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Nepali Congress: Conundrum of change

BY MAILA BAJE
Amid the banality of the dump-on-Deuba campaign within the Nepali Congress, Krishna Prasad Sitaula’s remarks merit closer examination.
You can hardly quibble with Sitaula’s prediction at a public function the other day that the party would threaten its existence if it failed to adjust to the changing times. His stress on the need for an ideological discussion, too, resonates well in the organization and beyond.
Sitaula’s remark that Nepal’s communist parties work just for partisan interests and do not care about the welfare of the nation could be construed as an attempt to prejudge the wisdom of the electorate. But, then, everyone has a right to his or her opinion. Still, you are forced to wonder how different things might have turned out had such wisdom guided Sitaula during the royal takeover of 2005-2006 and its immediate aftermath.
It might be an exaggeration to say that Sitaula singlehandedly turned the Nepali Congress into an adjunct of the Maoists. But it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. Having virtually monopolized the time and attention of an ailing Girija Prasad Koirala, Sitaula was often characterized as merely doing the bidding of certain external quarters in a grand experiment.
He brought Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ from his hideout into full public glare. He was credited with devising the deal that led king Gyanendra to handover his crown and scepter and vacate Narayanhity Palace for Nagarjun. If anything, he was the embodiment of change. Sure, he had his critics. But they chose to remain quiet, at least publicly.
Sitaula’s defeat at the hands of the single triumphant candidate representing the old order, if you will – Rajendra Lingden of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal – must rank among the cruelest ironies of Nepali political history. A defeat, moreover, that was predicated on the joint strength of the Unified Marxist-Leninist and Maoist factions of the communists.
The double whammy may go one to explain Sitaula’s latest tirade against our communists’ true motives. But our focus here is on the change he and others expect the Nepali Congress to undergo.
Since Nepal’s self-proclaimed sole democratic party cannot out-red the communists in any shape, manner or form, meaningful change must come from a different direction. What might that be? The feasibility of doubling down on centrism has diminished ever since the party severed its identification with constitutional monarchy. Globalization and its discontents have rendered full-blown fealty to capitalism and liberal internationalism unworkable. Even if the Nepali Congress were to abandon its democratic-socialist tag, it would be hard-pressed to fare any better than its principal rivals with their communist label.
As to Trumpian populism, it does not go together well with centrism, unless you are willing to keep the people guessing who you really are. A party intent on building upon its impressive organizational legacy cannot afford to let individual idiosyncrasies govern its outlook and approach.
A rightwing drift can be premised on the Nepali Congress’ open espousal of Hinduism. But the party’s DNA does not seem structured that way, notwithstanding the exertions of Messrs. Khum Bahadur Khadka and Co. The party’s genesis, orientation and persona preclude rightwing nativism, especially concerning the geopolitical directions of our open borders.
If the Nepali Congress truly desires ideological rejuvenation, there can be few routes beyond a return to espousing constitutional monarchy as a means of preserving tradition and pursuing modernity. Any half measures, such as splitting the national party and parliamentary party leaderships, would remain precisely that.
Politics is the art of the possible. Should an opportunity present itself to the Nepali Congress for a precipitous and unexpected ascension to power, why open future fault lines in the name of soul-searching today?  If Sher Bahadur Deuba is indeed the problem, throw him out and elected a new leader who can be entrusted with both the party presidentship and premiership with new vigor.
Unwittingly perhaps, Sitaula may have delineated one more course of action. If Nepali communists do indeed work only for partisan interests and do not care about national welfare, then the Nepali Congress can simply sit back long enough in the hope of bouncing back. An easy approach – and the one most likely to be taken, too.

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