CPN-UML Chairman KP Sharma Oli had two lieutenants—Bishnu Paudel and Shankar Pokharel—to pick from for the second most powerful post in the party.
The pick for general secretary by Oli—who was empowered to pick the consensus list of 19 office-bearers, 301 central committee members and chairmen of different commissions by the closed session of the general convention on Saturday—was widely considered to be his heir in the party due to the age composition of UML leaders.
The party's statute has set a ceiling of 70 years for party leadership. Most of the senior leaders including Oli, Bhim Rawal, Ishwar Pokharel, Ram Bahadur Thapa, Subash Nembang, Yubaraj Gyawali, Ashta Laxmi Shakya and others will cross 70 before the next general convention.
Paudel and Pokharel will both be under the age limit and whoever proposed as general secretary by Oli was set to get a head start in the race to become party chief after the 11th general convention.
Many considered Paudel to be a natural successor as he had already served as general secretary of CPN—formed after unification of UML with CPN (Maoist Center)—and has a greater hold in party organization having been elected as one of the two deputy general secretaries in the last general convention ahead of Pokharel who lost for the same post finishing third despite both of them contesting from Oli's panel.
Paudel had also worked closely with Oli after the last general election with Pokharel having to relocate to Butwal having been made chief minister (CM) of the then Province 5.
Oli, however, picked Pokharel as the general secretary proposing Paudel as one of six vice-chairs surprising many especially those outside the party.
But those who knew Oli well had no doubt whatsoever about who he will pick. "Pokharel was already established as a leader of the future in Oli's eyes," a leader close to Oli confides. "He has now established the heir who he had liked for a long time."
The leader remembers a comment about Pokharel that Oli had made long time ago. "This is a man qualified to be a leader. He hears less even now," the leader quotes Oli as saying referring to Pokharel's hearing loss.
Pokharel may not be blessed with good hearing but he has always had Oli's ear. He is among the very few UML leaders who can actually tell Oli what one feels and more importantly who Oli listens to. "The only leader who can speak with Oli and who Oli listens to is Shankar. All the others are silent when in front of Oli," a leader who became minister from Maoist quota when the two parties were united confides.
Oli had also been providing hints about who he wants as his heir in recent times. He had asked Pokharel to complete reading his political report, that he started reading, in the statute general convention in October citing dry throat. That was a clear hint to the five thousands UML representatives assembled there.
He had also recently started to take Pokharel along in party programs outside the Kathmandu Valley from Dhankuta in the east to Kailali in the west.
Another leader confides about Oli's attachment with Pokharel reminiscing Oli's comment after Pokharel's loss in the last general convention. "I couldn't sleep for two days after Shankar lost in deputy general secretary," the leader quotes Oli as ruing.
Once smitten twice shy! Oli perhaps did not want to suffer the ordeal again and, therefore, wanted so badly to get Pokharel elected as general secretary unopposed.
There are also some behavioral similarities between Oli and Pokharel for Oli to like him. Both of them can strongly put their opinions and can confront others over differences unlike Paudel who prefers playing a coordinating role and rarely alienates leaders and cadres.
Pokharel was the most aggressive in attacking the then Dahal-Nepal faction of CPN after Oli dissolved the House for the first time and the Khanal-Nepal faction of UML after the second dissolution and strongly defended both the dissolutions with some ludicrous arguments.
Paudel, on the other hand, did not attack the other side during the internal dispute first in CPN and then in UML despite his close relation with Oli and tried his best to find a truce between Oli and the two dissident factions to prevent split in the party.
Late Madan Bhandari had first identified Pokharel's political talents after first meeting him around 25 years back when the latter was doing student politics in India and handed over the responsibility of working for the then CPN-ML's student wing in Bagmati impressed with his ideological nous, according to UML leader Gokul Baskota.
Pokharel then took massive strides in student politics first being elected the free students' union president at the Tribhuvan University and soon the national chairman of the party's student wing. He then created ripples being elected to the House of Representatives (HoR) from Dang-3 in 1994 at the age of 32 when the powers of Khum Bahadur Khadka, also from Dang, of Nepali Congress were at its zenith.
He lost in the next general election after split in UML while he chose to remain in the list of candidates for proportional representation system in the First Constituent Assembly Election in 2008. He then lost in the Second Constituent Assembly Election in 2013 and won in the provincial assembly election in 2017 only due to electoral alliance of UML and Maoist Center with a promise of unification after the election.
He then became CM of Province 5 as the electoral alliance swept to majority across the country apart from Province 2.
Despite his losses in both general elections and elections within the party, he is established as an ideologue in the party. Baskota says Pokharel is a prodigious exponent of the ideology of People's Multiparty Democracy proposed by Madan Bhandari, He claims that the ideology brought him close to Oli who had been released from the jail around the time Pokharel started politics in Nepal.
"He can explain People's Multiparty Democracy very well and is ahead in moving forward preparing action plans in accordance to that," Baskota effuses.
Journalist Pramod Dahal, who has worked closely with Pokharel, points how Pokharel had proposed during the seventh general convention held after the turn of century that political solution to the then armed Maoist rebellion should be sought through the Constituent Assembly and the country should move toward republicanism.
Dahal reminds how Oli and the then all-powerful party chief Madhav Kumar Nepal had both rejected the proposal but the party and the whole country eventually had to finally adopt the line.
Pokharel is lauded for the political stands he takes and relative integrity. Many call him arrogant as he mixes less with cadres. But a leader close to him refers to his hearing problem and clarifies that he actually cannot hear when cadres speak to him, and does not ignore them.
He has also performed well as CM having been able to name Province 5 as Lumbini and pick Deukhuri of Dang as the provincial capital despite opposition by Paudel from the then ruling CPN who wanted to make Butwal the capital.
Pokharel also has another similarity with Oli apart from speaking strongly and confronting others. He can move ahead with utter disregard to norms and values like Oli.
He continued as Lumbini CM long after being in minority, boycotted the provincial assembly when he was leading the government and got sworn in by inviting the governor to his office when the opposition parties picketed the governor's office.
Pokharel had raised the issue of internal democracy in the party during the eighth general convention. His proposal was unanimously endorsed even when Oli was in minority. Leaders like Bhim Rawal and Ghanashyam Bhusal, from the erstwhile Khanal-Nepal faction of UML, are currently raising the issue of internal democracy.
It remains to be seen if Pokharel still believes in internal democracy and whether he can debate and even differ with Oli on the issue when necessary. It also remains to be seen how Pokharel, long seen by Oli as his heir, measures up to the expectations of party leaders and cadres.
That perhaps will determine his future competition with Paudel for party leadership despite him getting a head start with Oli's anointment now.