheavals—a decade of Maoist insurgency from 1996 to 2006 and constitution drafting from 2008 to 2015.
Deuba, who won the party president post in March 2016 general convention, is known as a leader who dared to challenge the Koiralas. He holds a solid political background—coming from student politics, Deuba rose through the ranks over the years to lead the party. Holding the prime minister’s office for a fifth time may easily find its place in history books as an achievement. But Deuba has never been known as a leader who prioritises party principles and ideologies.
Over the years, those at the party helm continued to propagate the idea: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Analysts say the grand old party by and large for decades has fed on “BP’s dreams,” whatever that meant for the party members or the public.
As the Congress is holding its 14th general convention, it is standing at a crossroads. A revised ideological line and an organisational overhaul is a must in the party, say analysts and insiders.
Except for Thapa, none of the leaders contesting for various posts, however, have floated any concrete plans as to how they want to steer the party and the country. Not even Shekhar Koirala, the party president aspirant, from whose panel Thapa is contesting for general secretary.
“In Nepal’s politics, Nepali Congress is just not a party organisation, it is an idea. It is a campaign,” Thapa says in his 60-page document. “By virtue of being one of the oldest parties and a force that led various changes in the country, the direction taken by the Nepali Congress defines the path for the country.”
The party, adds Thapa, hence, through this convention, must draw up an ideological framework and political roadmap for 2021-2025.
Observers say it’s unfortunate that senior Nepali Congress leaders have neither time nor energy to read and discuss Thapa’s proposal.
The Congress has said the party will hold its “policy convention” to discuss its ideology, principles and goals. No date has been fixed yet.
Indra Bahadur Gurung, 83, from Syangja has been a long-time Congress member, who has formerly been in the party Central Working Committee.
“The party’s broken and it must be fixed,” said Gurung, who is in Kathmandu to vote to elect a new leadership. He is one of the 4,743 delegates that will elect 13 office bearers and 134 Central Working Committee members. “But I am not convinced whoever comes to the leadership will be able to transform the party.”
Gurung believes there is a serious dearth of leaders who actually care for the party.
“I am not happy with the youth leaders also because of the way they are switching sides just to win the election,” he said.
But many say there is a whiff of change this time, as quite some youth leaders have entered the fray challenging the old faces.
The party, however, can elect only two general secretaries.
“Not everything is lost as yet. There is hope,” said Shankar Tiwari, 37, a candidate for the Central Working Committee. “Since the 12th convention the younger generation has started challenging the older generation.”
Tiwari agrees that the party is in dire need of transformation. His recently published book is titled “Who will fix the Congress?”, in an indication that the party is indeed broken.
“Whoever wins the two general secretary posts, the party will get young blood,” said Tiwari.
In the Congress, the general secretary post is considered the most powerful after the party president, even though it has two vice president posts.
Shree Krishna Aniruddha Gautam, a political commentator who has followed Congress and national politics for years, says the grand old party does need transformation, but the party leaders first need to diagnose the problem.
“Everyone seems to have forgotten the foundation… the basis on which the party was constituted,” Gautam told the Post. “A renewed and vigorous debate is required to give the party a new direction in the changed context. What are the goals of the party? How does it want to achieve these goals? What are its principles?”
To diagnose the problem, according to Gautam, the party needs to assess itself first.
Complacency could be yet another reason why the Nepali Congress has not discussed its plans, programmes and policies. Since 1990, the party has managed to remain in power for most of the years.
The 2017 election results, however, were shocking. The party faced a spectacular defeat. Fighting against the communist behemoth—the CPN-UML and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) had formed an alliance—Congress could secure just 23 seats out of the 165 positions up for grabs under the direct election system, under Deuba’s leadership.
The party, however, never tried to hold any extensive discussions to find out why it lost. Deuba refused to stand down as party president.
“It’s a shame that the Congress is still not paying attention to some fundamentals,” said Daman Nath Dhungana, a civil society leader who actively participated in both people’s movements in 1990 and 2006. “Transformation of the Congress party will be incomplete until it finds ways to address the challenges faced by the country and meet the expectations of the people,” added Dhungana who had contested the 2017 parliamentary elections on a Congress ticket but lost.
Over the years, the Congress party has lost touch with the people, even its own members, say some old party hands.
Sanat Kumar Mandal, 52, is in Kathmandu to participate in the party’s general convention.
“I have been with the party for the last 34 years and served in different committees,” said Mandal from Siraha. “But my party does not behave like a democratic party anymore. The mighty and powerful bulldoze decisions. Nepotism is rife. I don’t think the people these days, despite being supporters of the party, can connect to the Congress.”
According to Mandal, it’s high time the party bade farewell to old faces and gave a chance to youths to steer the party.
“It would be better for the party to revise its statute and put an age-limit so that new blood and fresh ideas could be brought in,” said Mandal. “The party leadership should stop pitching abstract ideas and get down to real business. Transformation starts from the grassroots. First and foremost, the party needs to re-establish its connection with the people. If there are no people, there is no party.”