Leaders say ruling party is using fear and coercion to control them

  • Nepal Communist Party insiders say internal democracy is on the wane while individual freedom is being curtailed
- TIKA R PRADHAN, Kathmandu

May 14, 2019-

On May 5, the ruling Nepal Communist Party called a meeting of its Parliamentary Party to discuss the policies and programmes presented in Parliament by the President two days earlier. But the meeting quickly devolved into lawmakers venting their dissatisfaction with the party’s approach.

The NCP lawmakers had two primary issues with the leadership’s approach to the policies and programmes document. First, the document had not been discussed with them prior to being presented publicly. Second, while the May 5 meeting had been called to ostensibly discuss the document, lawmakers weren’t allowed to express their views, with the leadership asking them to defend the document publicly.

The lawmakers, however, believe that given the flaws in the document, it would be difficult for them to comply with their leadership’s instructions. “We were in a fix,” said Anjana Bishankhe, a lawmaker. “The party directed us not to speak against the policies and programmes, but there are several flaws in the document.”

Surendra Pandey, a former finance minister, censured the leadership for not letting lawmakers speak, according to one lawmaker who was present at the meeting. “It would have been better had we been asked to simply send messages that we had endorsed the policies

and programmes,” Pandey was quoted to have said.

The policies and programmes were endorsed by the federal parliament on May 7, amid objections from the primary opposition, the Nepali Congress.

The May 5 meeting and the internal fallout over the policies and programmes document appears to exemplify the working style of the ruling communist party, where many members are afraid that the two chairpersons—KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal—are attempting to unilaterally run the party.

These fears have been building for the past year, where a series of events suggests that the party is becoming increasingly intolerant of dissenting voices within the party—to the extent that leaders at times are forced to maintain silence, said multiple NCP leaders the Post spoke to.

In August last year, Narayan Kaji Shrestha tendered his resignation as party spokesperson following a heated debate with Oli, who had apparently chided Shrestha for meeting and showing solidarity with Dr Govinda KC, who was on a hunger strike demanding reforms in medical education. Though Shrestha later withdrew his resignation, the incident stood out as the leadership’s attempt to curtail the individual freedom of party leaders.

The Nepal Communist Party (NCP), which was formed after a merger of the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre), claims that its guiding principle is “democratic centralism”, a system which the party defines as “collective decision and individual responsibility”.

But leaders say that the ‘democratic’ part has vanished and that ‘centralism’ now reigns supreme in the party at the behest of the two top leaders—Oli and Dahal.

“The party’s focus has largely shifted to centralism. There is hardly any internal democracy in the party,” said Ganesh Sah, a Standing Committee member The communist party’s massive electoral mandate, which catapulted Oli to power for a full five-year term with a comfortable majority in Parliament, has turned him into a leader who wants to not only control the party and the government, but also individual freedoms of party leaders, said insiders.

During the recent Parliamentary Party meeting, even Dahal was at his wit’s end, said participants. The party co-chair apparently also found out about the use of ‘mero sarkar’—my government—in the policies and programmes when the President read out the document in Parliament.

“I had gone through the document once, but the ‘mero sarkar’ part was absent. It seems to have been inserted later,” one party leader quoted Dahal as having said. The use of ‘mero sarkar’ by the President drew widespread criticism from the general public as well as a section of leaders from both the ruling and opposition parties, who said the phrase smacked of the monarchy.

Oli, however, defended the use of ‘mero sarkar’, saying “of course this is the President’s government”.

Dahal was briefing lawmakers on how he discovered the use of ‘mero sarkar’ in the document when Oli arrived, and according to participants, the former quickly said that “since the prime minister has already clarified on the matter, there is nothing to discuss further.”

“If this situation of not allowing lawmakers and leaders to speak continues, things will soon explode,” said Rekha Sharma, a lawmaker and former minister.

Party Spokesperson Shrestha, who is perceived to be a leader who speaks his mind, has stopped talking to the media of late. He is seen attending public functions, but he no longer comments on national, social, political or governance matters, as he was once wont to do. Information regarding the party is hard to come by, as the spokesperson seems to have chosen not to speak.

Many leaders even refuse to speak over the phone these days, saying they would prefer to meet in person “somewhere”. This could imply that they were afraid their phones might be tapped.

Party insiders say that Oli has somehow managed to instill a kind of fear among party lawmakers. In one example, during the November 15 Cabinet meeting, Oli warned ministers not to “leak” Cabinet decisions “until they [decisions] get mature”.

Earlier, Cabinet decisions were made public immediately after the meeting was over. But in line with Oli’s instructions, Minister for Communications and Information Technology Gokul Baskota shares the government’s decisions every Thursday. Baskota even challenged reporters to “do investigative reporting” to discover Cabinet decisions before they are made public once a week. Though the government has said that this decision is part of a process to make crucial decisions public in a systematic manner, many see it as Oli’s attempt to control the system and muzzle ministers and leaders.

“The manner in which Oli warns leaders of consequences has instilled fear among them,” one Standing Committee member said on condition of anonymity for reasons that he said were “obvious”. “Instead, Oli keeps telling leaders to defend the government’s activities. And only those who comply are likely to benefit. Leaders attend the meeting to show deference, not discuss.”

The current practice seems to suit Dahal just fine. When Dahal ran his Maoist party—uncontested for almost three decades—individual freedom was largely absent in the party. Those speaking against him or the system Dahal had put in place were liable to face action. In the unified party, Dahal sides with Oli, while Oli gives Dahal the impression that they are running the party together, say party insiders.

And now, Oli and Dahal rule the roost.

“The two co-chairs may even take action against leaders who speak against them,” a central member told the Post on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution. “Fear is instilled among many in such a way that they are concerned they might fall out of favour with the top two leaders. So they maintain silence. It’s a classic example of servility in the party.”

When the party selected its leadership for the district committees—a crucial component of party unification—leaders had expressed their dissatisfaction, saying the two top leaders were taking decisions without holding consultations. It was only after Madhav Kumar Nepal, a senior party leader, objected that the list was revised. Nepal, during a programme organised to announce the conclusion of the party merger last month, had walked out, a move that was largely seen as an expression of dissatisfaction.

Ghanashyam Bhusal, a Standing Committee member, who is a vocal critic of the current leadership, describes Oli as among the most intolerant chairpersons in the party’s history. “Oli’s style of dividing leaders while appeasing individuals has created an environment of fear,” Bhusal told the Post. “And it has instilled a sense of insecurity among leaders.”

Published: 14-05-2019 10:54

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