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Despite a myriad of distractions, and beyond all partisan rhetoric, the oldest democratic party of Nepal, the Nepali Congress (NC), steered through a very effective democratic exercise in the process of arriving at its 14th general convention which concluded early this week. It elected new leadership in the seven-tiered party organisation—from the wards through the municipalities, Provincial Assembly constituencies, federal constituencies, districts and provinces to the federal level—created in congruence with the restructured federal state.
Barring a very few exceptions, these party executives were elected from closely contested elections, which is unquestionably a meaningful contribution to the party’s internal democracy; but more generally, towards deepening republican democracy that is often touted to be a fledgling. The outcome of this democratic exercise shines even brighter if contrasted with the modus operandi employed by two other major political competitors of the NC, the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), in “electing” their new national leadership through their respective national conventions being organised around the same time. Both these communist outfits essentially thwarted all scope of intra-party democratic competition to pick trusted henchmen of the party supremos, KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, respectively. Its democratic credentials thus honed should provide a real competitive edge to the NC in the forthcoming local and parliamentary elections.
Citadel of power
No doubt, technically, the citadel of power in the NC remains with the establishment faction led by the prime minister and re-elected president of the party, Sher Bahadur Deuba. Out of the 14 central executives, including himself and one treasurer yet to be nominated, nine are his apparent supporters. Apart from the executives, among the 154 central committee members, according to Section 21, Clause 10 of the party statute, he will single-handedly nominate 33 members.
However, he also has a political-moral obligation to nominate his opponents like his nearest rival in the presidential race Shekhar Koirala and other contestants to senior positions like the vice-president and general secretary who lost the elections by honourable margins. Even though a number of his close confidantes got severely beaten, Deuba still enjoys a very comfortable majority in the central committee.
But in politics, numbers and the plan rule the roost. The 14th general convention of the NC has unequivocally endorsed the plan of transfer of power to the next, younger generation of the leadership. The electoral victory of two dynamic young leaders, Gagan Thapa and Bishwa Prakash Sharma, to fill in both general secretary positions, contesting from anti-establishment panels, is unequivocal evidence that the party rank and file was desperate to see the transfer of power from what is known as the second generation of the NC leadership straight to the fourth generation.
The victory of Thapa and Sharma, who garnered 64.56% and 42.37% respectively of the 4,682 ballots cast, also shows that the electorate defied the decrees of the “lords” of the party’s factional divisions in the future interest of the organisation. More than 60% of the elected central executives across the panels are either fresh faces or have assumed new responsibilities. Equally important is the fact that they effectively displaced a number of self-proclaimed party heavyweights who essentially were responsible for the party’s downfall in the immediate past.
This set of new leadership possesses particular character traits. Many of these young leaders started their active political careers after restoring democracy in 1990. Therefore, this generation did not suffer long years of incarceration, exile or repeated arrests meted out by the then Panchayat system under an absolute monarchy. The only large scale organised political revolt they participated in or experienced was the anti-monarchy, pro-republican movement of 2006-07. This phenomenon forces these leaders to bank more on their delivery than on the anecdotes of personal sacrifices and painful struggles.
Also, this undoubtedly is the generation that better understands the aspirations of the youths in general, which is more interested in their future than whining stories of the past, communicates more through social media than social revolt, and looks for pragmatic solutions to socio-economic problems dancing with trite political rhapsodies.
The fact of the matter is that the rise of the youth leadership in the NC, as personified by Thapa and Sharma, serves only as a symbolism to change. To prove their mettle, as leaders of change befitting their elected responsibility, will be more challenging than the battle fought through the ballot. The “next generation” leadership that has emerged regardless of their function of affiliations must pass a three-stage litmus test. Their victory has, though partially, ratified the agenda of the “imperative of change” in the party put forth by them. But, as the first step, it now becomes their collective responsibility to adequately articulate that agenda of change in terms of calibration of the party’s principles, policies and programmes.
Second, they must be able to end the pervasive sense of “disconnect” between the party’s mainstay of business and the country’s burning problems like rapidly deteriorating economic indicators, decaying education system, worsening unemployment scenario and depleting national prestige in the international arena.
The new political leadership aspiring to climb higher cannot afford to be impervious and clueless like their predecessors towards the people’s pressing problems.
Third, the selected pattern of the central leadership in the NC has dismantled the existing factionalism in the party and created new power centres. The most critical challenge for the NC will be to make it a party of interest to the next generation of Nepali youths who are hopelessly becoming disenchanted with the politics centred on the petty vested interests of a few influential players in the national party.
Therefore, change both in narratives and functionality of the leading democratic force like the NC is quintessential, and must be led by these change leaders. It can only happen with the realisation in these young leaders that they represent their cadre-supporters who voted for them and the more considerable popular will that is breathlessly waiting for the nation’s politics to deliver the goods.
Achyut Wagle holds a Ph.D. in economics and is currently a professor at the Kathmandu University School of Management.