The federal government’s propensity to hide—or give incomplete information about—KP Oli’s health has everyone guessing about the continued fitness of their prime minister to lead the country. Perhaps for the first time, his health woes have also spawned a serious succession battle in the ruling Nepal Communist Party. If Oli is not fit, the first natural claimant to the PM’s post would be NCP co-chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal. In that case, he would also be the obvious choice as the new party chairman, at least until the next general convention. If only things were so straightforward though.
Over a year and half since the formal unity of the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Center) to form the NCP, the new party is still a divided house, the division running from the very top right down to the grassroots. Former UML rank and file are not ready to accept Dahal—with a legacy of a bloody insurgency behind him—as their leader, not the least because he seems minded to ditch the popular UML ‘people’s multi-party democracy’ line. They also fear that he could impose a top-down model, as he did in the former Maoist party, where he was the all-powerful ‘headquarter’.
Ex-Maoist leaders in the NCP are just as adamant that the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between Oli and Dahal be honored. The agreement apparently stipulates that Oli will lead the government for half of its five-year term and Dahal for the rest. If not, Dahal will settle for the role of uncontested party chairman and will allow Oli to run the government for five years. But that too is a tricky proposition, again requiring some of Dahal’s fiercest critics in the party to come around.
The NCP dispute is best resolved internally so that this government can serve out its full term. If the dispute gets out of control, all kinds of dicey actors could get involved, including monarchists and foreign hands. It is in the interest of the NCP to quickly settle Oli’s succession, both in the government and in the party. Perhaps the NCP senior brass is not foolish enough to let the left unity unravel and thus open up new political space for their rivals. Most Nepalis will hope so. If there is to be a change, let people endorse it in the next general election in 2022. It’s only just a touch over two years away now.