As Maoists discuss leadership change, some espy chancePun, Sharma hope to succeed Dahal. Another claimant is Shrestha. Chand could make an entry as Dahal’s favourite.
It sounds improbable. But perhaps it’s not impossible.
During the party’s recent central committee meeting, two of the most influential CPN (Maoist Centre) leaders strongly raised the issue of grooming the successor of party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Until recently, even broaching the topic of Dahal’s successor would have been a hearsay in the party.
The two deputy general secretaries Barshaman Pun and Janardan Sharma are preparing to take the helm after party chair Dahal, who has been continuously leading the party for over three decades.
“I’m ready to support the party chair, but we should also develop a procedure to prepare his successor,” Pun had said at the meeting.
Due to the conflict between the two powerful leaders, Dahal in August last year picked Dev Prasad Gurung as general secretary, a position considered second most powerful in the communist party.
On the other hand, the party’s senior vice-chair Narayan Kaji Shrestha has been bolstering his prospects to stake claim to its leadership after Dahal. Shrestha’s popularity is thought to be growing among the general public since he has been the face of the ongoing government campaign against corruption.
The Maoist Centre’s second generation leaders are waiting for the upcoming special convention to change the party’s leadership. Their effort mirrors that of the second generation leaders of the Nepali Congress. NC General Secretary Gagan Thapa is also positioning himself to lead the party—and soon.
However, some leaders close to Pun and Sharma believe Dahal will try to create an impression that the party could face an existential crisis if he is out of leadership. The two leaders are thus careful not to make Dahal feel threatened.
Some confidants of Sharma say the two leaders have a deal to support each other, and there were also some hints of such arrangement at the recent central committee meeting.
Sharma has reportedly agreed to support Pun as Dahal’s immediate successor while Pun will help Sharma to get elected as party general secretary.
“The two leaders had agreed to move ahead in unison and had told the party chair that they would accept anyone Dahal chose as the party’s general secretary,” said Jag Prasad Sharma, a leader close to Sharma. “The party has already decided to follow due process of leadership selection. That means election.”
Jag Prasad, a member of the National Assembly, said the two leaders have for now agreed to work together and support the party chair.
Party secretary Chakrapani Khanal said he has been working hard to bring Sharma and Pun together after some others tried to drive a wedge between them. In their race for Maoist general secretary, Pun and Sharma were even thought to be rivals.
While Sharma was the finance minister in the Sher Bahadur Deuba government amid a deepening economic crisis, Pun’s public statements were quite critical of Sharma’s policies.
Dahal is often thought of as an adept practitioner of ‘divide and rule’ in party affairs. In the past, Dahal extracted maximum benefit from the polar opposite stands of Baburam Bhattarai and Mohan Baidya. Even though these leaders are now out of the party, Dahal seems to have found others to create such polarity and play in the middle.
Dahal has decided to bring in the Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal in the Socialist Front, a loose alliance of four leftist parties, and there are even efforts to merge the party with the Maoist Centre and appoint Chand as the unified party’s general secretary. Chand would then be the top contender to succeed Dahal.
This has forced Pun and Sharma to mend fences. For his part, senior vice-chair Narayan Kaji Shrestha, the deputy prime minister and home minister, has also projected himself as Dahal’s immediate successor.
Party insiders say Sharma and Pun could have decided to support one another in order to minimise the roles of Shrestha and Chand. A recent rise in Shrestha’s popularity seems to have driven the two closer still.
Shrestha had joined the party only after the warring Maoist party joined the political mainstream, following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2006.
Many Maoist leaders view Shrestha as an opportunist and an outsider, one who chose to stay away when they had put their lives on the line in order to force a change in the national political system and establish their agenda; they fought for the party and yet it was Shrestha who came from outside and took all the benefits.
Khanal, the party secretary, is one of the leaders who harbour such feelings. He claims to have worked hard to bring Sharma and Pun together. Those who recently joined the party can get some space in it but they cannot be accommodated in top leadership positions, Khanal said.
The leaders who are close to Dahal have given him a clear message that someone who refused to join the people’s war (Shrestha) and someone who betrayed the party leadership when the party needed them the most (Chand) are unfit for leadership roles.
After the chairman’s hint of bringing Chand back home, Sharma and Pun have been meeting regularly, even inviting other senior leaders to join them.
“Actually, the two leaders are not in a position to challenge Dahal, but they won’t let anyone coming from the outside take over party reins either,” said Khanal.
The party has decided to launch a three-month-long campaign of ‘transformation’ by going to the grassroots starting September 2 and then to hold a statute convention. Then the party is preparing to organise a special convention to elect a new leadership.
“As the special convention is over nine months away, there is no concrete discussion yet on a change in leadership,” said DP Dhakal, a central committee member. “But it’s true that Sharma and Pun have agreed to join hands without offending the party chair.”
However, some political analysts said there is no point in discussing leadership change or handover so long as the current party chair does not voluntarily give up power.
“Dahal has designed the system in a way that he can run the party pretty much as he wishes. He has this knack for selecting the weakest leaders for various party positions,” said Mumaram Khanal, a former Maoist leader turned political analyst.
“There is no competition for party leadership and the only real contest will be for the general secretary. But whoever becomes the general secretary has no impact as it is the chairman who runs the show.”
The Central Committee meeting held in January last year after the eighth general convention of the Maoist Centre reelected Dahal as party chair for five more years. Dahal has thus been leading the party for over three decades—uncontested.
Analyst Khanal said Dahal would never allow Shrestha to take over the party and that the Maoist Centre would lose its significance in national politics when Dahal becomes inactive.
“Communist parties like the ones led by Rohit [Narayan Man Bijukchhe], Mohan Bikram Singh and the Maoist Centre will cease to exist along with the demise of their all-powerful leadership,” said Khanal. “Maybe, in the post-Dahal phase, the Maoist party will merge with other like-minded forces.”