Udaya Shumsher Rana, who served as the Minister of State for Finance in 2017, is known for traversing a moderate line within Nepali Congress. Rana served as the president of Nepal Tarun Dal, the party’s youth wing, for half a decade. Currently, Rana is focused on the upcoming General Convention of the party. Nepal Live Today’s Siromani Dhungana recently caught up with Rana to discuss a wide range of political issues from ideological erosion, loss of values and rising opportunism within Nepali Congress to the larger Nepali political landscape. Excerpts:
As Nepali Congress is gearing up for 14th General Convention, the common perception about Nepal’s oldest democratic party is that its democratic commitment is eroding, factionalism is rife within the party, and leaders have sacrificed values and norms for sheer opportunism. What led to this situation?
I largely agree with what you have said but this is not the whole story. We are now focused on leadership selection down from the ward level up to the central committee. During the process, organizational meetings take place at various layers, which actually help to strengthen the organizational structure. The ward-level conventions have given life to the local organizational structure which had become weak in the last five years. This has also proved that local organizational building initiatives are part of a larger organizational strengthening process. At the next level, we will formulate policies and plans and get them endorsed.
You talked about groupism and factionalism. This has become rather endemic within our party. For this, those in the leadership are more responsible than those in the grassroots. But you cannot only see negativity in this. When Congress was a divided house before it got reunited, there was a 40/60 ratio of portfolio distribution. This for long had an impact on the organizational structure of the party. But after the 12th general convention, things have considerably changed. There was a time when you could say so and so leaders are in so and so groups and factions. That situation has changed now. Now the nature of the coalition at the district level is different. Those who are in the same faction in the district are choosing leadership from a different faction. Groupism and factionalism are a reality in a political party but this should not be allowed to be institutionalized.
Our economy has suffered due to conflicts within the communist parties. We have seen that when a communist leads the Ministry of Finance, the economy loses steam and confidence.
Then there is a predilection for populism among some of the leaders at the cost of accountability. Many leaders get themselves into active membership distribution and participate in meetings. But some tend to make unnecessary comments about those very meetings after coming out of them for cheap popularity, either by posting populist status on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook or by giving populist, clickbaity statements to online media. Some youth leaders tend to present themselves as revolutionary to attract public attention. They want to project themselves as progressive and different. This is not so at the cadres’ level. The cadres are not for appeasing the leaders at the provincial and central levels at the cost of spoiling the party organization. So what you have said is true but that’s not the whole truth.
If so, what actually is the impression that Nepali Congress is trying to project through the upcoming General Convention?
We had not imagined in the last general elections that the Nepal Communist Party would rise as the largest party. Many Congress leaders lost the election. So did I. We lost many seats. But we accepted the defeat. We thought—’What if we lost? The country has found a stable government of nearly two-thirds majority.’ Our hope back then was that the stable government would revive the economy; the bureaucracy would be dynamic; and there would be policy stability creating favorable situations for traders, private leaders, and citizens alike. All such expectations proved to be wrong. The government of K P Sharma Oli started to serve one after another blow to the constitution. The side effects of that are apparent in the current government led by Nepali Congress as well.
Nepali Congress is not a party dominated by an individual leader or one personality. Congress has always had a collective leadership.
Thus I can say that Nepali Congress will have a specific vision after the coming general elections. The first thing to do would be to institutionalize the constitution for which we struggled so hard. The second thing to do would be to enhance rule of law and democratic values. Independence of judiciary, human rights, and press freedom shall never be compromised. Most importantly, Congress will be able to give life to the economy. Our economy has suffered due to conflicts within the communist parties. We have seen that when a communist leads the Ministry of Finance, the economy loses steam and confidence.
You say so, but Congress, which is leading the government now, has given the Finance Ministry to a communist leader.
You need to assess this situation differently. The government we have today is there not because we wanted it. This is the coalition of compulsion. Sher Bahadur Deuba was reluctant to become the PM but the situation unfolded in such a way after the vertical split in NCP that the responsibility to become the PM landed on Deuba’s shoulders. Deuba was far from willing to become a part of this political wrangling. He was for early elections. But then the situation was such that for the sake of safeguarding the constitution, the main opposition leader (Deuba) had to make a move.
When Congress was in opposition, Deuba was widely criticized for failing to play the role of a proactive opposition. He was actually not in the mood to become the PM. Personally, I was also not in favor of Congress leading the government because this was not our mandate. People had given the mandate to form the government to the Nepal Communist Party. But the NCP failed to work as per the people’s mandate. It got sharply divided, and the Janata Samajbadi Party also witnessed a split. Somebody had to take the leadership to bring politics back on track. Sher Bahadur Deuba came to fulfill that role.
Let’s talk about the ideological deviation of the Nepali Congress. Congress often talks about the leadership qualities of its founding fathers such as BP Koirala, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, and Ganeshman Singh. But nobody truly follows the ideological path set by them. Is Nepali Congress not facing a leadership crisis?
There are two sides to this issue. We go to a certain school and after passing out from there we tend to think the school is no more like what it used to be when we were the students there. This analogy somehow applies in the case of leadership as well. We tend to revere the predecessors more than the contemporary leaders. That said, I do admit that Congress at the moment does not have leaders of the same level of exposure, sacrifice, and devotion as our founding fathers were. But then it is equally true that Congress is not sustained only because of those leaders you mentioned. Yes, they have their legacy and they contributed and sacrificed a lot for the party. But those in the leadership today have also done as much as they can. They have contributed to the party and the country in their own ways. Like the past leaders, the current leaders were also elected by the people. Nepali Congress is not a party dominated by an individual leader or one personality. Congress has always had a collective leadership. No political party has a leader of BP’s charisma and his political vision. We don’t always get leaders like BP and Madan Bhandari. As I said, Congress is not an individual leader-dominated party. Congress has been following the democratic socialism policy of its founding fathers as its guiding principle.
Do you suggest that Congress today follows the democratic socialism of BP Koirala?
What is democratic socialism in the first place? Congress was for creating an equal society. The philosophy of democratic socialism of the 1960s has now undergone a change. It has changed in Europe as well. There used to be labor-union-oriented socialist parties; that has changed now. The principles of democratic socialism have changed everywhere. Thus, in today’s economy, if we try to apply the philosophy of BP’s socialism, it might not work. We have made a shift toward an open liberal economy from a controlled economy.
Personally, I was also not in favor of Congress leading the government because this was not our mandate. People had given the mandate to form the government to the Nepal Communist Party. But the NCP failed to work as per the people’s mandate.
But is it now true that, like other parties, Congress has also fallen into the trap of crony capitalism? Nepotism holds sway over competence. And ‘settings’ and collusion seem to have hijacked the competitive economy.
I don’t dismiss these allegations out of hand. After the democratic change of the 1990s, economists stood for a competitive market economy. During the Panchayat era, you could not imagine doing business without securing patronage and approval from the Durbar (royal palace). You may say even today one cannot do business without protection from a political party. I would say the situation is different. Let me explain from my own experience. We had a handicraft business for which we needed wool. But we needed to have a license even to import wool. It was Congress which changed this situation. Congress established that one does not need to obtain such approval to start a business of one’s own. Whatever little hope we see in the economy today is because of this policy. Nearly all the countries of South Asia adopted an open economy and they were able to reap benefits from it to some extent. But then in every economic model, there are some rotten apples. The ‘setting’ you mentioned somehow thrives. This may have influenced the bidding process as well. But you cannot say that everything is guided by settings and collusions. Yes, some businesses may be favored by NCP and others by Nepali Congress, but you cannot conclude from this that we have allowed crony capitalism to rule the roost.
But there is evidence of businesspeople taking undue advantage of political affiliation. A common party cadre has to struggle for years to rise to leadership while businessmen with political clout rise to the top overnight. Why this privilege for them?
This tendency is rampant in all parties. When K P Oli was leading the government, it was often said certain businesspeople controlled everything. Such a trend is visible in other countries as well. Businesspeople can join politics for sure and they need to be brought onboard too. But they should not be allowed to completely control the leadership and decision-making process. If they want to come into politics, they need to come through open competition, like any normal cadre has to do. We need to favor those who have long been committed to the party. But then this does not mean we need to shut the door to intellectuals, traders and businesspeople. This does not help to bring new faces and new energy to the party. That said, new entrants have to conduct themselves according to the party principles, party statute, norms and values. Some newcomers sometimes exhibit the arrogance of wealth and money. The leadership has to be able to control such arrogance.
Nepali Congress is often accused of following the agenda of Communist parties, especially after the 2007 political change. How do you explain this ‘communistization’ of Congress?
I don’t believe in this allegation. K P Oli government tried to control the press. Maoists were intolerant to dissent and they even went to the extent of killing the followers of opposing ideologies. But Congress has always been open to press, public criticism and opposing ideologies and views. Unlike what the Oli government did, we have never ever tried to curtail press freedom and civil liberties by bringing the bills. We have always maintained that the National Human Rights Commission should remain an independent constitutional body free from political influence. When the attempt was made to bring NHRC under the office of the Attorney General, Congress vehemently opposed it. We believe in a fair, independent judiciary. We have always opposed the tendency of appointing judges in the courts based on political affiliation. Oli’s government tried to make the Constitutional Council toothless by reducing the number of members from seven to three. Congress will never go to that extent. There is a clear distinction between the conduct of communist parties and that of the Nepali Congress.
But Sher Bahadur Deuba, who was the main opposition leader back then, seemed to keep silent when the Oli government tried to unconstitutionally change the structure of the Constitutional Council. He didn’t protest when party-affiliated people were appointed to the constitutional bodies.
That’s not true. As a matter of fact, Oli had already nominated some candidates for appointment before Deuba participated in the Constitutional Council meeting. No government should be allowed to appoint members in the constitutional bodies arbitrarily. When this happens, the constitutional bodies no longer remain independent. This is precisely why there is a provision for the Speaker of the House and the main opposition leader to remain as the members of the Constitutional Council. We cannot allow a PM to do whatever he wants in appointments in constitutional bodies. When members are appointed in constitutional bodies based on the preference of the PM, it does not do good to the system of check and balance and democracy. Congress has always stood for creating the Constitutional Council as envisaged by the Constitution. For us, it is about safeguarding the constitutional spirit and provisions. It is about upholding the dignity of the constitutional bodies.
Some businesses may be favored by NCP and others by Nepali Congress, but you cannot conclude from this that we have allowed crony capitalism to rule the roost.
You served as the state minister of Finance in 2017. In a democracy, institutions have to be built and strengthened to deliver services and justice to the people. But our institutions seem to be eroding day by day. Or are we yet to build the institutions?
I would say both are the case. Take the judiciary. According to the media commentaries, the judiciary has not been able to deliver the quality services that people deserve. It is an open secret that corruption is rife in the judiciary. Thus, men of integrity have to be appointed in this institution, even if that means appointing someone close to a certain ideology or party. If you ask about bureaucracy, I don’t say it has completely eroded. But then it is true that bureaucracy is no longer an attractive institution. Our bureaucracy does not command the same level of recognition and respect that the bureaucracy of, say, India, the UK, or even Bhutan does. Bureaucracy should have been strengthened and institutionalized way back during the Panchayat era. This did not happen. Compared to other institutions, Nepal Army is still stronger and more professional. We need to make our bureaucracy stronger and more capable. Vision, leadership, and meritocracy are essential to build institutions.
What about parliament? Parliament is a sovereign institution to raise the problems and concerns of the common people. But our parliament has almost stopped discussing the national issues and agendas. Is our parliament also suffering an erosion?
I agree with you that parliament has lost its charm. You don’t see the discussions on major national issues taking place in that sovereign institution. Thus it can be said that parliament has not been able to function as per the expectation of the people. Parliament has often been held hostage by the party with the majority.
There was a time when major issues were discussed in parliament. There is a lot of literature on this happening in our historical documents. There used to be a vibrant debate even in the first parliament. Even during the Panchayat era, parliament was a place of vibrant debate. Parliament commanded respect during the time Daman Nath Dhungana was the Speaker. It is no more so at the moment.
The quality, dynamism and dignity of parliament have to be upheld. Actually, it has to be restored. For this, not only the political parties but also the people have to play a constructive role.
The quality, dynamism and dignity of parliament have to be upheld. Actually, it has to be restored. For this, not only the political parties but also the people have to play a constructive role. From the people’s level, they have to select the right persons to represent them in the parliament. Let’s choose those who are averse to corruption and who love this country. But the situation in Nepal is rather opposite. People tend to elect those very leaders whom they have long been accusing of being corrupt, dishonest and fraudulent. People have a big role to play to restore the dignity and quality of parliament.