At 78, Girija Prasad Koirala, still thinks he has the muscle to be the next president of the Nepali Congress And he is telling his old friend and present foe, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai: come-and-get-me-if-you-can. The other Congress 78-year-old, is not contesting, so Koirala is now preparing for a showdown with Bhattarai prot?g? Sher Bahadur Deuba.
On Tuesday, Koirala put speculation to rest by announcing that he was contesting the position of party president one more time. Control over the party can be even more important than the prime ministership. Koirala says it is going to be "one man, two jobs".
Deuba showed his nervousness at his own press meet later the same day. He sat surrounded by his trusted generals, who, we were told, had advised him to declare his challenge. He did that in Janakpur on Wednesday.
Koirala and Deuba are now officially at war that will be more cut-throat than a national election. Now, the focus will be on serious electioneering, which is also time for horse-trading. To increasingly-disgusted Nepalis, it does not matter if it is Koirala or Deuba who is leading this feckless party. And we all had high hopes about the younger generation of leaders being cleaner and more business-like. Sensing the disarray, the leftist opposition has smelt blood, and is cashing in on the fuel price hike to launch a season of strikes that threatens to cripple tourism. In this melee, no one seems to have time to address this country's urgent problems-not even to try and revive the stalled talks with the Maoists.
We'll find out who's boss in two months when the Nepali Congress holds its general convention in Pokhara. But even then there may be no clues to why the Nepalis have to suffer this endless Congress cockfight, and why the party cannot function as a cohesive political organisation. OK, all political parties fight. But what is serious here is that every time they clash, the dust chokes the entire government machinery. Now that Koirala is in the fray he will have to also get down to serious campaigning. Signs of campaigning were already evident as in the bizarre sight last week when both the opposition left parties (against fuel prices) and the Deuba faction (haggling over the nitty-gritty of party membership) were out picketing.
Congress insiders say both sides know very well that the fight over active membership is immaterial since the 2,000 memberships in question will not affect the outcome in Pokhara, where only delegates chosen by over 107,000 will vote. The outline of a possible future leadership will emerge after the 1,450 delegates are picked.
The Deuba-Bhattarai camp is now suggesting that the old electoral list be used. But the Koirala side says that list does not include new memberships Koirala had approved. The numbers that are indeed crucial for control of the party in the post-Koirala, post-Bhattarai Congress.
Then there was the resignation of two Deuba-Bhattarai supporters from the party's election committee stating that the other three in it voted down their request to scan memberships. Narayan Khadka, a Bhattarai aide told us: "This was wrong. Members had a right to see the lists."
We asked Congress spokesman, Narahari Acharya, if this was true. His reply: there was just no time to re-examine the memberships and it would be done when the time came for the vote--even predicting that this would be the most organised convention the party has had.
Sher Bahadur thinks he, a former prime minister, should be next in line of succession. Koirala and his supporters have got used to power, and done nicely for themselves, and don't want to let go. Koirala had no choice but to contest himself because he has not yet picked a successor. The winning side will have a full three years to build its own fiefdoms, till the next general elections in 2003. In the end it is money politics pure and simple: the chance to earn the money to buy themselves to power so they can earn more money. The tragedy for Nepal is that regardless of which side wins, it is almost certain that the Congress infighting will begin the day after.