Since the unification of Nepal’s two biggest communist parties—the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Center)—in May 2018, the issue of power sharing has largely determined the dynamics between Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and his Nepal Communist Party (NCP) co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Oli is bent on retaining all his executive powers, while Dahal wants a greater say in the government as well as in party-related works.
The latest instance of disagreement between the two leaders concerns Dahal’s proposal of an all-party mechanism to deal with the novel coronavirus pandemic. Leaders close to PM Oli see Dahal’s proposal as a ploy to weaken the government. They believe elected governments from the center to local levels are more than capable of handling the Covid-19 crisis, and there is no need for such an extra-constitutional body.
Dahal, however, is reportedly keen on the mechanism to wrest some control over government functioning away from Oli. The former Maoist supremo’s supporters are not happy with the way the prime minister has brushed aside the mechanism. “The way PM Oli has responded to Dahal’s proposal is objectionable. A proposal made by the party’s executive chair cannot be taken so lightly,” says NCP leader Haribol Gajurel who is close to Dahal.
The relation between Oli and Dahal has been uneasy since party unification. Oli wants to centralize all powers while Dahal wants more of it for himself. As a temporary truce between the two, the NCP Secretariat meeting last November had bestowed some executive powers on Dahal. But PM Oli has continued to act as the party’s senior chairman with all executive powers, pushing Dahal to a secondary role, even in party affairs.
As per the gentleman’s understanding struck at the time of party unification, Dahal wants either the unified party’s chairmanship or the prime minister’s chair. In return for allowing Oli to continue as the prime minister for five years, Dahal had apparently been guaranteed chairmanship. But he can be chosen chairman only by the party’s national convention scheduled for next April. So Dahal wants a timely convention. Also, to be elected party-chair, Dahal needs Oli’s full support, which has not been forthcoming.
The corona caveat
Due to the Covid-19 crisis the chances of a timely convention appears bleak. All party activities have been suspended. Before the general convention, they must hold conventions of all party committees from the grassroots up, in what is a lengthy process.
According to the tentative timeline, the party’s January central working committee meeting had set aside the months of April and May for the renewal of old party memberships and distribution of new ones. But this program has had to be put off due to the coronavirus lockdown. Similarly, the party had planned on wrapping up local and provincial conventions by the end of 2020. The national general convention could then have been held on the second week of April. Now, lengthy delays are expected.
Likewise, the party’s five-month-long unification and public relation campaign that was to start on February 13 has been indefinitely postponed.
Health experts have advised against lifting social distancing measures before a vaccine for Covid-19 is developed. On current estimates, the development of such a vaccine could take at least a year. NCP leader Deepak Prakash Bhatta thus acknowledges that the general convention has been pushed into uncertainty by the corona menace.
Meanwhile, Dahal’s supporters suspect the Oli camp is trying to use the coronavirus scare to delay the convention and to sideline Dahal. “PM Oli seems unhappy at the way Dahal has been gaining ground in the party,” says Gajurel, the leader close to co-chair Dahal.
Dahal wants the reports of misappropriation of funds in the import of Covid-19 kits to be discussed in party bodies, something for which Oli is not ready. On the other hand, Oli’s supporters see Dahal’s hand in the ‘unjust’ criticism of the government’s handling of the corona menace, including the kit import.
PM Oli was forced to accept Agni Sapkota, a Dahal acolyte, as the speaker of the federal lower house. In another instance, PM Oli was not keen on nominating Bamdev Gautam as a member of the federal upper house, even though the party Secretariat had already decided to do so. In fact, on that occasion, Oli had rather alarmingly found himself in the minority in the nine-member Secretariat. There are also differences between PM Oli and Dahal on who should be the deputy-speaker of the lower house.
There is thus more than a smidgen of truth in the suspicion that Oli is trying to cement his hold, for he understands that other senior party leaders cannot openly criticize him during a national crisis.
But NCP leader Bhatta says such a course could also be dangerous for the prime minster: “If PM Oli tries to cover up his weaknesses instead of correcting them, it will lead to growing polarization within the party, with the eventual weakening of incumbent leadership.”
In other words, with Dahal getting restive for power, the Oli camp reckons the delay in general convention will strengthen their hand. But then if Oli and his small coterie are seen as sidelining others and undermining party unity, the tide could well against them by the time of the next general convention, whenever that might happen.