Nepali Congress has failed to act as effective opposition

Nepali Congress leader Dr Shekhar Koirala is one of the few leaders who speak their mind without worrying about antagonising political opponents, party fellows or seniors. Dr Koirala is preparing to fight for the party’s presidency in the NC’s next General Convention. He says the NC needs new leadership to cope with challenges posed by the new age. Dr Koirala is critical of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and its government for ‘attempting to curtail freedom of press, freedom of expression and autonomy of the National Human Rights Commission.’ Ram Kumar Kamat and Roshan S Nepal of The Himalayan Times caught up with him to know his views on contemporary political issues, including the country’s foreign policies. Excerpts:

As the second phase of your party’s awareness campaign ends, what difference has it made?

This awareness campaign aims to energise NC workers,who have been demoralised after the election debacle. Many NC workers were engaged in programmes organised under this campaign across the country. In some places there was controversy, that’s but natural. The message the NC workers have clearly given is ‘we are aware at the local level, leaders should be aware at the central level’.

New aspirations have arisen over the past decade such as those of Madhesis, Janajatis and women. It is said the NC lost the election because it could not address those aspirations. What’s your view?

The NC has always moved ahead taking all — Himal, Pahad, Tarai-Madhes — along. The NC does not believe in populist slogans or ultra-nationalism. The country has reached this sorry state just because of populist slogans in both the Tarai-Madhes and hills. We might face some difficulties for some time or get fewer votes for the time being, but we are not going to adopt populist slogans at the cost of the nation or democracy. We never take sides. We see some parties leaning towards the north, while others are leaning towards the south. That’s not going to strengthen nationalism.

The National Convention is approaching. Are you running for party president?

Every politician wants to reach the top position and that’s obvious. Ultimately, one person reaches the top. I am also effortful for the same.

Any deliberation on the matter with other members of the Koirala family, Sujata and Shashank?

There’s nothing as such. But that doesn’t mean we do not talk. Let me assure you one thing, the Koirala family will stand together to strengthen the NC and democracy. Please be assured. We might have made mistakes in the past and have weaknesses, but let me assure everyone the Koiralas will not make such mistakes again. We will address our weaknesses.

The NC is not only about three of us. There are leaders more senior than us. If you only consider the legacy, we have BP Koirala’s son and GP Koirala’s daughter. Legacy helps you to a certain extent, but it is not everything. You have to prove yourself through work. You have to win people’s hearts.

How do you evaluate the party’s present leadership?

Those holding leadership positions have made immense contribution to democracy and that’s commendable. However, we now need a Nepali Congress that can fight against a government that has two-thirds majority. So we need a leadership that can make the NC a formidable force to reckon with, a force that can lead the country towards development and prosperity. I do not feel the present leadership can lead the NC by addressing this complex geopolitical, social and economic context. We, of course, need their guardianship, but the leadership should change.

Because of internal feud, the NC has not been able to effectively oppose this government’s activities that are against democratic norms. Why is it so?

The NC leadership must acknowledge that the NC has lost its ideological edge. For example, the NC statute states that anybody criticising the leadership will face action. Let me tell you the NC’s history in a sentence: when BP Koirala was living in exile and was preparing for an armed revolution, Subarna Shumsher was negotiating with the then king and India. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai said he would neither negotiate with the king nor live in India. He chose to stay in Nakkhu jail. Now, the leaders are trying to clamp down on politics of ideology. How can you claim the NC is a democratic party? This finishes the entire character of the NC.

This leadership has not yet done things that should have been done within two months after the national convention. The leadership now plans to form party divisions when the next national convention is around the corner. They are planning to form ad-hoc lower level committees, which we do not need. They are expelling chief of women’s association. They dictate appointments. That’s not democratic. Yes the NC has weaknesses when it comes to fighting against communists. You might ask why we could not take to the streets effectively. This is because our sister organisations are in limbo. Nepal Students Union, Tarun Dal, Women’s Association, Farmers’ Association and Dalit Association, among others, have been waiting for the convention for up to 10 years now.

In the Parliament too, we have failed to effectively raise issues on controversial bills, and wide-body corruption, gold smuggling and Baluwatar land-grab scandals.

I see new mandales [nickname given to pro-royalists] now. You can take yesterday’s incident where Gyanendra Shahi was thrashed in Chitwan. Those in power are doing exactly the same things that we opposed during the Panchayat era. Does this mean people cannot express their opinion?

How do you rate this government’s overall performance?

Initially, I thought Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli meant business although he spoke a bit too much. I had expectations that Oli would do something. But I have been proved wrong and I am disappointed. It all began with the government banning protests at Maitighar Mandala. I was surprised by the fact that Oli, who stayed in jail for so many years for democracy, did not understand democratic norms. Then came various controversial bills related to the Media Council, National Human Rights Commission, guthi and information technology, among others. The most dangerous one is the National Security Council Bill because any prime minister will be a dictator, not even autocratic, if this bill passes.

This shows their dogmatic mentality. Then came corruption scandals such as wide-body aircraft purchase deal, gold smuggling, Baluwatar land-grab and Ncell. It is very clear they are protecting those involved in these scandals. The PM says late Rabindra Adhikari is not guilty. I also say so. But the government must say who’s guilty. The Cabinet forms a judicial commission to probe giving it a 45-day mandate. After 45-days, we come to know the person proposed to lead the commission has not even received appointment letter from the government. And the saddest part is the NC does not speak. This is why we are weak in the House.

It is said the NC is not raising issues effectively because it negotiates secret give-and-take with the government. What do you say?

Such give-and-take should not happen. But I cannot say such things do not take place.

It is said China is exporting Xi Jinping Thought to Nepal, especially after this recent event. How do you look at it?

The Nepal Communist Party, after unification between the CPN-UML and CPN-MC, invited the Communist Party of China for the event. I do not think they came themselves. I do not have anything to say to the CPC or the Chinese government. They have not made any mistake. But the question is whether the NCP should have invited and whether this event should have been held on the eve of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Nepal visit. There’s nothing wrong in understanding the Xi Jinping Thought. But the way the NCP leaders tried to distance themselves from what they enthusiastically said in the beginning about the event, it can be sensed that they realised they had made a mistake.

Xi Jinping Thought is okay in China because it’s a single-party system there. But it’s different in Nepal because we have multi-party parliamentary system, and Xi Jinping Thought does not work here. If NCP leaders are thinking of adopting the Chines system, that’s a daydream. NCP leaders need to understand we have two big neighbours, China and India. Western powers have also made substantial investment here. Nepal is a country of strategic importance, and we need to understand this very clearly.

The one thing we can learn from Xi Jinping is controlling corruption. We cannot even adopt China’s development model because that can be done only in one-party system.

Instead of all these things, we need to work on how to attract Foreign Direct Investment from China and how to benefit from the Belt and Road Initiative. I recently visited China and found them positive about Nepal. But because of that Xi Jinping Thought event, NCP is facing pressure from both domestic and international fronts. You can take the example of how the US embassy is becoming active.

How do you see the government’s handling of foreign policy when it comes to the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali held talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the IPS. After the meeting, there were two different statements from two sides. This created scepticism among observers. The IPS has two components — one is the US strategic component and the other one is the development component. The MCC Compact Programme comes under the development component of the IPS. A new controversy has surfaced. Power transmission line construction is one of the major components of the MCC, which has a condition whereby Nepal needs to forge agreement with India for power export. I have heard the PM is okay with the agreement with India, but those with anti-India feelings are not okay. Whatever the strategic part of the IPS — and US Ambassador Randy Berry has been making things clear — China is somehow sceptical about the IPS and is watching whether Nepal will adopt it.

See, it will take no time for Nepal to develop if we get things right, but if we do not get things right, Nepal will land in deep trouble. Our foreign policy is based on non-alignment. If we leave this, we will land in trouble. Again, I do not mean that we should not accept foreign aid in the name of non-alignment. But we also need to look like we are not aligned to anybody.

Coming back to the NC, there are voices within the party in favour of Hindu state. How do you look at it?

One among the four stars in the NC flag represents religious freedom. We adopted secularism and we have defined it in the constitution. As per the definition, religion and culture will be protected. But the government does not do so. Secondly, the cow is the national animal, and a national animal cannot be killed. But it is being done in Nepal, and the government is silent. The most dangerous thing is that people are being lured to change their religion. NGOs and INGOs are engaged in religious conversion based on luring people. The government has to stop such things.

Could you please share something about your China visit last week?

I was invited to attend a trans-boundary water governance and climate change conference last week. The interesting thing I observed in Beijing was that the youths I met between the age 30 and 35 were experts. Some are experts on Nepal, others on India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan. They speak Nepali or Hindi or Bengali fluently. I met a Chinese think-tank official who has visited 50 districts of Nepal. I mean they are so well versed with Nepal.

They wanted to know the NC’s position on BRI. I told them that the NC had unanimously favoured the BRI. We’ll support BRI. But I also said given Nepal’s GDP and revenue figures, Nepal cannot afford to take heavy loans under BRI. Therefore, let’s postpone this plan for cross-border railway until we get our GDP and revenue figures right and focus on other things such as expressways. I suggested that they focus on two expressways — Kathmandu to either Rasuwagadi or Tatopani, and Kimathanka to Biratnagar. I also suggested that investments could be made in transmission lines and a 1,000MW reservoir-type hydropower project.