The much-awaited Nepali Congress Convention in Pokhara is now finally over, and a ceasefire is in force between the warring factions. How long it will last is anyone's guess, but this in-fighting had paralysed governance for almost one year and there is hope that the ruling party will now turn its attention to the country's urgent crises.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala emerged victorious by being re-elected party chairman, while his rival, Sher Bahadur Deuba, who had launched a sustained attack on Koirala to quit at least one of his two posts, conceded defeat but firmly ensconced himself as No 2 in the leadership hierarchy. The anti-Koirala faction has also doubled the number of votes in the total tally from 18 percent at the 1996 convention to 35 percent in Pokhara.
It is obvious that the future stability of the Nepali Congress (and perhaps the country) will now depend on how magnanimous Koirala is in victory and how much he will accommodate the ambitions of the rebel faction. If he doesn't, the infighting in the ruling party will continue and the nation will slip further into the morass of drift and disorder. But if he does, it will provide Koirala with a real opportunity to deliver on the promises he made when he became prime minister 11 months ago: to ensure law and order, curb corruption and improve governance. After all, his party has a majority in parliament, there are the first signs of party unity, and the morale of cadre has been restored somewhat after Pokhara.
Koirala told us: "You will see everything will start happening within ten days." This is a hint that a ministerial reshuffle is on the cards, and the cunning politician that he is, Koirala will surely try to defuse the threat from rivals by offering them lucrative and responsible posts in a new ministerial line-up next week, and oblige them to deliver. But this may not be as easy as it sounds. It was in fact the haggling over really plum ministries like Home and Finance between the Congress factions in October that triggered off the latest confrontration. This time, though, Koirala can pick from the rival camp without having to deal with Deuba, or his mentor, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai.
Eclipsed by the epic headline-grabbing battle within the Nepali Congress was the party's own first-ever election to its Central Working Committee (CWC). The tiered elections from grassroots to the regional level climaxed in Pokhara with the vote for 18 posts in this powerful committee. Another 18 members will be nominated by the party president ostensibly to ensure an ethnic, regional, gender and political mix. Among the 18 elected members, six were anti-Koirala, nine pro and the rest non-committed. Three scions of veteran Congress leaders (Prakash Koirala, son of BP Koirala, Prakash Man Singh, son of Ganesh Man Singh and Bimalendra Nidhi, son of Mahendra Narayan Nidhi) were elected. Interestingly, Deputy Prime Minister Ram Chandra Poudel got the most votes although he hardly did any lobbying. This perhaps indicates the strength of the middle-roaders and the seeming desire within the party for unity and compromise.
If there was one winner in Pokhara, it was the party: it has now got the mechanism in place to ensure a leadership filter through a democratic process. Bollywood actress Manisha Koirala, who was in Pokhara to campaign on behalf of her daddy Prakash Koirala, was "repulsed" by the cut-throat rivalries within the party. But even she was impressed with the process: "This was a truly democratic party convention. People with different opinions found space, and there was a rejection of the autocratic way of doing things. It is a very good sign. With the infighting behind us, the party can now focus on looking after the country."
For a week the entire country's attention was focussed on Pokhara. Even the main opposition leaders from the UML and other leftist parties admitted they were keenly watching the outcome of the Pokhara convention to formulate future strategies. With the ruling party preoccupied with no-trust votes and politically tinged riots on the streets, there was a sense that the country was drifting rudderless on a stormy ocean. Pokhara also saw the presence of an unprecedented number of pressure groups, big business, lobbyists, and media who considered it important enough to invest the time and energy to see how the ruling party would resolve its internal conflict and find a way out.
The other aspect of the Convention that was overshadowed by the leadership tussle was its first-ever Policy Paper into which the party had put in a lot of work over two years to reflect feedback from the grassroots. The Paper reiterated strongly the party's commitment to socialism, reflecting the viewpoint of the party cadre at the local level who felt that the liberal market economy had sidelined the concerns of the poor. "Liberalism and socialism should not be seen as contradictory, but a reflection of the party's ideals of understanding and reconciliation," says the Paper, and goes on to quote BP Koirala from a speech he made at the Socialist International Convention in Australia in 1981: "Democratic socialism is the wave of the future for the Third World."
The Policy Paper uses even stronger words to analyse the way Nepal has been indiscriminate in going for foreign aid projects. "Foreign aid will not be donor-driven. It will be a reflection of the need, appropriateness, and priorities of Nepal and Nepalis. And it will be on our terms, we will not accept unnecessary conditionalities." The Nepali Congress had accepted numerous donor conditions for projects like the Arun III project, the hydropower scheme that never materialised. The party is now seeing the backlash of some of those conditionalities from within its own ranks.
Koirala has stated he will step down within three years. The leadership then will devolve on a new generation of leaders who will hopefully work out their future internal differences (and there will be many) through the process initiated in Pokhara without bringing the whole country to a standstill.