One year young: Calls for clarity in RSP’s political visionParty sees a swift rise in electoral politics. But to deliver, it needs to change the way it functions, observers say.
The Rastriya Swatantra Party’s swift electoral rise was the biggest political story of last year. The party, which was launched just five months before the elections, won seven first-past-the-post and 13 proportional representation seats.
Then, in the April bypolls this year, it won two of the three lower house seats up for grabs, trouncing candidates from major parties by overwhelming margins. It was a remarkable feat for a party new to the political scene.
The RSP is now a year old. Former star TV presenter Rabi Lamichhane had launched the party on June 21 and registered it with the Election Commission on July 1 last year. In this short journey, the party has scored ‘some hits but also many misses’, say political observers.
It has cashed in on the mass public frustration with the status quo, but its lack of an ideological foundation has been a topic of occasional public debate.
“Though its leaders claim their focus is on the 2084 BS [2027 AD] elections, the party lacks ideological clarity,” said Sanjeev Humagain, a faculty member of the PhD programme for Political Science and International Relations at the Tribhuvan University. “It has failed to determine what kind of a political force it really is.”
The party’s lack of guiding ideology and its struggle to work out its place in the political spectrum often makes the party subject of mockery on social media. So much so that its top leaders often appear to contradict each other. For instance, in an interview with the news website Onlinekhabar.com, party chair Rabi Lamichhane claimed that his party was ‘right of centre’. Meanwhile, in another interview with Galaxy TV, Shishir Khanal, a lawmaker from the party, ventured that the party was, in fact, ‘left-of-centre’.
“Without ideological clarity, it seems to be no more than a populist outfit aiming to cash in on popular discontent,” said Subedi.
Even as the party struggles to find its ideological footing, it continues to be rocked by one after another controversy.
Within a couple of months of emerging as the fourth-largest force in the lower house, two of the party’s lawmakers lost their parliamentary positions. On January 28, the Supreme Court annulled the lawmaker status of party chair Rabi Lamichhane, citing that the citizenship certificate he had submitted to contest the major polls was invalid. Lamichhane, however, later reacquired the certificate and won the bypoll in Chitwan-2, thereby regaining his lawmaker status.
A few weeks before the bypolls the party was mired in another scandal when its lawmaker Dhaka Kumar Shrestha was caught on tape demanding millions from controversial businessman Durga Prasai so he could pay the party’s ‘core committee’ to become a minister. This after the party contested the polls on the plank of good governance. The party later expelled Shrestha, who also lost his lawmaker position. Moreover, its choice of ministers in the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led government was criticised for inviting a conflict of interest.
At a press meet in February, party chair Lamichhane blamed media houses for his loss of deputy prime minister and home minister positions. Some party leaders even questioned his choice of words in the over hour-long diatribe.
The party also disregarded its own commitment to a cost-effective and efficient governance by accepting the positions of a deputy prime minister and a minister of state. It was criticised for being in a ‘strange’ hurry to join the government, rather than working to build the organisation and mount sustained pressure on the government to correct its wrongdoings, as its election mandate seemed to warrant.
Most recently, the party was divided over the political document prepared by its General Secretary Mukul Dhakal, with most of the leaders opposed to the paper. The party has decided to rewrite the document, which was scheduled to be unveiled on Thursday on the occasion of the party’s first anniversary.
Since its inception, the party has been demanding a change in the form of governance. Many say the demand for a change in the form of governance at the centre and in provinces are in violation of the constitution.
With the entry of a new force comprising young and energetic faces in Parliament, hopes were high that the party lawmakers would bring in some changes in parliamentary discussion. Experts, however, have mixed views on the party’s performance in Parliament.
According to Humagain, the party has, to an extent, succeeded in introducing creative ideas such as primaries (preliminary election to appoint delegates to a party conference as in the US) and report cards in parliamentary practices and politics.
Jhalak Subedi, a political analyst, agrees. “We see that the party’s lawmakers do homework before they speak in the Parliament,” he said.
The party, however, has been criticised for not raising the issues of public concern strongly.
“They need to take their parliamentary roles more seriously,” Humagain said. “They should bring up the problems faced by the public, pressing social issues and exert pressure on stakeholders to address them.”
Some party insiders say the party has become a person-centric organisation as the party chair dominates decision-making and many leaders hesitate to speak up on vital issues.
“Though the party-building process is underway, it is still centred on a single personality—its chair Rabi Lamichhane,” said Indra Adhikari, another political analyst. “At the start, the party was organised around a single personality. A year later, it is still the same.”
While political observers think the party should have a strong organisation, it, however, is opposed to creating sister wings.
Supporters of Rabi Lamichhane and, by extension, the Rastriya Swatantra Party, have also been showing little tolerance for critical voices and questions raised about the party and its leader.
Insults and epithets like ‘traitor’, ‘jhole’, ‘patrukar’, ‘brokers’ are routinely traded on social media by the followers against critical commentators. As such, RSP supporters appear to be no different than the cadres of traditional parties, say experts.
Adhikari, the political analyst, also thinks the Swatantra Party and its supporters are rather intolerant of criticism. If the party tries to cultivate such traits in its workers, it won’t bode well for both the party and its overall politics, she said.
The RSP has come out stronger than the political parties of yore such as the Bibeksheel Sajha and Naya Shakti that claimed to be standard bearers of alternative politics. The RSP has a huge potential to be a popular party and teach the right lessons to the traditional forces, say observers.
“Yes, it has a lot of potential,” Adhikari said. “But if the party continues to function in its current way, it will fail to deliver.”