When the CPN (UML) unified with the CPN (Maoist) two years ago, most hoped that it would lead to the UML-isation of the Maoists, steering them towards democratic norms and values. Instead, we seem to be witnessing the Mao-fication of the Nepal Communist Party.
Evident proof of this was the first Central Committee meeting of the unified party last week nearly two years after it was formed. The meeting of the 445 member jumbo Committee at the City Hall happened even as divisions sharpened between the party’s two top leaders: Prime Minister K P Oli and his co-chair, former Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
Dahal and Oli have tried to hide their power struggle, but their one-upmanship is on full public display in just about every noteworthy issue these days, from the selection of Parliament Speaker to the controversy over the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).
The Central Committee gathering itself was structured like an NGO annual general meeting, complete with a review paper and 15 thematic breakout sessions from which hand-picked spokespersons reported on conclusions to the plenary. This allowed the leaders to keep a tight lid on dissent. The merits of issues and problems of internal party decision-making were therefore sidestepped, and the discussion reflected the party’s deep polarisation.
The other tactic that Oli and Dahal effectively employed was of scathing self-criticism on issues on which they expected to be censured by members. Oli’s more than two-hour-long review was a mea culpa, admitting to delays in reorganising the unified party, failure in delivery of services by the government, and unconstitutional behaviour by the same.
This is a trick often employed by communist parties elsewhere when faced with severe criticism for failures. And it worked. There was no real debate on issues, and Oli managed to deflate and defuse most of the criticism of his leadership.
However, the prime minister is getting physically weaker and politically more isolated. At a three-hour tête-à-tête with editors at his residence on Tuesday, Oli said he was going to get another kidney transplant soon, and exuded confidence about serving out the next three years in office. But a transplant would keep him away for at least two months, and Dahal is waiting in the wings, becoming increasingly impatient.
Oli and Dahal had agreed to rotate two-and-half years each as prime minister, but Dahal agreed to let Oli to serve the full term, probably gambling on Oli’s health preventing him from doing so. Now, Dahal is stepping up the ante. He has wooed away former UML leaders like Madhav Kumar Nepal, Bam Dev Gautam and Jhalnath Khanal who are disgruntled with Oli, to his side.
This block vote was seen most clearly in the MCC controversy. Dahal himself did not even mention the $500 million American grant aid project in his 32-page report, although he praised the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), criticised the US Indo-Pacific strategy, and took the populist stance on the Lipu Lekh territorial dispute with India.
However, he got his faction to oppose the MCC tooth and nail, accusing it of being a US military plan.
The MCC became the focus of much of the discussion at the Central Committee because Dahal remained silent on it and Oli spent so much time defending it.
This exposed the rift at the top of the party, and allowed former UML leaders like Bhim Rawal make a scathing attack on the grant. In the end, the Committee decided to form a Taskforce that has to present an evaluation of the MCC by next week.
Signs of the former Maoist leader Dahal starting to wield an upper hand can be seen in the revival of the proposal that Nepal’s Constitution be amended to allow for the abandonment of the parliamentary system to be replaced by one with a directly-elected executive president. This has been Dahal’s long-standing wish for himself ever since the end of the conflict.
There are other signs of the NCP accumulating Maoist traits. The drift towards a personality cult were clearly visible at City Hall with Oli and Dahal’s portraits on prominent display on the stage.
And despite all the rhetoric about inclusion, the party made a mockery of the Constitution because the nine senior leaders on stage were all men, and mostly from a dominant caste group.