Physical distancing

Clockwise from below, right: Prime Minister K P Oli, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Ishwar Pokharel, Bishnu Poudel, Ram Bahadur Thapa, Narayan Kaji Shrestha, Bam Dev Gautam and Jhalnath Khanal. Photo: PMO

Even as the country is in the throes of the COVID-19 crisis, the power struggle between Prime Minister Oli and his opponents with the ruling Nepal Communist Party is reaching a climax, with some in the party’s 9-member secretariat calling on him to step down. 

The prime minister, three former prime ministers opposed to him and other secretariat members wore masks and maintained physical distancing at separate tables during the meeting on Wednesday (photo, above). But it was the political distance between them that was more perceptible.

Sources present said the secretariat score was 5-4 against Oli, with the prime minister desperately trying to woo two critical members, Bam Dev Gautam and Madhav Kumar Nepal, to his side. 

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Speaking first at the meeting, Pushpa Kamal Dahal directly demanded that Oli step down from prime ministership, accusing him of trying to split the party. This was expected, since Dahal and Oli have no love lost for each other, and have long duelled for prime ministership, even after settling to share the chairmanship of the party.

But what came next shocked those present, a source said, and changed the entire tone of the meeting. Speaking next, Oli said that after the coronavirus crisis was over, he would step down and offer the prime ministership to Bam Dev Gautam  To make this possible, he said Gautam could be nominated to the Upper House, or be made to win a by-election to be an MP.

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Gautam has been home minister several times in previous UML governments, and has long been angling for prime ministership, even after he lost his parliamentary seat in the 2017 election. By putting forward Gautam’s name as successor, Oli was not just trying to distract attention from matter at hand, but also to get a secretariat member on his side. The tactic appears to have worked because Gautam was mollified, and muted his criticism of Oli.

Further, to appease another vocal critic, Oli also proposed that Nepal be made the third NCP chair. However, Nepal was not taking the bait, and reiterated his demand that the prime minister step down. Political analysts said this was vintage Oli, who revelled in intrigue and divide-and-rule, and it once more showed that he was willing to fight to the bitter end despite the gathering storm around him. The secretariat meeting was adjourned till Saturday, giving both sides more time to win over or keep Nepal and Gautam to their respective sides. 

So far, Oli has his Defence Minister Ishwar Pokharel, Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa, trusted aide Bishnu Poudel on his side. Dahal has former prime minster Jhalnath Khanal and Narayan Kaji Shrestha supporting him. The wild cards are Nepal and Gautam.

This was the first secretariat meeting after Oli got the Cabinet to pass and the President to endorse two controversial ordinances, which he had to retract last week after an uproar within the party. Oli and Dahal factions were busy all Wednesday in a signature campaign, but it is not clear which side has more support in the parliamentary party.

NCP-watchers say the wily Oli may have thought he pulled a fast one, but it will not be so easy to get Bam Dev Gautam to succeed him. Oli seems to be driven by a single-minded desire to prevent Dahal from being the next prime minister. 

As the NCP in-fighting appeared to distract the nation’s attention away from the coronavirus lockdown and the impending economic crisis, 10 prominent civil society members issued a statement on Wednesday, saying that it was the wrong time to push the country towards instability with intra-party wrangling.

Their statement said: ‘The power struggle within the ruling NCP is not just an internal matter. It has direct implication on the country’s long term national interest. We appeal to all political sides to desist from disturbing the country’s stability and to work together during this time of national crisis.’