The Nepali Congress is embroiled in probably the worst-ever factional dispute. The Paudel camp has charged Deuba of promoting factionalism and taking unilateral decisions by suspending statute clauses. On the other hand, the Deuba camp says disgruntled leaders are creating unnecessary hurdles for the elected party president. Also, the general impression is that the factionalism-plagued NC has failed to play an effective role of opposition amid various corruption scandals and introduction of bills aimed at curtailing freedom of expression and civil liberties. There are also issues related to the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact Programme and Nepal-India border dispute in the Kalapani region. Against this backdrop, Roshan S Nepal of The Himalayan Times caught up with senior NC leader Ram Sharan Mahat to talk about the NC’s internal issues and the government’s performance. Excerpts:

To begin with, the Nepali Congress has lately received lots of media coverage, but not for good reasons. What’s wrong with the party?

The problem is the very weak organisational management of the party. When we talk of a party, there are various aspects such as its history, ideology, leadership and organisation. No other party has as glorious a history as the NC. It has led every political movement in Nepal. The NC advocated and promoted liberal democracy and everybody accepted it. The NC’s philosophy— first bringing transformation by formulating laws against feudalism, and then heralding liberal economy and promoting socialistic philosophy — is also accepted by everybody.

The party’s history is glorious and its ideology is accepted by all, but the problems are: weaknesses in the present leadership and organisational management, rampant factionalism, and individualism. That’s why the general impression is that the NC has not been able to play an effective role as opposition.

There’s so much disappointment and frustration among people from the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). This is because of mismanagement, poor governance, rampant corruption, various scandals, price hike and exorbitant taxation. However, the NC has not been able to capitalise on the growing frustration among people and weaknesses of the government largely because of its internal problems.

Who’s promoting factionalism in the party? Is it NC President Sher Bahadur Deuba, or senior leaders such as Ramchandra Paudel and you, who are boycotting party meetings seeking certain percentage of seats in party bodies?

When the leadership accommodates all, listens to all and exhibits openness, there’s no chance of factionalism. The leadership can discourage factionalism by becoming more accommodating and more open to various ideas. So it is the leadership that needs to play a crucial role in discouraging factionalism. However, if the leadership starts strengthening its faction, others will naturally oppose. If there is a complaint against the leadership, the leadership must listen and address grievances. That’s not happening in our party.

For instance, the leadership recently took a majority decision and suspended various clauses of the party’s statute. The move is aimed at strengthening one faction of the party.

The four-year tenure of the party leadership has almost expired, and as per the statute provision, the term can be extended by one more year. So at this moment, our priority should have been holding an early national convention and ensuring that the convention is held fairly.

However, some of the recent unilateral decisions such as suspending statute clauses are aimed at influencing the national convention and ensuring that the outcome of the convention benefits one faction. That’s why the recent boycotts.

The disgruntled leaders want things to move ahead on the basis of consensus, not majority, to ensure that the upcoming national convention is held in an impartial manner. They are of the view that the leadership must correct its way of functioning and work in line with the spirit of the party’s statute.

You have pointed out that the NC leadership has failed to capitalise on the government’s failures and people’s frustrations. What’s the way forward for the NC?

The NC has not been able to instil optimism in the people. For this, the party has to be united. To unite the party, the leadership must be competent. We can still reform the party. Who will be the best party leader is something to be decided by the party’s next convention.

Is the leadership willing to reform the party?

The party’s leader is responsible for the party’s management. Whoever is the main functionary with all the powers, that person should play the major role. For example, all party members are responsible for loss in the election, but the president has moral responsibility. Therefore, I say there must be self-introspection at all levels — from the lowest to the highest. Naturally, the responsibility of top-level leadership is more serious than that of the lower level.

The general impression is that the existing leadership cannot reform the party until and unless there’s dramatic improvement in the management and organisational style of leadership. Only this will strengthen the party, generate public support and create confidence among the people.

As you’ve said the NC has failed to generate public support as expected, how do you see the NC’s performance in the next general elections?

We must reform ourselves to perform well in the next general elections. If we reform ourselves, there are plenty of opportunities. We need to reform our organisation, hold timely national convention, discourage factionalism and forge unity in the party. For that the leadership must play an effective role. The NC is ahead in all aspects due to its glorious history and ideology, but we must sort out our managerial and organisational weaknesses. If we do not address factionalism and other weaknesses, it will be difficult. So we do not have any option, but to reform ourselves.

How do you evaluate the government’s performance?

The government’s activities suggest it is headed towards authoritarianism. For example, the government is trying to curtail press freedom and autonomy of the National Human Rights Commission, the transitional justice process is stuck halfway and power is concentrated at the prime minister’s office. We have a new federal structure and multiple governments. The constitution has guaranteed rights to the governments, but the federal government is reluctant to ensure that other governments enjoy their rights. Many laws are yet to be adopted. There are various jurisdictional conflicts. The federal government is least bothered about institution building. Institutional capacity building — professional and technical — of provincial governments has not happened.

There’s also rampant politicisation of institutions. There’s lack of meritocracy and professionalism. Appointments are made on the basis of political affiliation. I see a crisis of governance. This has also negatively affected the entire economy. As far as the bills aimed at curbing freedom of expression and civil liberties are concerned, we stand dead against them. There’s no doubt about it.

On the foreign relations front, what are your views on the current debate on the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact Programme?

The present debate on the MCC is uncalled for and unwarranted. The debate is basically due to lack of knowledge. The US is extending the MCC assistance not for its benefits, but for Nepal’s benefits. We’ve asked for it. The MCC extends assistance to countries where there’s democratic system, where people enjoy civil and political liberties, where there’s liberal economic system and where there’s investment-friendly economic policy. There are various stages to pass. For example, the first stage is threshold stage. We applied in 2011 and passed the threshold stage. When I was finance minister in December 2014, Nepal qualified for the compact agreement — the highest assistance under the MCC.

Since the compelling development hindrance in Nepal is poor infrastructure, we decided to utilise the assistance on road maintenance and transmission line development. After that we established an office of the MCC in Nepal during my tenure to select specific projects. In consultation with experts, we selected projects and in 2017 we signed an agreement.

In the terms and conditions of the agreement that we signed, there’s no single political matter. All these rumours about the MCC being against Nepal’s foreign policy of non-alignment and MCC possibly resulting in military alliance with the US are totally false. Nepal was selected on the basis of international competition. The whole purpose is the uplift of the living condition of Nepali people through economic growth by making very impressive investment in energy and road sectors. There are other positive features too, such as completion of projects within five years, transparency, fair auditing, financial discipline, and inclusiveness.

However, a section of people are saying the MCC is part of the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy just because an American official said so. They say MCC would lead to military alliance with the US. These are baseless arguments. Talking about security, the US has been supporting the Nepali Army. China, India and the UK are also supporting the Nepali Army. So that should not be a matter of concern. Coming back to the MCC, whatever terms and conditions we’ve agreed to, our commitment is only that much, and nothing else.

Influential leaders of the ruling party are speaking publicly against the MCC. What if the pact is not ratified by the Parliament?

Whatever the government has said, that’s official. I do not accord much importance to what party leaders say. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has said the government will get the pact endorsed from the House. Both the foreign and finance ministers have also said so. The opposition too has pledged its support. If the government stops MCC, the NC will strongly object.

The MCC is one of the biggest single assistances. Nepal has been involved in the development of this assistance from the very beginning, and none of the terms and conditions are against the country.

Receiving foreign assistance is in line with Nepal’s foreign policy. During the Cold War, we accepted assistance from both the US and Soviet Union. Therefore, we need to consider our interests rather than looking at the foreign policies of other countries. For example, we are a member of the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative. India might say the BRI is against it. Similarly, China might have launched the BRI to compete with the US, and the US might want to extend its influence through the IPS. These are their policies. What we need to look at is the paper that we have signed on. Our commitment is limited only to the terms and conditions that we have agreed to.

What are your views on Nepal-India border dispute in Kalapani region?

After the all-party meeting, the government has full support. Whatever historical facts and proofs we have, on that basis the government should claim Nepal’s land back. The government should make sure India rectifies its political map. We’ve also made mistakes in the past. We claimed only till Kalapani in the past and not till Limpiyadhura. Even our maps were erroneous and left out around 400 square kilometres of our land. So the government should hold dialogue with India at the diplomatic as well as political level and sort out this issue at the earliest.