The spring of 1990 was witness to a mamoth democratic upsurge in Nepal. A historical divide was reached, which will separate all events that went before from those that come after. In making this division, history will judge all without mercy – actors and episodes, politicians and the wisdom of their choices and separate them into heroes and villains.
Those now entrusted with writing the new chapter will be judged most severely, for the principles they espouse and their acts of commission or omission will encode the genetic pattern of the country’s future development. Whether Nepalis live better in the decades ahead will depend upon those who will fashion the new polity.
By sidelining the Panchayat system, the people have stated what they don’t want. Like their Eastern European contemporaries, they rejected a political system with a philosophy and culture that failed to meet their aspirations.
However, Nepalis have not yet been able to articulate what it is that they want. Long fed a bland diet of Panchayat monism, they are now faced with an over-sumptuous choice of pluralism. Peddlers from the far left to the extreme right have surfaced, hawking new brews of factionalism, pseudo-nationalism, religious fundamentalism and ethnic exclusivism. Old ideas and concepts, which have been stagnant for 30 years in the absence of stimulating exchange and dialogue, are suddenly facing the stress of evolution.
One cannot understand today’s developmental dead-end nor the forces of change that buffet the society without studying the early days of the Nepali nation-state. Almost since its founding in 1769, obsessed with the virus of cultural paranoia, the rulers have followed a policy of retreat and isolation. They adopted an orthodox version of Hinduism which promoted cultural passivity and prevented the entry of reformist movements from the sub-continent. The nation-state was unprepared to meet the challenges of an aggressive and intrusive Western civilisation. Jung Bahadur, the shogun who usurped power in 1846, took the practice of xenophobia to its logical conclusion by sealing the kingdom to all outside influence.
The 1951 revolution which overthrew the Rana dynasty was the first social manifestation of Nepalis’ will to modernise. Its success was due to the coming together of three forces. The king in his royal palace, imprisoned in a gilded cage for a century, wanted the usurpers out. The modernisers, including the Nepali Congress, some democratically inclined factions, as well as a nascent communist movement, saw in the Ranas everything backward that had to go. The third force, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Indian government, regarded the Ranas as colonialist collaborators and was more than happy to assist in their fall.
The marriage of incompatibles — at least between the palace and the modernisers — fell apart before long. Traditional orthodoxy and well-entrenched feudal forces felt threatened by progressive economic and social measures such as abolition of feudal land rights initiated by the first popularly elected Nepali Congress government in 1957. They rallied behind an ambitious royal palace in 1960 to abolish multi-party parliamentary democracy, ban all political parties and institute an absolute monarchy behind a facade of “indigenous democracy”. The new political order wore the armour of religion, tradition and nationalism.
Democratic India, more alarmed by Chinese presence north of the Himalaya than with the strangling of democracy in a backward neighbour, chose to align itself with the royal palace against the country’s modernisers in the name of stability. The rest of the world followed the Indian lead.
International perception of Nepal as a stable Shangri-La provided the Panchayat system with two decades of crucial support till 1979.
By then, internal pressure for change had built enough steam to force the king into holding a national plebiscite, which the Panchayat system won by a thin majority. The promise to institute “timely reforms” in the Panchayat was not kept. During the 1980s, the system was given another reprieve by the rise of Reagano-Thatcherite governments in the West to whom any regime which claimed anti-left credentials was eligible for unstinted support.
STABLE BUT STAGNANT
The stability perceived by outsiders was actually stagnation. Every country has to make its own mistakes, and modern-day Nepal’s mistake was the Panchayat, which was obsessed with form over substance. For all the talk of democracy and development, Nepalis tasted neither. Over the years, many intellectual and moral compromises were made by tens of thousands of professionals, which drained the society intellectual vigour. The loss of creativity and self-respect is one of the most debilitating legacies of the Panchayat.
Lack of political democracy ultimately results in economic under-development. Autocratic rule can lead to some economic growth but not to broad-based development, especially in a country whose political economy is rooted in feudalism.
What was called “development” was the “bribery” of village and town elite with projects and funds, and promises not to disturb the status quo. Absent from the Panchayati horizon was development which mobilised the inherent genius of a people, their labour and capital for uplifting change.
The main achievement of Panchayat-style development was the establishment of addictive dependence on foreign aid. Nepal specialised in harvesting money from all givers big and small: hard loans and soft loans, grants and gifts; aid from resource-rich Canada and basket-case Bangladesh, from proselytising missionaries, multilateral banks and socialist-minded voluntary groups.
To list some of their unpardonable sins, the Panchayat authorities padded the bureaucracy with under-worked civil servants; maintained public sector monopolies that bled the exchequer; ran a health service which scorned preventive health; coddled a tourism sector that returned profits abroad or to a privileged handful in Kathmandu; pampered “industrialists” with facilities while industries stagnated; cheated the country’s youth of education; devastated the environment with misguided diktat; failed to understand the very concept of economic planning; maintained the press on government dole; and replaced honest trade and capital accumulation with state-sponsored smuggling which ruined the national image.
While mis-managing the modem sector, Panchayat politics also managed to ignore the cultural components of development and there-fore failed to motivate all the people. Nepal’s ethnic diversity was the stuff for tourism brochures, otherwise to be ignored. The Panchayat handlers steered clear of grassroot issues and saved themselves a major headache. Whenever an issue proved “divisive”, it was swept under the carpet, there to fester.
Extra-constitutional sources of authority mushroomed. A Social Service National Coordination Council was formed. Rather than coordinate social service, it had its hand in the donor’s pocket and its eyes peeled for “unacceptable” social work. The infamous National Sports Council acted as a super-Ministry of Home Affairs with a special unit for producing karate-trained goon squads. The Royal Nepal Army was well-trained but utterly wasted for want of an enemy. The Panchayat status-quo never dared question the Army’s role in a poverty-stricken “peace zone” between two billion nuclear-powered Chinese and Indians.
Because it was unable to hold its “leaders” accountable and answerable, because it did not in truth support the economic rights of all the people, and because decentralisation and power-sharing were just words to be used at “aid-Nepal” consortia, the Panchayat structure came in-built with a time-bomb of instability. The structure was a make-do contraption built to extend traditional rule a few decades longer, nothing more. Ultimately, the system was unable to come to terms with modernisation and rising aspirations.
Modernisation is re-examining traditional practices, assimilating efficient and positive features of Western values, and making available alternative ladders of upward mobility to the traditionally under-privileged.
Despite itself, the system was unable to halt the process of modernisation. The forces of modern change, good or bad, are rarely stoppable. Modernisation brings with it the fruits of science and technology which have a seductive charm for the hewers of wood and drawers of water. The desire for modem education, modern lifestyles, and “modern” human rights in the end overpowers political systems .that cannot deliver.
If only to produce the technical hands to run a country in the 20th century, to run power plants, hospitals and airlines, schools had to be set up and Nepalis sent abroad on scholarships. If only to utilise foreign aid that came in, highways and television stations had to be built. Inevitably, the country produced doctors, engineers, lawyers, scholar, civil servants and journalists. Teachers and students infected with new ideas began to populate the Nepali hinterland.
The whole population was being exposed to outside influence – lahurays returning from stints in the Indian and British armies and United Nations peace-keeping forces; seasonal migrants with a taste of India’s cantankerous democracy; and international volunteers and foreign trekkers who arrived in the village. With these influences, and the ubiquitous short-wave radio receivers, rural Nepal was rich in information like never before.
The last decade saw the proliferation of more “decentralising artifacts” like television dish antennas and computers. One of the best modem digital systems in South Asia made Nepal’s telephone and fax machines even more vital communication tools. The country’s draconian press laws proved powerless against these alternative sources of information. High-ways, while they might be ecological or economic failures, became cross-pollinators of political ideas across Nepal.
CRIMES IN STATECRAFT
To be kind, the Panchayat did not understand the very forces it had helped unleash. Lacking the ability to understand or provide for the rising aspirations, it plodded on as if it were business as usual, hoping to hold out for a little longer and then some. Somewhere along the way, probably towards the early 1970s, what little concern the Panchayat polity had for the country’s development was jettisoned. Then it was each one to himself or herself.
The politicians and the Praetorean guards of the royal palace institutionalised corruption to an unpreceedented degree. In-fighting frequently broke out among Panchayat proteges, ostensibly for larger shares of the booty doled out by foreign aid projects. The system became a factory producing an unending stream of scandals — the “carpet scandal” in 1978, the “billion dollar loan scandal” of 1984, the arrest of police chiefs and legislators for drug smuggling in 1988, ad nauseam.
These and other crimes in statecraft were bound to lead to a punishing finale. Increasingly remote from its own people, the ruling coterie also began to lose its grasp on international diplomacy. The downfall began in July 1988, when the royal palace imported a large consignment of arms from China, possibly to test the limits of a secret protocol it had entered into with India in 1965 (which restricted Nepal’s options to purchase RIMS from third countries). India was not pleased. A few months later, Nepal increased tariff on Indian goods in a well-meaning but misguided attempt to free Nepal from the grasp of the Indian market.
India, under its own regional imperial illusions, decided to “teach Nepal a lesson and show where its interests lie.” It let lapse bilateral trade and transit arrangements which led to tremendous hardships for Nepal, making it ripe for political upheaval. Neither country was clean in the stand-off, but it was the Panchayat system that lost.
Meanwhile, because the Panchayat system had been resisting demands for reform and pursuing a “hard-line” policy against internal dissent. It failed to muster domestic support for itself by whipping up an anti-Indian frenzy. Rather than rope in the national opposition to meet the Indian challenge, the palace, in a fit of hubris, dug in its heels. This left the Nepali Congress and the communists free to agitate. They joined forces, and the Movement to, restore Democracy took to the streets on 18 February.
The 50-day agitation finally brought Nepalis out of the woodwork. The system had lost what. legitimacy it had, and even writers and poets, doctors, engineers, teachers and civil servants added to the chorus of dissent. The people of Patan dug trenches and set. up barricades, prac-tically declaring their town a People’s Commune.
Heavy-handed repression against unarmed demonstrators, the indiscriminate use of dum-dum bullets, torture, and large-scale human rights violations evoked revulsion. Nothing could now prop up the tottering Panchayat super-structure. April 9 saw the largest demonstration of people power in Nepal. And blood flowed on Durbar Marg. The king was forced to lift the ban on political parties and allow a caretaker party government to take over. A commission was formed to recommend a new constitutional dispensation.
A TENSE INTERREGNUM
Theoretically, the people have got what they wanted, but they remain tense and suspicious. The interim government struggles from crisis to crisis, unable to lead with vision and statesmanship. Transparency in statecraft has not emerged, either at party headquarters or in the royal palace. News reports hint at conspiracies to restore the Panchayat status quo. The motives of all and sundry are suspect. It is within this climate of distrust, amazingly, that a new order is being defined which will determine the future of Nepal.
The essence of the interregnum in Nepal today is the painful process of adjustment that everyone is having to make – the people, the political parties, aid agencies and the feudal forces.
For the people of Nepal, the euphoria of the early days of democracy has subsided into a more sober and mature attitude towards politics. While democracy may not bring utopia and might require nerves of steel to withstand, it brings with it that indisputable gift of hope. In March they had long since lost hope. In April, they began once again to hope.
After being catapulted from house arrest to ministerial mansions, the Nepali Congress and communist stalwarts have to learn to advocate the positive politics of performance instead of the negative one of criticism that they have been used to.
Having advocated a constitutional monarchy, the Nepali Congress has to perform the trickiest task of strengthening the kingship as an institution for national cohesiveness and development, while at the same time weakening the capricious powers of the incumbent.
The leftists are also in a quandary, finally caught between an ideology that knows no compromise and a reality that refuses to fit theories. How can they be as effective above ground in an open democratic polity as they were during their underground struggle? The upheavals in the international communist movement with the clashing theologies of Gobachev vs. Ligachev or Deng vs. Mao forces them to go back to Marx and reassess their basic theoretical premises. It is the end of a comfortable era for them when they could go to bed with conviction that whatever tomorrow’s sunrise may bring, their ideology would have a ready-made cut-and-dried answer.
The international community in Nepal also presents a sorry figure in the process of painful adjustment. Having misread Hindu philosophy which unequivocally says ‘Aham Bramhasmi Tat Twam Asi” (“I am God and you are That too!”) and the Hindu psychological concept of ojhas (psychic energy, which all outstanding captains among men are said to possess), it im¬posed a Judaeo-Christian misinterpretation and assigned a divine status on the king. Having barely recovered from the shock of seeing how devotees can revolt against a god, the diplomatic and aid community finds itself before a set of popular politicians with a mind of their own regarding what development is or should be. Gone are the days when a palace secretary’s giving the nod could sanction a development project. Now comes the time of pork-barrel politics, voter pressure and interest groups. Many pet projects pushed by donor agencies now find themselves objects of drastic revamping. Conducted with honesty and good-will, this process may be a good thing to set Nepal’s development on the right track.
Having fought a reactionary battle for the last 30 years, the feudal forces of Nepal must be made to realise that the cost of preserving an old order is all-round doom and despair. By preventing a people from having access to alternative ladders for upward mobility and by using the institution of monarchy as the weapon to hold on to their personal privilege and status, they will only guarantee a full-scale upheaval in the future. At that time, all will be lost.
The feudal forces must understand that there is no going back. To put it metaphorically, the people’s movement succeeded in making a political omelette. It is not now possible to recreate the Panchayati egg. The adjustment the feudal forces have to make is to transform themselves from consumptive drones to productive citizens. They must become the national capitalists and industrialists of tomorrow.
The Nepali public now awaits the political parties to show their hand. Are they prepared at the nigh end of the 20th century to prove that a multi-party democracy can function in Nepal. Or will they allow this moment of hope regress tragically back to cynicism? The public hopes that a more representative government under a multi-party democracy will ultimately deliver a better standard of life. Representative government must tackle the so-called development issues of a deteriorating resource base, population pressure, increasing poverty, and an economy that refuses to get up and trot.
But there are days of uncertainty ahead before the country will set course on a new developmental strategy. The present interim government does not have the mandate nor the de jure power to carry out earth-shaking reforms. As for the work of the constitutional “recommendation” commission, a series of constitutional crises loom ahead, including the mechanism to transfer sovereignty from the king to the people, and what procedure to follow in ratifying the new document. Party leaders and cadres are pussy-footing around issues of ethnicity and religion with an eye on the upcoming elections. The Army, the police and even the civil service do not know clearly which are the masters that they serve.
The long-suffering people of Nepal, cheated of development by their own past, now hope for a better deal from the future. The king and the national political parties are the trustees to whom this hope has been entrusted. The burden on the king is to try to be less divine and to restore trust in the monarchy as an institution capable of self-sacrifice for the larger good of the nation. The parties, for their part, need to rise above petty factional interests to a level of statesmanship that ecumenically embraces all Nepalis. Then only will the country’s future and its development beckon with hope rather than frighten with uncertainty.
Dipak Gyawali is a resource economist who works in Kathmandu.