Jolt To China As Cracks Start Surfacing In Nepal’s Ruling Communist Party

Jaideep Mazumdar

May 22, 2019, 05:37 PM | Updated 05:24 PM IST

 Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli (L) (Etienne Oliveau/Getty Images)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli (L) (Etienne Oliveau/Getty Images)
  • In what is a definite setback for China, the process of complete merger—in body and in spirit—of the two communist parties in Nepal (CPN-UML and CPN-MC) to from Nepal Communist Party (NCP) is far from complete even two and a half years after the surprise merger announcement.
  • Apart from ideological differences between the two factions that merged to form NCP, the real and covert conflict is between the leaders—a China-leaning autocratic Oli and an India-leaning Maoist Dahal.
  • Cracks have started appearing in the top leadership of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) over power sharing. The party was formed in what was widely perceived to be a China-brokered deal unifying the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) or CPN-UML, and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) or CPN-MC. The move, in early October 2017, caught everyone in Nepal and in the international community totally unawares.

    The NCP swept to power in the subsequent parliamentary elections held later that year (2017), bagging nearly two-thirds of seats in the country’s House of Representatives. The CPN-UML won 121 seats and the CPN-MC won 53 seats in the 275-member Lower House. Since then, Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, who is decidedly pro-China and quite anti-India, has launched a series of measures to take the Himalayan nation closer to China. But Oli (who headed the CPN-UML) and the NCP’s co-chair Pushpa Kumar Dahal (who headed the CPN-MC) have a long history of rivalry bordering on enmity. And this is what is playing out in Nepal again.

    In what is a definite setback for China, and despite Beijing’s strenuous efforts, the process of complete merger—in body and in spirit—of the two communist parties in Nepal is far from complete even two and a half years after the surprise merger announcement. Although a formal merger agreement was signed in February last year, many major hurdles still remain. And the egos and personal ambitions of the top two leaders—Oli and Dahal—remain the primary stumbling block.

    As per the merger agreement, Oli and Dahal (also known by his nom de guerre, ‘Prachanda’, the feared one, since he led a ten-year-long bloody insurgency that resulted in the deaths of more than 17,000 people in Nepal and came to an end in 2006) will be the co-chairpersons of the NCP and will also share the Prime Minister’s post by rotation. “The merger agreement makes it clear that Marxism and Leninism will be the guiding principles of the NCP’s political ideology, and the party will accept multi-party democracy with the ultimate goal of socialism,” Dipendra Poudel, a senior NCP leader, told Swarajya from Kathmandu.

    NCP leaders hailing from the UML faction admit that serious ideological differences exist between them and those in the Maoist faction. The UML is completely unwilling to acknowledge and give any credit to the insurgency waged by the Maoists. “We hold that as a dark chapter in Nepal’s history and no credit goes to the Maoists for ending the monarchy (a claim made by Maoists). The monarchy would have crumbled under the weight of the mass movements that all democratic parties, including the CPN-UML, had launched. The Maoist insurgency was unnecessary and resulted in totally avoidable loss of so many lives. Also, we hold that the Maoists committed gross human rights violations, and indulged in kidnappings and murders of political rivals. They broke and abused the law,” said another UML faction leader who did not want to be named.

    The Maoists (CPN-MC) want ‘a people’s democracy’ (read as ‘one-party communist rule’) to be one of the guiding principles of the newly formed NCP. But Oli and other UML leaders are vehemently opposed to even the mention of this term—‘people’s democracy’—in any party document.

    The ideological differences between the UML and Maoists have come out in the open many times recently. “In the absence of a document that lays down the party ideology, the NCP is just a gathering of people, at best an interest group. A party has to have an ideology and unfortunately, even two and a half years after the announcement of the merger and 18 months after the signing of the merger agreement, no one in the NCP has any idea of the merged party’s ideology,” said Hemraj Bhandari, an NCP central committee member.

    NCP ideologue, Ghanashyam Bhusal, has been publicly saying, much to the embarrassment of the party leadership, that the merger of the CPN-UML and CPN-MC has not led to an ideological fusion because was an artificial one brokered by “an external power” (read China) for its own convenience. The merger, he adds, is being used to fulfil the personal ambitions of Oli and Dahal. “We have not been able to tell our cadres and the people what our party’s political ideology is,” said Bhusal.

    Last week, Dahal and senior NCP leader Ishwar Pokhrel publicly sparred over this issue. Pokhrel, who is also the deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, had said at a party event: “With no clarity in ideology, communist parties of the world have faced unfortunate ends. We don’t want to meet with such a fate. We want a communist party that is clear on its ideological ground.” Dahal had retorted to this with: “Had we been dragging on with ideological issues, we would not have been able to pull off the unification.”

    Conflict is between Autocratic China-leaning Oli and Maoist Dahal

    But the conflict over the failure of the top leadership to articulate the NCP’s political line aside, the real and covert conflict is between Oli and Dahal. The Oli-led government is 15 months old already, and Dahal has reasons to believe that Oli will not honour the agreement to step down from the Prime Ministership by August next year and hand over the reins of government to him (Dahal).

    A senior NCP leader close to Dahal told Swarajya that he (Dahal) had learnt from close confidants of Oli that the latter was not willing to share power with Dahal. “Oli feels that as the leader of the UML which won 121 seats (in the lower House), much more than double of what the CPN-MC won, Dahal has no moral right or legitimate claim to the Prime Minister’s post. He has communicated this to his closest confidants and feels that the NCP will not face any crisis if he does not step down in Dahal’s favour next year. According to Oli’s assessment, there will be a lot of heat generated and Dahal will make a lot of noise, but ultimately he (Dahal) will not be able to leave the NCP because of political compulsions. Oli also feels that he has the full backing of China, which will prefer to have him remain as the Prime Minister instead of Dahal, who is considered to be soft towards India and believes in maintaining equi-distance from New Delhi and Beijing,” the NCP leader said.

    An alarmed Dahal has now started courting factions within the NCP. Of late, he has been holding secret talks with Madhav Kumar Nepal, a former general secretary of the CPN-UML and a former Prime Minister of the country. “Dahal has started courting support among the traditional groups of the former CPN-UML, including the one led by Madhav Kumar Nepal. Dahal wants to build pressure on Oli,” said Surya Thapa, a central committee member close to deputy Prime Minister Pokhrel. Dahal figures that one good way of building pressure on Oli is to keep the issue of ideological differences between the UML and MC alive.

    The NCP is beset with factionalism and Dahal is trying to maneuver the factions opposed to Oli to his advantage. Apart from Nepal, Dahal has also been holding secret meetings with Jhala Nath Khanal (former UML chairman and yet another former PM), Bam Dev Gautam (former UML vice-chairman) and Narayan Kaji Shrestha (a former deputy PM). None of them have any love lost for Oli, and Dahal’s dalliances with them are meant to send a strong signal to Oli that he should not take Dahal for granted.

    Dahal, of course, has reason to be worried about Oli going back on his promise to step down from the Prime Ministership in his (Dahal’s) favour halfway into the five-year term. In June 2016, Oli had reneged on an understanding to make way for Dahal (Oli was the PM then), thus provoking Dahal to withdraw from the coalition government. Dahal had joined hands with the Nepali Congress to form a new government, and Oli had blamed India for engineering the fall of his government.

    Meanwhile, Nepal’s polity is witnessing another churn against Oli and his authoritarian style of functioning. Major rights bodies have strongly criticised the government for curtailing civil liberties, freedom of expression and press freedom. Journalists in Nepal are up in arms over a proposed Media Council Bill that gives the government unfettered powers to control the media. The Bill has also drawn the ire of many NCP leaders.

    In addition to all this, Oli is facing a revolt from many of his senior party colleagues who accuse him of being authoritarian. Earlier this month, a meeting of the NCP Parliamentary Party, that was called to discuss policies and programmes to be presented in Parliament, turned into a session to criticise Oli’s autocratic style of functioning.

    Oli, of course, has the support of China. “China is backing Oli to the hilt because Oli is Beijing’s man in Nepal. But Oli’s grip on the party is weakening and dissent against him is brewing. Many within the party are unhappy with his strong tilt towards China and they feel that Chinese investments in Nepal are a double-edged sword that will pull Nepal into a debt trap and make it forever indebted to China, thus compromising the country’s sovereignty. An increasing number of leaders within the NCP feel that a course-correction is required to maintain a balance between India and China. The Opposition shares this view,” said a leader of the opposition Nepali Congress.

    Given the mounting opposition to Oli, if he continues with his autocratic style of functioning and does not assure Dahal that he will honour the power-sharing agreement (to step down from his Prime Ministership sometime in August next year), the NCP government could be headed for very rough weather. And Beijing may then not be able to rescue its man in Kathmandu.

    Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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