The partyless Panchayat system, established by King Mahendra after he toppled parliamentary democracy in I960, acquired legitimacy through the plebiscite of 1980. But such legitimacy could not be translated into performance. A decade later, the political opposition (the Nepali Congress and the United Left Front) declared war on the Panchayat, and the people responded with alacrity to its call for a multi-party system.
Spring Awakening, a posthumous publication, gives an account of critical transitional phases in recent Nepali politics — the Peoples Movement (February-April 1990), the promulgation of the new Constitution (November 1990), and the parliamentary elections (May 1991). The main focus, however, is on the Peoples Movement.
Analysing the underlying reasons behind the Movements success, authors Raeper and Hoftun discuss changes brought by the modernisation process. Advances in some service sectors — growth in literacy rate, development of commun ications and mass media, and improved transportation eastward from the Karnali river — opened up new horizons. The book, however, does not deal adequately with Nepals stagnant economy and the gap between the publics expectations and governmental performance.
The political mischief following the 1980 referendum, write the authors, was also conducive to the success of the uprising a decade later- While the Third Amendment to the then Constitution introduced some reforms, such as direct elections to the national legislature, there was the ominous emergence of conservative institutions such as the Panchayat Policy and Evaluation Committee, the Sports Council, the Bhumigat Giroha (a murky underground network), and other organisations headed or patronised by the members of the royal family.
Unity between the Nepali Congress and the communists is seen as another factor, and the Lefts acceptance of multi-party democracy is seen as crucial. But they overlook another turnaround, that of the Nepali Congress, which moved from attempts at reconciliation with the King to confrontation.
With the country so heavily dependent on foreign aid, the Panchayat government was not able to resist Western pressure for human rights. The book touches on this, but barely. And while Nepals relations with India is extensively discussed, a perspective on the changing global scenario is lacking.
During the Cold War era, when relations between India and China were also far from cordial, all sides granted protective support to the Panchayat regime in its attempts to contain the opposition. But by the dawn of the 1990s, the world had changed. The Wests heightened concern for human rights/democracy and the thaw between India and China substantially reduced the Panchayats maneuvering ability. Last ditch attempts to divert attention from the Movement by stoking anti-India feelings backfired completely.
Raeper and Hoftun divide the runup to democracy in three stages: the first, Feb/ March 1990, was when people chanted for democracy in streets hoping for a royal proclamation announcing political reform. Instead, King Birendra remained aloof, as presented by the official radio, television and press. This prepared the ground for the second “revolutionary” stage, at the beginning of April. Whole households mobilised themselves, and the women and children of Patan and Kirtipur took to the streets with kitchen utensils and agricultural tools. On 6 April, lakhs demonstrated around the country.
The Kings belated response of lifting the ban on political parties was too little, too late, and die Movement entered its third stage. It was clear that the public wanted sweeping change, and this emboldened the opposition leaders to demand the total dismantling of the Panchayat.
The Movement thus ended successfully, with the party chiefs quite incredulous at how quickly democracy was achieved. The tussle between the King and the parties on the nature and content of the new constitution began. The royal palace made every effort to retain the Kings sovereignty, but the popular force prevailed, and a new Constitution based on popular sovereignty was promulgated on 9 November 1990. Elections followed, with the Nepali Congress obtaining a comfortable majority in May 1991.
One of the books shortcomings is that it leans too far towards the Left and gives short shrift to the Nepali Congress. This tilt is obvious from the persons die authors chose to interview, and the text goes as far as to connect the goals of Nepali communists with the tradition of Nepali society (p. 88-94).
The book views the 1990 “revolution” as having opened Nepal to the possibility of another revolt, “this time of a religious and ethnic nature”. Many Nepalis may share the authors concern about the rise of regional politics between the Tarai and Hills, and also communal politics between the Tibeto-Burman groups and Bahun, Chettri and Newar, But such fears could be exaggerated, and it is clear that the authors get their own impressions from three sources. Firstly, they witnessed the ugly ventilation of grievances during the highly charged moments of constitution-making and elections. The pitch of regional and communal politics has been considerably subdued subsequently, in the actual practice of parliamentary democracy.
Secondly, rather than speak to the people at large, the authors relied on the claims of different communal and regional leaders, who naturally tend to exaggerate the problem to their advantage. Thirdly, they have spoken to the former Panchas, who have long contended, most erroneously, that democracy would lead towards national disintegration. As one of them is quoted, “Every thing can now happen, Nepal can become another Kampuchea, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.”
In this otherwise well-written and painstakingly researched text, Raeper and Hoftun have tended Lo forget that political parties are integrative forces, and it is to Nepali society’s advantage that the two main political parties wield strong influence throughout the country. In highlighting the problems of contemporary Nepali politics, perhaps they failed to appreciate all that is positive.
Hachhethu teaches at the Center for Nepal and Asian Studies, Tribhuvan University.