Nepal’s grand old party on Thursday turned over a new leaf. Two new and young faces turned the tide by winning the second most powerful position in the organisation.
Gagan Thapa and Bishwa Prakash Sharma, who started their political career as students, were elected general secretaries, in what insiders and observers term a new wave of change in the Nepali Congress that has traditionally been in the firm grip of the old guards.
Thapa, former health minister, secured 3,023 votes (64.56 percent), while Sharma, the party spokesperson, secured 1,984 votes (42.37 percent).
Of the 4,682 votes cast in the election held on Monday, 43 were invalid.
Thapa, 46, contested from the rival faction in the party led by Shekhar Koirala, who lost the party president post to Sher Bahadur Deuba, 75, in a runoff. Sharma, 50, initially was in the Deuba camp, but he decided to fight for the post from the panel led by Prakash Man Singh, who was out of the party president race in the first round.
Thapa and Sharma defeated their contemporary, Pradip Paudel, 44, and two of their seniors—Minendra Rijal, 64, and Prakash Sharan Mahat, 62.
Rijal was Thapa’s running mate as he too represented the Koirala camp. Paudel and Mahat represented the establishment faction led by Deuba.
Preliminary results showed Thapa was way ahead, with Sharma following, and in the afternoon Rijal announced via Twitter that he would resign as defence minister, in an indication that he had conceded defeat.
Senior Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel hailed the two winners as those who have always stood for change and for breaking the status quo that has plagued the Congress for years.
Poudel had decided to stay away from the entire general convention—he did not even show up to vote during the elections—after his camp failed to fix a consensus candidate for the party’s top post. Both Koirala and Singh refused to backtrack and ran for party president despite Poudel’s repeated attempts to pick one candidate against Deuba.
“Both Sharma and Thapa are energetic and articulate. The voters have made a prudent decision by installing the two young faces as general secretaries even though factionalism was entrenched in the party,” Poudel told the Post. “Now the real test begins for the duo but I am confident that they will pass with flying colours.”
The two have for years been dubbed “promising” leaders within the party.
There, however, are some stark differences between them.
Thapa is known as a permanent opposition within his party. When it came to defending the party and holding the government to account, whenever the Nepali Congress was in opposition, he was always at the forefront. When it came to challenging the leadership within his party, calling out wrongdoings and demanding an end to the status quo, he was always forthright.
Insiders say this particular trait of Thapa earned him popularity among party cadres and members.
For Thapa, this general convention was a watershed in his political career. Though he had made it to the party’s Central Working Committee by securing the highest number of votes in the 12th general convention held in 2010, he lost the party general secretary election to Shashank Koirala in the 13th general convention held in 2016.
In private and within his circle, Thapa often intimated that he might not continue politics if he failed to win this time. But the number of votes he has secured to become general secretary, say insiders, has vindicated him.
Thapa was elected to the Constituent Assembly in 2008 under the proportional representation system.
He then won the 2013 Constituent Assembly elections under the direct election system.
He defeated CPN-UML’s Rajan Bhattarai in the 2017 general elections from Kathmandu Constituency-4, despite his rival party forming an electoral alliance with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre).
Thapa is known as a good orator—who can be aggressive, persuasive and argumentative.
Sharma, on the other hand, is a soft-spoken person. He is a good public speaker. He is a leader with a poetic touch.
He led Nepal Students’ Union, the student wing of the Nepali Congress, from 2000 to 2002. He was elected a Central Working Committee member from the party’s 13th general convention held in March 2016.
He was appointed party spokesperson in January 2018.
He, however, has not won any elections.
He was defeated by UML’s Rabin Koirala in the second Constituent Assembly polls in Jhapa Constituency-1. The 2017 elections also turned out to be a bad experience for him as he lost to Ram Karki of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) from the same constituency.
However, he has remained a popular leader within the party.
Though he too has been vocal about changing the status quo in the party, he is seen as someone close to the establishment.
On Thursday, Sharma told reporters at the party headquarters in Sanepa that the journey for the party’s transformation had already begun with his and Thapa’s victory.
“This is not the victory of a person. This is not the victory of any camp inside the party. This is the beginning of the transformation of the Nepali Congress,” said Sharma.
In 2000, when Sharma was the president of the Nepal Students’ Union, Thapa was vice president and Gururaj Ghimire joint general secretary.
“I am immensely happy today. I am fully confident that Thapa and Sharma will take some concrete initiatives to transform the party,” said Ghimire. “Their victory has given a new lease of life to our party that appeared to have lost its track.”
Insiders and observers say the party is in a desperate need of revising its ideological line and revamping its organisation.
Thapa from multiple platforms has for long been saying that the party has over the years lost touch with its own members, let alone the public.
Ahead of the general convention, Thapa came up with a 60-page concept paper, outlining the roadmap for the party for the next one year, until elections, and for the next five years, after the general elections.
“I do not have the luxury to make any mistakes. I will do justice to my votes,” said Thapa while speaking at the party headquarters in Sanepa after his victory. “Since I have received a huge number of votes, I have a big responsibility too. When we went to the convention, I made a commitment in writing. On the basis of what I have outlined, I will take the party forward.”
The two young leaders’ victory in the Congress has sent across a positive message to other parties as well.
“This is good news and we are extremely happy,” Yogesh Bhattarai, a youth leader and party secretary of the UML, told the Post.
Bhattarai also is one of the leaders, like Thapa and Sharma, who comes from student politics.
“This is a new wave of change and the duo’s victory inspires hope,” said Bhattarai. “The new generation leaders making it to top posts in any political party is definitely a welcome news.”
Hemraj Bhandari, a Central Committee member of the Maoist Centre, said that the change in the Congress indeed is a new ray of hope not only for their organisation but also other parties and national politics. “This shift in Congress is a testament to the fact that the society’s psychology is changing… that party members want change.”
Political analysts say only time will tell how Thapa and Sharma will fare in their performance, but their election shows a new wind is blowing.
“Thursday’s results establish the fact that the party members wanted to install new and young faces in the driving seat,” said Indra Adhikari, a PhD in civil-military relationship from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who closely follows Nepal’s party and national politics. “Thapa and Sharma’s win in Congress’ key posts should also serve as an example for other parties.”
As far as the Congress is concerned, according to Adhikari, the duo’s victory will help the party make a fresh start.
“As over 60 percent of delegates are youths, it’s a clear signal that they want change in the party,” Adhikari told the Post. “If the Nepali Congress can reinvent itself and reassert itself as a progressive democratic party, it will be good for the country. And we can hope the party will transform with the two young leaders taking the crucial positions.”
(Tika R Pradhan contributed reporting.)