Efforts to cobble back the UML

Prime Minister K P Oli with his former UML colleague and NCP rival Madhav Kumar Nepal during a meeting at a party office in Dhumbarahi on Monday. All photos: SURYA THAPA/TWITTER

The 7 March verdict of the Supreme Court annulling the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) revived the UML (Unified Marxist-Leninists), but the fierce factional infighting within the NCP that led to the split seems to have been inherited by the UML.

On Monday, Prime Minister K P Oli invited his former UML colleague and NCP rival Madhav Kumar Nepal to the party office in Dhumbarahi to try to patch things up. But there is so much personal bad blood between the two leaders that the meeting ended inconclusively.

The two-hour meeting was attended by supporters of the Oli and Nepal groups, and both sides agreed to continue discussions. The effort to prevent a split in the UML appears to be dictated by the political dead-end in the Lower House with none of the four main parties (UML, Nepali Congress, Maoist Centre and the JSP) having the majority to form a government on its own.

Meanwhile, the Maoist Centre has also been trying to re-form its party, and has written to its former members who are in the Oli Cabinet, including Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa and Energy Minister Top Bahadur Rayamajhi to return, or face action. The Maoists are in talks with the JSP and NC, while the UML is wooing the JS to form the next government.

Nepal had sided with Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoist Centre against Prime Minister Oli when all three were in the NCP, the party that commanded a near two-thirds majority in Parliament. But after the Dahal-Nepal faction tried to register a vote of no confidence, Oli dissolved the House and called for early elections.

Now that Nepal and Oli are in their own UML party again, they carried their animosity there, with both forming parallel committees, and taking the split down to the district level.

To be sure, Nepal and Oli have never seen eye to eye with each other. Things got worse after the UML’s 2015 general convention, where Oli became Chair of the UML and then of the NCP after it united with the Maoists.  

After Oli dissolved the Lower House on 20 December, Nepal and Dahal solidified their alliance further to stage street demonstrations, while Oli staged his own series of street rallies.

But after the Supreme Court ruling reinstating the Lower House, another court decision on 7 March reverted the NCP to its two constituent parties: UML and Maoist Centre, complicating the power struggle between Oli vs Dahal-Nepal.

Over the weekend, Oli held a meeting of the Central Committee with members loyal to him, and Nepal, too, started to rally his supporters in the Standing and Central Committees.

The Oli faction stripped Nepal’s supporters of all previous responsibilities, and Nepal himself was removed from the foreign department and replaced by Oli’s trusted Rajan Bhattarai.

Both factions have replaced members within their own groups with their own loyalists, indicating that the UML was all but split.

The UML’s Bishnu Rijal, who is close to Nepal, says: “This isn’t about the egos of the leaders. It is a management issue. Not following the party statute is a problem. Madhav Kumar Nepal has never rejected Oli as party president. The bone of contention is about those not following the rules.”

Even so, it is the deep distrust between Oli and Nepal that is dictating the UML’s internal dynamics. Nepal never fails to rub it in that Oli only won the convention through a small margin, and that he continues to be the undisputed leader of the party.

“Oli doesn’t have a majority in the Politburo, although the two leaders are tied in the Standing Committee. Nepal has a better hold over Province-1, Bagmati, Karnali and far-western regions. The problem started with Oli thinking he could get away with anything he wanted as the party president,” Rijal said.

Oli supporter and politburo member Karna Thapa refutes the claim saying that it was actually Nepal who tried to undermine Oli when he was heading the party and was prime minister.

“Nepal would only assign party responsibilities to people close to himself, too. Oli was  prevented from meeting party workers outside of the office. He wasn’t even allowed to travel to the districts without Nepal’s permission. Oli, in fact, has been trying to reform the party,” Thapa said.

The Oli-Nepal rift goes all the way back to the UML’s 7th general convention when Oli had proposed that instead of having a party general secretary, a joint leadership should be formed. But after he was relegated to a minority, he withdrew the proposal.

After Nepal was elected party head in the 9th general convention, Oli’s animosity came to the fore. He used caustic sarcasm against Nepal, while Nepal passed disparaging comments on Oli’s health in public.

The further the two leaders got from each other, the wider the rift within the party became between their supporters at all levels—a divide that had been deepening in the past three years.

After the latest SC verdict, the UML cadre saw surge of hope for party unity and revival. But this has been dashed because Oli and Nepal are back to mudslinging. Nepal is also known to have announced at party gatherings recently that he is waging a “struggle against Oli-ism”.

“Oli appears to think of himself as the master and his cadre as slaves, and his decisions were erratic and ad hoc,” said Rijal, pointing to Oli unilaterally inducting former Maoist leaders like Ram Bahadur Thapa, Top Bahadur Rayamajhi and Lekhraj Bhatta into the UML last week.

Some politburo members have said it is about time Nepal formed his own party, but if Nepal breaks away,  the UML will be seriously weaker. How significant a separate party led by Nepal will be, given an election scenario, remains to be seen.

As the party president, it is Oli’s responsibility to make sure the UML stays together. And it appears to be the possibility of elections that was the reason for Monday’s attempt to patch things up.

UML standing committee member and Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali insists that the only way to unite the party now will be to hold a general convention. 

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