With the average age of a Nepali government only nine months in the past three decades, leaders of big parties are not used to staying out of power for long. After playing second fiddle to KP Sharma Oli for the past 13 months, no wonder the by nature impatient Pushpa Kamal Dahal has had enough.
On May 29, the eve of PM Oli’s India visit, Dahal leaked the secret agreement he had with Oli on power-sharing, whereby the two NCP co-chairs would be the prime minister for two-and-a-half years each. If the message was still lost on someone, Dahal went on national television on the same day to stake his claim on government leadership.
Dahal has given Oli a choice: give him the PM’s chair after a year or make him the ‘consensual’ party chairman following next year’s Gen- eral Convention. If only things were so easy. Oli is in no mood to vacate the PM’s seat soon, nor to give up party chairmanship easily.
He knows that if he agrees to make Dahal a parallel power center, it is only a matter of time before the newly formed NCP splits. Even if it doesn’t, with the canny political operator in Dahal in a position of power, Oli’s hold on the party will significantly weaken. Yet Dahal’s backers in the party are adamant that the agreement must be followed in letter and spirit.
Why did Dahal disclose the agreement now though? One, on the eve of Oli’s India visit, he was sending a reminder to New Delhi that Oli is only a caretaker prime minister and he will soon assume power in Kathmandu. Two, he must have felt that without such timely reminders, to stakeholders both at home and abroad, Oli would not leave easily.
Dahal has been trying to take India into confidence by claiming only he can get the Madhesis on board. It does not help that New Delhi sees PM Oli as ‘pro-China’. According to one seasoned New Delhi-based Nepali diplomat, a more muscular Indian government plans to take up the Madhesi cause again and get tough on ‘China-leaning’ Oli. Fighting a two-front war will be tough on the ailing prime minister.
As Dahal angles for greater power, the ruling NCP plunges deeper into uncertainty
Pushpa Kamal Dahal may want to ensure that he gets to lead either the NCP or the government after a year, but there are other players in the game too. Even if he gets Oli’s support, it is far from certain that other senior NCP leaders would accept Dahal’s leadership
No more guesswork. Now it is clear that Nepal Communist Party (NCP) co-chairs, KP Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, do actually have a power-sharing agreement. But how will it be translated into action in the coming days? As per the agreement, Oli and Dahal would lead the party and the government for equal time. This means that half-way through Oli’s term in government, he would hand over the prime minister’s post to Dahal. Alternatively, if Oli wants to lead the government for a full five-year term, he should hand over party leadership to Dahal, ending the interim arrangement of having two chairs. Oli has also pledged to support Dahal in the NCP’s General Convention, which is mandated to elect party chair and other officer bearers.
Until two weeks ago, the existence of an agreement on power-sharing between the two leaders was only speculation. Now that the ‘secret’ agreement has been leaked, the relevant question is not whether such an agreement exists, but whether Dahal is more likely to be the party president or the prime minister. Or will there be some other twist in the NCP tale? Party insiders say the handover of party leadership to Dahal is not going to be easy due to the NCP’s internal dynamics.
The agreement should be implemented in its letter and spirit. There is no question of reneging on it
NCP leader Devendra Poudel
Oli is not ready to give up power after two and half years, and wants to lead the government for the full five years. He is consolidating power in party and state mechanisms. His strategy, according to leaders, is to maintain the status quo in the party, which means putting off the General Convention as that would ease pressure on him to loosen his grip on power. It’s the GC that elects the party chair, but given the state of confusion in the party it won’t be easy to hold it, as scheduled, in the next 15 months.
The intra-party dynamics are fluid. Another senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal, who has the organizational strength to challenge both Oli and Dahal, is also vying for party leadership. As APEX reported two weeks ago, Oli has already started placating both Dahal and Nepal in order to prevent a possible gang up against him. Both want Oli’s support, but the possibility of them ganging up against Oli cannot be ruled out.
Nepal has publicly said that he was unaware of the agreement between Oli and Dahal. This means other party leaders may not take ownership of the agreement as well. Nepal, in an attempt to appease Oli, has also said that the current prime minister would be in office for five years.
On the other hand, another senior leader Bamdev Gautam has publicly backed the agreement, arguing that Dahal would become prime minister after the current government completes two and half years. Alternately, a few months ago, Gautam has proposed in a party meeting that Oli should lead the government and Dahal the party, ending the dual chair system. “The agreement should be implemented, otherwise it would affect party unity,” Gautam said again at a public program this week.
India the guarantor
The timing of the agreement’s leak and Dahal’s interview with a television channel disclosing it in clearer terms is meaningful. The agreement was made public on May 29 on the eve of PM Oli’s India visit. Dahal had also informed the Indian leadership about his agreement with Oli during his India visit last year. In an interview with The Hindustan Times then, Dahal was asked: “What is the specific understanding? Has Oli committed that he would give you either the PM or the party chair, or both, in two years?” Dahal had replied, “The spirit of the understanding is one of those two positions.” In response to a follow-up question—“What if Oli doesn’t?”—Dahal had answered, “We will see then. Right now, we will move with full sincerity. I am moving forward with that. I told Indian leaders that too.”
Dahal’s statements then and now clearly show that he sees India as an external guarantor in his attempt to ascend to power.
The party rank and file was not aware of the Oli-Dahal agreement, whose revelation has caused a stir within the NCP. Its leaders have started saying that there should be intra-party discussions about the agreement, and expressed unhappiness that top leaders kept them in the dark about such an important pact.
Oli has conceded that he had an agreement on power-sharing with Dahal. But he wanted to keep it a secret, as announcing specific deadlines would make his government look like a caretaker one.
“It is no big deal. There is an agreement between the two leaders on power-sharing and that’s what Prachanda said,” NCP leader Devendra Poudel, who is close to Dahal, told APEX. “The agreement should be implemented in its letter and spirit. There is no question of not implementing it,” added Poudel. Another NCP leader close to Dahal said, “It was necessary to inform party leaders and cadres about the agreement. If Dahal had raised this issue at the eleventh hour, it would have sowed confusion in the party.”
Dahal also wanted to warn Oli that he is not free to monopolize party leadership and should hand over party leadership after two and half years. Dahal thought that would put Oli under pressure to clarify his position. “Prachanda was compelled to broach the issue after PM Oli time and again stated that this government would serve a full five-year term,” said the NCP leader quoted above.
Around the time of party unification, there was an agreement between Oli and Dahal that they would chair party meetings on a rotational basis and that Oli would focus on the government while Dahal would be entrusted more with party-related tasks. However, the agreement was not implemented and Dahal was left playing second fiddle to Oli. Leaders say the spirit of the unification was that both leaders would have equal status in the party.
Dahal and his supporters have also started voicing criticism against the government, arguing that such a strong government has failed to deliver, resulting in frustration among citizens.
Dahal may want to be either the prime minister or the party chairman, but there are other players in the game too. Even if he gets Oli’s support, it is far from certain that other senior NCP leaders—Madhav Nepal, Bishnu Poudel and Ishwar Pokhrel, among others—would accept Dahal’s leadership.