Opportunism is killing UML

Opportunism is killing UML


Rather inscrutably, the CPN-UML has asked both candidates – Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and the Nepali Congress (NC) Parliamentary Party Leader Ram Chandra Paudel – to withdraw from the ongoing race for prime minister and start the election afresh after revising the parliamentary rules. This call has come after the UML stayed neutral in several rounds of inconclusive vote over the last few weeks. The UML’s strength in the constituent assembly (CA) makes it the kingmaker and its neutrality is significantly responsible for prolonging the political uncertainty in which Nepal has plunged after Prime Minister Madhav Nepal resigned some two months ago.

Neutrality is not an active policy option. It illustrates, at best, a lack of clear conscience and, at worst, escapism steeped in opportunism. When the Non-aligned Movement was taking shape in the mid-1950s, Asian, African and Latin American countries debated at length whether they should be neutral or non-aligned between the Cold War power blocs. And they chose to become non-aligned, for it gave them the freedom to take a principled and merit-based position on issues of their concern and tell the competing blocs what they thought was right and wrong. Neutrality would have deprived these countries of that freedom.

Opportunism – or call it expediency – is second nature to Nepali politics. At times, all parties have resorted to it. Take the example of the largest three. The pro-proletariat Maoists have warmly welcomed all and sundry pro-king feudals into their fold to broaden their party base. The NC shared the bed with the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP-Thapa), an outfit of Panchayat stalwarts, and made Surya Bahadur Thapa the prime minister as early as October 1997.

But the UML took to the road of opportunism earlier and has continued treading on it longer. The UML has pursued this road for short-term benefit and long-term damage starting with its support to RPP’s Lokendra Bahadur Chand for prime minister in March 1997. For examples, the party suddenly abandoned the anti-king protests and joined the cabinet of Sher Bahadur Deuba, a king-appointee, in 2004, only to embolden the power-seeking king further; joined the Maoist-led government in August 2008 on the plank of “left unity” to “free the country from being hostage to political uncertainty,” rather than pressing Prime Minister Dahal to make some concessions to take the peace process to its logical conclusion; and jumped onto the NC lifeboat in May 2009 in the name of “democratic alliance” when Dahal’s ship sank.

This “democratic alliance” was the UML’s huge somersault into a marriage of convenience. It gave UML leader Madhav Nepal the premier’s chair and let NC President Girija Prasad Koirala to make his daughter Sujata Koirala, in NC youth leader Gagan Thapa’s word, “the deputy prime minister who is unqualified even to become a deputy minister.” Notably, both Madhav Nepal and Sujata Koirala had lost the assembly election.

More recently, UML President Jhala Nath Khanal joined the Maoists to bring down Madhav Nepal’s government, because the Maoists had promised him their support in the name of “left unity” if Dahal failed to reclaim the high seat. Nepal retaliated, under pressure from the anti-Khanal factions, by withdrawing Khanal’s candidature from the prime ministerial race, after Khanal failed to secure two-thirds majority in the first round. On the apparent pretext of pressing for broader consensus, Khanal pressed his party to remain neutral in the subsequent ballots and has now asked the remaining candidates to pull out, hoping that he could bag the post either on “left unity,” “democratic alliance,” or some other plank.

It seems that the UML has become a party without principle. Its ideological platform – “people’s multiparty democracy,” introduced by Madan Bhandari – is being observed more in breach than in abidance. In its current application, the UML strategy of “rejection and cooperation” encourages the Maoists more to remain arrogant and unreformed than to become a democratic party by implementing their commitments to that effect. The party switches between “left unity” and “democratic alliance” coats as easily as its ministers change their cars and the Maoists are pretty certain that the UML usually bites the “left unity” bait.

It is a shame that neither Dahal nor Paudel has secured a majority in the four rounds of prime ministerial vote. These candidates represent two competing ideological visions for society and the prime ministerial election is a policy statement for them. And to withdraw their candidature without a better alternative does not advance the political process. So if the UML can form a two-thirds majority government, it should put forward its vision and try to rally support around it, rather than playing the game of neutrality to get to Baluwatar by default.

The switch between “left unity” and “democratic alliance” without compunction and the sly game of neutrality between the two visions, without offering an alternative, demonstrates a deep flaw in UML’s moral ethos and political character. It shows that the UML lacks any political conviction. This lets the Maoists and NC use the UML as a political pawn. If the UML wants to change that, then it will have to change itself. And now is the time to make that change, as the country grapples with the task of writing a new constitution to define its political and economic course.

If the UML’s heart beats for liberal democracy, then it should tell the Maoists in no uncertain terms that it would neither offer them or accept from them support and collaboration to work together until they become a democratic party by implementing all their commitments to that effect. On the other hand, if the UML shares the Maoist vision for Nepal, then the party should tell the NC and openly promote “left unity.”

Clearly, the UML’s flip-flop is harming Nepal and its incipient democracy, as the events since the CA elections demonstrate. But it is damaging the UML to the core. Look at the UML’s electoral performance. The UML emerged as the largest party in the second general elections; it made a Faustian bargain with Chand to regain power and started its journey down the hill. In the third general elections, the UML slipped to the second place, as in the first, and in the CA ballots, it slid to the third position in the assembly.

If the UML wants to reverse this steady decline, it should become a more principled and conscientious political player. For a start, it must abandon short-termism prompted by opportunistic instincts of its individual leaders, anchor the party to a principled political path, and try to carve out a secure niche for itself in Nepali politics. This would mean that the UML will have to stop switching the “left unity” and “democratic alliance” coats and to define its objectives; its will also have to redefine or concretize its ideological framework and chart its political course to achieve those objectives.

You cannot be for both liberal democracy and proletariat dictatorship at the same time. Neither can you be for a two-thirds majority and simple majority government at the same time. Rather than switching coats and playing the cunning neutrality game, the UML should decide what it wants and actively work for it. Coat-switching and neutrality might secure plum ministerial portfolios or retain the false façade of unity for a terribly divided party. But they will not save the party from its decline. Rather, they will push the UML one step closer to its demise.

Published on 2010-08-22 00:20:31

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