The intrigues inside the ruling Nepal Communist Party are creating all the headlines. And rightly so. PM Oli could struggle to mount a strong challenge to what has been billed as an ‘internal coup’ against him. His health is iffy. His command over the party is fast slipping. In this situation, talking about the Nepali Congress—that other, comparably miniscule party in the national parliament that is often ridiculed for its ineffectual and uninspiring leadership—may seem like an exercise in futility. And yet the recent ructions in the Grand Old Party will have a lasting impact.
The main opposition party is convening its General Convention, its top decision-making body, in the first week of February 2021. Incumbent party President Sher Bahadur Deuba, 73, is looking to hang on, even after the party under him got a drubbing in the 2017 elections. Other party leaders wanted him to take responsibility and resign; Deuba asked why only he had to pay.
Deuba could face a tough challenge from Dr Shekhar Koirala who has been widely canvassing the country trying to drum up support for his candidacy for the president. He believes he is the right scion of the Koirala family and that Dr Shashank Koirala, the other Koirala candidate for presidency, should make way for him. But Shashank, whose legacy as late BP’s son is unmatched and who got the popular vote during the last general convention en route to his election as general secretary, is in no mood to concede. Sujata Koirala, the daughter of late Girija Prasad, could also throw her hat in the ring at the last minute.
Ram Chandra Poudel, 75, who feels other senior leaders have long cheated him of party presidency, and even prime minister’s chair, thinks his time has finally come. Prakash Man Singh, another senior leader from the Poudel camp, also wants to fight for presidency. But if Poudel enters the ring, Singh is likely to settle for vice-president again.
The common feeling is that the Nepali Congress will struggle to be a competitive force again so long as the old bunch of leaders don’t retire and hand over leadership to younger Turks like Gagan Thapa, 43, and Bishwa Prakash Sharma, 49. Yet these leaders are likely to settle for general secretary, the second most powerful executive post, this time around. From the Deuba camp, spokesperson Bishwa Prakash Sharma is likely to fight for general secretary. Shekhar Koirala is trying to woo Gagan Thapa into his camp as a general secretary candidate.
There seems to be a clear choice for other camps fighting Deuba. Either they choose a common candidate against the four-time prime minister, or Deuba wins again. “If there are multiple candidates, Deuba is sure to win again,” says senior NC leader Hom Nath Dahal, who has closely worked with Deuba in the past. No offense. But a Deuba win is not what most folks in or outside the party are looking forward to.
Nepali Congress bigwigs jostle for a supremacy after general convention dates out
With the announcement of its General Convention date, the race for the posts of party president and general secretary, the two top executive posts in the Nepali Congress, is heating up.After a long tussle among rival factions over convention procedures, the grand old party has decided to hold it in the first week of February 2021. Rival factions have intensified preparations to garner convention representatives.
The party has also unveiled the itinerary for its local and provincial conventions and for the finalization of convention representatives with voting rights. For party president, at least four top leaders—namely incumbent party president Sher Bahadur Deuba, senior leader Ram Chandra Poudel, General Secretary Shashank Koirala and Central Working Committee member Shekhar Koirala—have staked their claims.
Four-time Prime Minister Deuba is again going for presidency, as he says he will retire only after again making NC a ‘great party’. The party had badly lost the 2017 federal and provincial elections, and Deuba copped most of the blame for his supposed weak leadership. There was pressure on Deuba to step down; Deuba in turn argued that the party should take collective responsibility for the poor electoral outcome.
Deuba wants to be the party president till the next national elections in 2023 and to regain the party’s strength to prove that he is a capable leader. At the same time, according to insiders, Deuba is still in a dilemma about his successor and there is intense competition in the faction for the same: Bimalendra Nidhi, Purna Bahadur Khadka, Gyanendra Bahadur Karki, Prakash Sharan Mahat, Biswoprakash Sharma, and Bal Krishna Khand are all in the fray.
From the main rival faction, Poudel, a senior leader and ex-vice president, is fighting for party presidency this time. He reckons he should be the president at least once after repeatedly being denied the opportunity.
“As a senior leader, Poudel’s candidacy is natural,” says NC leader Nabindra Raj Joshi. Prakash Man Singh, another senior leader from the Poudel camp, also wants to fight for presidency after having already served as general secretary and vice-president. But if Poudel fights from this camp, Singh is likely to settle for vice-president again.
The next Koirala
From the Koirala camp, there are at least two candidates for party president. Senior leader Shekhar Koirala has already launched a nationwide campaign. In the past two years, he has been continuously canvassing the country. Incumbent General Secretary Shanshank Koirala is also vying for party presidency. Both Koiralas say there will be a single candidate from the Koirala family. But who? Shekhar has kept himself away from factional politics, while Shashank, who belongs to the Poudel faction, is also trying to project himself as being above factional politics. “Shekhar Koirala has been preparing for long and he seems to be in no mood to backtrack,” Joshi says.
In the previous convention in 2016, senior leader Krishna Prasad Sitaula had also fought for party presidency. This time, he is not fighting but is still leading an important faction. There is also a possibility of the Poudel, Koirala and Situala camps coming together to beat Deuba. In that case, it would be hard for Deuba to win. A leader requesting anonymity said a formula could be worked out whereby senior leader Poudel will be party candidate for prime minister after the next election, in which case either Shanshank or Shekhar would be candidates for party president. Poudel is not sold on this idea though.
Shashank Koirala, son of veteran NC leader BP, is in popular among party rank and file, mainly elder cadres. He won the popular votes while vying for the post of general secretary at the 2016 convention. If there is no agreement among Poudel, Koirala, and Sitaula factions, there could be multiple candidates for president, a situation that will be to Deuba’s favor. “If there are multiple candidates, Deuba is sure to win again,” says senior NC leader Hom Nath Dahal, who has closely worked with Deuba in the past.
Voices in the party are growing that leadership should be handed over to youth leaders. Yet no youth leader is likely to be the party president in the upcoming convention, even if one of them could be the general secretary. All factions seem ready to give more space to young leaders, partly because of the feeling that youth leaders can regain the party’s strength and fight the mighty communist forces.
Even senior leaders think youths should get more leadership roles. What is going for the youths is that “there is widespread frustration over the leadership and there is also the anti-incumbency factor,” Dahal says.
From the Deuba camp, spokesperson Biswoprakash Sharma is likely to fight for general secretary. Shekhar Koirala is trying to woo Gagan Thapa into his camp. According to party leaders, Thapa is almost sure to fight for general secretary. But there are challenges for youth leaders too.
In both Poudel and Deuba camps, there are influential older leaders who want to be general secretary. For instance, Ram Sharan Mahat, Arjun Narsingh KC, and Minendra Rijal are vying for senior positions from the Koirala camp. Similarly, Deuba has the challenge of managing leaders such as Gyanendra Bahadur Karki, Bal Krishna Khand, and Prakash Sharan Mahat. There is also the possibility of these leaders being managed at the provincial levels.
The previous general convention was held in 2016. The party statute says the convention should take place every four years, although there is room to push it off by a year. Soon after the party’s defeat in the 2017 elections, there was pressure on Deuba to call the convention in order to elect a new leadership. Deuba dismissed such demands. Historically, there has been a tendency in the Nepali Congress to indefinitely occupy the post of party president, barring youth leaders from leadership
January 25-26, 1947: Nepali National Congress formed, and Tanka Prasad Acharya, who was serving life imprisonment at the time, becomes president. BP Koirala is chosen acting president.
March 13, 1947: The party launches a massive countrywide anti-Rana regime demonstration. A labor movement is started at the Biratnagar Jute Mill under the leadership of Girija Prasad Koirala.
April 9, 1950: Nepali Congress formed through the merger of Nepali National Congress (established on 25 January 1947) and Nepal Democratic Congress (4 August 1948) in Calcutta, India, and an armed struggle is heralded. Matrika Prasad Koirala becomes the party president.
September 26-27, 1950: The Bairgania Conference adopts the strategy of the armed revolt to overthrow the Rana regime.
November 6, 1950: The armed revolution starts with the support of King Tribhuvan who was in exile at the time.
February 18, 1951: The Rana regime falls, the Rana-Nepali Congress coalition government is formed on a parity basis, with Mohan Shumshere again serving as the prime minister.
May 23-26, 1952: The NC’s fifth National Convention at Janakpur elects BP Koirala party president.
January 24-25, 1956: The sixth National Convention in Birgunj adopts the principles of democratic socialism and decentralization for social transformation. Subarna Shumshere elected as the president.
May 23, 1957: The Special National Convention in Biratnagar, Morang, reelects BP as party president.
February 18, 1959: First nationwide parliamentary election held with Nepali Congress getting two-thirds majority (74 out of 109 seats of parliament).
May 27, 1959: First elected government of Nepal formed under Prime Minister BP Koirala.
May 7-13, 1960: BP Koirala elected party president by the Seventh National Convention in Kathmandu.
December 1961: Another armed revolt kicks off following King Mahendra’s 1959 coup.
February 12, 1976: BP nominates KP Bhattarai acting president of Nepali Congress.
January 17, 1992: KP Bhattarai elected party president by the Eighth National Convention in Kalwalgudhi, Jhapa. Due to the erstwhile ban on political parties, the eighth convention was held 31 years after the seventh.
May 11, 1996: Girija Prasad Koirala elected party President by the Ninth National Convention in Kathmandu.
January 22, 2001: GP Koirala re-elected party president at the Tenth National Convention in Pokhara, Kaski.
June 18, 2002: Sher Bahadur Deuba breaks the party, forms his own, and calls it the real Nepali Congress. The party is later named Nepali Congress (Democratic).
August 30-September2, 2005: The 11th Party Convention reelects GP Koirala as the party president. One of the convention’s highlights is a resolution to delete constitutional monarchy from party statute.
25 September 2007: Nepali Congress (Democratic) and Nepali Congress merge.
22 September, 2010: Sushil Koirala becomes party president.
March 7, 2016: Sher Bahadur Deuba becomes party president.