The Challenge to Democracy in Nepal: A Political History
by T Louise Brown
Routledge, London and New York, 1996
239 pages, £ 40
ISBN 0 415 08576 4
Democratisation in Nepal has been a tardy and protracted zig-zag process. Since the fall of the Ranas in 1951, it has travelled from one triangular balance of mutually antagonistic and incompatible forces to another, from one partial and incomplete “revolution” in 1951 to another in 1990. T. Louise Brown, through her study The Challenge to Democracy in Nepal: A Political History, joins a large band of Subcontinental and Western scholars who have attempted to analyse and evaluate Nepal´s march towards democracy. Her point of departure from other studies lies in the emphasis placed on the events of the people´s “revolution” (Jan Andolan) of 1990 and thereafter, to which more than half the book is devoted.
Ms Brown´s narrative covers familiar ground in the first half of the book, which deals with the period from the end of the Rana rule until 1990. The only significant change during this period was the resurgence of the monarchy in place of a decadent and discredited Rana system. In the interim, the monarchy struggled to keep the democratic challenge suppressed, by strong-arm methods as well as by political and ideological manoeuvres. Such manoeuvres included not only alliances with and support mobilisation from the remnants of the Rana´s vested interests and stratified social structures and feudal institutions, but also from the Communist Party and its radical and extremist associates who did not want to see democratic forces, represented by the Nepali Congress, gain political ground in the Kingdom.
Not enough has been said about a unique feature of the Nepali situation, which is that the Communist movement spread and strengthened itself under the patronage of the monarchy. In order to blunt the ideological challenge posed by democratic forces, the monarchy had to wear the mantle of modernisation which, in a very significant manner, eroded its traditional social support and legitimacy, precipitating what Huntington describes as the “dilemmas of a modernising Monarch”. The Nepali kings´ attempts to create and sustain, by hook or by crook, the Panchayat system since 1962, was geared to skipping this dilemma. This strategy, no doubt, lengthened the life of the assertive monarchy, but the king could not— and did not—resolve this dilemma forever. The king´s failure in this regard led to the developments of 1990.
Ms Brown is able to neatly put this struggle between traditional and modern forces in the context of evolving socio-economic relationships. She also underlines the traditional and authoritarian character of the Panchayat system. But all this has been done by others and, at times, with even sharper focus and persuasive articulation of the inherent contradictions in the Nepali situation.
The conditions for the 1990 “revolution” were created by a curious combination of Nepal´s internal and international developments. Brown has carefully identified and analysed the role of internal factors like the rise of the urban middle class, the collapse of the Panchayat system´s credibility, and the coming together of anti-monarchical forces, particularly the Nepali Congress and the united Communists. Among the external forces, Brown mentions the end of the Cold War and the conflict precipitated between India and Nepal over trade and transit, the attempt to introduce work permits for Indians seeking employment in Nepal that ran counter to the provisions of the 1950 treaty between the two countries, as well as the import of Chinese arms by the Panchayat regime.
India´s role was most decisive in the success of the popular movement, as it frightened the king and emboldened the democratic forces. Since 1960-62, in its strategy for political survival, the royal regime had exploited India´s fears of the China card. However, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi´s decision to maintain a tough posture broke the Indian policy free from its 30-year-old defeatist syndrome. This stance greatly facilitated the collapse of the Panchayat system and the victory of Nepal´s democratic front. King Birendra tried to dismiss the popular forces as agents of India, but in vain. The King also attempted to mobilise all possible support within the Indian political system, from the Shankracharyas, the army generals who had led Gurkha soldiers, to family and personal ties with influential politicians and bureaucrats. But that did not help. Even Rajiv Gandhi´s electoral defeat and the coming to power of the government led by Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, which was sympathetic to the King´s regime in Nepal, could not reverse the momentum Mr Gandhi´s policies had generated.
While Brown has discussed the moves and responses of the King and the democratic forces blow by blow, her treatment of the external factor is brief and superficial. No one can, however, disagree with her conclusions that the Jan Andolan of 1990 was an “uneasy compromise”; it was not a “national movement” but an urban based middle-class uprising, and that “Democratic Nepal differs only superficially from Panchayat Nepal”.
Indeed, the most critical question in Nepal´s democratic struggle has been the truncated and incomplete nature of democratic revolutions. In 1951, the Ranas lost their credibility but they were not completely erased from the post-Rana power structure. Similarly, in 1990, the Panchayat system collapsed and the kingship surrendered to the democratic challenge, but vestiges of both remain in the parliamentary system. Even as a constitutional monarch, the King wields enormous powers and continues to strengthen his position as a key political player.
Why has this been so and who is responsible for not allowing a complete and lasting democratic victory? Brown should have attempted to answer this question and stated clearly that lopsided socio-economic and institutional development within Nepal and the self-proclaimed forces of stability and order from outside, particularly India, combined to force unethical compromises and provided a fresh lease of life and sustenance to the traditional forces in Nepal.
This being the case, the prospects for democratisation in Nepal depend not only on domestic institution-building (such as political parties) and changes in the stratified social hierarchy, but also on the presence of a regional and international atmosphere that is conducive and committed to democratic ideals. One hopes that the next stage of “democratic revolution” will start unfolding before long.
On the whole, Ms Brown´s is a good and informative study based on reliable and relevant sources. However, the emphasis on chronological narrative, though useful as detailed reference, is at the cost of analytical insights and logical projections that could have helped enrich the study of emerging theories of democracy in the developing world.