While Nepal hurtles towards the 1,000 Covid-19 deaths mark and hospitals run out of beds, the country’s two top leaders are engaged in a fight to the finish that is once more threatening to split their ruling Nepal Communist Part (NCP).
Prime Minister K P Oli and party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal had buried their hatchets last month agreeing to a one-post-one-person formula – letting Oli serve out his term as prime minister, and Dahal to lead party affairs.
However, the truce did not last long. In the latest episode of this epic saga, Dahal has reportedly staked a claim to the prime ministership, while Oli has threatened to split the party before that happens.
To be sure, this is not the first time the NCP has come close to binary fission. Oli has mastered the craft of brinkmanship, using ordinances, anti-Indian ultra-nationalism, re-registering the UML at the Election Commission in August, or dangling lollipops in front of Dahal’s loyalists to stave off previous challenges to his supremacy.
However, matters had been coming to a head ever since there was an attempt last month to unseat the Dahalist chief minister of Karnali Province, a move blamed on Oli getting provincial assembly members from his faction to pass a vote of no confidence. Dahal deftly defused this by convincing his ally, the former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, to get his followers in the assembly to withdraw support for the no-confidence vote.
The prime minister then went ahead and appointed new ambassadors, brought in new ministers into the cabinet and reassigned secretaries. Dahal was miffed because he felt Oli should have taken these decisions in consultation with the party and not unilaterally.
Party insiders had hoped that in the Dasain spirit, the two leaders would meet privately over the holidays and sort out their grievances as they have done in the past. However, the communication gap between the two has got even wider in the past two weeks.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emissary and spy-in-chief Samanta Goel’s surprise visit to Kathmandu, and his three-hour meeting with Oli on 27 October aroused further suspicion among Dahalists that the prime minister was up to some mischief with geopolitical backing.
They were outraged about being kept in the dark, and ridiculed his perceived ‘nationalism’ by meeting an Indian spymaster. Dahal was already angry about not just the lack of consultation over the three cabinet appointments last month, but was livid that he had to learn about it from the media after the swearing in by President Bhandari.
NCP mediators like former speaker Subhas Nembang and Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel finally convinced Oli and Dahal to meet for tea at Baluwatar on Saturday, hoping that they would be able to defuse the crisis.
However, it looks like by then the mistrust was too deep-rooted. On Sunday, the two leaders had got members of their factions to leak to the media their own versions of what transpired in the meeting at Baluwatar, and later that night in a fiery phone call.
Dahal reportedly told members of the party secretariat at a meeting at his residence that the NCP was in ‘grave crisis’ because Oli had turned down his request to call a standing committee meeting, and had told him he was not going obey the party’s directives, and may even split the NCP.
Bishnu Poudel, whom Oli appointed Finance Minister last month, took to Facebook to also warn that the NCP was on the verge of a split, and entreated senior leaders to honour the sacrifices of the cadre to ‘defend the unity of the party’.