Reflecting on contemporary Nepali angst

Only ten years ago, Nepal was a country full of hope for its future. How have things gone so horribly wrong?

To understand today's tormented Nepal – from the non-functioning Parliament with its uninspiring leadership to the dead-end of the Maoist-inspired Emergency – one has to go back in history, not too far back, but just far back enough to see some of the strands that weave the present with the past and establish the patterns for the future.

The first of these threads is the plebiscite of 1980 and the failure of the Nepali state to adopt reforms that would make it more representative. After all, almost half the voters said at that time that they would want a reformed Panchayat that gave space to political parties. However, the king-led leaders of the Panchayat opted for bureaucratic closure (we won, you lost: we rule, you shut up) rather than opening up the political space to include the opposition. In an eerie parallel, leaders of today's democratic dispensation are repeating the same mistake, using procedural arguments denying constitutional reform against a Maoist antagonist that does not believe in the framework itself.

The second of the threads is the role of India, which has inherited together with the Raj, its "Great Games" paranoia regarding the northern mountains and what lie behind it. "Security concern" has formed the staple of Indian foreign policy in the region for the past half-century, as a corollary of which India ends up supporting costly clients rather than faithful friends in the neighbourhood. Given the obsolescence of the Himalaya as a military barrier in the age of star wars, this "security concern" vis-à-vis Nepal is technological atavism – in reality it is Nepal that should have "security concerns" vis-à-vis the dacoit-infested badlands of the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh periphery. Nepal's political leadership, however, reacts to India with extreme behaviour of its own, from anti-Indian rhetoric bordering on xenophobia at one extreme to obsequious toadying before Delhi officialdom on the other. The Maoists, too, have exhibited proclivities at both ends of the spectrum.

The third is Nepal's political economy, whose texture has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. At the end of the Rana rule, Nepal's state structure was feudal, with the government's primary revenue coming from land taxation. Today, land revenues amount to less than one percent of the state's income, the bulk of which comes from import duties. This single fact alone would indicate that the Nepali state is no longer ruled by feudals: it has long passed, especially since the 1980s, into the hands of the trading class comprador bourgeoisie. The Maoists want to overthrow feudalism in a country already ruled by merchants, and both the 'democrats' and communists in Parliament cannot see beyond a liberalisation that creates opportunities for imported capital but not jobs for Nepal's youth.

These developments of domestic and external political economy since the late Panchayat period show that a global mass consumption culture and an assertive middle class aspiring for fruits of that culture have all-too-quickly become basic features of the Nepali polity. The political forces across the spectrum, meanwhile, are stuck with political slogans more appropriate to a situation that prevailed in 1950 and do not inspire today's youth. The Maoist, too, are stuck with this old mindset even though their 'people's war' has occurred against the new backdrop.

Designer kleptocracy

The political parties responsible for the change in 1990, primarily the Nepali Congress and the Communist UML, have given up their ideologies – democratic socialism and proletarian dictatorship, respectively – without transparent and honest intra-party debate. Not only have they failed to punish the wrongdoers of the Panchayat years, they have converted politics into a lucrative business of contract commissions and appointments. They have also failed to maintain crucial norms of fair play and decorum in parliamentary practice, which has contributed to the decline in legitimacy of the system as a whole.

The decline began early, with the failure to act on the Mallik Commission report by punishing those guilty of fiscal malpractice and human rights violations during the dying days of the Panchayat. At the time, it was portrayed as magnanimity of the new rulers who did not wish to be vindictive, although it is clear now that the new rulers wished only to emulate the erstwhile corrupt. Smuggling, including drug trafficking, reached and surpassed Panchayat levels. The bureaucracy became thoroughly politicised with senior appointments going not to the professionally deserving but the crassly obsequious. Nepal Police promotions, revenue collection and project construction posts as well as diplomatic assignments were practically auctioned. The parliamentary opposition, mainly the UML but at two points in 1995 and 1997 also the Congress, broke all norms of moderation that the Westminster model requires. Holding parliament hostage and bringing the country to a standstill – as the UML did with the jeep-accident death of its charismatic general secretary Madan Bhandary – became the norm.

In another body blow to the system, the Supreme Court overruled a prime minister's right to call for fresh elections, a fundamental instrument needed to discipline the House. As a result, Nepal entered into a period of unstable coalitions where the parties simply concentrated on raking in the spoils of office. Unsavoury instruments were used to buy factional loyalty, including the infamous life-long pensions to MPs and permission to import duty-free luxury vehicles (the former mercifully struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional). Those who carried out such fraud on the voters still stand at the helm of the state, which they have made to look like a designed kleptocracy. Today's Maoist violence erupted as a misdirected catharsis of a system never properly cleansed.

Constitutional contradictions

There are numerous defects to the 1990 Constitution. To begin with, it ensures that the Nepali army can be ordered into action by the government only through a politically cumbersome procedure involving the National Defence Council, which makes recommendations to the king as supreme commander-in-chief. This is a system designed to ensure maximum paralysis in times of national emergency, and the late Birendra remained unsure to the end on the matter and kept the army in the barracks even as the Maoist insurgency directed against the state and constitutional monarchy gathered steam.

Strangely for a democratic dispensation, the Constitution has no provision for assuring local self-governance even though 'decentralisation' has been the buzzword since the plebiscite of 1980. Without this protection, units of local self-governance are at the mercy of the ministries and assorted national level politicians. Further, the constitutional provisions are stacked against smaller parties, which cannot fight elections under a party symbol unless they have received three percent of the total national votes cast. Ostensibly introduced to prevent the mushrooming of many smaller parties (why not, one may ask, in a country of geographical diversity and myriad minorities?), this makes no sense in a system where parties are not provided state funding. Clearly, this is meant to ensure the monopoly of the large parties, and one may recall the case of a wing of the United Peoples' Front that split from the parent body that makes up today's Maoists. They tried their best, to the extent of filing a case in the Supreme Court, to be recognised as a national party but to no avail. Thus denied space in the open polity, they went underground, justified in the process by this constitutional defect.

Some argue that the Constitution has merely been manipulated by unscrupulous leadership, but that its provisions are fine. How is it, then, that such as a 'perfect' system has thrown up such imperfect and unrepresentative leaders in three general elections? First of all, the winner-take-all system of voting instead of proportional representation means that a 'representative' can represent as little as a third or a quarter of the voters in a multiple candidate election. Second, the representation of minority ethnic groups and dalits is wholly disproportionate to their demography, with no dalit having won an election even though they constitute a seventh of Nepal's population. This structural flaw in the basic law has fuelled ethnic and dalit sympathies for the Maoists.

There are other lacunae in the Constitution, such as those relating to sharing of international river waters and citizenship, which need legislative clarification. But no such elucidation has been done for a decade after the Constitution's promulgation. This delinquency by Parliament has kept the country from embarking upon a programme of effective water resources development, and have prevented genuine Nepali citizens of the Tarai receiving their due recognition. Such failure by the above-ground political mainstream allowed the Maoist underground to exploit popular disillusionment.

Maobaadi irony

Just before they went underground with the declaration of a "people's war" in 1996, the Maoists issued a 40- point demand to Sher Bahadur Deuba, during his first stint as prime minister. Deuba never responded to list, which cumulatively would have made an effective plan for a sustained social movement. But the Nepali Maobaadi quickly forgot their own agenda of social reform and today, six years later, they have lost a significant part of their popular support base. Several factors have contributed to this.

The most critical departure among the Maoists has been the dominance of militarism as opposed to political mass action: the movement has passed from the "political commissars" to the military commanders, a fate both Lenin and Mao successfully avoided in their respective revolutions. The result has been a loss of control by the Maoist high command over their cadres, who are running amok with extortions and summary executions under the pretext of jana karbahi ('people's action'). Since there is no control or accounting over money so collected, the leadership has now to take the blame for all loot, including those by perhaps common criminals masquerading under Maoist slogans.

The Maoist response to the royal massacre of 1 June 2001 also did them considerable damage, for they tried to politicise and take advantage of a gruesome family murder. Actually, the tragedy is remarkable for its lack of political content, and the parallel is not the Romanovs of Russia but Columbine High School of Denver, Colorado. In an act of rank opportunism, and before investigations had even been contemplated, the Maoists decided to cash in on the genuine public revulsion by labelling it a plot by the "Girija-Gyanendra clique". They went as far as to incite the military to revolt. All of which backfired, because it turned out that the monarchy had deeper roots than their strongmen comrades had imagined, and which is quite independent of the personality of the monarch. The result of this miscalculation has been a significant erosion of the Maoist political space, which in turn has goaded the political leadership (by the very reason of their miscalculation) to become more military-minded.

Given that the Maoists were considered the most anti-Indian among Nepal's political forces, it is an ironical twist of political fate that they are now suspected of "Indianism". The unravelling started with an interne interview by Prachanda where he proposed a "South Asian Soviet Federation". Given the geo-politics of a region dominated by India, there were Nepalis none too happy with this rush to ally with groups south of the border. When above-ground leftist activists protested against several embankments in India which were submerging parts of the Nepal Tarai, they found Maoists had gone strangely silent despite their anti- India rhetoric. Today, this rhetoric is practically nonexistent in Maoist press releases and pamphlets.

The silence on India is seen as the rental price the Maoists were paying to be able to operate out of safe havens in India, and this is particularly true after the declaration of the state, of emergency apparently forced the Maoist leadership to en masse cross the border. Compare this to the situation of BP Koirala who refused to pay the price of subservience demanded by Indira Gandhi and returned to Nepal in 1977 with his programme of national reconciliation. Then there was the meeting Prachanda held with the entire front-ranks of Nepal's above-ground leftist in the West Bengal town of Siliguri, obviously with the knowledge of the Indian intelligence. Further, there are credible reports that Indian security personnel escorted two Maoist leaders from New Delhi to Siliguri in late March, for a planned meeting with Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba that did not happen.

All said and done, the Maoists' nationalist credentials are currently in tatters. Their politics has descended to criminality, they have abandoned political mass action for brutal jana karbahi, and they are seen to be increasingly beholden to India.

Historical saddle

What will be the way out of this quagmire? It is always difficult to predict which way water at the cusp of a saddle will flow, for the slightest of events can trigger avalanches of creativity or negative responses. Nepal is standing on one such saddle-point in its history and much will be made in the future of the acts of wisdom or pettiness of its leaders.

It is quite obvious that the Maoist problem and the rot within the parliamentary parties of Nepal are but two sides of the same coin. The solution would have to start from a reform of the political parties and the framework within which they operate. One can identify at least four primary steps in that direction.

The first is for a graceful exit by failed leaders of the past. If parliamentary parties are to be run like feudal fiefdoms (once a president always a president, once a general secretary never again any lower party job), discredited leaders will take the party down with them. Newer and as-yet-unsullied faces must therefore take charge. The second is for corruption trials, so that the public scepticism of the system is replaced by confidence. Third, the system must be reformed to improve both representativeness as well as accountability. This would mean more autonomous local self-governance in the medium term, and promise of a -democratised" army on the longer term, with obligatory voluntary service by all with a year or two of conscription.

Finally, and immediately, fresh elections have to be called. This is because the state of emergency has robbed the current Parliament and government of moral legitimacy. The emergency, after all, is declaration of failure of political management resulting in the citizens' loss of civil liberty. Those who failed in meeting the expectations of the public trust should therefore be asked to submit to a new mandate. A bureaucratic-legalistic argument that they have been elected for five years is irrelevant after the moral legitimacy has been lost.

In the absence of these reform measures, people will begin to give credence to the as-yet loose talk of some frustrated army officer "doing a Musharraf" on the Nepali polity. A sense of order is always attractive to the masses fatalised by an anarchic kleptocracy. It has happened before with the Tokugawa shoguns in Japan, in Thailand under a king who still reigned, with Nasser in Egypt, and even in Nepal with Jang Bahadur in 1846. That is one of the ways political waters can flow from this saddle-point in history, unless those in the saddle today do something credible to quickly reform themselves

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