Let them eat cake
The Nepal Communist Party (NCP) Secretariat meeting on 1 December coincided with Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel’s birthday. Prime Minister K P Oli kicked off the meeting by feeding a slice to Poudel, who took off his mask for the purpose. Other Secretariat members took turns to do the same.
‘Let them eat cake,’ seems to be the motto of the NCP. Instead of discussing response to the rising death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic nationwide, or the threat posed by the rise of the Hindu-right, the meeting was an extension of the power struggle between factions led by Oli and his party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
The meeting kicked off, but soon degenerated into a shouting match between Oli and Dahal. Nepali media got hold of a recording of what was said, and the transcript is not for the faint-hearted. As the temperature inside the Baluwatar meeting hall rose, the gathering was put off till the next day.
However, on Wednesday Prime Minister Oli failed to attend. Ahead of the meeting Poudel, who is Oli’s close confidante, had a word with Dahal saying the prime minister wanted more time. The meeting then ended with the announcement to reconvene on Saturday, 5 December.
This gave Oli three more days to come up with a strategy to defuse the challenge to his authority. Party insiders say that the anti-Oli faction led by Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal are now in the mood to press on him to step down not just from either the party chair or prime ministership, but both positions.
Sensing this, Oli is buying time. While Dahal was holding the NCP Secretariat meeting at Baluwatar on Wednesday, Oli was holed up with advisers in another part of the prime minister’s residence, discussing his next move.
The latest bout in this long-drawn duel involved the two party chieftains hurling written statements against each other. In response to Dahal’s 19-page salvo on 13 November, Oli drafted a voluminous 38-page anti-missile missile on 28 November. Wednesday’s meeting was supposed to discuss the two documents in which the top two leaders hurled accusations at each other.
Oli was said to be waiting for the arrival from Butwal of his main ally, Lumbini Province Chief Minister Shankar Pokhrel to plan his strategy. Pokhrel is in support of getting both leaders to withdraw their accusatory documents, and draft a new joint statement that will patch up the long-running dispute once and for all.
Party insiders on both sides admit that the differences are not insurmountable – they just stem from the perception in the Dahal-Nepal faction that Oli has not given them due respect and their loyalists key appointments. But they admit that it is now a clash of egos between the two alpha males, and there is too much bad blood to settle it amicably.
Sensing that his rivals now want him removed from both posts with a vote of no confidence in the Parliamentary Party, Oli is said to be considering a range of options that are (in order of extremeness): splitting the party and forming a coalition with the opposition Nepali Congress, appointing a trusted ‘young turk’ to prime ministership and stepping down, wooing off Nepal, Jhanath Khanal or Bam Dev Gautam to his side by offering them coveted cabinet or backing for party posts in the NCP convention, or patching up with rivals by agreeing to a joint declaration.
Oli is said to have told one confidante this week: “If I am forced to step down, I will pass the prime ministership to a younger generation leader like Subhas Nembang.”
The NCP has called a Standing Committee meeting now on 6 December, and it is expected to be a decisive one. Prime Minister Oli still has some trump cards up his sleeves to divide the Dahal camp, and he is expected to use them.