Sushil Koirala at the Helm of Nepali Congres: The Road Ahead

What does the strong showing of Sushil Koirala panel mean for the Nepali Congress and the broader national politics?

By Akhilesh Upadhyay

sushil koirala of nepali congress
At least in short term, Sushil Koirala’s election is less likely to have a more telling impact on national politics of Nepal than that of the three-time Prime Minister Deuba’s would have had.

The much delayed Nepali Congress General Convention is finally done with. For now, the battle for succession is over. It is another Koirala. Acting President Sushil Koirala, 71, has consolidated his hold on the Grand Old Party as the elected chief for the next three years. Also, the Koirala panel holds a majority in the party’s central committee. Prakash Man Singh beat the much fancied Bimalendra Nidhi in the crucial race for the General Secretary.

What does all this mean for the NC and the national politics at large?

But first let’s gloat on the success of Gagan Thapa, 34, who got the highest votes at the GC. Gagan made his mark in the party—indeed the national politics—as a fiery orator, a student leader, taking squarely on the NC establishment in the early 2000s. He rode high on reformist agenda but, unlike so many other leaders, both young and seasoned, he had the gift to communicate his ideas effortlessly in large public rallies and the fast mushrooming political TV talk shows. The royal takeover in 2005 only gave him a broader stage to exercise his oratorical skills and expand his national reach. Gagan’s mass appeal does not just come from his youth, which is obviously a huge asset. He has also been quick to move beyond his party veterans (and many young leaders) who speak a very convoluted political jargon—narrow-minded, partisan, and mostly suited for closed-door intra-party debates—uninspiring to the political centre, and indeed the apolitical class.

With all that, it’s too early to tell what kind of impact Gagan will have on the NC and the larger national politics. That will depend a lot on what kind of relationship he will develop with the party’s senior leaders-many of whom will no doubt now see him as a serious threat. But also on his ability to remain connected with the base, which arguably was instrumental in propeling him to his current position. In that respect, Gagan’s rise is fundamentally different from that of many in the current CWC who owe their early break in the big-league politics to their proximity to party establishment (read Girija Prasad Koirala). Gagan offers hope on two

other fronts: he has demonstrated the ability to reach out to other parties; he has a reformist legacy, with close personal ties with Narahari Acharya, the leader of the Third Front.    Now on to the broader politics.

At least in short term, Sushil’s election is less likely to have a more telling impact on national politics than that of the three-time Prime Minister Deuba’s would have had. For a number of reasons. Sushil, make no mistake, is the ultimate NC establishment man. Even in the presence of GPK, he was effectively managing the party since the end of 2007 and certainly so since the demise of GPK nearly seven months ago.

A cousin and a long-time confidante of GPK, he is not known to be decisive and has risen to the current position primarily because of his sheer presence: He has been in NC central committee since 1978 where he was greatly overshadowed by such luminaries as BP and GPK. Even after the restoration of democracy in 1990, Shailaja Acharya (GPK’s niece who had a brief period of limelight thrust on her) looked like a far more serious contender for the party leadership than the shy Sushil who seldom asserted himself in the parliament or on important intra-party debates. A man of high personal integrity, no doubt, he is a poor orator (the story is he had a surgery of his tongue to combat cancer; his NC colleagues aren’t quite sure whether he has fully recovered or not). At 71, and not exactly robust, his health remains a suspect. The NC in all likelihood is not going to be dominated again like GPK did for nearly two decades post-1990. Sushil’s presidency should see ‘collective leadership’ take ascendance. He doesn’t tower over NC colleagues like Deuba (a three-time Prime Minister) and Ram Chandra (former Speaker), though he is certainly senior to them in age and that seems to matter. Several other CWC leaders (Ram Saran Mahat, Khum B Khadka, Sujata Koirala, Mahesh Acharya, Minendra Rijal, Prakash Saran Mahat, Krishna Sitaula, Purna Bahadur Khadka, to name some) have held national offices in various capacities while Sushil still remained a peripheral figure (if privately influential) in national politics.

Who will be the key members in the Sushil circle? The Koiralas will make a mini-comeback, though again nothing close to the ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ of the 90s when GPK was at his thundering best. Sashank Koirala, BP’s son and a lawmaker; Shekhar Koirala, GPK’s nephew; and Sujata will have their role. But it’s too early to tell who will be Sushil’s family ‘point person’ for now, and who he will anoint as his successor—and whether he has the capacity to do that at all.

Outside the family, four influential persons in the Nepali Congress central committee will be—Ram Chandra Poudel, the NC parliamentary leader; Arjun Narsingh KC, the party spokesman; Ram Saran Mahat, the former finance minister; and Krishna Sitaula, former Home Minister. KC and Mahat intriguingly are arch-rivals—both have their constituencies in neighbouring Nuwakot district and many see both as the party’s top leadership material. If KC is affable and has perhaps the broadest public outreach in Kathmandu,  Mahat, the UN bureaucrat-turned-NPC vice chairman-turned-politician has broad acceptance in the international community, not least for heading the finance ministry on several occasions. A member of the Special Committee on Integration and Rehabilitation of the Maoist combatants, Mahat is held in high esteem by the Nepal Army for his hard-line position against the Maoists. A former Panchayat man, KC, meanwhile, is said to have close ties with various constituencies in New Delhi—in both the bureaucracy and the political parties. If KC is expected to have strong influence on the party’s India policy, Mahat will certainly influence how the international community (including UN) perceives his party and vice versa.

Krishna Sitaula, home minister in GPK’s last government and a key interlocutor in the early stages of the peace process, seems to have gained a level of trust with Sushil as he once did with GPK. Already, Sitaula’s language and perception of the Maoists and the peace process, not to talk of UNMIN, has had strong influence on Sushil, who sees Sitaula’s interpretation of the peace process and accords as ‘institutional memory’ of the GPK era. Towards that end, Sitaula seems to have established himself in the Sushil household, just as he did in the GPK’s. Sushil, interestingly, now occupies the same house in Maharajgunj that GPK did. So it’s hard not to see some political symbolism therein.

Another key factor that will have a huge bearing on the NC and larger national politics is how Sushil and Deuba manage their relationship. Once again many, inside the NC and outside, are hastily writing off Deuba after another “embarrassing” defeat in recent times-he lost to Ram Chandra Poudel in the race to lead the party in parliament. That would be a serious mistake. If anything, with a highly encouraging 1,317 votes in GC, as against Sushil’s 1,652, Deuba has firmly anchored himself as an important voice in the party. Already, some members of the Deuba camp have fired their first salvo against Poudel, asking him to withdraw from the “endless battle” for prime minister-ship-obviously a swipe against Poudel for ‘breaching’ his promise to stay neutral in the NC presidential race.

Should we take this as a curtain raiser?

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