Nepali Congress (NC) is all set to hold its 14th General Convention from 19–22 February 2021. With about six months until the allocated date and despite an increasingly perturbing pandemic, NC leaders have begun their preparation in a rather aggressive manner. This includes party president Sher Bahadur Deuba ‘unilaterally’ forming new departments and appointing people close to him, allegedly to influence the upcoming convention. Meanwhile, his rivals claim that the national mood is in favor of a leadership change and, therefore, Deuba should step down and make way for other leaders in line to head the party. Several second and third-generation NC leaders have been eyeing for the president’s post. Even Deuba’s longtime confidant, Bimalendra Nidhi, recently announced his intention to run for party president. With Deuba adamant on heading the party for one more term and several other NC leaders on putting a new face to the party, the ongoing intra-party tussle for president’s candidacy has been a curious spectacle because it has grave implication for the party and Nepal’s overall democracy.
Factions and Candidates
Nepali Congress has three main factions—led by NC president Sher Bahadur Deuba and senior leaders Ram Chandra Poudel and Krishna Prasad Situala. Eyeing for the post of party president or using the candidacy for political bargains are some 11 leaders from the three factions. While Ram Chandra Poudel, Dr. Shashank Koirala, Prakash Man Singh, Dr. Ramsharan Mahat, Arjun Narsingh KC, and Dr. Shekhar Koirala have all hinted or announced to run for president, Krishna Prasad Situala and Gagan Thapa, from the other faction, have both been speculated as likely candidates. From the Deuba faction too, Bimalendra Nidhi has announced that he will run for president. At the same time, Deuba seems reluctant to step down, and Gopal Man Shrestha silently wishes to claim the candidacy himself if Deuba decides to step aside.
The scattered voices of these leaders within the same faction demonstrate their personal ambitions and interests. They are using the opportunity for political bargains to either improve their status within the party or to get their home constituency ready for the general election. For instance, Prakash Man Singh’s narrow victory and Bimalendra Nidhi’s loss in the 2017 election show their precarious position in their respective constituencies; the general convention and even the political bargain they can milk out of the pre-convention situation will significantly influence their hold among the voters. On the other hand, Gagan Thapa has his eyes set on the party’s general secretary; his claim for presidential candidacy only paves a way to that goal of his.
The Poudel faction presents the most interesting of these intra-faction struggles. While Poudel, who ran against Deuba in the 13th general convention, wants to contend himself, late NC veteran leader BP Koirala’s son Dr. Shashank Koirala has geared up his activities. He even claims that nobody except him can defeat Deuba and, therefore, he should be running against him. His cousin Dr. Shekhar Koirala, who also claims presidential candidacy, thinks Dr. Shashank should step aside and support him this time, as he did so in the 13th convention and made way for him to be the party’s general secretary. Others from the Poudel Group seem relatively less serious for the candidacy. However, all these leaders, including Gagan Thapa and other new generation leaders, share a resolution to replace Deuba with a fresh face. This anti-Deuba determination and their likelihood to unseat Deuba in the convention are the only tools they have been using to claim their candidacy; the battle for the presidency is not an ideological one, but rather a person-centric scuffle of careerist leaders. President Deuba has been cashing in on this lack of ideological clarity and distinctiveness among the leaders, claims political analyst Dr. Chandra Dev Bhatta. Indeed, Deuba understands that the leaders so focused on removing him do not have an ideological advantage over him and that they are all the same with nothing new to offer.
Nidhi for President
The most surprising turn of events in NC’s current politics is Bimalendra Nidhi’s announcement that he will run for president—with Deuba’s support. However, Deuba seems certain that Nidhi will not run against him. Whether Nidhi is serious about his candidacy or is merely exploiting the situation to strengthen himself within the party and his constituency remains to be seen. However, if Nidhi does decide to run, it will cause a severe reshuffle in the existing party equation. Nidhi has been Deuba’s right hand for about two decades. Even when Deuba split from the NC and formed NC–Democratic, Nidhi showed him his unwavering support. So for him to claim presidency despite Deuba’s strong determination for himself puts Deuba in a challenging situation. “Most likely, Deuba will himself run for president, but if he is somehow cornered in the party, he will support Dr. Shashank Koirala,” says Dr. Bhatta. Speculations are that he will negotiate the party’s general secretary post for his wife Aarzoo Deuba if he does not run. Therefore, Nidhi’s candidacy would completely dismantle the existing factions, which also means that there may be four presidential candidates—Deuba-backed Shashank Koirala, Sitaula- and Singh-backed Bimalendra Nidhi, Ram Chandra Poudel, and Dr. Shekhar Koirala.
Many see Nidhi’s candidacy as a positive step for both Nidhi and the democratic Nepali Congress. If Deuba does not support Nidhi in his party president’s journey, the almost two-decade-long Deuba-Nidhi partnership will come to an end. This would guarantee Deuba’s decline in the party and, consequently, the largest NC faction’s demise. Even if it does not end petty factional politics within Nepali Congress, the resulting reorientation, reorganization, and changed leadership may give a new life to the party. Besides, Nidhi’s strong advocacy for federalism, secularism and inclusion are so essential to counter the communist’s populist nationalism that Nidhi’s presidency may offer NC, a strong weapon in the upcoming election. After all, these elements are central to democracy, which is being undermined by the communist government. Therefore, Nepal’s democratic future does depend on NC’s performance in the general election and, by extension, on this general convention. Apart from choosing the right candidate for the presidency, however, the party will have to demonstrate an ideological clarity whether they still represent BP’s socialism or something new. They will also have to adopt a clear vision for Madhes—their electoral base.
Nepali Congress and Madhes
Politically, Madhes has been a fertile ground that has yielded generous support to Nepali Congress. In recent years, however, the party’s performance in the region has declined dramatically owing to the party’s lack of vision for Madhes and Madhesi people at a time when political consciousness gave rise to Madhes-based political parties and identity-based politics. Nepali Congress not could catch up neither was it able to coopt and keep influential Madhesi leaders within the party. As a result, leaders like Mahantha Thakur, Jay Prakash Gupta, and Bijaya Gachchhadar defected. The only prominent Madhesi leader who stayed was late NC leader Mahendra Narayan Nidhi’s son, Bimalendra Nidhi. So, in simple words, Nepali congress could neither preserve the faces of Madhes within the party nor fight hard enough for the issues Madhesi people considered necessary. Instead, the party busied itself competing with the communists and merely reacting to their populist agendas such as anti-India nationalism. This trend was evident in recent months when PM led the constitutional amendment, introduced a controversial citizenship bill, and made provocative undiplomatic comments to divert public attention from his government’s miserable failure. The presence of the opposition Nepali Congress was barely felt in any of these episodes. The already dissatisfied Madhesi people have taken note of NC’s silence in issues as important as citizenship, India-Nepal border and relationship, and Hinduism, all of which affect them disproportionately.
Against this backdrop, therefore, even Nidhi’s candidacy and presidency may not prove enough to court the Madhesi people unless the party has a clear vision for the region and the people there. After all, Nidhi was defeated by the Rastriya Janata Party’s leader Rajendra Mahato in his home constituency in 2017. While the hype of the Madhes movement and Madhesi leaders’ popularity may have waned, the disgruntled Madhesi people are now conscious enough not to be lured by mere talks—even of the Madhes-based parties and the leaders. Whether Nepali Congress exploits this situation or becomes a victim to it depends on the party’s preparations. It may require more than a mere Madhesi face; they will have to decentralize Madhesi leadership. It will be possible to do so when/if the Janata Samajwadi Party-Nepal (JSPN) splits and the democratic leaders from JSPN appeal to their voters’ base in favor of the democratic Nepali Congress, claims Dr. Bhatta. Nidhi’s presidency might cause an emotional impetus for the Madhesi people to vote for Nepali Congress, as he would make the first-ever Madhesi prime minister if he won. However, for the party to win a general election against the communists, the candidates should roll out more transparent ideologies and agendas they bring to the table from now onwards.
Political analyst CK Lal claims, “What is now remaining of NC in Madhes is ancestral party lineage.” For the region that is so crucial to a party’s overall performance, this is a pity. What is worse is the leaders’ careerist ambitions that prioritize personal benefits over the party’s future. The ongoing battle for the presidency manifests the same sorry state of the party. No leader’s candidacy rests upon an ideological or positional distinctiveness. Dr. Shashank Koirala does come with the agenda of Nepal as a Hindu state. Keeping aside its implication for the democratic party and overall Nepal, whether Dr. Koirala is serious about it is yet to be seen. The only leader who has a strong response to Dr. Koirala is Nidhi, who has always stood as an advocate of democratic principles such as federalism, inclusion, and secularism. Besides that, what sets Poudel apart from Deuba, or what sets Sitaula apart from Singh and Koiralas remains ominously unclear, almost as unclear as NC’s future.