read 8 min

During a meeting of his party’s Secretariat on Saturday, Minister KP Sharma Oli, who also heads the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), floated a proposal to have a party general convention around December. The party leaders have not agreed to his proposal. But just his having mooted the convention idea should help PM Oli, because it will, for now, help defer the demands for his resignation from the posts of party chair and prime minister. The move essentially buys him time to conjure up a way to keep his competitors at bay, at least until the convention: for he wants to cling to power as long as he can. 

Oli has resorted to similar tactics in the past. When his party comrades demanded that he relinquish his posts of prime minister and party chair, Oli countered by saying that he would only hand over the reins of government to a ‘fresh face’. He said that would not vacate his posts for leaders who had already been ‘tried and tested by the public’. With those pronouncements, Oli was firing a shot across the bow to his comrades—mainly former prime ministers Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Madhav Kumar Nepal, and Jhalanath Khanal. Oli was letting them know, in no uncertain terms, that he was cutting off their access to the coveted posts.

Over the recent past, that trio of leaders has forged an alliance to pressure Oli into stepping down. The argument they have rallied around is that the country needs a change of leadership because the Oli-led government has performed abysmally over the last two-and-a-half years. 

The NCP was not supposed to have devolved into such a state. The party was formed through the merger of the former Maoist and UML parties, ahead of the 2017 parliamentary elections. Before the leaders formally merged Nepal’s two most prominent communist parties, Oli had reached an agreement with them—whereby the leaders were to head the government by turns. But over his tenure, Oli’s manoeuvrings have shown that he wasn’t too keen on honouring the pact. Furthermore, he started becoming increasingly more abrasive, arrogant, and draconian. With Oli seeming to slip a little in the public eye, two-time prime minister Dahal, sensing an opportunity, started cobbling together the opposing force. But the creation of that faction only shows that the leaders in Dahal’s new coterie—former prime ministers Dahal, Khanal, and Nepal—too have not jettisoned their lust for power. The disgruntled trio are hoping to push Oli into the political wilderness, and divide among themselves the key positions in government and in the party.

Oli’s fellow comrades see his latest ruse (his suggesting that a new face head the government) as an all-too-transparent move to prolong his reign at the top. For everyone knows that there won’t be changes within the party by the time of the convention. Thus Oli’s statement has brought to the fore long-lingering questions—both within and outside the NCP—regarding the lack of prospective candidates who can succeed the current leadership.

The three leaders do have a history of factional feuds fuelled by personal interest, but they are putting all that aside to dislodge Oli from his throne. For their part, the three leaders too do not boast a stellar track record. All of them failed to introduce pro-people policies and produce results when they were in power. And yet they continued to rule the roost in Nepal’s political sphere. Dahal remained party chair for over three decades and served as prime minister twice. Nepal was his party’s general secretary for 15 years and then became prime minister. Khanal has also led the party time and again and was elected prime minister too for a brief stint. 

These leaders have been at the helm of the country and of their parties since 1990. They have managed to stay at the top by tampering with their party statutes, and forming their own factions—because their party members continued to allow them to get away with such moves. They have thus been ruling the country for the last 30 years: even the Panchayat regime became irrelevant in 30 years.

Oli knows he is dealing with career politicians who will not go away quietly, and he now seems to be gauging how much power the opposing faction wields in the party. His proposal regarding the December convention has already begun to unravel the anti-Oli faction. Nepal, for one, sees the proposal as a move to sideline him in the party’s tripartite power struggle.

Among the three dissidents, Nepal seems to have the same amount of control over the party’s internal power dynamics as Dahal has. Many former Maoist leaders still stand with Dahal, while Nepal, who led the former CPN-UML for 15 years and the government for almost two, commands a sizeable following of former UML leaders. That said, when former UML leaders are accounted for, Oli seems to be on a slightly firmer footing. 

And ultimately, that pivotal question still remains unanswered: which leader is capable of leading the NCP now? That picture still remains fuzzy. 

Early political developments indicate Dahal is likely to make a comeback—that is, if Oli, as part of a larger political deal, extends support to him early on in the general convention. The possibility of such a Dahal-Oli power-sharing deal has already alarmed Nepal. 

That the nation is being forced to choose, once again, from candidates among the old guard is no accident of fate. None of the top leaders have groomed second-rung leaders to be their successors. Before PM Oli decided to proceed with his second kidney transplant, he was reportedly under pressure to decide his successor. And when Oli was convalescing, Dahal, Nepal, and Khanal were waiting for the opportunity to reclaim the leadership—on the basis of their seniority. But Oli’s successful kidney transplant and subsequent recovery put paid to those plans.

For Oli’s lieutenants, however, the successful kidney transplant has helped them hang on to power a little longer. With Oli’s health having improved, his supporters in the party are more hopeful that the top-rung leaders’ chances of reclaiming key positions won’t see the light of day—for a couple of years at least, if not longer. 

But although Oli continues to have the backing of a group of leaders—particularly those from the former UML—all is not well in his camp. Of late, he has had the support of only two heavyweights—Ishwar Pokharel and Bishnu Poudel—in the nine-member elite club of the ruling communist party, called the Secretariat. Pokharel is also the senior-most Cabinet member in the Oli administration, while Poudel is the current general secretary of the NCP.

Pokahrel and Poudel both want to establish themselves as Oli’s true successor, and they have a history of mutual animosity. Poudel was successful at snagging the NCP’s general secretary portfolio by replacing Pokharel, who was twice elected general secretary of the erstwhile UML party. Pokharel was miffed after he was sidelined during the party-merger process and when the general secretary portfolio was given to Poudel without his being consulted.

Many had projected that Poudel’s elevation to the powerful role of general secretary of the NCP would vault him to the centre of party politics. But Poudel’s involvement in the infamous Lalita Niwas land scam corroded his political capital. Some believe Poudel is surviving by maintaining ties with both of his party’s chairmen, Dahal and Oli, and that performing this balancing act now will benefit him later. But he has flip-flopped in the past on issues around internal power dynamics—he has wavered in his support of Oli. And that’s how he has undermined his own chances at emerging as a top-rung leader. 

The path to the top is also not as clear for Pokharel. Even as Pokharel has been placed as the senior-most member in Oli’s Cabinet, the PM has not fully trusted him. Oli was reluctant to designate Pokharel as the acting prime minister when he was in the ICU for a week during his second kidney transplant. Further, Pokharel has bungled on the job too—for example, in his role as the head of the high-level committee formed to prevent and control Covid-19’s spread. Pokharel’s poor handling of the Covid-19 crisis—mainly in regards to the procurement of medical equipment and other essential supplies—has sparked street protests. Thus, although he has been a vocal Oli supporter during the current leadership row, his unpopularity among the masses makes it difficult for Oli to reciprocate openly.

Another Oli lieutenant, Subas Nembang, is considered one of the potential candidates who could fill Oli’s shoes in the future. A legal professional, he has served as a law minister and was the chairman of the Constituent Assembly. His ethnic background is an asset that he has used to fuel his rise in the party ranks. Currently, he is the second man, after Oli, in the party’s parliamentary front. But despite his sound legal knowledge, experience, and skill at inter-party negotiations, Nembang enjoys less support in his party than do other prospective candidates. Indeed, he is not even included in the nine-member Secretariat. And top-ranking leaders often treat him as if he were a junior politician. 

The top leadership positions are also beyond reach for Oli’s trusted insiders—Shankar Pokharel, Pradeep Gyawali, Prithivi Subba Gurung, and Bishnu Rimal. Since Pokharel and Gurung are now heading the provincial governments of Province 5 and Gandaki Province, respectively, there is little chance of their immediately getting to be the head of the federal government. Thus for them, getting past the high-ranking leaders makes for a herculean task.

Then there is Bam Dev Gautam, who is often seen to be influencing the party’s internal power dynamics, especially when the top leaders are embroiled in a leadership row. But he is not even a member of parliament. In a bid to promote Gautam as a prime ministerial candidate, the anti-Oli camp in the party (currently led by Dahal and Nepal) proposed nominating Gautam as a member of the Upper House—by seeking to first amend the Constitution, so as to pave the way to Gautam’s being fielded as a prime ministerial candidate. But Oli sensed something was up right away, and rejected the proposal, even though the party rank and file largely wanted the move to happen. And although some leaders want to prop up Gautam in order to weaken the Oli faction, they are in no mood to accept Gautam as party chief in the near future. 

And that brings us back to Nepal and Dahal, again.

Nepal wants to bolster his position in the party and make a comeback. A section of leaders, like Surendra Pandey and Bhim Rawal, have been extending him their support. Pandey and Rawal are not in a position to challenge Nepal when it comes to claiming the leadership of the party. Interestingly, the two might have difficulties joining forces to create a push for replacing the party’s ageing leaders. In the last general convention, Pandey and Rawal had contested from the Nepal camp, against Oli, for the posts of general secretary and vice-president, respectively. In that contest, to ensure his own victory, Rawal had campaigned against Pandey and appeared to be appeasing Ishwar Pokharel, the rival panel’s candidate.

Dahal, of course, still remains a colossus in the party. As of now, no former guerrillas have dared question Dahal in the former Maoist camp. Consequently, Dahal, who has held the party’s top leadership positions since 1989, is still a force to reckon with. Since the merger of the Maoists and the UML to form the all-powerful NCP, Dahal has been focused on taking charge of the new party’s leadership; he has invested his energies in trying to oust Oli from power, instead of allowing youth leaders to lead the party organisation. And regardless of how the youth leaders posture in public, they have not been able to create space for themselves within the party and get past their ageing leaders. 

At their 2014 general convention, the former UML had endorsed a policy that was aimed at easing the handover of party reins to the leaders from the younger generation. That policy set an age ceiling—of 70 years—for the top leadership. As per that policy, a majority of top leaders, including Oli, Khanal, Nepal, and Bamdev Gautam, among others, would have been retiring from politics soon. Indeed, in deference to that rule, some leaders, including Bharat Mohan Adhikari, did announce their retirement from active politics.

But that age ceiling became irrelevant after the party merged with the Maoists–because the NCP has rescinded the age provision. Consequently, all elderly leaders in the new party are still jostling for power and position, instead of focusing on crafting pro-people policies, better governance mechanisms, and so on. Indeed, party insiders say that the current leadership crisis started to bubble up once the party heavyweights threw their hat in the ring.

Now, neither does the party statute provide possibilities for a new leadership, nor are the party’s older leaders willing to step aside for the sake of the younger ones. Thus even if Oli’s proposal to hold the general convention materialises, the party will still be led by the same old leaders. And the party policy and ideology will remain intact. This means the next generation’s leaders will be 60, at least, by the time they get a crack at leading the party.

The irony of it all is that the UML, one of the parties comprising the NCP, was the one in which the late Madan Bhandari became the party’s general secretary at the age of 39, when a much older politician, Manamohan Adhikari, was the chair. Adhikari was the one who introduced social security schemes in the country. His nine-month tenure was regarded well by the public. And Bhandari is still regarded as the ideologue of the party. He propounded the vision of ‘People’s Multi-Party Democracy’, which remains the political ideology of his party till date. But the only ideology the NCP’s older leaders seem to be driven by is their unquenchable thirst for power.