Battle lines drawn for Nepal elections

Debate over secularism and monarchy now threatens the RPP’s own unity. Leaders Kamal Thapa (left) and Rajendra Lingden (right).

The inauguration of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) ‘Unity Convention’ on 1 December in Kathmandu provided a preview of the issues that will dominate Nepal’s elections a little more than a year away.

Invited were leaders of other main parties, and they went at each other with hammers and tongs about secularism and monarchy. It sounded like the hustings already, indicating the likely fault-lines in the 2023 polls.

From the RPP stage, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba mumbled platitudes about “the need for like-minded parties to work together for the betterment of the country”.  Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Unified Socialists who split from the UML, urged the RPP not to “slide backwards” – meaning don’t bat for monarchy.

But it was CP Mainali of the CPN (Marxist-Leninist) and Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the CPN (Maoist Centre) who showed that despite both being once diehard Communists, the comrades had widely divergent views on Nepal’s erstwhile monarchy.

Mainali extolled King Mahendra’s nationalist credentials, adding that every political change in Nepal in the past half-century was a result of foreign (read “Indian”) interference. Mainali, who suffered serious injuries in a highway crash last year, has of late been making pro-monarchy statements.

Dahal played to the gallery saying his Maoist party and the RPP may have divergent views but both were “patriots”. He then took a dig at Mainali, saying it was absurd for a republican who once decapitated class enemies to support a return to monarchy.

“Maybe he should be heading the RPP,’ Dahal said, a proposal enthusiastically endorsed by former prime minister and RPP leader Lokendra Bahadur Chand.

Ironically, the debate over secularism and monarchy now threatens the RPP’s own unity because of the defeat of incumbent party chair Kamal Thapa by newbie Rajendra Lingden.

The campaigning itself was fairly civil, with both candidates meeting ex-king Gyanendra separately to seek his blessings. (King G, it is said, nodded sagely and told both to “go ahead”.) Lingden beat Thapa 1,817 to 1,617 on Sunday.

Kamal Thapa served King Gyanendra loyally, and was home minister when security forces cracked down on pro-democracy supporters in April 2006. Obviously, he was not loyal enough to the royal.

After the results were out, Thapa lashed out at both Gyanendra and an unverified tweet from Himani Shah dripping with satire, lamenting being punished by ‘Nirmal Nibas’ for being loyal to the monarchy.

Indeed, throughout the RPP convention both Thapa and Lingden had been trying to outdo each other’s monarchist connections, the primary agenda of the party’s political document called for the restoration of monarchy and Hindu state.

Besides Lingden, his supporter and Nepalganj mayor Dhawal SJB Rana (a former Nepali Times columnist) won general-secretaryship. Supporters of Kamal Thapa did manage to keep significant senior party positions.

Lingden’s elevation to RPP chief will mean the party will be even more aggressive in promoting the royal-Hindu line throughout 2022. This will also have a ripple effect on other parties, especially the UML. After all, K P Oli who openly backed Lingden’s campaign in the 2017 elections against Krishna Sitaula of the NC, thus winning him the only RPP seat in Parliament.

There is even talk of a UML-RPP electoral alliance, and if that happens Oli’s not-so-subtle drift to the Hindu-right during his prime ministership will not look so surprising.

Dhawal SJB Rana

The NC is having its own convention next week in Kathmandu where it looks like Deuba will be re-elected party leader. But even in the NC, there is Shashank Koirala and others backing the Hindu state agenda.

The ‘alternative’ Bibeksheel Sajha Party and its leader Rabindra Mishra is also pushing the anti-secularism, anti-federalism and monarchist line. He made a scathing attack on “those who garland Mao, but disown Mahendra” at a party unity gathering in Patan last week.

When political parties cannot be distinguished by their socio-economic or political agenda, it is tempting for them to fall back on religion and the ‘order’ of the monarchy days. The parties have felt the public pulse, and detect disenchantment with the current federal polity, and especially against secularism which is seen to be foisted by outside forces.

India’s gravitational pull on Nepal also means that the election campaigning next year could end up being a proxy battle reflecting the secularism debate in India itself. We are already beginning to see political alignments between and within Nepal’s parties reflecting this, and it will be more apparent in the coming months.

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