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Cranky yet comfortable – for now

From his outward acerbity and antics, Sher Bahadur Deuba looks like someone sedulously fighting for his political life. Yet, for a man in his situation, he is quite comfortably placed.
Having suffered that kind of a setback in the polls he held as prime minister, the head of the erstwhile ruling party might have volunteered his resignation. Not our Nepali Congress president, though.
“The Marxist-Leninists and the Maoists join hands and sweep the elections and somehow I am to blame?” Deuba doubled down a couple of weeks ago.
But, then, critics within the party aren’t accusing Deuba of failing to prevent the unification of Nepal’s two major communist parties. What most detractors are holding Deuba responsible for is rather hackneyed.
Every Nepali Congress president since Matrika Prasad Koirala has stood accused of running the party as his personal fiefdom. Deuba himself climbed the organizational ladder castigating his one-time mentor Girija Prasad Koirala for having institutionalized authoritarianism within.
Nepali Congress general secretary Shashank Koirala, unlike cousin Shekhar, seems to have grasped that basic reality. What’s more, he believes there is enough blame to go around. After all, how far can Ram Chandra Poudel expect to go against Deuba when Poudel himself failed to get elected?
Likewise, can Krishna Prasad Sitaula really complain about the Nepali Congress under Deuba being eclipsed by the new communist behemoth without addressing his own past role in so impulsively mainstreaming the Maoists at all costs?
Challengers like Prakash Man Singh no doubt see an opportunity here to cement their own family legacies by taking on the top guy when he is down. But, then, they have to contend with people like Bimlendra Nidhi who feel they can do the same thing by allying with the party president during his bad times.
In such a vexed and variegated context, Deuba’s two-pronged approach can be expected to stand over the near term. Hammering at Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s ‘nationalist’ credentials long enough, Deuba knows that the communists will sooner or later begin handing the opposition issues.
The percolating controversies over an executive presidency and centre-provincial relations could be such early fodders. Over time, the contradictions in a communist party unified in defiance of history and ideological consistency are bound to spill out into the open.
The broader non-communist arena, too, is in a state of flux.  As things begin to crystallize there, Deuba can be expected to seek to realign forces within the Nepali Congress by rhetorically taking on ‘subversives’ and rewarding loyalists with promises, if not immediate paybacks.
Until he confronts a single formidable challenger, Deuba can continue to simultaneously allow and feign outrage at the personal criticism coming his way. By portraying the party’s current plight as provisional, he can hope to rein in the rank and file.
What will ultimately matter, though, is what Deuba expects – and is able – to do in terms of broadening the Nepali Congress’ appeal. Expanding the party’s own base may be harder than building alliances with other non-communist forces.
Grasping the geopolitical winds of change may not be palatable for a party so wedded to contriving a legacy of singularity since inception.  But neither is the Praja Parisad parable that has acquired new frequency now.

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