Economist John Kenneth Galbraith has said that politics often resides in a choice between impalpable and disastrous. With a little tweak, his statement aptly applies to the politics of Nepal: Politics is a choice between unfathomable and disastrous. It is hard to visualize now how Nepal can avert the looming tryst with another disaster.
It is unfathomable for us why the Maoists triggered the bloodshed of 15,000 people to emasculate multiparty democracy, only to join it after a decade. It is equally difficult to fathom why they—rather than promoting international solidarity around ideology, as Marx has exhorted them to do—came down to ethnicity-based tribalism. Even more difficult to comprehend is why other political parties allowed and friendly countries supported that to happen. We can only guess.
Perhaps, the nature of politics in Nepal helps explain why the country has been traveling from disaster to disaster. Nepali politics has always been rowdy due to the greed of politicians, the blatant disregard for the rule of law, and the leaders and governments outliving their utility and mandate. Though morally repulsive, joining the crowd to share the filthy lucre that comes with power—not ideological tenets of Marxism—must have been tempting for the Maoists.
Due perhaps to this lust for lucre and power, Nepal has been moving from one political disaster to another. Let us start with 1951. With the toppling of Rana oligarchy and advent of multiparty democracy, people had hoped that they would have more freedom, human rights, and economic development. After a decade of hide and seek, King Mahendra opened a small window to democracy and closed it immediately to impose the authoritarian panchayat system. For next 30 years, he and his family stifled the people’s hopes and aspirations.
It took the People’s Movement I to restore multi-party democracy and political freedom in 1990. But no sooner had the democratic system begun to take baby steps than the Maoists made their 40-point demand and launched an armed insurgency, in 1996, which took innumerable lives and set back the clock of development by a decade. Amidst this, the royal massacre occurred in 2001 paving the way for Gyanendra to ascend to the throne. Gyanendra took back in 2002 the rights and freedoms given to people.
To reclaim their rights and freedoms, the Nepali people had to launch the People’s Movement II in 2006. The Madhesh Movement, which witnessed the killing of several dozen people and threats of secessionism, followed the same year. In 2008, the monarchy was abolished. Although the Constituent Assembly (CA) was elected to write a new constitution giving hope to people, the YCL and several other armed groups continued to extort money and terrorize the public.
Yet another political disaster has struck Nepal after May 27. The CA died without delivering the new constitution because of the sharp disagreements on the nature, number and names of federal states. The issue of federalism has become a tinderbox that could ignite communal violence in the country at a slightest provocation. PM Baburam Bhattarai, a UCPN (Maoist) leader, announced fresh elections to another CA without amending the Interim Constitution that has no provision for them. This has created a constitutional crisis.
The incumbent attorney-general once told his friends in one of the unguarded moments that the Maoists had announced the elections to benefit from the crisis. Indeed, to maximize benefits from the constitutional vacuum, Bhattarai has clung to power, tried to rule through ordinances and intimidated the president to approve them, breaching the rule of law and universally accepted democratic norms. Opposition parties have asked the president to take action against the government. The president has resisted both pressures so far. The opposition parties and the ruling coalition have threatened to mobilize the streets against each other.
In a more ominous development, the UCPN (Maoist) has split and a new party, CPN-Maoist, has been formed. Although ideological differences are cited for this breakup, the real reason is clearly the growing dissatisfaction of the Baidya faction over the share in government and in money and property collected by the party. The new party has presented 70 demands recently to Bhattarai and threatened with armed rebellion if they are not met.
Most of these demands are the mirror image of the 40-point demand Bhattarai had presented to then-Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in 1996 before the Maoists launched the insurgency. They consist of external relations and internal matters. Most external ties-related demands are related to India.
For instance, the CPN (Maoist) has called for scrapping the 1950 treaty, 1965 letter, Mahakali treaty, and Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (BIPPA) with India as well as banning Indian registered private vehicles in Nepal. It has demanded that the Nepal-India border be controlled, border encroachment by India and unauthorized entry of Indian security personnel into Nepal be ended; the contracts given to Indian companies for the Upper Karnali and Arun-III hydropower projects be terminated and India-financed small development projects be discontinued.
Besides, the party has also asked for banning Hindi movies, video and publications, closing down Gurkha recruitment centers and ending foreign investment in the media. Seeking close links with China, the party has demanded strict control of anti-Chinese activities. These demands have been made at a time when external interference in Nepal’s politics has reached unprecedented heights.
The main internal demands include ‘people’s democracy’ and government guarantees for people’s livelihood, institutionalization of people’s federal republic, federalism with national identity, drafting of new national security policy, and end to discrimination against Dalits. Compulsory education up to 12 grades, land reform, employment guarantee, and action against corruption are other internal demands.
Although some people suspect that it could be an election stratagem of UCPN (Maoist), the split looks real.
To prepare for an armed revolution, Netra Bikram Chand, a senior CPN-Maoist leader, has visited Beijing to forge closer links with the Chinese communist party. His party has already begun to collect money through intimidation and extortion. Though it might be difficult to arouse people for another bloody conflict just yet, reports say that some young leaders are already assembling former Maoist combatants and collecting arms and ammunition. If the CPN-Maoist repeats the act of its mother party, Nepal might be in for another bloody period.
In politics, your enemy’s enemy tends to be your friend. Nepali Congress has tried to reach out to CPN-Maoist in a tactical alliance to pull down Bhattarai and form a consensus government under its own leadership, something the UCPN (Maoist) chairman, Prachanda, has rejected. The CPN-Maoist has demanded the resignation of PM Bhattarai and called for an alliance of pro-republican, pro-federalist, leftist and national forces. Thus, the stubborn political conflict has become even more entrenched.
While the country is crying out for peace, political stability and economic progress, Nepali leaders have concentrated their time and energy on making and breaking governments. While the Nepali people are calling for democracy that upholds freedom and equality, Nepali leaders are insisting on the freedom to exploit the people and exchequer for their own benefit. While the country requires a federalism that reflects the multicultural society, one section of leaders is bent on having tribal federalism for their parochial gains.
Until some leaders begin to think more about the people and country than about money and power for themselves, Nepal’s destiny of walking from one disaster to another will not change. So far, only the “disastrous” part of John Galbraith’s statement appears to apply to Nepal.
The authors are former foreign secretaries