The second Central Committee meeting of Nepal Communist Party (NCP) ended earlier this month with a message of unity in the ruling party, but Prime Minister KP Oli’s troubles may have only just begun.
Agni Sapkota’s appointment as Speaker for the House of Representatives has made one thing abundantly clear: Oli is gradually losing his grip in the party he led with an iron fist after steering it to a resounding victory at the local, provincial and federal elections.
It was apparent from the beginning that Oli did not want to see anyone from erstwhile Maoist camp, least of all Sapkota, a former guerilla who is awaiting a hearing in a war crime case at the Supreme Court, take the helm of the House. And there was a good reason why.
Former Speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara was not only holding crucial bills and ignoring Oli’s request to forward the Millennium Challenge Compact bill, but was acting more like NCP Co-Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s personal aide than Speaker. Oli’s aides say the prime minister was increasingly unhappy with Mahara for intermittently creating hurdles in the functioning of the government.
Ever since Mahara’s resignation over a rape allegation in October 2019, Oli left no stone unturned to induct one of his loyalists at the helm of the House. The House was held hostage for over a month, with parliamentary proceedings deferred thrice. Using Deputy Speaker Shivamaya Tumbhahamphe as a pawn, Oli kept pressing for consensus to reappoint former Speaker Subash Chandra Nembang. When all his maneuvering failed, he was left with little choice but to support Sapkota’s candidacy.
Sapkota’s successful ascension to the post of the House speaker despite opposition from some quarters including the rights groups is, according to political observers, yet another proof of how a new power equation in NCP is eclipsing Oli’s influence in the party.
“He came as a lion and has become a mouse now. He alone has to be blamed for this,” Shyam Shrestha, a political analyst, told the Record.
Shrestha said the prime minister’s working style, regressive policies, misguided agendas, and failure to deliver on the Party’s tall promises of economic transformation are waning his popularity both inside and outside the party.
“Instead of doing things he promised to do, he is going after the Press, Human Rights, the Guthi and social media,” said Shrestha.
Gehendra Lal Malla, a professor of political science at Tribhuvan University, said factional realignments and changing power equations in the ruling NCP, in addition to the government’s failure to live up to public expectations, were also weakening Oli’s position.
“Realizing that Oli is failing on all fronts, other factions are using this as an opportunity to hit back at him,” said Malla.
Despite their known rivalry and existing differences, several influential leaders including Co-Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Bam Dev Gautam and Jhal Nath Khanal appear increasingly closer in most of the issues facing party and government.
In December, Oli was forced to hand over the NCP’s helm to Dahal amid mounting pressure to uphold the party’s stated policy of ‘one person, one position’. Former Prime Minister Nepal had even submitted a note of dissent, criticising ‘centralization of power’.
Another proof of Oli’s losing grip on the party came soon after Sapkota’s nomination when the NCP, despite the prime minister’s determination to push a bill concerning the Millennium Challenge Compact through the parliament, decided to form an intraparty committee to collate feedback from various quarters before tabling the bill.
In recent months, the biggest criticism of the Oli government came from within the party membership. The criticism from party leaders was so vocal that the party was forced to issue a circular, threatening action against those making critical remarks against party leadership.
When this did little to discourage criticism, the party leadership had to direct party rank and file to stand united in defence of the government at the party’s recent central committee meeting.
“This government is doing more than any government in history. I don’t claim everything is yielding fruit, but saplings have been planted, some are growing,” Oli told party leaders.
At the same meeting, most senior leaders were deeply critical of Oli’s performance both as head of party and government. NCP leader Bhim Rawal, a leader close to Madhav Nepal and one of the most vocal critics of the Oli government, had challenged the leadership’s claim that the government was still popular among the common people.
Unsurprisingly, the meeting ended concurring that infighting, factionalism, and lack of discipline was a threat to the institutionalization of the party that was formed last year through a merger between the then UML and CPN (Maoist Center). Stringent measures and ethical guidelines are being mulled to police its large cadre base.
For a man whose entire political career depended on factionalism, Oli’s downfall was long in coming. And he alone should be blamed for it.
Oli had a good chance to reform a party long plagued by factional infighting and consolidate his position as the indisputable leader of arguably the strongest party in Nepal’s history. But he threw away those chances time and again.
“Instead of taking all factions into confidence, Oli only institutionalized factionalism,” said Malla.
Be it during the parties’ merger or the appointment of office bearers at key posts of the unified party or government formation or power-sharing at federal and provincial levels, Oli further cornered his friends in the party who had played a key role in his emergence into national politics.
Oli, who was elected prime minister with the confidence of over two-thirds of the members of the parliament, is also losing key allies in government and civil society.
After walking away from the government, the Samajwadi Party, the third-largest party in the parliament, is in discussion with Nepali Congress and a few other regional parties to start a protest against the government’s draconian policies and proposed legislation that they claim could have lasting implications among other things on human rights, freedom of the press, and right to property.
“All these things were unnecessary. He should be focusing on the immediate needs of people like employment, revitalization of agriculture and so on,” said Shrestha.
With the prime minister showing little sign of change in his working style and accommodating other factions in the party, experts say that Oli could face greater resistance in the future.
“The discontent in the party has slowly started spilling into the public sphere as it was evident from the election result. People are still quiet only because there is no viable alternative as Nepali Congress, the main opposition, looks even more ill-managed,’’ said Malla, “But it would be Oli’s mistake to think that people will remain quiet forever.”