There are signs that the power struggle between Prime Minister K P Oli and co-Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal is now reaching a climax.
After two years of cohabitation with the tussle between them increasingly playing out in public, the two top leaders of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), are now on a head-on collision course.
The outcome of this final bout will determine whether or not the NCP will split along its UML-Maoist fault line, who will become the next prime minister, and whether the spat will drag in the office of the President.
Primarily, it is an ideological struggle between the social-democratic UML and the Maoists — the two parties that had a gunshot wedding for the 2017 election, after which conjugal relations have been rocky.
Prime Minister Oli thinks Dahal is in the pockets of big business, is anti-democratic and has ambitions of becoming a strongman. Dahal has publicly declared his support for a directly elected executive presidency, obviously with himself as head of state and government. Hence, Oli wants to prevent Dahal from succeeding him at all costs.
The problem is that Oli is now morally, politically and physically weak. Scandal after scandal involving his coterie have tarnished the prime minister’s image, and undermined his nationalist credentials. Dahal has managed to wean away former UML leaders like Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhalnath Khanal and Bam Dev Gautam, and left Oli with only two loyalists in the nine-member NCP secretariat.
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Dahal’s strategy is to keep chipping away at the UML citadel because without weakening it he cannot be the supreme leader of the united party. He is exploiting the disaffection towards Oli among the UML rank and file, as well as dangling carrots in front of the prime minister’s erstwhile colleagues to get them to defect.
Dahal has used every trick in the book: deploying the media to systematically demonise Oli and isolating him on matters like the US-funded Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the selection of a new speaker, and the nomination of Gautam to the Upper House.
The prime minister has not exactly helped his own cause by the lack of transparency of his business dealings, and other scandals involving trusted comrades like Gokul Baskota, who resigned last week as Information Minister after an incriminating kickback tape was made public.
Surprisingly, Pushpa Kamal Dahal has managed all this by staying out of the limelight, lobbying influencers from the shadows, and avoiding blame for his machinations — including getting the secretariat to install Gautam into the Upper House.
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Oli wants to ensure Dahal doesn’t pull a fast one during his kidney transplant hospitalisation, even if it is by giving his ally President Bidya Devi Bhandari emergency powers.
Party insiders say Dahal’s strategy is to take full control of the NCP, make Bam Dev Gautam prime minister, replace Bhandari with either Nepal or Khanal as president, and then amend the constitution to declare an executive presidency.
Both factions of the NCP now have a few more days before President Bhandari returns from a trip to the far west, after which a final showdown is expected, possibly next week.
Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).