Excessive focus on Bharatpur mayoral race may cost Nepali Congress dearlyDeuba is bending over backwards to save the alliance, irking party members no end.
The ruling coalition that is contesting local elections under an alliance is holding a campaign rally in Bharatpur on Thursday. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba along with CPN (Maoist Centre) chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal and other leaders of the coalition are set to address the rally.
There are 753 local units across the country but no other municipality has received so much attention as Bharatpur given the intense debate over the selection of candidates.
Renu Dahal of the Maoist Centre is seeking a second mayoral term in the metropolitan city as per an understanding among the coalition partners. But Nepali Congress’ Jagannath Poudel has decided to run as an independent against her, defying the party high command’s order. The party has even expelled him for refusing to abide by its diktat.
Deuba left for Bharatpur on Wednesday itself in a move that is seen as his last-ditch attempt to convince Poudel to withdraw from the race. Last week, Deuba had sent Minister for Home Affairs Bal Krishna Khand and Umesh Shrestha, a minister of state minister at the Prime Minister’s Office, in an attempt to persuade Poudel to withdraw his candidacy and support Dahal, but to no avail.
Even Maoist chair Dahal has met Poudel on more than one occasion, urging the latter to quit the race. However, Poudel has refused to budge.
Deuba’s continuous push to ensure a victory for Renu, who is also the daughter of the Maoist Centre chair, has not only surprised but also annoyed Congress leaders.
Insiders and analysts say both Deuba and Dahal appear to have made Bharatpur a matter of their personal prestige.
“Bharatpur has become a prestige issue for the parties in the ruling alliance as the rebel candidate has complicated the election,” said Pradip Poudel, a Congress Central Working Committee member. “If the alliance candidate [Renu] happens to lose, the Congress will be blamed and that could break the coalition.”
Fighting elections under an alliance among the coalition partners was fiercely opposed by a section of Congress leaders. However, Deuba managed to take an institutional decision from the party in favour of the electoral alliance.
Deuba and Dahal, along with Madhav Kumar Nepal, the other coalition leader, are in a bid to keep the CPN-UML in check. Deuba wants the alliance to continue until the provincial and federal elections so as to ensure his next term as prime minister but he fears Dahal could join hands with the UML if his daughter loses the polls.
Political commentators say the way Deuba is so invested in Bharatpur to ensure Renu’s victory shows he is more concerned about himself than the party. According to them, if he cared about his party, he should have paid attention to his home district Dadeldhura as well.
Karna Malla, the immediate past district president of the party, has formed an alliance with the CPN-UML in all local units in the district.
Similarly, there is a problem in Tanahun as well where Govinda Raj Joshi, a former Congress leader, has formed an alliance with the UML.
But the Congress appears least bothered about the party’s performance in home districts of at least two leaders, according to the commentators.
“The Congress and Deuba are focused in Bharatpur as if there is no election elsewhere,” Puranjan Acharya, a political commentator who has a leaning towards the Congress, told the Post. “Deuba’s desperation shows he is indifferent towards the party’s problem and is only concerned that the alliance doesn’t break apart.”
According to Acharya, Deuba fears that he will lose prime ministership if the Maoist Centre withdraws support to the government in the event of Renu Dahal losing mayorship.
He said that he has not seen Deuba investing time in emboldening his own party.
“Deuba is always concerned about those whose support is essential for him to cling on to power,” he said. “In the mid-1990s, he had worked to unite the Rastriya Prajatantra Party.”
Acharya added that Deuba and his party have failed to foresee the loss the party is going to suffer in Dadeldhura and Tanahun.
“If Deuba was concerned about his party and constituency, he would have put efforts to settle the rebels from the two districts rather than throwing his weight behind the Maoist Centre candidate in Bharatpur,” he said.
The five parties in the ruling coalition on April 20 agreed on seat-sharing in 17 local units—six metropolitan cities and 11 sub-metropolitan cities. The mayoral candidacy for Bharatpur went to the Maoist Centre despite opposition from Congress leaders who argued that this time the Maoists should support a Congress candidate.
Even some Maoist leaders are riled at the ruling alliance’s excessive focus on Bharatpur.
“Dahal does not think of any other issue except Bharatpur Metropolitan City and his constituency,” said a senior Maoist Centre leader asking not to be named. “How can our party prosper when the chairman is concerned only about himself and his children?”
The Congress’ rebel candidate in Bharatpur has made the UML upbeat, as it believes its candidate stands a chance to win the mayoral post.
“Since there is huge discontent in the Congress, we are pretty sure that our candidate will win,” said Surendra Pandey, a Standing Committee member of the UML, who has been leading the party’s election campaign in Bharatpur. “It seems that the Congress has sacrificed everything to help Renu win and has even gone on to take action against its own local leaders.”
According to Pandey, the Congress cannot justify its move of suppressing its own leaders and cadres.
But leaders close to Dahal are hopeful that Poudel’s bid against Maoist Centre’s candidate may not have much effect on Renu’s prospects.
“The situation in Bharatpur is getting better and it is not as bad as some people believe it to be,” said Narayan Dahal, a Maoist Centre leader who has been focusing on local polls in Chitwan.
Political analysts say Bharatpur has now become a prestige issue for all the leaders in the five-party alliance as a win or loss there will shape the alliance’s course for the next polls.
“It’s a simple equation. Renu’s defeat will send a message that an alliance between the Congress and the communists is not compatible,” said Jhalak Subedi, a political commentator who has followed left politics for decades. “The result of Bharatpur will largely affect the national politics as it could also break the existing alliance.”
Some Congress leaders, however, have expressed concerns over the party leaders’ excessive focus on Bharatpur in the name of saving the alliance, saying that this could distract the party from its goals.
As the party president and senior party leaders have been focusing on Bharatpur, they fear other 752 local units may not get proper attention and the outcome may be affected.
“It’s the Congress’ responsibility to convince the parties in the alliance because there is a rebel candidate against the common candidate, but the party must not get confined to a single local unit,” said Poudel, the Congress central working committee leader.