The primary angst before liberal-minded Nepali believers in an open society is: can Kangress rejuvenate itself politically? It is after all the party that has been at the center-stage of Nepali politics and its democratization for almost six decades, in power and out of it. Unfortunately, its most effective politics has been oppositional when, out of power, it captured the national imagination against Rana rule or active monarchy. In power, it has failed to impress with what it really stood for: rhetoric aside, corruption and political expediency compromising its core values of democratic socialism are its dismal legacy on record.
In 1959, its over two-thirds victory in parliament was quickly squandered with the Indian vegetable “Dalda ghee” scandal involving the younger Koirala brothers, an early attempt at very un-socialist “liberalization” with massive negative impact on the poor hill farmers across the country whose only cash income was selling livestock ghee in the informal economy. It allowed traditionalists such as Yogi Naraharinath to mount a massive campaign of civic unrest leading to King Mahendra dismissing the parliament using Article 55 of the then constitution and establishing the Panchayat system with the help of mainly anti-Koirala Kangress stalwarts, a fact conveniently ignored today.
Its second go at democracy in the 1990s was similarly squandered with iconic corruption scandals such as Lauda, Pajero and the like, as well as party infighting not on ideology but personality issues and the spoils of office. Unlike in 1959, this time around, its behaviour in power allowed the communists, especially the extreme Left Maoists to to derail parliamentary democracy with an India-based insurgency. In its third go in 2006, it quickly disappointed its voters with Darfur, passport and other such scandals; but by then, the Left had already displaced the Kangress from its top position in Nepali politics, forcing the party to follow the communist lead.
In asking if Kangress can rejuvenate itself and lead Nepali politics anew, its disappointed army of supporters and voters have to ask where it went wrong and if there exists leadership capability within the party that is not tainted with past sins, hopelessly compromised ideologically or has the moral strength to admit mistakes and thus begin the process of correction. Despite the obviously negative answers to these questions, there are faint glimmers of hope that allows its supporters not to give up on the Kangress completely. Latest surveys show that, even with almost fifty percent of the voters undecided or too disappointed to want to vote, Nepali Kangress still retains the highest number of committed voters compared to all other parties when asked whom they will vote for in the next election. (The Maoists have slipped to second position even before their split and Kamal Thapa's RPP-Nepal has climbed up to fourth position ahead of all the Madhesh-based parties, a remarkable turn of events for both the Maoists and the RPP-N since the last CA elections.)
One reason for this “hope against hope” among such voters is that the liberal, democratic, mildly socialist ideology that the Kangress still formally adheres to seems to appeal to Nepalis much more than radical politics across the demographic spectra. Compared to the politics of radical change promised by the communists (and disappointed with them severely in recent years) or that of the ethno-radicals, the belief among such voters seems to be that the Kangress may not do much good but that it cannot do much harm while the communists and others may promise much but their radicalism can plunge an easy-going, mild society into much harm. It is this belief, more entrenched since the maverick experiments of the Maoists in power, that allowed the Kangress to “blackmail” this lot of majority voters, arguing that they could not vote for the communist or the discredited former Panchas and hence had no choice but to vote Kangress, no matter how corrupt their leaders. Indeed, the word-of-mouth slogan in traditionally Kangress strongholds such as Lamjung or Tanahun during the third parliamentary elections in 1999 (when the Kangress won back a majority) was “Mukh lai hoiona Rukh lai vote” (i.e, “vote for the party symbol of the tree, not for the disgusting face of the corrupt Kangress candidates”). For a party with such a glorious past, it was a pretty low standard to uphold!
Besides corruption, it being even more unbriddled with the current Maoist-led dispensation, where did the Kangress go wrong and where should it start the process of course correction? The first is its coterie politics. Scholars such as Ludwig Stiller had argued to this essayist that politics in Nepal is essentially not national but family politics. Indeed, one cultural indicator is that the multi-cult, varied forms of Hinduism practiced by the majority are primarily family, secondarily clan and only very weakly a national religion. Which is why, when Nepal was curiously declared secular with no one really making such demands in the agitation of spring 2006, there was no national-scale protest since nothing families did, and continue to do, was affected. (It is unthinkable for such a declaration to be made in, say Pakistan or Britain, without major social agitations. It is also this family-based aspect that is the strength of the religion that has allowed it to survive alien rule of the Moghuls or the Raj.) This culture has seeped into “doing politics” essentially for the family or coterie with a vengeance since the party was taken over by Girija Koirala. It is this political culture of the Kangress (and even the Maoists) that acts as a glass ceiling preventing a Bhim Bahadur Tamang or a K. B. Gurung face in their rise to the top, and puts a discredited Sujata ahead of them in leadership contention.
The second reason for decline is when politics becomes not a public service but is either a full-time profession or a business of patronage dispensing. Young Kangress leader Gagan Thapa is right when he says a Kangressi (or for that matter any other) politician must have a primary profession they should engage in (and come back to after their stint at holding public office is over) if politics is to remain honest. It is, however, more than that: it goes to the heart of a political culture that the Kangress should stand for to distinguish itself from the communists with their cadre-based “whole-timers”. It is also the hallmark of liberal democratic polity of “politics as public service” versus “politics as profession” that the Kangress, in its competition with the communists, seems to have forgotten. It is this culture that would appeal to a rising Nepali middle class if only the Kangress could believe in and then articulate it.
In Nepal with Dassain, similar to the fiscal year of July to July, the political year ends and a new cycle begins that climaxes before the onset of the monsoon: the flow of people back home for the family festivities ensures that it is a time for exchange of political view between the capital and rural hinterlands, between the diaspora and the mother country. The conversations this Dussain clearly indicated that there is currently confusion within the Kangressi ranks, with a significant section believing that the party made a mistake in signing the 12-point Delhi deal with a political force that does not believe in democracy, and in throwing out the 1990 democratic constitution that the Kangress was able to win for the nation after four decades of struggle. There is also a feeling that the party has betrayed the creed of national reconciliation (especially with traditional forces) that was espoused by BP Koirala, an act that has weakened the nation and invited unprecedented foreign intervention in Nepal. Unfortunately, the party does not seem to have any leader that has the courage to correct course and stop being a second fiddle to the Maoists or their foreign backers. Without reforms in the Kangress culture, the political doldrums and the muddling along may continue for long despite the receding hope of many for a decisive breakthrough.