Although things seem to have improved lately, the main opposition party Nepali Congress’ role has been lacklustre both in the Parliament and outside. While NC leaders outside the Parliament say the party’s lawmakers have failed to play an active role in the Parliament, those inside defend their roles. Observers attribute this situation to lack of internal preparation amid rampant factionalism in the party. Factional feuding has made the party’s next national convention uncertain. With the tenure of the incumbent Central Working Committee expiring in mid-March, a faction of the party is seeking to delay the national convention while the other faction wants it to happen early. In this backdrop, Roshan S Nepal of The Himalayan Times talked to NC lawmaker Gagan Kumar Thapa on the NC’s poor performance as the main opposition party and how it has impacted the functioning of the government and Parliament, as well as factionalism in the party. Excerpts.
You recently said in a televised interview that the NC has not been effective as opposition party. Why do you feel so?
The NC’s role as opposition is improving lately, but it has not reached the desired level. There are two reasons for this. The first reason is, we, including ruling and opposition parties, have never discussed the roles of opposition parties and what is expected from them. Sometimes the opposition only raises questions, and at other times, it informs the government about its objections. As the opposition is a government-in-waiting, it also tells people what it would have done if it were in power. On more serious issues, the opposition also resorts to resistance. The opposition is generally numerically smaller than the ruling party and it might not always have that strength to resist. So the opposition needs to mobilise people and seek their solidarity. For example, there are some bills registered in the Parliament, especially those related to freedom of expression. Only speaking about the bills is not enough, but at the same time, we do not have the strength to stop these bills. So, we need people’s support as was the case with regard to the Guthi Bill. We need to be clear about the issues to raise, issues to oppose and issues on which to present our alternatives and issues to resist. We feel we have not been able to do so.
The second reason is related to who decides all these. How effective the opposition is depends on how effective the leader of the opposition is. We are an opposition not only in the Parliament but also outside. So we need to boost coordination between the party and the parliamentary party. Our party president is also leader of our parliamentary party. He is the one who gives us direction. But we have not thought about all these issues seriously, and it is hampering our role as opposition.
This is why issues that we raise seriously one day, vanishes into oblivion after a few days. This confuses people.
We need to make our parliamentary party more active and functional. We have not been able to convene the meeting of the parliamentary party regularly, as if we are taking things for granted. We have to have well-thought decisions on which issues to raise and which to resist. This will ensure that the people are not confused.
There are things the government might not have noticed and not included in its day-to-day functioning. The opposition should take the lead and raise these issues and make sure such issues are included in the day-to-day functioning of the government.
But in Nepal, the government makes mistakes, the media picks the issues, and the opposition raises questions in the Parliament. Actually, we should also sometimes be the first to raise issues. For example, people want to hear what the NC would have done to mitigate flood risks. This will give people hope.
You said there’s lack of clarity among parties regarding the opposition’s role. How is it affecting the government’s performance?
The government sees our objections and questions as hindrances to its work. This is because, as I’ve said, our system is not clear about what to expect from the opposition. The government should accept that the opposition’s main role is to question. At the same time, there’s a boundary for the opposition. When people vote a party to power to accomplish a certain task they also entrust the opposition with the responsibility of monitoring how effectively the government does the task. This means the opposition should let the government accomplish the task effectively, not try to do that work itself. We identify mistakes the government makes and tell what we would have done had we been in power. This is our role.
How is this affecting the Parliament’s functioning?
The leader of the Parliament (Speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara) should make extra effort to ensure that the government, with overwhelming majority, does not intervene in the Parliament’s legislative role. But sadly, the speaker is not even making minimum effort to maintain the Parliament’s autonomy and independence. For example, we had requested the speaker to halt endorsement of the Medical Education Bill until the prime minister returned from a foreign visit. But the speaker publicly said he was told by the prime minister to ensure passage of the bill before his return. Recently, he expressed commitment to form a parliamentary investigation committee to probe the Sarlahi killings, but he failed to form the panel because the government did not want it. Whatever we do today becomes precedence. But we are failing in one area after another just because of the speaker.
The speaker’s role should not be guided by how strong or effective the opposition is. The speaker should always maintain the Parliament’s independence and autonomy. But he has gradually lost our faith.
It is said the NC has failed to play an effective role as opposition because of rampant factionalism in the party. What’s your take?
I see two problems. The NC should be clear about its ideology. The peace process started under the leadership of Girija Prasad Koirala. The constitution was adopted under the leadership of Sushil Koirala. The elections were held under the leadership of Sher Bahadur Deuba. On the one hand, we are proud of the NC’s achievements, while on the other, some of us, after losing the election, think we might have included some wrong provisions in the constitution. This notion contradicts the fundamental aspects of the constitution. The constitution is a compromise document. Not everything the NC wanted was included in the constitution. But the present political path is what the constitution has set, and we need to follow it. We are in opposition to the government, not the constitution. That came under our leadership. If we are clear about these things, I hope it will bring clarity in the positions that the NC takes.
What I am trying to indicate is that sometimes we are confused about, say, federalism or secularism. I hear such things in our private conversations. Even in public places such statements are made. They might not be the party’s official position, but who’s making such comments makes a difference. These opinions confuse the party’s rank and file.
Another area of concern is that the NC should not delay its national convention. How can the party function effectively without a proper organisational structure For example, new rural municipalities have been formed, but we still have our structure in line with the old village development committees. If we hold the convention as early as possible, it will bring ideological clarity to the party and the party will have functional units at the lower levels.
It’s normal for a democratic party to have ideological factions. But observers say the NC’s factionalism is guided by personal interest. How can this be addressed?
If a party is less concerned about political and ideological movements, everyone becomes focused on bureaucratic issues. They will start being more concerned about positions and promotions. The constitution has included issues related to women’s movement, Dalit movement, identity movement, public education, public health, and climate change, among dozens of other issues. Implementation of all these is in itself a movement. If the NC takes up these movements as the party’s own, majority of party members will engage actively with these issues. This will divert them from petty bureaucratic issues. The party had the same factional problems when it was carrying out political movements in the past. Observers then saw the NC as doing good work. So we need to establish that we are still carrying out a movement.
Second, the party is a political organisation, but we also need to look at it is as a modern firm. The NC has hundreds of thousands of members, more than 500,000 active members. There’s a hierarchy in place also. To manage a modern firm with these many general shareholders, various rules and regulations are put in place. You have to have modern ideas and approaches to managing such a huge firm. When party leaders are involved in other organisations, we are entirely different people, and obey principles, rules and regulations. But when we wear the party’s hat, we are against abiding by rules and regulations. This is why all the parties have problems today.
You said the national convention should be held as early as possible. How likely is it when your party establishment is in favour of postponing it?
The national convention should be held as early as possible because there’s no reason, not even a single, to delay the jamboree. The party will only lose if it’s delayed.
It does not matter if it is not held by mid-March. What is more important is we should not delay it intentionally on the pretext of the party statute provision that allows oneyear extension, and the constitutional provision that allows another six-month extension.
The party president should internalise the fact that early national convention will be in the party’s favour and immediately begin the process. If the president wants to delay the convention, he can as he has the numbers. But I do not see any reason to delay.
In the last national convention you fought for the post of party general secretary, but lost. What are your plans for the next convention?
It’s too early. I think the first generation of NC leaders should exit gracefully. It will have a big positive impact on people’s faith in the party. They are respected for their age and contribution. But there’s a limit. My present effort is to convince them about this, not to annoy them. In doing so, I am happy to work in whatever position as per the need of the time. I am open to both, working as a simple central committee member or taking up bigger roles. What is more important for me is transformation of leadership. If someone else leads the leadership transformation, I am ready to work under them.
How do you evaluate the government’s performance?
I am seriously disappointed. After election, I was excited that a government that can think for five years had assumed office. As most of the major political issues were sorted out, I expected the government to bring back on track our institutions that we put in jeopardy in the past 15 to 20 years. The government would lead the country and the politics, to a new phase in the next five years. Other parties should also adapt to change and transform themselves to fight the battles of that phase. However, politics has been downgraded. See how trivial debates in the Parliament have become. The government’s spokesperson uses trivial language, and the opposition uses similar language to counter him. This is because of the government’s weak performance. This government’s performance is worse than those led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Sher Bahadur Deuba, and KP Sharma Oli himself when things were not as conducive.
The government should have constantly made efforts to forge political consensus in two areas — implementation of the constitution and foreign policy. When I say constitution implementation I am not only talking about putting in place laws, but also dealing with powers, both extreme right and left, who are against the constitution. But the government never thought it necessary.
In terms of foreign policy, things have changed massively in the international arena such as change in China-India relations or emerging issues of the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy. There are different opinions of different parties. Gone are those days when we made foreign policy an issue of domestic politics as we tried to prove ourselves more nationalist than others. The ruling party even made it an election agenda. And we are seeing consequences of it. For example, issues related to lab-testing of imported vegetables or those related to organising IIFA Awards. No rational debate is being held on these issues, but only nationalistic voices are being raised. The same ruling party started all these. But it also had the opportunity to forge national consensus on shaping our relations with India or China or the US or the West. If the government had adopted that approach, it would not have to suffer.
In terms of economic issues, I do not have problem with the government talking about dreams such as railways and waterways and big infrastructure projects. But the government’s first priority should have been fixing the basics and reforming the system. For example, public expenditure has never been good in Nepal. It should have focused on this issue. This would have sustained hope generated among people post-election.
Another issue is that the prime minister seems to think his predecessors were incompetent, and that he’s the only honest, capable and thoughtful leader the country always lacked. Because of his mistaken idea, the PM thought amending laws to enable him to direct the university vice-chancellor would fix the issue. For example, there are many things to be reformed in the public procurement sector. But the PM thinks the problems are because of wrong decision makers, and he is enabling himself to take such decisions by bringing institutions under him. This approach has caused the situation to further worsen.
You say the PM has a centralised mind-set. Observers also say the government is intolerant towards those with different views. Is it because of the ruling party’s political ideology or something else?
The former CPN-UML had strong democratic credentials, and the former hardliner Maoists had led movements such as Dalit and women movements. I had expected a formidable unified party in which these two strong positive aspects would have prevailed. But it’s completely opposite. The Maoists’ weak commitment to democracy and the UML’s weak commitment to the change the country has undergone, including federalism, prevailed in the unified Nepal Communist Party. This claim is justified by the way those in the government and ruling party are defending bills related to freedom of expression and National Human Rights Commission, among others. The government is not trying to change the state’s historically partial treatment against women, Dalits, Madhesis and others. It is also not working to strengthen democratic rights. And interestingly, none of the party members question the government’s role. This is dangerous for the entire system.
The two parties came from entirely different backgrounds. They only unified keeping in mind election mathematics without holding ideological debate. And, we have a prime minister whose ideology nobody can identify for sure. This has definitely affected the government’s functioning.
A version of this article appears in print on July 15, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.