Election fervor has gripped the oldest and largest democratic party in the country. With the first phase of polls already held, well-wishers and cadres of the Nepali Congress (NC)eagerly wait for results that will shape the party’s topmost body, its leadership, officer bearers and the future political course of the country.
Amid the excitement, however, lies the apprehension that NC will still be under the clenches of a few of the old fogies. As three septuagenarian leaders—Sushil Koirala, Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ramchandra Poudel—are likely to contest for the leadership, the younger generation has been explicit in expressing that responsibilities need to be passed down to a younger generation.
Udaya Rana, president of the youth wing of the party, Tarun Dal, is among those. A charismatic figure, Rana has been very instrumental in changing the stereotypical image of youth wings as ‘violent goons’. Rana relentlessly challenges his cadres to ideologically brainstorm socio-political issues and promotes self-sustainability during the organisation’s workshops and meetings. “Youths and women are the future of the country. If we are able to promote intellectual thinkers, they will be the ones to bring real economic reforms, the fundamental demand of the current generation,” says Rana.
Youth, in Nepali politics, have throughout history been the catalysts of change. After the end of the Second World War, a democratic wave swept through the globe and arrived in South Asia as well. This was when the Nepali Rastriya Congress was formed under the guidance of BP Koirala and Ganeshman Singh in 1947. With the enthusiasm and devotion of students in particular, the party was formed with the emphasis on “establishing a government responsible to the people under a constitutional leadership”.
Students and politics have been synonymous ever since. Following the People’s Movement in 1950, the institutionalised hereditary prime minister system adopted by the Rana regime was abolished, marking the beginning of a political awakening and democratic movement in the country. And the youth have always remained at the forefront of change.
Bishwa Bandhu Thapa, a political analyst and an active youth in past student movements, pointed out that a patriotic feeling and an aspiration for freedom arose when some of them were studying in India. “We used to deeply feel for our country. We wondered how we could have an impact as the other Indian students did in their country. Moreover, we had BP Koirala who constantly advised us that we would not cultivate a political culture through unions unless the autocratic regime was overthrown. He used to instill courage in us,” Thapa recalls.
Decades later, the 1990 democratic movement was no different. In February 1990, as student leaders were addressing a mass meeting during a symbolic strike, police intervened, inhumanely. The arrests and torture of dozens of students became a matter of state tidings. An atmosphere of national movement ensued. Political parties, students and the general people felt the need to join hands in retaliation. The movement, which had an unprecedented participation of the students, was eventually successful in rooting out the Panchayat system.
The democrtic movement in 2006, was also in large part, spear headed by students. “It was natural that we protested against the regression,” says Gururaj Ghimire, who was then the president of the sister wing of Nepali Congress, the National Students’ Union (NSU). According to him, parties had differing views on how to tackle the situation. It was once again the student organisations that took matters into their own hands and it was the National Students’ Union’s central committee that passed one of the resolutions demanding that monarchy be abolished. Ghimire, along with three other student leaders, were arrested and charged with ‘sedation’.
According to Ghimire, the youth organisations during that time were actually the ones adamantly pressing on returning the power to the hands of the people. “We were sort of independent then, we had our own ideas on how to move the country forward and what kind of role political parties had to play,” says Ghimire.
However, despite their significant contributions in laying the foundations for the democracy the country enjoys today, youths, to a large extent, have been exploited as a muscle tool in the political system. Youths are used during agitations, to galvanise the masses and to get leaders elected, but are seldom wielded for their intellect. Neither are they handed any responsibility thereafter. “Despite the fact that the change gave a new hope to the new generation, the NSU has failed to live up to its expectations,” says the former NSU president.
As the country transitions from numerous movements and uprisings, the current generation now seeks a platform to express themselves. Underlining the need of a top to bottom clean up, Udaya Rana has made efforts to revamp Tarun Dal to intellectually progress, have a diverse participation and ultimately work as a factory to produce top-notch leaders. Under the initiation of Rana, there had been collaboration among youth organisations who have worked together on various programmes with a focus on social issues at the ground level. “Instead of just bashing each other, it felt much better to sit together over a cup of coffee. We developed a working culture despite having different ideologies,” says Rana. With the support from the Norwegian Embassy, these youth organisations joined hands and held workshops in every district of the country. “The reason the last CA elections were more free and less violent was because youths at the ground worked together. All of us wanted change,” says Rana.
Ghimire also hopes that his friends at the National Students’ Union continue to maintain the heights it had reached during the 2006 movement. Considered the strongest wing of the party, its recent leaders have been flayed for their failure to take a stand for themselves and to ideologically pilot the youth as per the demands of the present generation. “The role of youths has diversified, with broader issues to deal with. We now need to flex our brains not our muscles,” says the central committee member.
The youth played a crucial role in helping the country rise from the rubbles of the recent earthquakes. Following the May 12 earthquake, Ghimire along with his party cadres headed to Benighat, Dhading, with over half a dozen trucks laden with food, medicines and daily essentials. The goods were bought out of their own pockets. During their nine-day mission, they managed to build 65 houses in a Chepang community.
Rana also fondly remembers their efforts of his cadres following the disastrous earthquake. “The courage and resilience these youths have make me optimistic over the future of the country. It is an extremely proud feeling to have when you see so much determination amongst the younger generation,” says Rana. The Tarun Dal president has also managed to divert more funds into his constituency in Lalitpur than any other previous MPs.
The post-earthquake relief and rescue efforts done by youth wings of political parties also suggest that the aspirations, involvement and the scope of youth involvement in the present day society are rapidly evolving.
As young leaders like Rana and Ghimire continue to keep Nepali Congress relevant in present day politics, the party leadership has done little to help the cause. Koirala has been heavily critised for his handling of the party in the last six years and his role as the head of the government.
Nepali Congress as a political organisation is at its weakest state in recent memory. A majority of its sister wings have failed to hold elections, party departments are yet to get a full shape, party’s policies and plans have hardly been discussed, its parliamentary committee is still lying vacant; reasons why Rana recommends an ailing Koirala to rather act as a guardian of the party this time around. “Personally I feel he should step aside and let the other two contest,” says Rana. The party also had to face humiliation after Koirala lost the prime ministerial election to KP Oli, more so at a time when several quarters within Nepali Congress suggested him not to contest.
As a leader, Ghimire hopes that the new generation will not have to suffer from these shortcomings. He recommends educated and experienced youths to make it their mission to come to the forefront in order to filter the traditional politics. “The society has moved on in several ways, contemporary politics and leaders cannot live up to the ever growing expectations,” says Ghimire.
After the 12th General Convention, a sizeable number of youths were inducted into the central committee. However, none have had a significant impact on the party decisions and its policies. The reason being the deeply rooted factional politics that is currently thriving within the Nepali Congress. “The current second rung leaders have never challenged the leadership for the past 15 years. After 1990s, the only person who challenged Girija Prasad Koirala and sternly stood up against the establishment faction was Deuba,” says Rana.
Unless the youth leaders come out with a united front to give the people an alternative to the worn out leadership, politics within the Nepali Congress is likely to remain stagnant—both in personnel and in ideology. Young guns like Gagan Thapa, who had the most votes in the central committee election the last time around, have been publicly demanding that the youth get a bigger say within the party. “If none of my fellow friends will challenge the worn out system within the party, I will file my candidacy for the general secretary,” Thapa says in a recent interview. But it remains to be seen if Thapa will actually take a stand for himself or if it was just another bargaining tool that he used to fulfill his demands through one of the factions.
The hierarchical structure within the party and the society in general is so engraved that it seems an arduous task to challenge it. The financial clout that the structure produces makes it even more difficult for youth leaders to get anywhere close to the leadership. Unless a brave heart comes along and contests to break the party tradition of shabby folks hogging top positions, youth will continue to remain in the back seat. Yet as things stand, it looks like the present youth leaders of today, as in the past, are in for the long wait.