Nepal’s communists on verge of split, again


While Nepal hurtles towards the 1,000 Covid-19 deaths mark and hospitals run out of beds, the country’s two top leaders are engaged in a fight to the finish that is once more threatening to split their ruling Nepal Communist Part (NCP).

Prime Minister K P Oli and party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal had buried their hatchets last month agreeing to a one-post-one-person formula – letting Oli serve out his term as prime minister, and Dahal to lead party affairs.

However, the truce did not last long. In the latest episode of this epic saga, Dahal has reportedly staked a claim to the prime ministership, while Oli has threatened to split the party before that happens.

To be sure, this is not the first time the NCP has come close to binary fission. Oli has mastered the craft of brinkmanship, using ordinances, anti-Indian ultra-nationalism, re-registering the UML at the Election Commission in August, or dangling lollipops in front of Dahal’s loyalists to stave off previous challenges to his supremacy.

However, matters had been coming to a head ever since there was an attempt last month to unseat the Dahalist chief minister of Karnali Province, a move  blamed on Oli getting provincial assembly members from his faction to pass a vote of no confidence. Dahal deftly defused this by convincing his ally, the former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, to get his followers in the assembly to withdraw support for the no-confidence vote.

The prime minister then went ahead and appointed new ambassadors, brought in new ministers into the cabinet and reassigned secretaries. Dahal was miffed because he felt Oli should have taken these decisions in consultation with the party and not unilaterally.

Party insiders had hoped that in the Dasain spirit, the two leaders would meet privately over the holidays and sort out their grievances as they have done in the past. However, the communication gap between the two has got even wider in the past two weeks.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emissary and spy-in-chief Samanta Goel’s surprise visit to Kathmandu, and his three-hour meeting with Oli on 27 October aroused further suspicion among Dahalists that the prime minister was up to some mischief with geopolitical backing.

They were outraged about being kept in the dark, and ridiculed his perceived ‘nationalism’ by meeting an Indian spymaster. Dahal was already angry about not just the lack of consultation over the three cabinet appointments last month, but was livid that he had to learn about it from the media after the swearing in by President Bhandari.

NCP mediators like former speaker Subhas Nembang and Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel finally convinced Oli and Dahal to meet for tea at Baluwatar on Saturday, hoping that they would be able to defuse the crisis.

However, it looks like by then the mistrust was too deep-rooted. On Sunday, the two leaders had got members of their factions to leak to the media their own versions of what transpired in the meeting at Baluwatar, and later that night in a fiery phone call.

Dahal reportedly told members of the party secretariat at a meeting at his residence that the NCP was in ‘grave crisis’ because Oli had turned down his request to call a standing committee meeting, and had told him he was not going obey the party’s directives, and may even split the NCP.

Bishnu Poudel, whom Oli appointed Finance Minister last month, took to Facebook to also warn that the NCP was on the verge of a split, and entreated senior leaders to honour the sacrifices of the cadre to ‘defend the unity of the party’.

Poudel is regarded as a prime mover of the unification of the former UML of which he and Oli were members, and the ex-Maoists led by the former guerrilla chieftain Dahal. Formal UML-Maoist unification came about after their electoral alliance in the 2017 federal and local elections gave the parties a near two-thirds majority.

Dahal’s next move has been to call a meeting of the NCP Central Committee to decide on the internecine power struggle once and for all and prevent a split. He and Madhav Nepal’s followers have a majority in the Central Committee, and it is unlikely Oli will agree to that meeting.

For his part, Oli told supporters on Sunday that it was actually Dahal who had said that if he did not hand over the prime ministership, he would split the party.

Even if the party does split, it does not look like it will be a clean division between the former UML and Maoist members. There are some ex-Maoists who are with Oli, and former UML cadre loyal to Madhav Nepal and Jhalnath Khanal and Bamdev Gautam have defected to the Dahal camp.

Insiders say that the real reason for the latest crisis is outright disagreement between Oli and Dahal about an impending Cabinet reshuffle. Dahal wants to recall two former Maoists that Oli has wooed to his fold: Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa and the Commerce and Supply Minister Lekh Raj Bhatta.

He wants them replaced with two of his own trusted lieutenants, and had warned Oli not to dare induct two other former Dahalists who have lately been speaking publicly in support of Oli: Top Bahadur Rayamajhi and Haribol Gajurel.

Baluwatar sources told Nepali Times the meeting on Saturday and the subsequent phone call had turned into a shouting match because of this wrangling.

The source quoted Oli as telling Dahal: “It is the prime minister’s prerogative who to bring into the Cabinet and which minister to remove. You want two of my ministers removed? All right then, I will remove three of yours.”

Oli was alluding to three of his Cabinet ministers who are staunchly pro-Dahal: Energy Minister Barsha Man Pun, Forest Minister Shakti Basnet and Water Supply Minister (and Dahal daughter-in-law) Bina Magar.

A Dahal supporter who was also at the meeting confirmed this exchange, adding: “That is where it all started on Saturday, and the quarrel escalated to the point where they started talking about splitting the party in two.”

A NCP Standing Committee member says that in the current system of government it is indeed the prime minister who should have the final say in whom to sack or keep as minister based on performance. But the party has to provide him guidelines and give him the authority to do that.

Oli and Dahal do not have ideological differences as such any more, it is more of an ego-clash, mixed with a power struggle for supremacy in the party. Both are trying to exert their authority through plum Cabinet berths ahead of elections in 2022.

Said the member: “Even though the two parties were united, they are still behaving like Maoists who want their own comrades in senior positions. It is proof that the party never really united in substance or spirit.”

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