The 12th General Convention of the Nepali Congress (NC) can be regarded as a giant leap toward intra-party democracy, which, as a matter of fact, was long overdue. By reserving seats for women, Dalits, Madhesis, and indigenous people in the central committee, the NC has taken a stride toward reforming its image as a party dominated by pahadi Brahmins and Chettris.
It would be unfair to say that the groups that now have the privilege to represent themselves because of the policy of reservation were completely overlooked in the past. Ram Baran Yadav, Mahantha Thakur, Chitra Lekha Yadav, Bijay Gachchhedar and Jay Prakash Gupta are Madhesis who were at the helm of power both within the party and outside. It is altogether a different thing that their meteoric rise in the Nepali politics cannot be termed as merit-based. It is true that they did the initial leg-work required to get to the limelight but what is even truer is that Ram Baran Yadav, Chitra Lekha Yadav, Thakur, Gachchhedar and Gupta tremendously benefited from Girija Prasad Koirala’s benevolence.
It was a two-way street. The Tarai being the base of NC, Koirala needed Madhesi faces to cater to the base. But the condition was that they ought to be completely subservient. All of the aforementioned personalities fitted the bill. At least, till the late 1990s. Unlike the two Yadavs and Thakur, Gachchhedar and Gupta, who happen to be notoriously shrewd and opportunists, skimmed the system quite well to transform themselves from lightweights to heavyweights in the NC. The relationship, however, was perfectly symbiotic.
As long as corrupt and incompetent people who surrounded Koirala exhibited their unflinching support for him, he did not care about their incompetence or corrupt ways. By the time Koirala realized their actual intent, it was too late. They had already established themselves in Nepali politics. Turning a blind eye on wrongdoings of the followers proved to be costly for the NC. The party that people once looked up as a party of ideas and vision under B P Koirala’s able leadership has been completely reduced to a party of self-serving power mongers.
With Koirala gone, the NC is at a crossroads. The recently held general convention provided the NC with an opportunity to gain its lost ground and glory. How Sushil Koirala, the new president of NC, runs the party will largely determine whether or not the grand old party will be able to reinvent itself. Sushil’s lack of desire to enjoy power reflects his selflessness, which is rare in Nepali politics. He is the kind of man that Nepali people would like to see as party bosses. But in the political landscape full of opportunists, will his idealism be able to bring the much-needed transformation? Will his idealism triumph over opportunism, which is rampant within NC? The people that made Koirala sleepwalk toward the end of his life are now rooting for Sushil. His electoral victory was necessary for the likes of Krishna Prasad Sitaula to remain in circulation in Nepali politics. Sushil’s success as the NC’s president will largely depend on whether or not he will be able to ward off undue pressure from the likes of Sitaula.
There was quite a buzz about the emergence of new faces in the NC’s district-level elections. But will this translate victory into anything meaningful for the party? Of course, it is a good thing. Especially in a country, where almost 65 percent of the population is below 30 years of age, such change will have to be engineered. NC, for its own survival, needs to promote young leaders that better understand the aspirations of Nepali youth. The failure to do so has led to mass exodus of middle-class youth that are the actual believers of liberal democracy.
NC’s reinvention largely depends on reversal of this trend and its ability to better connect with them. However, for young, newly-elected district leaders and central committee members to focus on problems confronting the nation, they will first have to be assured of their political career. For the drive for hard work to come, these youngsters have to have faith over the leadership’s integrity and its commitment toward promoting hardworking and competent individuals. So far, the youngsters in the party have not exhibited that level of independence. The votes that Bhim Bahadur Tamang and Narahari Acharya garnered during the recent convention clearly show that the youngsters are not willing to break free from clientelism and risk their political career. Will Sushil be more willing to promote competence over clientelism?
Will Sushil be able to get out of the influence of the fat cats within the NC whose insensitivity toward problems of citizens and ideological decay sunk the party this low? His first major test will be the nomination of the central committee members. It will make clear whether Sushil is truly a selfless man ready to gamble his post for greater good of the party and the nation or an indecisive politician whose lack of confidence in solving problems made him to shy away from powerful positions in the cabinet. Sushil has a greater responsibility than any other past presidents of his party.
Today, multiparty democracy, whose existence is crucial for the survival of NC, is in real danger. He needs to find a clever way of mainstreaming the Maoists and prevent the CPN-UML and ethnic parties from falling into the Maoists’ trap. His ability to solve these problems and reinvent the party will largely depend upon whether or not he will be able to operate as an independent thinker and bring in new faces with new ideas onboard.