Having joined underground communist politics in 1969, Madhav Kumar Nepal, now 67, has occupied nearly every important political position he could have aspired for. Starting in 1993, he headed the CPN-UML as its general secretary, the party’s top post back then, for 15 consecutive years. He became the country’s prime minister in May 2009, a job he held for 21 months. Still healthy and politically active, Nepal’s political aspirations remain high.
Since the unification between CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center) in 2018, there has been a constant tussle between KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the two co-chairmen of the new Nepal Communist Party (NCP). The tussle is largely centered on the question of whether (and when) Oli should step down as prime minister and clear the way for Dahal. Alternately, Oli could have assuaged Dahal’s ego by making him the party’s sole chairman.
All this while, senior leader Nepal was himself engaged in hectic negotiations with both Oli and Dahal to carve out a greater role for himself in the party. Of late, Nepal had been allying with Dahal to fight against PM Oli’s ‘monopoly’.
PM Oli in turn has now proposed to hold the ‘unity’ general convention this November in a bid to quell intra-party disputes. Before that, Nepal had clearly stated that he was ready to accept Dahal as prime minister in lieu of Oli. What he does not want is for the two to once again arrive at a ‘secret agreement’ that leaves him out in the cold.
“Nepal is an obvious candidate for party chairman in the unity convention,” says Deepak Prakash Bhatta, an NCP leader who is close to Nepal. “Yet he is not a leader who is hungry for power. He rather wants the party to run according to certain norms and regulations.”
In the two and half years, Nepal has registered his note of dissident against several party decisions. His relation with PM Oli has been sour and there has been a breakdown of communication between the two. Nepal feels Oli reaches out to him only when Dahal tightens the screws on the prime minister to step down.
In August 2019, senior leader Nepal registered a seven-point note of dissent with the party, expressing his displeasure over work division of party leaders and order of precedence in party ranking.
Before the unification, say those close to him, Nepal’s position in the party was at par with Oli. After it, Oli has systematically weakened his hold on party organizations. Before, 40 out of 75 UML district chiefs were from Nepal camp, which was his biggest strength. The votes secured by Oli and Nepal in the last general convention also suggest the two leaders had near equal strength in the party: Oli was elected from the convention with 1,047 votes, while his rival Nepal secured 1,003 votes.
When talks of unification with the Maoist party started, Nepal had expressed doubts about his position in the new party. Oli had apparently assured that Nepal would be elected party chairman in the next general convention. “Yes, there was a gentleman’s agreement to this effect,” says another leader close to Nepal requesting anonymity.
However, after the unification, “Oli started to take the side of Prachanda and launched a systematic campaign to weaken Nepal’s position in the party. While picking standing committee and central committee members, those from our sides were sidelined,” says the leader. Of the 174 NCP lawmakers now in the House of Representative, 78 are close to Oli, 53 to Dahal, and 43 to Nepal. Similarly, in the 45-member standing committee, 18 are close to Dahal, 15 to Oli, and 12 to Nepal.
Nepal faction believes PM Oli is trying to drag him into the Baluwatar Lalita Niwas land-grab scam and using the scam as a bargaining tool. Over many years, various individuals had captured around 114 ropanis of public land at Lalita Niwas, during the tenures of successive post-2006 prime ministers.
Nepal’s current priority is to be elected chairman from the general convention, and reckons Dahal is his main rival, especially as Oli has announced he won’t be standing for chairman again. If Oli does opt out, Nepal wants to be the new chairman, with Dahal serving as the prime minister.
Since 1990, leader Nepal has been continuously holding vital state positions. He was a member of the Constitution Recommendation Committee formed in 1990 to draft a new constitution of Nepal. The Krishna Prasad Bhattarai government accepted the draft and promulgated the constitution. After that he was the main opposition leader of the lower house for nearly eight years. Similarly, he became the deputy prime minister in the 1993 Bharat Mohan Adhikari UML-led government.
After his 2001 royal coup, King Gyanendra had invited applications for the post of prime minister from political parties. Nepal was the only senior leader from the Big Two (Nepali Congress and CPN-UML) to apply, a taint Nepal has not been able to wash away to this day.
Nepal finally came to occupy the highest political office in the land in 2009 after the removal of Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led government. Nepal was elevated to the post even though he had lost the 2008 CA elections.
Inside the party, Nepal is regarded as a pragmatic leader with high moral values. Notably, Nepal had resigned as the general secretary on moral grounds after the 2008 CA elections debacle. He later accepted the nomination as a CA member and took leadership of the Constitutional Committee that was responsible for the settlement of key disputed issues of the new constitution. If Nepal is seen as the kingmaker in the current dispute in the NCP, the senior leader has earned the position, say those close to him, adding that unlike Oli, Nepal does not want to see the NCP disintegrate at any cost.
But Karna Bahadur Thapa, a close confidant of PM Oli, questions Nepal’s ‘clean image’ and moral integrity. “The main reason behind the current NCP deadlock is Madhav Kumar Nepal. He is preventing a possible deal between PM Oli and Dahal. He neither allows the government to function well nor is he helping complete the task of party unification,” Thapa says. Nepal, he adds, is ever ready to compromise on his ideals for political benefits.
CPN-UML had suffered a split in 1998 under Nepal’s leadership. “He was not flexible enough to accommodate Bam Dev Gautam [the leader of the breakaway faction],” says Thapa. To his critics, Nepal’s role in the 1998 party split, his petitioning to become prime minister in 2001, his agreement to be inducted into the CA despite losing the 2008 elections from two constituencies, and his current role in undermining the Oli government—all disprove that he is someone with a high moral character.