22-28 December 2017 #889

Rising from the ashes

If the Nepali Congress doesn’t overhaul its leadership, it will soon be extinct
Dinkar Nepal
After being ravaged by the Left Alliance in recent elections, the Nepali Congress is fighting tooth and nail to cling on to a few seats in the 59-member Upper House. The new Constitution has adopted a bicameral system with a mix of FPTP and proportional system of representation for the Lower House, and purely proportionate elections through the heads and deputies of local bodies and members of provincial assemblies for the Upper House.  

But the Constitution is not explicit on the process for the Upper House, and that ambiguity has created a post-election deadlock. Tweaking the rules may actually lead to a difference of about eight seats for the two main alliances in Nepali politics. These may be the only seats the Nepali Congress ends up with in the Upper House.

If the majority voting system is followed, as demanded by the Left Alliance, the NC will have no representation at all in the Upper House. A stable government with a strong mandate is a desirable outcome, but an opposition as weak as this is bad news for our democracy.  

In politics, like in war, heads roll after a major defeat. Or at least, they are supposed to: an organisation then regains vitality so it can live to fight another day.   Which is why the NC young turk, Gagan Thapa, has demanded a special convention of the party, a call supported by many. But even after the devastating results, party president and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba seems to be in no mood to let go.

“The responsibility of a loss of such magnitude cannot be put only on the party president,” said Deuba loyalist Balkrishna Khand, displaying shameless sycophancy. “Each and every member of the party is responsible for this loss. There is no question of change of leadership.”

Even if Deuba is removed through a special convention, there is a real danger that the quest for change of leadership will go in the wrong direction. There is already a call for heeding dynastic credentials for leadership among the members of the party.

The Grand Old Party of Nepal was formed in India in 1950 by BP Koirala after merging the Nepali National Congress with the Nepali Democratic Congress. He remained in charge of the party for 25 years, his brothers, Matrika and Girija, were at the helm for 4 and 14 years respectively. Cousin Sushil Koirala took over after Girija’s death and presided for 6 years.

In the 77-year history of the NC, the Koiralas have been in charge for more than 49 years. Even now, if the change of guard really happens, there is a likelihood that the present general secretary, Shashank Koirala (B P’s youngest son), will claim the leadership. Another aspirant is Sujata Koirala (Girija’s daughter).

A dynastic succession at this stage will make the party even weaker. Although charismatic leaders like Gagan Thapa are still reluctant to claim leadership, many supporters feel it is time for leaders like him to take bigger responsibilities. With the benefit of hindsight, some have even gone to the extent of predicting that had Thapa been promoted as prime ministerial material, first-time voters could have voted for the NC in the recent polls.

More than half of Nepal’s population is under 25, and in the next election in five years more than 20% of voters will be new. That is a huge chunk of the electorate, and because they will all be young they will look for fresh, youthful leaders. This is why the NC needs to rejuvenate itself.

Analysing the voting pattern in the three sets of elections this year gives an indication of what is in store in 2022. The ‘cloud judgment’ has voted for stability at the centre, while voting was for individuals at the local level. Successive elections since the end of the conflict have proved that Nepal has an unforgiving swing vote constituency.

Lal Babu Pandit, the UML leader popular for his honest frugality, defeated Shekhar Koirala on the home turf of the Koiralas. This should also prove that a dynastic succession will send the wrong message to Nepali youth. The Congress needs new hope, and hope can move mountains.

Read also:

The rise of the red, Om Astha Rai

The Promised Land, Editorial

The Rana reign, Kunda Dixit

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