Road to Fair Representation: A Look at the Politics of Transition in Nepal, 21 April 2008
On April 10, 2008, the people of Nepal surprised the world in a number of ways.
First, a much awaited, but often postponed, election for the Constituent Assembly actually happened. Second, it happened with a level of violence and disturbances so far below the expected international norm for countries like Nepal that the whole world came to extol Nepal. Big political parties patted themselves on the back for how freely and fairly they had conducted the election, and praised the people for voting peacefully and in large numbers. Third, the people elected the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) with a substantial and conclusive margin even though the high flying media houses, international political pundits, and superpower interests had predicted a humiliating defeat of the Maoists as late as late April 11, 2008 when early results had started to trickle out. Today Nepal has become the subject of talk in the world media and there is a mass euphoria at the time being. However, this is not out of character.
The people of Nepal never stop surprising the world time and again. They reared, and then followed, Gautam Buddha whose teachings swept entire Indian subcontinent, China, and Japan a long time ago. Their invention of the pagoda style art and architecture swept China and Japan millennia ago and everyone seems to have forgotten about it today. They resisted first an all powerful Mughal empire and then an ever expanding British Empire that was swallowing up the entire Indian subcontinent. They survived through the complete collapse of India-China trade and the devastation of their thriving economy in the subsequent isolation of the country.
They wooed the world as the most peaceful people in the world when their country was opened to the world in the 1950s. They overthrew three autocratic regimes in last 60 years through popular uprisings - the last uprising being one of the largest in any recorded history of humankind. They witnessed the most gruesome massacres in the royal courts thrice in modern history including the killing of the king, queen, and almost all members of the royal household in 2001. Under the banner of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists), they started an armed uprising in the mid 1990s when socialist empires, including the once mighty Soviet Union, had crumbled rendering words like “progressive” to be looked down upon, forget about “socialism” and “communism”. Nepalese rebels were challenging a state that was politically aligned to the mighty USA – a country basking on a dizzying high-tech boom and portrayed as the flag bearer of the only surviving ism in the world.
In the ten years since the beginning of the armed conflict from a remote and impoverished district of Rolpa, the strength of the rebellion grew exponentially and spread to every district of Nepal. It took military interventions from the USA, India, and the UK to prop up and keep alive the Nepalese state, which was unpopular and widely discredited as corrupt. In the centre of this armed conflict was an institution, which the Maoists wanted to overthrow and other major ruling political parties wanted to keep. Today, Nepal is on the verge of becoming the first country in the 21st century to overthrow a reigning monarch to give birth to a new republic.
As much as the Maoists are responsible for bringing down Nepal’s monarchy, the current king is equally responsible for its fall. Having being propped up by superpowers bent on eliminating the leftist ideology from the planet, mindful of the unpopularity of the ruling parties, and being inspired by the American support of dictator Pervez Musharraf in neighboring Pakistan, King Gyanendra chose to dismiss the political parties (even the royalist parties) from power and assumed complete control of the state in February 2005. Already despised, rightly or wrongly, by many Nepalese as a prime hand behind the massacre of King Birendra and his entire family, Gyanendra became a political liability to India, USA and Britain if they were to continue military support to him. However, the regime could not hang on to power without their military support.
In light of the fact that the rebels controlled most of Nepal’s territory and were on the verge of taking over Nepal, the newly elected government of India chose to see a pact between the parliamentary parties and the Maoists as the best possible scenario to avoid a bloody confrontation that was appearing more certain every passing day. Having been cornered by the king and the military on one side and the Maoists on the other, the political parties were on the verge of being obliterated. At the same time, having controlled rural Nepal already, but unable to capture the major cities and the capital, the Maoists were in stalemate and in need of the support of the mainstream parties to takeover the cities. While parliamentary parties and the Maoists found advantage in cooperating, Gyanendra emerged as the lone enemy for every major political force. This led to signing of the Twelve-point Memorandum of Understanding in November 2005 by the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists to foment a united “movement to end the autocratic monarchy”. This united front received unprecedented support from the populace. This swept away Gyanendra’s free reign in April 2006 and gave rise to the current situation.
The strongest party in the last parliament was the Nepali Congress (NC), a royalist party which had obtained its electoral success in Tarai plains and remote mountains where illiteracy, poverty, and superstition ruled and where marginalized people dwelled. Using the deeply rooted religious belief among the illiterate that the king is an incarnation of God, and boasting of having the right economic policies on the grounds of being opposed to public enterprises, the party received sufficient votes from the far-right as well as from the illiterate voters. The more educated and urban areas were generally the strongholds of the Communist Party of Nepal – United Marxist Leninist (UML) on the basis that they stood for human equality.
However, when it came to ruling, the NC and UML had disappointed the people terribly and they were discredited as being corrupt. They worshipped the symbol of unity – King – but engaged in partition politics and disrespected each other’s views. They revered the symbol of wealth – Capitalism – but delivered a poverty ridden and remittance sustained economy. They admired the symbol of people’s power – Democracy – but chose to militarily crush political opponents who demanded a fair constitution and a republic. They sloganeered for the symbol of equity – Socialism – but segregated little children as English boarding schools goers, public school sluggers, and child-servants; blatantly neglected the poor; and corrupted the public institutions. Thus these political parties had lost the core support of the ordinary people, creating a fertile ground for the growth of a new force that stood for the people.
What seemed to be ironic in Nepal was that the party to rule the most number of years, NC, calls itself a democratic socialist party. It also seems to have successfully hijacked the “liberal democracy” brand from the political vocabularies. Although NC was successful to cozy up with USA using this brand, there was no electoral advantage in the “brand USA” that invaded Iraq on false grounds and propped up King Gyanendra against the aspirations of the Nepalese people. Further, USA builds no credibility with the people of Nepal by being the lone country on the planet to put Maoists on their terrorist list. The UML also attempted to unsuccessfully take the space of the NC as a “democratic socialist” and “liberal democratic” party but this brand was already tarnished by NC-UML deeds of the past.
Although the actual policies of the Maoists seem to be not far from democratic socialism, they were able to create a distinct brand and vocabularies for presenting their political package to the people. For example, they refer to democracy with the term Ganatantra and not the NC branded term Prajatantra, which literally means monarchical-democracy. The term Ganatantra, however, indicates a republican democracy and clearly disassociates itself from the monarchy. Maoists championed the cause of a constituent assembly and a republic and in turn were able to take the principal credit for it. Other parties only unsuccessfully attempted to portray as the leaders for the cause of the constituent assembly and the republic but the people had not forgotten the fact that the same parties chased Maoists to the jungle for bringing up those very demands. Similarly, Maoists do not use terms like “Marxist Leninist” as used by UML but call themselves Maoists giving a sense of new brand in the eyes of the politically literate and the not-so-literate. Although this fierce sounding Maoists brand did not win the heart of President Bush for them, it did win the hearts and minds of the marginalized people of Nepal and emerged as a household name. This unique branding helped them to appear different than the parties that were perceived by the people as corrupt or inept, and translated into votes for them.
Beginning from the 1950s, the Madhesi, Janajati, and Dalit had lost the most number of lives to bring NC to power but the NC delivered nothing to them except for further marginalization. Whereas only two Koiralas had managed to win actual election during their landslide electoral victory in the 1959 parliamentary election, the Central Committee of the NC formed soon after the election had four Koiralas, all from the same family. Therefore, intra-party monarchy was already in the making within the NC by the 1960s. Whereas the names of martyrs of the 1990 political uprising shows 45% hill Janajati and Dalit, 22% Madheshi, and 33% hill Brahmin Chhetri, subsequent parliaments, governments and the bureaucracy were overwhelmingly dominated by hill Brahmins and Chhetris.
The most distinguishable aspect of the Maoists is that so far they have lived up to their slogans and have shown by example what they mean by inclusion and people empowerment. For the first time in the history of Nepal, the last names of the members of parliament look like a reflection of Nepal as a whole. Today, partial result shows that 20% of popularly elected candidates of the Maoists are women whereas NC has one woman and UML has none – an example of feudal dominance in those parties. Surprisingly, Maoist women have 5% higher wining rate than their male counterparts whereas NC and UML women have almost invariably lost. The Madheshi groups that emerged as the fourth largest group in the parliament also carry similar political views as the Maoists. Never in the history of Nepal had so many Dalit, Janajati, Madheshi, Muslim, and women gained electoral success. These people have given the first test of electoral defeat to big party leaders, ministers, and even a former prime-minister. This shows that the awareness of rights of the marginalized groups brought by the Maoists in the last decade is not mere propaganda but one of a kind to be written in the history of people empowerment and inclusion.
Now that the Maoists have won the mandate of the people, they have this enormous challenge to continue building on the foundations of inclusion and people empowerment. Now that they have taught the population not to be fooled by slogans alone, they need to deliver on what they promised. They must deliver the republic, an inclusive and democratic constitution, inclusive education, drastic reduction in corruption, law and order, peace, and stability so that a foundation for prosperity could be built. As the decade long conflict is coming to a conclusion, they should not invest the time and energy of their cadres in fighting with the opposition that was seeking a “humiliating defeat for the Maoists”. Instead, they should pour all energy into delivering intra-party democracy, popular democracy, and relief to people. When it comes to development, mobilize the people and let them take charge of their own future in a fair and equitable environment. They themselves will do a better job than what one spin-doctor can do from Singha Durbar. Because a knowledge economy is going to be the largest economy of the future, the economic wellbeing of the society will hinge on its capacity to produce and distribute knowledge. Nepal must, therefore, expend more energy on education and information highways than asphalt roads as envisaged by the policy makers of the parties including the Maoists.
That those who resisted change have been sidelined by the people, let there be positive changes and let there be peace, prosperity, and a true democracy in Nepal!
(Dr Pramod Dhakal is a former faculty member of Tribhuvan University and holds a Ph D in electrical engineering. He is Executive Director of Canada Forum for Nepal (www.cffn.ca) and lives in Canada. He can be reached at email@example.com)