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Oli’s iffy health reignites NCP leadership battle

Oli’s iffy health reignites NCP leadership battle

A seemingly mysterious power-sharing agreement between KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been in the news since the unification of the erstwhile CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center) in 2018. The agreement is apparently about who leads the party and the government and for how long.

Former UML leaders, including Oli, want to either hide or downplay it, going so far as to publicly claim there is no such agreement. Whenever somebody makes a statement to that effect, a miffed Dahal immediately sees Oli and reminds him of the deal. An uneasy truce prevails after Oli assures Dahal he will honor the agreement. But another disagreement soon surfaces.

The implementation of such an agreement depends partly on what second-rung leaders of the party make of it. This week APEX explored the understanding and positions of some second-rung leaders of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) on the power-sharing deal. When it comes to the agreement, the second-rung leaders are clearly divided into two camps: those belonging to the former UML and those from the former Maoist Center.

Former Maoist leaders claim that Dahal has repeatedly briefed them on the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Oli. One such leader, requesting anonymity, said,  “In the final days of the unification talks between the two leaders, Dahal had informed us of an agreement on leading the government on an equal basis—meaning Oli would hand over the reins of power to Dahal after two and half years.”

Room for compromise

As far as leading the party is concerned, former Maoist leaders say there had been a deal to chair party meetings on a rotational basis, but Oli has been presiding over such meetings himself, much to Dahal’s chagrin. The leaders suggest there is room for compromise if Oli hands over party chairmanship to Dahal.

“It is unnecessary to change the country’s premiership in the middle of the five-year term if Oli agrees to hand over party chairmanship to Dahal,” says a former Maoist leader close to Dahal. He adds that Dahal has time and again said there is no need for a rotational prime minister system if he gets full responsibility to run the party. Leaders close to Dahal have hence advised him to claim party chairmanship (rather than prime ministership) in order to penetrate deeper into party organizations.

Some UML leaders, however, say they do not know of any gentleman’s agreement between Oli and Dahal; others are of the view that agreements of such nature should be presented in official party platforms.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense Ishwar Pokhrel has been fiercely opposing the gentleman’s agreement. He has repeatedly said in public forums that the party does not recognize the deal between Oli and Dahal, if there is such an agreement in the first place.

In light of the opposition by Pokhrel and some senior leaders, Dahal has started reaching out to former UML leaders to solicit their support in implementing the deal. Just after Dashain, for example, Dahal held a long conversation with Pokhrel. But Pokhrel maintains neither Oli nor Dahal has informed him of the agreement. Pokhrel and other leaders close to senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal say the gentlemen’s agreement between the two chairmen should be an official party agenda.

Party capture

According to sources, some former UML leaders are also trying to bring PM Oli and senior leader Nepal closer in order to sideline Dahal. The likes of Ishwar Pokhrel, Shanker Pokhrel, Som Prasad Pandey and Rajendra Pandey, among others, want to see a reconciliation between PM Oli and Nepal. They fear Dahal and his team could capture party structures ahead of the NCP general convention, and are of the view that Oli should not bequeath the party’s legacy to a former Maoist leader. Still, whether Oli’s successor would be a former UML leader or a Maoist remains a matter of speculation.

NCP leader Devendra Poudel, who is close of party co-chairman Dahal, believes PM Oli is committed to the gentlemen’s agreement, and it is rather “some second-rung leaders who are provoking him into repudiating the deal.”

Senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal has not publicly opposed the agreement. But at the same time, Nepal himself wants to lead the party and is likely to clash with Dahal over the matter. Nepal says both Oli and Dahal should inform party leaders and cadres about the gentleman’s agreement.

Other NCP senior leaders like Jhala Nath Khanal and Bam Dev Gautam have not publicly opposed the agreement. And even as many former UML leaders want them close, Nepal’s relationship with PM Oli has instead soured. PM Oli’s nomination of seven province heads without consulting the party rank and file has further irked Nepal.

With Oli’s heath condition worsening, he will face greater pressure to hand over party responsibilities to Dahal. But Oli seems undeterred by his frail health and is in no mood yet to resign from the posts of the PM and the party chair.

While he was in Singapore for medical treatment, PM Oli had entrusted Dahal with the responsibility of chairing party meetings for the first time since party unification. Dahal had used this opportunity to consult a wide range of NCP leaders. Oli had back then apparently almost agreed to hand over all party responsibilities to Dahal but had backtracked following intense pressure from party insiders.

Restless ramblings

This has left the former Maoist supremo chomping at the bit. Dissatisfied with the delay in handing him total control of the party, Dahal vented his ire at a recent program in Banke district. He assured local businessmen that all their demands would be fulfilled “as soon as I become the prime minister.”

Generally, Oli and Dahal jointly chair party meetings, although the former is dominant. As the party structures are dominated by former UML leaders and cadres, Dahal faces the challenge of making his leadership acceptable to them.

NCP leader Deepak Prakash Bhatta, who is close to senior leader Nepal, says there is no reason for dissatisfaction. “We still have 10 months to implement the deal. The pact was reached between two individuals, but its goal was to facilitate party unification. So I do not foresee any obstacle,” he says. Bhatta adds that the party unification process at the provincial and local levels has been smooth, and it would not be hard to reach a power-sharing agreement at the top.

Another leader close to Nepal, however, says there would be no objection to Dahal assuming temporary leadership until the general convention, but Dahal’s election as chairman from the convention floor is still uncertain. But the leaders close to Dahal claim the power-sharing deal would be applicable even after the general convention.