Individually, the membership in the ruling party reads like a political Nepali Who's Who. Among them are leaders who've spent the best years of their lives in jail for the sake of the people, technocrats with unrivalled experience and specialisation, grassroots workers risen up the ranks, and even Panchayat-era politicos made good. As a party, however, the 50-year-old Nepali Congress is still struggling to emerge as an entity that is not constantly crippled by power struggles at the top.
Two weeks ago, the party, now headed for its 10th General Convention on 19-22 January to be held in Pokhara, staged its umpteenth drama. A recap: as Nepal was recovering from the rampage over what was not said by a young Indian actor, a Congress faction-instead of rallying behind its government to restore calm-made a grab for power. By the end of the week the rebels were back licking their wounds and the NC government of Girija Prasad Koirala went back to work, pretending nothing had happened.
All eyes are now on Pokhara, where history of sorts is going to be made as delegates from all over gather. Whereas in the past the elected party president nominated all the members to the NC's Central Working Committee (CWC), this time half the members will be elected from the floor. (Nominating the other half will still be the prerogative of the president).
The election of half the delegates is sure to transform the inner dynamics of the ruling party. To begin with, the relative strengths of the different factions and factional leaders will be cleared than in the earlier situation where the party president chose one and all. Also, it is not clear how the relationship between those who have been nominated and others who have made it on the strength of votes cast will evolve.
It is likely, however, that this first time election for CWC membership will point to the likely successor(s) after the septuagenarian dons Koirala and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai retire. This would be much better, and a more 'democratic' process, than having to choose successors only from among those already anointed by the presiding don.
The Congress has always been a president's party. Delegates to the General Convention elected him, and he in turn nominated the entire CWC.
A CWC appointment, meanwhile, has always been seen as the first step towards a ministership. All this may change after Pokhara, making it possible to gauge a leader's popularity among the party rank and file.
For years a subject of ridicule for its inability to hand over power to the second rung, the NC realises well that Bhattarai (77) and Koirala (78) cannot go on forever. Bhattarai, the now-you-see-him-now-you-don't leader of the anti-Koirala camp, is actually semi-retired. Even Koirala has set a deadline for himself. "I will quit both positions within three years," says the prime minister and party president in Himal Khabarpatrika's forthcoming issue. "The younger generation must be more patient."
Laughably, that younger generation is itself in its mid- to late-fifties. But even then they quarrel like boys (and a girl-there is Shailaja Acharya) over a new toy. In fact, Bhattarai and Koirala have borne the burden of leadership mainly because there has been no clear front-runner among the 'youthful' wannabes. The Pokhara convention may be regarded as the primaries for the leadership round among this second rung, where the wheat will be sifted from the chaff.
Among the top leaders in this generation are Ram Chandra Poudel, Sher Bahadur Deuba and Shailaja Acharya.
For now, Deuba represents the vortex of anti-Koirala sentiment, through his one-point agenda of forcing Koirala to relinquish one of his two responsibilities. Deuba's strengths are his support in the Far West, his having been prime minister once, and the fact that Koirala castaways have coalesced around him-the power brokers Khum Bahadur Khadka and Bijaya Kumar Gachhedar in particular. Disadvantage: affinity to Nepal's former ruling elite, including a clique within the Royal Palace.
Koirala's maverick niece Shailaja Acharya began politics well before both Deuba and Poudel. Without popular or regional support and having lost her parliamentary seat, Pokhara's vote is her only chance of re-emerging in the race. Her well-known disadvantages: frank honesty and unpredictability.
The other underdog is Ram Chandra Poudel, described as a hard if unimaginative worker. Known to have a limited, Tanahu-centric vision, Poudel lacks the strong regional support which is Deuba's trump card. By siding with Koirala since March 2000, however, Poudel has improved his chances. He can carry the delegates that Koirala controls in Pokhara. Besides, serving as home minister is said to be good for your political career.
The other Congress-wallahs to watch in Pokhara are the party general secretary Sushil Koirala and Khum Bahadur Khadka. Of the two, Sushil is said to have a firm grip on the party machine, but he prefers backroom manipulations to taking the rostrum. Ditto for Khadka, a one-time home minister who is now said to be masterminding Deuba's challenge.
However the cookie may crumble, the Pokhara convention looks like it will mark the beginning of the end of the NC's two-man oligarchy-an incongruous situation that was maintained (with all its tantrums and unnatural patch-ups) mainly because the strength of the second rung was never tested. In Pokhara, even if partially, it will be.
For Deuba, the upcoming convention will hold a special challenge. He has used opposition to Koirala as a useful strategy to establish himself as a strong challenger. He will now have to prove his ability to garner votes from NC representatives from all over, and not just from his Far Western satrapy. Ditto, of course, for Koirala and his henchmen and women.
There is no doubt that Deuba is the frontrunner in the race to inherit the party, but now the rules of engagement have changed and the party election has given delegates the power to make or break the leaders. An upset is always possible, and the lion of the far west may not be able to sleep with the sheep of east.
And what of the slew of other tried and tested fifty somethings who too are waiting in the wings-from Ram Sharan Mahat, Chakra Prasad Bastola, Narendra Bikram Nemwang, Tara Nath Ranabhat, Chiranjibi Wagle, Prakash Koirala, Amod Upadhyaya, Govinda Raj Joshi and so on. They, too, are all 'young'. Oh, well.