Born in a middle-class family in the Dadeldhura district of the far-western region, Sher Bahadur Deuba is now a five-time prime minister. Deuba, who became party president in 2016, is bent on repeating the feat at the 14th General Convention (GC) that begins on Dec 10.
If the anti-Deuba camp fails to come up with a consensual candidate, Deuba is likely to win the race again, say party leaders. Neither does Deuba come from a political family nor does he have mass appeal. He is not a good orator and has no fixed ideology. Yet he has still been at the forefront of both party and national politics for two and a half decades.
What is the source of Deuba’s power? Many portray him as lucky. Deuba himself reckons that fortune favors him. Three years ago, Deuba publicly cited a fortune-teller as telling him that he would become prime minister seven times. Yes, fortune may have favored him but he also has some distinct merits.
According to political analyst Purushottam Dahal, the credit for Deuba’s emergence as a strong leader goes to late veteran NC leaders Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Ganesh Man Singh. After the revival of democracy in 1990, then NC leader Girija Prasad Koirala had started sidelining Bhattarai and Singh in order to embolden his position in the party.Bhattarai and Singh, according to Dahal, sought a strong leader who could challenge Koirala. They settled on Deuba, who would go on to become Home Minister (1991-1994). The Home Ministry is regarded as a strong platform from where to influence both the party as well as state mechanisms.
In a recent interview with Annapurna Post, current Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand said Deuba is today leading the same party faction that late Krishna Prasad Bhattarai did in early 1990s. After the restoration of democracy in 1990, there had been a bitter rivalry between Bhattarai and Koirala.
Even before that Deuba had demonstrated his organization skills, most notably as the president of the Nepal Student Union, the party’s sister organization, back in the 1970s.
Lokendra Bhatta, a seasoned journalist who closely tracks NC politics, says Deuba, unlike other leaders, works in a smart and strategic way and without much fanfare. “On the one hand, he highly impressed NC veterans such as BP Koirala, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Ganesh Man Singh with his organization skills. On the other hand, he also knew how to cultivate loyal cadres.”
Similarly, he emerged as a towering figure in the socially and economically backward far-western region. No leaders there dared to challenge him and so he was able to leverage his position there to his advantage. Since 1990, Deuba has won all parliamentary elections from Dadeldhura district.
He gradually cemented his position in the party and at the party’s 10th General Convention in 2001, Deuba fought for party presidency by leaving many senior leaders behind. He was eventually beaten by Girija Prasad Koirala who secured 936 of the 1,477 representative-votes, to Deuba’s 507. Though beaten, Deuba became successful in building his own powerful camp in the party. A major chunk of party leaders and cadres who were dissatisfied and disappointed with Koirala had supported Deuba.
In 2002 Deuba split the party due to the differences with Koirala. Around 40 percent of leaders and cadres joined the Deuba-led Nepali Congress (Democratic) which clearly showed Deuba’s hold in the party. In 2006, Deuba returned to NC, taking 40 percent share in all party organizations. But Deuba’s dream of becoming Party President materialized only in 2016. At the 13th General Convention in 2016, Deuba had failed to garner 51 percent votes to win the presidency outright. In the second round of voting he needed Krishna Prasad Sitaula’s support, to eventually get 58 percent votes and become party president.
Deuba’s marriage to Arzoo Rana also helped him strengthen his position in national politics as well as in the party. Arzoo helped Deuba connect with the monarchy. In the late 1990s, when the monarchy had a powerful influence in politics, Deuba became prime minister two times: 2004-2005, and 2001-2002.
Except in 2001, Deuba has always led diverse coalition governments, which also hints at his organization skills. Arzoo also helped Deuba build good rapport with the international community; it is widely believed that Deuba is close with western powers.
As prime minister and party president, Deuba introduced some progressive policies that also enhanced his profile. For instance, when he led Nepali Congress (Democratic) in 2002, he formed an inclusive Central Committee by accommodating Dalit, Janajati and other marginalized communities, says journalist Bhatta. Even today, according to Bhatta, influential leaders from marginalized communities who have a strong hold in party organizations are with Deuba. Deuba also won the support of state’s key institutions such as army, police, judiciary and bureaucracy due to his hands-off nature of functioning.
At the same time, Deuba is charged with misusing state powers to strengthen his position in power. Even now, Deuba is accused of accommodating businessmen, traders and brokers in the party, while sidelining honest and committed leaders and cadres. This strategy, according to Deuba’s critics, has helped him amass money which in turn is being used to buy patronage.
An NC leader requesting anonymity says Deuba is adept at applying the power of money and muscle to strengthen his hold in the party.
After Girija Prasad Koirala’s demise in 2010, Deuba became even more powerful because GPK’s successor Sushil Koirala failed to keep the anti-Deuba faction intact. For instance, Krishna Prasad Sitaula did not join the faction led by Sushil Koirala and or the one by Ram Chandra Poudel. Similarly, there was a tussle within this camp and the Koirala dynasty tried to make their own camp.
After 2017, when Nepali Congress faced a humiliating defeat in parliamentary elections, Deuba has been under pressure to retire from active politics. Yet, as luck would have it, just when his clout in the party was waning, he got to become prime minister again, right on the eve of the 14th General Convention.
Most recently, Deuba has strengthened his hold on the party after Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar, a top Tharu leader who left NC in 2008 to form Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, returned to the mother party in 2017. Gachhadar and his team strongly back Deuba. In 2020, Sunil Bahadur Thapa, the son of veteran Rastriya Prajatantra Party leader Surya Bahadur Thapa, also joined NC and sided with Deuba.
The fortune-teller’s prediction that Deuba will go on to become prime minister seven times appears unlikely. But who knows. He is one person who has always defied the odds.
Deuba’s political journey
13 June 1946: Birth
1965 to 1968: Chairman, Far-Western Students’ Committee
1971 to 1980: Founder member and President of the Nepal Students’ Union.
1985: Played a leading role in the civil disobedience movement.
Dec 1991-Sept 1994: Minister of Home Affairs
1991: Party’s political in-charge of far-western region
Nov 1994-Sept 1995: Member of Parliament and Nepali Congress parliamentary party leader.
Sept 1995-March 1997: Prime Minister
Aug 2001-Oct 2002: Prime Minister
Sept 2002-Jan 2006: President, Nepali Congress (Democratic)