Bamdev Gautam: The one-man show who nearly upended national politics

Bamdev Gautam is an ambitious leader long known for his shoot-from-the-hip nature. Arguably, in the 56 years he has been in active politics, Gautam has experienced more upheavals than any of his other ex-CPN-UML contemporaries.

Gautam always finds a way to be at the center of national politics. This time, he is in the headlines for his naked display of ambition to become the prime minister via the route of the National Assembly, the federal upper house. Earlier, the 76-year-old leader had been chosen as the head of the ruling Nepal Communist Party’s powerful organization department by the party’s central committee. The same meeting had elevated him to the post of the party vice-chairman. But then Gautam is someone who lost the most recent parliamentary elections, which otherwise saw a near complete communist sweep. So what is the secret to his continued power despite the election loss?

The party secretariat’s decision to pick Gautam as a member of the National Assembly was opposed from in and outside the parliament. More than that, a proposal was floated to amend the constitution to pave the way for a National Assembly member to become prime minister. After widespread criticism, this plan was dropped—at least for the time being. As constitutional lawyer Bipin Adhikari put it to APEX last week: “I do not think the House of Representatives would agree to tie up its hands and legs by allowing the National Assembly to pick a prime minister. The people who are pushing the amendment have not thought this through.”

“He is a good organizer and someone who has been continuously working for his party for nearly six decades,” says Hari Roka, a political analyst who has in the past worked with Gautam. Roka reckons Gautam did a sterling job as the head of the former CPN-UML’s organization department, and as such he has now been given the responsibility of leading the NCP’s organization department as well. “In the capacity of UML organization department head, Gautam was able to leave a good imprint on the party rank and file,” Roka adds. This legacy is now reflected in his clout in the 441-member NCP central committee.

According to Roka, Gautam is also someone capable of taking big risks at decisive moments.Gautam’s ambitions were whetted when he got to lead the UML organization department 22 years ago. Back then, he had initiated a signature campaign to dislodge party general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal. After he failed to do so and thereby to grab the leadership, he split the party, forming his breakaway CPN-ML. His newfangled party failed to win a single seat in the 1999 parliamentary elections, and he again merged with the UML. Yet the split had somewhat dented his reputation as he had come to be seen as a cunning backstabber.

Accustomed to power Says NCP leader Tanka Karki, who has also closely worked with the septuagenarian leader, “Gautam has continuously occupied powerful positions since 1990. In a feudal society, a leader who remains in power for so long invariably develops unique strengths.” Gautam joined the communist party in 1964 as full-time party cadre, and was first elected in the House of Representatives in 1991.

In 1997, he became home minister for the first time, a post he held thrice, in addition to becoming deputy prime minister three times as well. The Home is a powerful ministry and Gautam steadily increased his hold on the bureaucracy from there. In 2009, the UML Butwal general convention elected Gautam party vice-chair and that portfolio helped him cement his hold on the party as well. Besides, as a head of the party’s Peasant’s Federation, Gautam cultivated a good network of cadres across the country.

After the NCP’s formation in May 2018, party co-chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been lending a strong support to Gautam. Their relations go back a long way. During the Maoist insurgency, Gautam was in constant touch with the top Maoist brass and was of the view— against the prevailing wisdom at the time—that the Maoist party should be accommodated into the political mainstream. It was Gautam who along with leader Yubaraj Gyawali reached Rolpa to forge a six-point agreement aimed at the mainstreaming of the Maoists. (This agreement was the precursor to the later 12-point agreement between the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists.)
He also played a vital role in the formation of the left alliance in 2017 and in the unification of CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center). Gautam in fact had been advocating for such unity since the 2006 political changes.Of late party co-chair Dahal has been publicly saying that Gautam’s time to be prime minister may have finally arrived.Gautam time?

The party secretariat’s decision to pick Gautam as a member of the National Assembly was opposed from in and outside the parliament. More than that, a proposal was floated to amend the constitution to pave the way for a National Assembly member to become prime minister. After widespread criticism, this plan was dropped—at least for the time being.

As constitutional lawyer Bipin Adhikari put it to APEX last week: “I do not think the House of Representatives would agree to tie up its hands and legs by allowing the National Assembly to pick a prime minister. The people who are pushing the amendment have not thought this through.”

Yet this is not the first time a politician defeated in national elections has tried to get to power through the backdoor—and succeeded. After his defeat in the first Constituent Assembly election in 2008, UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal was nonetheless handpicked as an MP and eventually got to become prime minister in 2009. Similarly, spokesperson of Nepal Communist Party Narayan Kaji Shrestha, who lost in 2017 from Gorkha, is now a nominated National Assembly member.

On Gautam, the common feeling, even within the NCP rank and file, is that once you lose a parliamentary election, you should have to wait for five years to be eligible for re-election. As constitutional lawyer Adhikari hinted, nor will it be easy for Gautam to get the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution in his favor.
Adds NCP’s Karki: “It is not about Gautam. It is a violation of the public mandate to appoint leaders who lost popular elections to the National Assembly, much less clear their path to the country’s top executive post.”

But why have top NCP leaders been seemingly so willing to address his demands? As Gautam is considered an expert manipulator of internal party politics, each of Oli, Nepal and Dahal, the leaders of three NCP factions, wants Gautam’s support to consolidate their power. Gautam’s contemporary UML colleagues like Oli, Nepal, and Jhala Nath Khanal have all gotten the top executive post in the country. Gautam, the oldest of the quartet, perhaps feels time is not on his hands .