Saturday, March 12, 2016

Nepali Congress: Message, Messenger and Method

Sher Bahadur Deuba’s election as president of the Nepali Congress marks the first time in almost two decades that the country’s oldest democratic party is devoid of the leadership of a Koirala family member. Less certain is whether the party election has ended the succession battle in the illustrious clan.
Shashank, a son of the legendary party founder and builder B.P. Koirala, has been elected general secretary as the sole family contender for any senior position. A member of of the panel of Deuba opponent Ram Chandra Poudel, Shashank also brings factional balance into the leadership. Of the other two second-generation Koirala claimants, Sujata withdrew her candidacy for the presidency at the last minute. Shekhar will no doubt wield influence as a leading central committee member.
As to ideology, the party still remains in a flux. Commitment to democracy alone won’t take the Nepali Congress very far, especially at a time when even the most extremist organizations on either end of the spectrum officially profess fealty to the concept in order to retain legitimacy and relevance.
Moreover, history and institutional hubris won’t allow the Nepali Congress to rest content in the ranks of the Big Three/Four. Having abandoned its commitment to constitutional monarchy, the party has been trying to hone its personality in a variety of ways, with little success. Despite propitious electoral numbers, the party carries a fraction of its once-formidable influence in the Nepali psyche. In terms of welding the message with the messenger, Shashank’s triumph may be a critical harbinger.
Supporters tout Shashank’s ability to affirm ideological sturdiness on critical causes. Critics attribute his remarkable ascendance purely to lineage. Yet the man seems undaunted. During an interview just ahead of the party convention, he suggested that the Nepali Congress revise its stance on key issues such as monarchy, federalism and secularism. While Shashank has maintained that position since at least 2013, the fact that he won the party general secretaryship so handily after reiterating them cannot be dismissed out of hand.
We can argue endlessly whether B.P. himself would have maintained his much-touted pro-monarchy stance in a political climate that is so radically different today. After all, the Nepali Congress tried to assassinate two kings before B.P. went on to establish his position as the most pro-monarchist critic of the palace toward the twilight of his life.
How far Shashank’s resurrection of B.P.’s latter-day legacy worked to his advantage in the party election is debatable. Certain quarters, however, do seem to take it seriously. United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal warned his cadres against lowering their guard, implicitly citing Shashank’s pre-election comments on BBC Radio’s Nepali Service.
Krishna Prasad Sitaula and Gagan Thapa, whom Deuba and Shashank respectively defeated, admonished the new leadership not to go against the spirit of change that has swept the country. Casting a long shadow on such comments is no doubt Khum Bahadur Khadka, the last surviving member of the BP-led quartet that alighted from that flight from India four decades ago with the policy of national reconciliation. Khadka, while silent on the monarchy, has become a leading advocate for the restoration of Hindu statehood. His emergence as a powerful Deuba ally in the party will remain a significant factor.
For now, the focus of attention is on whether there may be a change in the government. A rejuvenated Nepali Congress, as the largest party in the elected assembly, would have a justifiable claim to the premiership. By exuding political magnanimity and allowing the Oli government to continue for a while, the party might get the time it needs to fully grasp the generational and factional transitions within.
Either way, the emergence of the new Nepali Congress line-up offers a new opportunity for a sobering analysis of the tumultuous post-April 2006 trajectory.