Will Gagan Kumar Thapa become the prime ministerial candidate from his party? Ask this to young cadre of the Nepali Congress and they will say he can and should become the next prime minister. But if you ask senior Congress leaders, they will tell you that Thapa’s time has not come to become the party’s candidate for prime minister.
If there is a contest between the NC president Sher Bahadur Deuba, and Thapa for Parliamentary Party (PP) leader, the prerequisite to becoming prime minister candidate, the former could sweep the election, given his strong command in the party structure. He is struggling to secure the support of senior leaders like Shekhar Koirala and Ram Chandra Poudel.
He has been projecting himself as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. In the run-up to the Nov 20 general elections, he told voters that he was going to vie for PP leadership. The card worked well with the voters and Thapa was elected from Kathmandu-4. A former student leader, Thapa has risen through the party ranks in an incredible fashion.
He was elected as the general secretary of NC in 2021 and has previously served as a health minister. He is among the few well-read and eloquent politicians in the country. He emboldened his position as the potential national leader of the NC when he faced off against the then-prime minister KP Sharma Oli of CPN-UML in parliament.
No wonder many young Congress members see him as a visionary leader who could revive the party that is suffering from chronic factional politics. But realistically, he has little chance of winning the PP leadership race, because the majority of NC lawmakers belong to the Deuba camp. Some observers say Thapa is well aware that he has no chance of winning the election for PP leadership and that he is only outlining his intent for the future of the NC by announcing his candidacy.
Thapa is essentially priming himself to become the party’s leader and prime minister after five years. Right now, he lacks the support of senior leaders to pose a serious challenge to Deuba. Moreover, government formation is not just an intra-party affair. As the elections have produced a hung parliament, the next government will be a coalition one. There should be agreement among coalition partners on the prime ministerial candidate.
Within the NC, Thapa, despite being a popular leader, has not formed any faction, which is a must if he were to become a serious contender for the post of party president or prime minister. In the 13th general convention of the party, Thapa joined Krishna Prasad Sitaula’s camp. He won the election for the party’s general secretary in the 14th general convention in 2021 by joining the Shekhar Koirala faction.
It seems that Thapa is now trying to form his own faction rather than staying in the Koirala camp. In the party’s Central Working Committee (CWC) and PP, a large number of leaders are above 55 years old. Though many of them respect him and cannot deny his rise, they do not support him as a PP leader. Many of his seniors do not feel comfortable on his rise. Leaders who are of Thapa’s age, meanwhile, see him as their competitor. That is why many youth leaders support Deuba to solidify their own positions inside the party.
He is popular and among the party cadres, but when it comes to CWC or PP, he has only a few supporters. NC’s leadership structure is dominated by old faces, and for a young leader like Thapa to get to the top is tough right now. Nevertheless, Thapa’s rise in the party cannot be ignored. While scores of senior NC leaders are struggling to get elected as party CWC members and parliamentarians, this is the fourth time that Thapa has become the lawmaker since he was first elected in the 2008 Constituent Assembly polls.
So far, Bishwa Prakash Sharma, party general secretary, is the only senior leader who has publicly spoken in his favor of Thapa’s bid to become the prime minister candidate. Sharma said on December 30 that he would try to forge a consensus within the party to make Thapa the party’s prime minister candidate. He said: “My role will be to convince Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Poudel to accept Thapa as a prime minister.”
Thapa and Sharma are trying to create their own faction in the NC after the party’s 14th general convention held in 2021. Besides, Thapa is not the only NC leader who is in the race to become prime minister. Senior leader Ram Chandra Poudel has also staked his claim to the post and has already reached out to CPN (Unified Socialist) leader Madhav Kumar Nepal to seek his support. Poudel, who was considered Deuba’s main rival in the party, remained passive ahead of the party’s 14th general convention. This led to the emergence of Shekhar Koirala as Deuba’s chief rival in the party’s presidential race. Thapa, who was elected the party’s general secretary through the same convention, had supported Koirala’s presidential bid.
Whether Koirala will support Thapa’s prime ministerial aspiration remains uncertain for now. Koirala told media on Dec 1 that he will make his position clear only after consultation with the party president. Deuba too has not spoken about his intent to become prime minister, but his core supporters believe he will and he should take on the job. Leaders in the Deuba camp including Purna Bahadur Khadka, Prakash Sharan Mahat, Purna Bahadur Khadka and Gyanendra Bahadur Karki have been saying in public that the party president will lead the coalition government. Though it is a very challenging job for Thapa, his candidacy has created a ripple inside and outside the party.