It has become a predictable ritual in the Nepali Congress: hard-fought elections are won, there is a majority in parliament, within months the party begins to self-destruct as a dissident faction mutinies, a new alignment is set up and the same cycle is repeated.
This time, a crisis that started with a dissatisfied Khum Bahadur Khadka trying to oust his boss took a turn when the rebellious minister suddenly found himself sacked. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala then moved swiftly to outflank dissidents by meeting their guru. Krishna Prasad Bhatrarai, and smoking the peace pipe. A cabinet reshuffle any day now will indicate how well the compromise works-the clue will be the number of Bhattarai men (and women) in it.
The cease-fire has now gone into force. In effect, this week\'s tussle was the preliminary round of the knock-out to take place at the party\'s General Convention originally slated for November in Pokhara.
Koirala is both prime minister and party president. Many dissidents, including Khum Bahadur, thought this made him too powerful. The convention will be a showdown in which Koirala is most likely to be challenged by another ambitious leader who has once tasted power: Sher Bahadur Deuba.
Deuba leans on Bhattarai a lot and will be banking on this support to counter Koirala. For his part, Koirala relies on his cousin, General Secretary Sushil Koirala, feared by both Deuba and Khum Bahadur for his politics, to get him the votes.
On Monday morning Koirala and Bhattarai met one-on-one for 25 minutes, and two versions were made public. Koirala\'s supporters said the prime minister repeated his commitment made at the 11 August Central Working Committee (CWC) meeting to meet two of Bhattarai\'s five demands: reshuffling the cabinet and the party\'s CWC, and not to play dirty during the party election. Koirala is also said to have given his old friend a lollipop-rescheduling the party Convention, if needed. (Baluwatar sources say Koirala would prefer an early Convention to resolve the power struggle so he can get down to the business of running the country.) Bhattarai\'s version is that a team would be formed to "carry the talks forward".
On the key question of one person-one post. Koirala gave Bhattarai a blunt "no". Said one Congress insider: "Girijababu basically dared Kishunji to vote him out."
Meanwhile, Young Turks Deuba and Khum Bahadur are still plotting. But they have yet to get their arithmetic right. What worked in Koirala\'s favour this time was that even some ministers identified as being close to Bhattarai were fed up with the instability a signature campaign would entail. Sources said Bhattarai himself had approached some junior ministers to seek their support but they refused.
Khum Bahadur, who found himself in the eye of the storm after his sacking, is now backstage, an unfamiliar place for someone who has always been a high-profile minister in most Congress governments. Khum Bahadur was likely to have been dropped in a cabinet reshuffle Koirala had planned before leaving for India.
Sensing the impending reshuffle, Khum Bahadur had pressed his earlier demand calling for the sacking of Inspector General of Police Achyut Krishna Kharel, a request Koirala had repeatedly ignored. Khum Bahadur told us he had not begun collecting signatures, but that he strongly believed it was time a younger leader like Shailja Acharya took charge of the party.
The Koirala side interpreted Khum Bahadur\'s support for Shailja, Koirala\'s niece, as a ploy to make it easier for Deuba to win in the party election.
Bhattarai, who had been in semi-retirement at his residence in Bhainsepati and seldom attended parliament after his ouster in March, jumped at the opportunity Khum Bahadur\'s ouster provided to get his revenge. Within hours, he had laid out five demands before Koirala: reshuffle of the cabinet and the party CWC, step down from the post of party president, appoint someone like Deuba to take over, re-schedule the General Convention and not seek re-election as party president.
The lesson from all this is that if the two 78-year-olds had met earlier, the country may have been spared the spectacle that ensued. Actually, Bhattarai had agreed to go to Baluwatar on 10 August before the CWC met, but called it off at the last moment after talking to his protege, Deuba. Bhattarai-confidante Ram Sharan Mahat sums up the present mood: "Peace will be durable only if the two sides keep their word."