On October 31, Prime Minister KP Sharma rather blatantly expressed his frustration against Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s constant ‘discontent’ by suggesting a party split on mutual terms. Although the friction between the Nepal Communist Party (NCP)’s two chairs is not an unusual phenomenon, the latest turn of events indicates the party is going through a serious crisis—once again. Even the party’s General Secretary and current Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel publicly stated that the party’s unity is under threat. Realizing the gravity of the situation, top leaders from both Oli and Dahal-Nepal faction have been working actively to try and hatch a truce between the two heads. Central Committee members are also on their feet again, cautioning the leaders against a party split. In a bid to save the party unity, President Bidhya Devi Bhandari met NCP’s deputy chair Bamdev Gautam and requested him to play his role, like in the past, to help save the unity. However, Dahal, backed by senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal, has displayed an irreparable distrust in Oli, while the PM continues to reaffirm that he will not step down as prime minister at any cost. The growing disparity between the two party chairs and NCP’s internal power struggle requires a revisit in the light of most recent developments, which include Oli’s threat of a ‘big action.’
Old Wound, New Bruises
The ruling party has had internal challenges since the two parties, NCP—Unified Marxist Leninists (NCP—UML) and NCP—Maoist Centre (NCP—MC), unified to form Nepal Communist Party. Famously known as a mere ‘marriage of convenience,’ the party has failed to come up with a workable ideology and manage the top leadership. The absence of ideological clarity, leadership mismanagement, and PM Oli’s strong headedness have constantly caused a battle of egos between Oli and Dahal, who finds himself sidelined and his role in the party reduced. Victims of PM Oli’s slyness and tyranny, other leaders, including Madhav Kumar Nepal, Bamdev Gautam, and Jhalanath Khanal, have simply served as Dahal’s important knights in the tussle. As a masterful player himself, though, Oli has successfully dodged all the attacks directed at him so far. For instance, an aggressive call for his resignation as the prime minister and party’s chair and months-long negotiations culminated in a Standing Committee decision on September 11, 2020, which merely allocated Oli’s role as the prime minister (for five years) and Dahal’s as the party’s ‘executive chief.’ In less than two months, however, the truce has gone out of the window, and the party seems to be standing at a more critical juncture.
Besides the underlying differences and grievances between Oli and Dahal, NCP’s most recent crisis stems from Dahal’s perception that Oli has violated Standing Committee’s September 11 decision. The perceived violations were seen during the PM’s ambassadorial appointments, cabinet reshuffle, intervention in provincial government of Karnali, and Oli’s meeting with India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief Samant Kumar Goel. The September 11 standing meeting had assigned the government’s and party’s responsibility to Oli and Dahal, respectively. It had also stipulated federal cabinet reshuffle, change in the provincial government, political appointments based on proper party criteria and methods, finalizing party unity, and starting preparation for the general convention. However, neither Oli nor Dahal could bring each other (and Nepal) in confidence while executing these actions. Instead, both began a series of accusations aimed at each other; while Dahal accuses Oli of overlooking the party’s decision and making decisions unilaterally, Oli maintains that Dahal always obstructs the government’s performance instead of handling his party responsibilities.
First of all, on October 1, Oli’s cabinet recommended Yubaraj Khatiwada and Lok Darshan Regmi as ambassadors to the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively. Similarly, the cabinet also appointed Shankar Das Bairagi as chief secretary and Nirmal Kumar Bishwakarma as ambassador to South Africa. Reportedly, these political appointments did not occur after any consultation with or approval of either the party or the ‘executive chief’ Dahal. Oli’s move was crucial and the first in a row to upset Dahal, Nepal, and other leaders who would have liked to at least participate in the process. After all, these specific appointments are lucrative and carry a significant political weight, which means leaders usually like to influence such recommendations. However, in his usual manner, Oli decided to bypass the party and made the decision unilaterally, lighting the first match to the current dispute.
The second move that steered the party towards the ongoing crisis was Oli’s intervention in Karnali’s provincial politics. PM Oli tried to change Karnali’s government by staging a vote of no-confidence against CM Mahendra Bahadur Shahi, a Dahal’s confidante. In the province-level politics that soon gained national attention and saw the interference of the federal government and the ruling party, Nepal and Dahal joined hands, which led to the neutralization of the motion after Nepal-backed provincial lawmakers backtracked. The episode saw an Oli-Dahal divide in that the two chiefs issued two different press notes on the dispute: while Oli directed the CM to reinstate Gulab Jung Shah as the chief whip, Dahal instructed that all disputes be solved at the provincial level. Amid of the ongoing dispute, CM Shahi negotiated with pro-Nepal leaders for a cabinet reshuffle to oust the two pro-Oli ministers from the provincial cabinet. However, when Oli realized the growing Dahal-Nepal alliance at the provincial level and threatened the Dahal-Nepal faction of a ‘big action,’ CM Shahi halted the reshuffle. In fact, Oli’s fear of being alienated and his defensive threat of ‘big action’ has startled NCP and opposition leaders alike.
Amidst NCP’s internal politics and power struggle in regards to altering provincial governments, PM Oli reshuffled the federal cabinet and filled three ministries with people close to him. The move particularly upset Nepal, who had wished to send Surendra Pandey and Beduram Bhusal to the cabinet. With only two of his people in the cabinet—Ghanashyam Bhusal and Yogesh Bhattarai—Nepal has constantly expressed his discontent with Oli, who has periodically betrayed his trust. Despite claims of an extensive cabinet reshuffle after Tihar, Dahal-Nepal and other leaders from the anti-Oli camp saw this move as yet another instance of Oli’s disregard for the September 11 standing committee decision. To them, Oli had begun acting unilaterally again.
What exacerbated the already heated dispute within the party was PM Oli’s meeting with the RAW chief Goel. Although the Finance Minister cleared that Goel’s visit was procedural, approved by the Ministry of Finance, anti-Oli leaders interpreted the meeting with cynical eyes and called it undiplomatic. They played up Oli’s nationalist image and accused him of being a hypocrite for meeting Goel, an intelligence chief. Similarly, a clash between two factions of the NCP that killed a cadre in Parsa and the subsequent government negligence caused a further rift in the party. These few events have resurfaced an anti-Oli struggle within the party. PM Oli, on the other hand, accuses the agitating group of being a constant obstacle to the government and has threatened to take a ‘big action’ if they continue to do so.
What Would the PM’s Big Action?
Leaders, experts, and political analysts have begun examining what Oli’s ‘big action’ could be. While he has already hinted at splitting the party, one of his big steps could be to split the party himself. However, as he does not have the required 40% vote in both the Central Committee and Parliamentary Party, he could introduce a new ordinance as he did in the past. A new provision that requires 40% or less of the vote only in the Parliamentary Party would allow Oli to split the party. Although less likely, Oli’s other possible ‘big action’ could be getting the president to dissolve the parliament and conducting a mid-term election. Despite its unconstitutionality, Nepali Congress would not oppose the election simply because participating in an election with a split NCP would benef it.
In short, nothing! No NCP leader wants the party to split. Although Oli has a minority in the party’s Secretariat, Central Committee, and Parliamentary Party when Nepal and Dahal are together, the prime minister enjoys executive control and, therefore, has state mechanisms in his favor. This means no matter how dissatisfied Dahal and Nepal are with Oli, they cannot make him resign easily through the majority or a party directive. To remove Oli, therefore, NCP would have to strip his party membership, file an official motion of no-confidence, and vote him out with a majority in the parliamentary party. However, the Nepal-Dahal faction is very cautious about taking any drastic action against Oli because if the PM introduces an ordinance and splits the party, as the leader of the new parliamentary party, he will stay the prime minister.
Neither Dahal nor Nepal wants to see the party split. Dahal simply would have nowhere to go and little political future left if he were to split from NCP. He has lost all his prominent Maoist friends and has no organizational base to revive his party. That is the reason he had to forego his “21st Century’s Peoples Democracy and Maoist ideology” and merge with Oli’s party with “People’s Multiparty Democracy” (Janata ko Bahudaliya Janabad or JaBaJa) ideology. Although the NCP’s resulting ideology was the so-called “People’s Democracy” (Janata ko Janabad), the dominance of Oli’s JaBaJa has been clearly visible throughout. In fact, Oli has now started preparing his Province 1 cadres for JaBaJa through virtual meetings, which he claims will gain relevance again after the general convention. What this indicates is Dahal’s political demise; if Oli does bulldoze his way under the ideological armor of JaBaJa, Dahal will have no option left than to follow submissively. After all, he has the burden of a long armed-conflict and has to evade international trials by taking political refuge under some party. NCP happens to be his most convenient option, which he cannot afford to gamble away.
Madhav Kumar Nepal happens to be at an interesting spot within the NCP. Ideologically, he would lean towards JaBaJa. Plus, he has significant clout in the party, and an Oli-Nepal alliance could go a long way, decimating Dahal or other groups. However, Nepal has little trust in Oli, who has repeatedly betrayed him and has proven that he cannot be trusted with his words. As an opportunist himself, Dahal has also cornered Nepal and made agreements with Oli on multiple occasions. Despite that, Nepal leans towards Dahal more than Oli. Nevertheless, Nepal’s confidence in Dahal is not due to his ideological inclination but rather due to a shared necessity of keeping authoritarian Oli in check. Even that has not helped, and Oli continues to intimidate all. One thing is clear though, if Oli somehow wins Nepal’s trust, brings him under his fold in the name of JaBaJa, Dahal’s political career will hit a new low.