The main opposition Nepali Congress is forging a working alliance with like-minded parties in the parliament in order to strengthen the opposition voice. For the purpose, it has expedited talks with the Rastriya Janata Party. The Congress is also preparing for its 14th General Convention to elect new leaders and the Central Working Committee meeting has been called for the same purpose. Biswas Baral and Kamal Dev Bhattarai talked to the NC Central Working Committee (CWC) member Shekhar Koirala about the proposed working alliance and about internal party dynamics. Koirala has already started a nation-wide campaign to fight for party presidency (even though he does not admit this openly). Between the three members of the Koirala family, Shekhar, General Secretary Shashank Koirala, and Sujata Koirala, there is an understanding to settle on one name for party president.
There has been a lot of talk about a possible working alliance between the Nepali Congress and Madhes-based parties. What is the progress?
Yes, there has been a talk of formation of some kind of an alliance in the parliament. There have been no party-to-party level talks about forging a working alliance between the Congress and the Madhes-based parties though. The two-third majority government is imposing objectionable draft laws and other agendas by ignoring the opposition and other forces. Hence the NC and the Rastriya Janata Party (RJP) are coming together on issues like the murder of Kumar Poudel, the Sarlahi in-charge of Netra Bikram Chand-led Maoist party.
The Congress is reported to have a soft corner on the constitution amendment issue of Madhes-based parties. Can the two parties stand together on this?
Now, we have not talked in that way. The proposed alliance could create a climate for us to support their demand of constitution amendment. But there is no clarity on the contents of the amendment. Constitution amendment is a sensitive issue, and we should not be discussing about it casually.
It seems the Madhes-based parties are set to make constitution amendment a major demand. What will be the Congress position?
That is what I am talking about. There should be clarity. Upendra Yadav has been talking about leaving the government (laughs) for over a year. I am still unclear about his position. Now the media says he is quitting the government. I doubt he will. In the context of constitution amendment, we will explore the converging issues of the NC, the RJP and the Upendra Yadav-led party. The Yadav-led party has proposed an 11-state provincial model. If we evaluate the politics of past one year, operation of provincial structures has been difficult.
We need provincial governments no doubt. But the question is whether we can sustain 11 provinces and there are also questions about ethnic federalism. The NC and the Madhes-based parties need to sit together and talk. Constitution amendment can move ahead if we can address the aspirations of all sections of the people, whether they live in the mountains, hills or Tarai plains. The current government is not ready to amend the constitution. Even Madhes-based parties have failed to come up with a clear position on it.
What is the Congress bottom-line on it?
We have not prepared any bottom-line yet. If they come with demands, we will sit together, put forth our individual positions, give suggestions, and make our position known.
There is dissatisfaction over the performance of opposition parties in parliament when it comes to opposing the undemocratic government moves. Is there a possibility of all opposition parties coming together on the same platform?
Yes, opposition parties should jointly exert pressure on the government to mend its ways. I am fully confident that the RJP and the Samajbadi Party led by Upendra Yadav would not accept such undemocratic bills. There are certain ideological differences between the NC and Samajbadi Party, and the NC and the RJP. Upendra Yadav and Baburam Bhattarai are talking about presidential system; the RJP is in favor of parliamentary system. On this issue we say ‘No’ but on other issues such as language of the constitution, we should be flexible. The NC and the RJP are coming together on democratic bills; the position of the Samajbadi Party is not clear.
With the Congress mired in disputes, how can it play the role of an effective opposition?
The internal dynamics of the NC and its role in parliament are two different things. The NC role in Parliament is positive as it is trying to prevent some undemocratic bills tabled in parliament from being passed. But it is difficult to say how much the party can do in parliament. We who are outside the parliament should engage people through various programs at district and village levels.
But this can only be done with greater party unity. As it is, the NC is a divided house.
Some issues regarding internal dynamics are yet to be resolved. The current Central Working Committee will complete its four years next year. The party statute provisions for the extension of its tenure by a year in case of emergencies. But there is no emergency right now. It will take some time but we will surely hold our general convention soon. We are yet to transform our organizational structure in line with the federal setup. We are living with an outdated organizational structure and we should work on war-footing to hold a general convention as soon as possible. The NC will be weak if we do not change our working style and continue with the status quo. The general convention will give energy to the party and benefit it as well.
Would it be right to say that Party President Sher Bahadur Deuba seems to be in no hurry to hold the general convention on time?
There should be a sense of urgency if he wants to save the NC and the country. Things will not progress if there is rift in the party. Now we lack a towering personality like late Girija Prasad Koirala. There was conflict inside the party about bringing the Maoists into peaceful politics but he still managed to take the party ahead together.
The Congress seems to be going through a leadership crisis. Does the party need new leaders?
People search for new leadership during times of crisis. There is leadership crisis in the Congress right now and the general convention is the only way to elect new leadership. We should follow democratic process. Election results are a strong hint of the capability of party leadership. Recently, there was an election in neighboring India. The Indian National Congress was defeated, its President Rahul Gandhi resigned and the party is looking for a new leadership. The current Nepali Congress leadership cannot lead a 21st-century polity. Twitter is banned in China but the Chinese Ambassador in Kathmandu is still active in it. Our leadership has failed to move with the change.
Who do you see as the future president of Nepali Congress?
There are many capable leaders in the NC to lead the party. There is the young generation. But who will win is still uncertain. I am not speaking about individual leaders but the current leadership cannot steer modern-day politics. We should promote the younger ones. For one tenure, the current generation will take the key leadership positions. After the 14th General Convention, the current generation will lead the party by accommodating youths as office-bearers. But after that I expect party leadership to go to the new generation. The older generation is still useful and we can accommodate them. Now, the major problem is factionalism. If you are not close to this or that leader, you will never get a chance. I want to pick genuine and capable leaders, irrespective of their factions.
Is Koirala family again keen to take over party leadership?
Some people blame us of indulging in dynastic politics. We have not done dynastic politics. At least I do not believe in it. But people say so and I do not have answers for that. If you believe in dynastic politics, why am I going around and visiting all the rural areas? Girija Prasad Koirala and our guardians have taught us some cultures and values. We cannot deviate from those.
Let’s be specific. Are you going to fight for NC presidency?
(A long laugh.) How can I say that right now?
But you are making preparations?
My age and recent canvassing around the country give me energy. Age will not always be on my side. But right now I think I am near the peak of my political career.
Who will be the common presidential candidate of the Koirala family, you or General Secretary Shashank?
Other leaders are also capable. But I feel a pain when my seniors say Shekhar is junior in the party. I accept that I am junior. But what is the status of the party now being led by seniors? I respect them. But the logic that juniors cannot fight for presidency is unacceptable. See the example of neighboring India. I do not believe in dynastic politics and I also do not believe in junior/senior logic.
Is it true that you are fighting for President and Gagan Thapa for General Secretary on a common ticket?
We are talking to each other. We are also talking to others. As seniors do not want to go with me, I am approaching young ones. I listen to the aspirations of young leaders. In politics, young leaders are my friends and we are not mentally divided between seniors and juniors. My responsibility is to bring the youth in party leadership position and get the party back on track. I entertain all energetic and capable leaders. Now, our fight is with communist forces and without the youth in power we cannot fight them.