--By Shant Sharma
A long-cherished dream came true for Sher Bahadur Deuba when he was elected the 8th President of the Nepali Congress (NC) by the party’s 13th General Convention held in the capital on March 3-7. Deuba defeated NC’s acting president Ram Chandra Poudel with a wide margin of 526 votes in the run-off election after none of the three presidential candidates could secure 50 plus percent votes in the first round of polls. With Deuba’s victory, the leadership of NC has gone out of the hands of the Koirala family after more than two decades.
Deuba became successful in his third attempt at the top party job. Earlier, he was defeated by NC’s late presidents Girija Prasad Koirala and Sushil Koirala during the 10th and 12th general conventions held in 2000 and 2010, respectively. Though the General Secretary and Treasurer, two crucial posts in the party’s Central Working Committee (CWC), were elected from the establishment camp, Deuba has a comfortable majority in the CWC as more CWC members were elected from his camp than the establishment camp.
Deuba has broken the long hold of the Koirala family on NC’s leadership. The Koirala family and the NC leaders and cadres close to it were referred to as the ‘establishment’ faction. Now what was erstwhile called the ‘Deuba faction’ has become the establishment and the erstwhile establishment faction has become the ‘Poudel faction’. This is unfortunate and should not be allowed to exist. Accomplishing this and freeing the party from any kind of factionalism is the greatest challenge facing Mr Deuba.
It seems Deuba realizes that. In a brief comment to the media after his victory, Deuba said he would unite the party, ending years of factionalism. “From today, there are no factions in the party. My sole purpose is to make the party united,” Deuba had told media persons.
However, that is a task easier said than done. Uniting the NC, Nepal’s oldest political party, not just physically but also emotionally is going to be tough. In 2002, Deuba broke away from the NC and formed his own party, Nepali Congress (Democratic). The split in the party was patched up in 2007 when the NC and NC (D) united. The physical split was taken care of. But the party is yet to emerge as an emotionally united block. A Nepali Congress which is united emotionally as well is in the interest of the country, particularly because the country is still in a delicate transition period as the new constitution is yet to be fully implemented.
Deuba has the reputation of being a flexible politician which many say is one of his assets. Largely because of this, even his hardcore critics agree, Deuba was able to become the Prime Minister three times in the post1990 period. Now he should use this flexibility to take the leaders and cadres of the erstwhile establishment faction into confidence and build a stronger Nepali Congress. This means giving them a respectful place and responsibilities in the party.
Another challenge that he faces as the head of the country’s largest political party is taking the lead role in negotiating with the Madhes-based parties which are unhappy about the number and boundaries of the provinces. This is a herculean task but as the chief of the country’s largest political party, Deuba cannot ignore this. The election for the parliamentary party leader of Nepali Congress which will take place soon will be a test case for Deuba. NC’s internal politics will depend a lot on whether Deuba moves forward to claim the post of PP leader himself or if he supports Paudel for the job.
Furthermore, Deuba should try to use his position and influence to help strengthen Nepal’s relations with its neighbours, particularly India with which relations have soured in recent times.
With Deuba’s rise in the NC, there are talks about changing the current KP Oli government. Deuba himself hasn’t said anything about his intention to become PM for the fourth time right now, but his close aides and have started saying that a new national consensus government should be formed under NC’s leadership. This is a distraction. Deuba’s focus should not be on changing the government for the time being. There are other priority issues.
Deuba’s past, however, is not pure black and white; there are grey areas as well. For example, in the past he has been charged of handing democracy over to the then Royal Palace, besides splitting the party. He has also often been blamed for introducing very unhealthy practices into the parliamentary politics of making and breaking government.
However, his huge win ostensibly shows that the NC rank and file has forgiven him for all that. The NC being a president-centric party and with his huge majority, Deuba has an open opportunity to lead the party successfully in the days ahead.
The bottom line is he has got what he had been yearning for, for a long time. Now, let’s see what he can do with it.