The Spring of 1990 ushered democracy to Nepal and with it the hope for the achievement of a more just society created by upright leaders commanding popular respect. Half a dozen years later, is the sheer hopelessness of it all… What went wrong? Who, or what, is to blame? Which is the way out? Perhaps a term which has just joined the Nepali lexicon sums it all: pajerohaad. The term has its origins in the Japanese luxury four-wheeler and refers to a government decision allowing all members of parliament as well as senior bureaucrats and judges facilities for the duty-free import of vehicles without disclosing their source of income.
Absolute power was wrested from the king in 1990 and representative power was given to the politician-commoner, who has proven incapable of living up to the high standards of diligence, dignity and integrity required of him. Today, though empowered, the Nepali politician, like Nero, fiddles on his sarangi while the country burns. Senior political leaders have used their parties more as fiefdoms of nepotism for personal gain than as vehicles of ideology and development philosophy. All pretence of meritocracy has been abandoned.
The list of sins in statecraft is long and starts right at the beginning, in 1990. The new rulers, rather than punish the wrong-doers of the old regime, opted for what then seemed like magnanimity but which now is obvious was a lack of courage or conviction. Any revolution owes its future a cathartic cleansing of the past, and Nepal´s “people´s movement” was denied that purification.
The result is clear for all to see: the corrupt and the criminal are loose or back in power, providing their brand of expertise to party bosses lacking the self-confidence. The bad apples of the Panchayat era—when the king ruled supreme—infected all, including those in the mainstream left and the Nepali Congress. Today´s national level politics is essentially about the Congress and the United Marxist Leninists, the two main forces of the People´s Movement, vying with each other to curry favour with the former ´Panchas´.
The material and political corruption has levelled the playing field. Parties which fought the King´s Panchayat rule in the difficult decades of the 1960s and 1970s have all too quickly lost the moral and ideological high ground. The Nepali Congress, despite perfunctory genuflection towards the late B.P. Koirala´s notions of democratic socialism, has surrendered itself to indiscriminate privatisation of public assets accompanied by a retreat of the state from leadership in development.
The United Marxist Leninists (UML), having tasted power for nine months in 1994-1995, are thoroughly confused and lost in infighting. They maintain the rhetorical facade of proletarian revolution for the sake of the cadres, but are busily hewing the right-of-centre line. Its leadership would like to come back to power, and stay in power, and are willing to make any compromises to make that happen, including sleeping with the enemy. Given the geopolitical and foreign aid compulsions of Nepal, dictated as they are by Indian concerns and Western diplomatic pressure, Marxism Leninism has become, for them, an embarrassingly bothersome burden of history instead of an inspiring ideology.
And, so, the mainline communists continue to spit out anti-Indian rhetoric in public while bending over backwards to please New Delhi when it comes to agreements on high dams on the Kosi or Mahakali. They denounce the IMF and the World Bank in speeches but write letters agreeing to any and all conditionalities the donors may impose just as long as the grant and loan faucets are kept open. One of their leaders waxes eloquent about the need for a republic while another sings praise of the monarchy; one says the party should drop ´communist´ from its name even as another loudly celebrates Kim II Sung´s birthday.
As the Bolsheviks fight the Mensheviks within the party, it is clear that the UML is a party upholding the interests, values and aspirations of the Nepali lower middle class, a group that only recently was abandoned by a Nepali Congress seeking to cement its alliance with the old Panchayat aristocracy. The political spectacle comes from the UML´s unconvincing acrobatics as it strives to meet the lower middle class´s aspirations of mellow comfort while shackled to a radical rhetoric meant for the landless and the proletariat.
This failure of the political middle within six years of democracy has now re-legitimised the far left and the far right, making radical subjects, once unthinkable, routine conversation at homes and in workplaces. A Maoist uprising which was supposed to whither away unnoticed has just marked its first anniversary with loud chest-thumping. It is helped by the collapse of the carpet and garment industries, sluggish tourism, administrative paralysis, poor foreign aid disbursement, rising unemployment among under-educated youth, and a coalition government that has neither philosophical direction nor administrative competence. The romanticism of revolt has an increasingly receptive audience in Nepal today.
This situation is also encouraging the far right. Those clamouring for a return of active monarchy have found new voice, even though a diffident King Birendra would probably prefer not to do them the favour. On the other hand, it is not unlikely that the politically incompetent and financially bloated middle—both from the Congress and the Left—will find collusion with the royal palace a less fearsome option than a takeover by the Maoists.
Neither of the extreme paths can be recommended, however. The slow wearing down of the ethnically fractured Nepali peasantry does not have the tinder to spark a Bolshevik-type conflagration. Also, it is difficult to see how both internal forces (the upper and middle classes in a country with practically no proletariat or absolute landless) as well as external (superpowers north, south and trans-oceanic) would allow such an uprising to expand beyond a contain- able nuisance value.
As for a royal takeover, its basic requirement is an astute and assertive personality untainted in the public eyes. A King Mahendra in 1960 had these assets; a King Birendra, after 20 years of providing “active and dynamic leadership” to the Panchayat system, sits with these intangible assets severely depleted. There is talk that the stature of the King has risen in recent years, but that is a deceptive illusion born out of the relative dwarfing of other 1990 icons and hardly a firm basis from which to launch such a risky adventure as a royal putsch.
If the middle has failed, and the left and the right cannot work, what, then, is the way out? It is to recreate a new middle, through a more assertive civil society, a fearless intelligentsia, and takeover of party machines by a younger, alert crop of political leaders determined to build a political culture of values and sacrifice. This will be more difficult, and challenging, but more sustainable than the romanticism of the Maoists and the vacuous adventurism of the royalists. But short of that, the country will either continue to muddle along in despair or be plunged into a cauldron of terror.