Gathering exposes deep rifts in CongressDissidents accuse Deuba of ‘protecting’ Khand, backing a bill that ‘promotes impunity’.
The long overdue central committee meeting of the Nepali Congress, the largest party in Parliament, was expected to resolve some of the pressing issues confronting the party and the government, but that was not to be.
Although the meeting is set to conclude on Wednesday following nine days of deliberations, the party remains deeply divided, and little progress has been made on key issues.
The meeting is being broadcast live on social media. This is the first time any Nepali political party has livestreamed such a crucial meeting.
Interestingly, even the rival camp in the party looks divided. General Secretary Gagan Thapa, who represents the party’s dissidents including leader Shekhar Koirala and several others, skipped a meeting of the camp called by Koirala on Tuesday.
“Gaganji was supposed to join, but he could not,” Koirala said on Tuesday while addressing the meeting. “I tried to contact him, but his phone was switched off.”
Thapa, while speaking at the central committee meeting on Monday criticised the leadership including Congress chief Sher Bahadur Deuba for the party’s poor stance on corruption and the hesitation to suspend its leader Balkrishna Khand, who is in jail in relation to the Bhutanese refugee scam, from party duties. Thapa had submitted his paper at the meeting last Wednesday. Thapa’s stance was shared by another general secretary Bishwa Prakash Sharma and Koirala, among others.
In response, Deuba’s wife Azru Rana Deuba, who is also a member of the central committee, came down heavily on Thapa at the central committee meeting last Friday.
She compared the report presented by Thapa as something similar to the “wishlist”of a non-governmental organisation.
“The report has no strategic plan to govern the country effectively or to help with nation-building,” she said. “The report does not talk about the party's agenda that is needed to overcome the current challenges. As the Nepali Congress is a responsible party, the document presented by its general secretary should align with the nation’s desired direction”
Taking a dig at Arzu, who in the past worked in NGOs, General Secretary Thapa said at Monday’s meeting that he does not have much experience working in NGOs and that rather than trying to unseat the party president his goal is to show common people who are frustrated by established political parties that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Other leaders close to Deuba also publicly lashed out at Thapa and Sharma. Thapa last Wednesday and this Monday had even vowed to contest parliamentary party leadership, a position currently held by Deuba.
The conflicting views among leaders on the jailed leader Khand suggest that discord is only growing in the party as Deuba loyalists vehemently defend the party’s decision not to suspend Khand while the dissidents ask for an immediate suspension. Khand is accused of taking bribes from racketeers who swindled hundreds of people by promising to send them to the US as Bhutanese refugees.
Koirala has also criticised the party establishment for backing a new bill that paves the way for the government to withdraw sub judice cases of political nature against those from a party or a group involved in violence if the party or group vows to join peaceful politics. The government has already presented the bill in Parliament.
The Bill to Amend Some Nepal Acts has a provision that says “cases sub judice in any court against anyone from a party or a group which conducted violent protests in the past but is carrying out its activities peacefully now, based on the constitution and the law, can be withdrawn.”
Such a proposal would tarnish the country’s image, said Koirala.
“The state is trying to promote impunity… we are making a law to give amnesty to criminals and convicts by politicising their crimes. Such things will tarnish the country’s image,” said leader Koirala.
Meanwhile, Congress leaders speaking at the central committee meeting on Monday faulted the country’s existing electoral system for the party’s failure to win a majority. They demanded that all members of the House of Representatives should be elected through the first-past-the-post system while the upper house should be set aside exclusively for those elected under the proportional representation system. They demanded similar arrangements for provincial assemblies.
Another issue the meeting discussed was who will lead the party after Deuba completes his term as party president. Deuba was elected to the top post in December 2022. It is a five-year term—if the party decides not to extend it by a year in case of unavoidable circumstances.
“We cannot remove the party president now. But that should be our goal at the 15th general convention when we can establish Shekhar Koirala as the new president in our bid to transform the party,” party’s vice president Dhanraj Gurung, who is also the Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs, said on Tuesday.
The party’s two general secretaries, Thapa and Sharma, have been trying to remove Deuba from parliamentary party leadership as they believe the Congress’ image has taken a beating under him.
Thapa and Sharma seemed to have been counting on the support of other party leaders to suspend Khand, but they didn’t get the expected backing.
Deuba, meanwhile, has called a meeting of the party’s office bearers for Tuesday in order to assess the outcome of the central working committee meeting.
“Please don’t try to portray it as a party president versus the general secretaries contest,” another senior party leader Bimalendra Nidhi said. “The Nepali Congress is a democratic party and whatever it does will be in keeping within the spirit of democracy.”
“Everyone in the party is free to speak their mind. But we always unite behind democratic values. There is no democratic party like the Congress,” said Nidhi, a long-time aide of Deuba.
Ahead of the party’s central working committee meeting last week, the party had decided to discuss around a dozen issues, but the party veered off track.
The meeting is taking place after almost a year, although the party’s statute requires that it be held every two months. The gathering lacked focus and structure and several members said that they could not freely speak as the entire process was being broadcast live.
“The Congress has entered a new phase of polarisation,” said the party’s chief whip Ramesh Lekhak.
Saying that talking about leadership change was part of a natural process, Lekhak informed that most of the meeting was focused on two issues: The party’s internal life and the day-to-day life of common folks.
“We talked about implementing the party charter, giving full shape to the central working committee, and the conduct of political campaigns. Apart from that, we discussed people’s day-to-day issues,” Lekhak said.