Running to remain in place
The vote of no-confidence this week by former UML leaders of the Nepal Communist Party of (NCP) in Karnali Province against the ex-Maoist Chief Minister of their own party has exposed once more that the two sections of the ruling party never really united.
The distrust between the ex-Maoist and ex-UML members of the NCP has now trickled down from the power struggle at the top leadership to six of the seven provincial governments that the UML-Maoist alliance swept the 2017 election.
The no-confidence motion fizzled out on Tuesday at the Karnali Province assembly in Surkhet after some former UML members loyal to Madhav Kumar Nepal sided with the ex-Maoist Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Prime Minister’s K P Oli’s supporters were outnumbered.
Even though Oli and Dahal did patch up their differences last month, the saga of the epic struggle for supremacy within the party has dragged on with a deadlock in negotiations on the long-awaited cabinet reshuffle.
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Over the past two months, there has been a transformation in Kathmandu politics as Dahal’s position has weakened significantly with second tier members breaking ranks for the first time since the Maoists came above ground in 2006.
This new dynamic has gone largely unremarked because of the tendency of commentators to be anti-incumbent, and Dahal is treated as the leader of an opposition party. The Oli administration’s frequent gaffes and governance failure, have provided ample ammunition for Dahal and his supporters.
Still, reports of the imminent demise of the Oli government, seem to be exaggerated. Despite concerns about his health and political longevity, Oli has so far proved all soothsayers wrong.
The NCP Secretariat meetings repeatedly demand that the Prime Minister and co-Chair give up one or both of his positions, and yet this just does not happen.
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The reasons are twofold: Dahal does not have the numbers in the Central Committee, the official topline body of the party. The Secretariat sits above it as a body created by seniors to remain relevant, particularly the likes of Jhala Nath Khanal, Narayan Kaji Shrestha and Bam Dev Gautam.
Secondly, it was the wily Prime Minister's ability to go behind 'enemy lines' and talk to Dahal's own followers, as well as entice the ever-expectant Gautam with lollipops, including a parliamentary berth and, howsoever unlikely, membership in the cabinet.
The more Dahal challenges Oli and fails in the effort, the weaker he becomes politically, and together with him his ally, the former UML Chair and former PM Madhav Kumar Nepal. The Dahal-Nepal duo has the numbers to wreck Oli’s plans, which is how the attempted ‘coup’ in the Karnali assembly this week was foiled.
During the conflict, the Maoists kept discipline through a strict militarist-ideological code, with extreme punishment for the wayward cadre being imprisonment, indoctrination camps, and even safaya (elimination). After the party came above ground, it was the promise of money, position and perks that kept the Maoists together, as ideological factors frayed.
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But after the conflict, disagreement with Dahal meant former Maoists simply broke away: like Mohan Baidya and Baburam Bhattarai. But the 'mother party' and those under its umbrella remained together. The rank and file relied on Dahal to ensure their political future, and distribute largesse by squeezing state coffers in various ways.
Dahal is a leader who has to run in order to remain in place, given that his party now functions without guiding principles, whereas other parties at least have ideological fig leaves. The Dahal-Oli duel at the top is costing the country dearly, diverting attention when all focus should be on the health and economic fallout of the worsening Covid-19 crisis.
Truth be told, the UML and Maoist parties look united, but there has never been a meeting of minds. A marriage of convenience was arranged over Dasain of 2016, and the electoral alliance provided Oli with an unassailable majority in general elections the following year. Dahal got a lifeline for a political career that was all set to sink in those polls.
In a way, unification was good for the polity because Dahal as leader of a tiny Maoist party could have created insufferable and continuous instability. By having been subsumed into the bigger UML as a senior leader, his ability to constantly rock the boat has been checked to a great extent.
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What has changed in the last couple of months is that some senior Maoist leaders in the NCP have concluded that their individual medium-to long-term political future now can be guaranteed by the UML stream within the party, rather than the Maoist stream led by Dahal.
And as Dahal's ability to provide money and appointments wane, ex-Maoist leaders in the NCP started looking out for themselves. Dahal's troubles create uncertainty about the future general convention of the NCP which is meant to cement the unification in word and deed. He has been given the responsibility to organise the meet, but he knows (and he knows that everyone else knows) that the ex-Maoists really do not have a leadership structure in most parts of the country compared to the former UML, concentrated as they are around the government honeypot in Kathmandu.
Dahal may try to push back the general convention indefinitely, so as not to face the day of reckoning. Even as the public watched the Secretariat meetings -- in Bhainsepati where the die was cast, and in Paris Danda and Khumaltar -- as heralding Oli’s imminent ouster, things did not evolve as planned. Firstly, he was confronted by Bamdev the ‘Turncoat’, but even more importantly, there was a whole line of ex-Maoists breaking away as things came to a fever pitch against Oli.
Madhav Kumar Nepal seems to have miscalculated by putting all his eggs in Dahal’s basket, while these key Maoist leaders were busy transferring their eggs out of it. Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa called a meeting of 28 of his cabal, and only two of those present spoke against his proposal to stand by Oli: Pampha Bhusal and Deb Gurung. Lekh Raj Bhatta, a Dahal loyalist, had already decided to side with Oli, openly enough that he has been barred entry to Dahal's residence.
The other significant leaders to break rank include Top Bahadur Rayamajhi, Devendra Poudel, Janardan Sharma and others. When a worried Dahal called his comrades together and asked them to stand by him, one of them is reliably learnt to have replied, "Comrade Chairman, if you had not gone raiding into the UML hierarchy you might not have faced this rebellion among your own ranks. Did you expect the other side to take it lying down?"
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As Dahal’s grip on the reins begins to loosen, will he mellow, or breathe fire through his pliant outlets on all matters from transitional justice to governance?
If the weakened Pushpa Kamal Dahal decides to go down fighting, he might take his party and country down with him, and that will mean more years of political instability and socio-economic ruin to a country already ravaged by the pandemic. For his own sake, and for society at large, he should choose the softer route.