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Nepali Congress takes undemocratic road

Nepali Congress takes undemocratic road

Within a week of PM KP Oli’s parliament dissolution, Nepali Congress began organizing mass protests in all districts. Leaders forcefully criticized Oli for “assaulting democracy and the constitution” and made critical appraisals of the Nepali Communist Party’s tenure in government. The case against the dissolution then moved to the Supreme Court, whereupon a divide grew inside Congress. Unsurprisingly, it appeared along the same fault-lines Congress is known for. Instead of uniting as the opposition, Congress leaders predictably jumped at the chance to revive intra-party rivalries.

In this episode, the dividing issue has been Party President Sher Bahadur Deuba’s declaration that Congress will not put pressure on the court and will accept the court verdict unconditionally, even if it leads to the mid-term elections Oli has announced. On the other side of the dividing line, Dr. Shekhar Koirala, Shashank Koirala, Prakash Man Singh, Gagan Thapa and others, in one way or another, have demanded House reinstatement and suggested Congress not go to elections. While they urge the Supreme Court to decide the case a particular way and protest against election, they allege cadres are “confused due to mixed signaling” from top leadership.” Deuba, however, while backing the protests, was also among the first to criticize the dissolution as unconstitutional and undemocratic.

While Deuba maintains that political pressure should never be used to undercut judiciary’s independence, others lament his reluctance. Do Congress leaders have varying levels of respect for separation of powers and judicial independence, or is it just another game of political football inside the party?

A few things are certain: the Supreme Court currently has the dissolution case as sub judice, which is defined as: “under judicial consideration and therefore prohibited from public discussion elsewhere.” It is also a fact that the court is an independent government body, and suspicion of influence from outside weakens the full force of the verdict, whatever it may be. For example, if all parties demand the reinstatement of the House and the House is reinstated, it opens the door for Oli allege the SC of bowing down to pressure. This is an outcome no one wants.

Therefore, not wishing to discuss a case that is sub judice and not to profess your preferred outcome seems prudent, whichever outcome you desire. Yet, senior leaders such as Ram Chandra Paudel have not stopped discussing it publicly. He has, incredibly, professed the SC should be “directly told to reinstate the House.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Shekhar Koirala has said the election Oli declared is “not possible,” adding, “Deuba’s not asking for House reinstatement while calling its dissolution unconstitutional is meaningless.” But as a prominent political figure it is impossible not to put pressure on the court when declaring preferred outcomes. Therefore, it is not “meaningless” to abstain from pressuring the Supreme Court; in a democracy, it is paramount.

Dr. Minendra Rijal took another stupefying line of attack when he said, “Party President Deuba overstepped his bounds by saying Congress will accept election if that is the court verdict.” Here we see an MP actually saying it is wrong of his party president to show readiness to accept the Supreme Court verdict.

Gagan Thapa says holding protests against the dissolution of the House is essentially the same as demanding reinstatement from the SC. But the protests not only revolve around dissolution but on the Oli government’s record as a whole. Labeling the dissolution unconstitutional and organizing protests moreover were immediate reactions to Oli’s actions, which the party surely must have done as the main opposition. But it is wrong of leaders to then use this protest platform to demand the House’s reinstatement, because that is something we leave to the Supreme Court. Protesting against PM Oli’s actions, in contrast, is a citizen right and not something we leave to the judiciary.

Moreover, Deuba maintains silence on reinstatement at a cost. It certainly does not cost him anything to come out in favor of it; to the contrary, political currents favor him, as both NCP factions have reportedly offered him Prime Minister’s chair, conditional on reinstatement. Deuba seems to value judicial independence over political expediency. This is especially important as other Congress leaders are undermining the judicial process while ironically claiming to be bastions of democratic sanctity.

Therefore, while some act like they are in a functioning democracy, others weaponize the issue for intra-party politics. Recently, the NC issued a press statement to clarify that its central committee meeting had agreed to let NC’s respective province parliamentary members assess which NCP faction is better suited to Congress. Yet, ‘anonymous’ Congress leaders came out of the same meeting to brief the press that “Deuba was inclined to side with Oli.”

Now is great time to unite against the failings of current government but it is obvious where priorities of some in the party lie. They repeatedly choose to undercut their own leadership, undermine judicial independence and the force of its verdict, and even party unity. Either they are unaware of this or pretend to be so. It is hard to say which is worse.