Year of reckoning
Twenty-eight years after the Maoist party launched an armed struggle to overhaul Nepal’s centralised state, remove exploitation, exclusion and usher in an era of justice and equality, the former Maoist supremo is prime minister for the third time with a former arch enemy as his main coalition partner. It has been 18 years since the Comprehensive Peace Accord that promised a new political order and transitional justice.
Even former Maoist guerrillas now admit their sacrifice and pain were in vain. Most Nepalis agree. The main outcome of the war and death of 17,000 Nepalis and trauma of countless others was the federal, secular, republican Constitution of 2015.
Now, that very Constitution which came about after much bloodshed is being challenged by retrogressive forces that want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Using populism, whipped up pseudo-nationalism and a weaponised social web, they are bent on dismantling devolution and democracy even before it has been allowed to fully function. Instead of throwing out rotten leaders, they want to replace the barrel.
There have been similar hankerings for strongman rule in world history that have inevitably led to disaster. What feeds demagogic rhetoric is the chronic failure of representative democracy to produce accountable government to deliver development and betterment. The antidote to a malfunctioning democracy is to fix its shortcomings.
Young Nepalis are expressing their discontent with protest votes for populist parties. Monarchists sense the time is ripe to take advantage of popular frustration, and are starting the new year with nationwide rallies to call for the restoration of a Hindu kingdom and scrapping federalism.
India’s general election in 2024 and the ruling BJP’s Hindutva agenda is infecting Nepali politics. Besides everything else we import from India, we are also importing its communal intolerance.
Nepal’s political system need not be remodelled every time there is regime change in New Delhi.
After the defeat of the Indian Congress in state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, a third term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems a foregone conclusion. His cult of personality took 10 years to build, and despite policy blunders that cost people their savings (demonetisation) and lives (Covid closedowns) he is more popular than ever. The BJP with its allies now control 16 of India’s 29 states, reversing the grand Indian tradition of incumbents losing elections.
The BJP’s systemic targeting of minorities and almost complete control of media messaging galvanised support in the Cow Belt. But Modi is also reaping political dividend from an economy galloping at 7.6% a year. Impressive new infrastructure projects and moon landings gave Indians justifiable pride in 2023 in their country’s achievements.
Why then does the BJP have to still rely on toxic communalism, bigotry, and violence against India’s minority religions? This is especially inscrutable given that there are millions of Indians working in the Gulf.
Domestically, India is now sliced along a north-south ideological axis. Populist authoritarianism in India exploits opposition disarray, as elsewhere. One reason for its setbacks in state elections was that the Congress was over-confident, and rejected alliances with regional parties.
India is a Subcontinent, not just a country and is the most populous in the world. It is also the world’s biggest arms importer, and a weakened West thinks it needs India to confront China. An enemy of an enemy is a friend, so criticism of Modi is muted.
India’s strong gravitational tug impacts all neighbouring countries. A stronger Modi may not necessarily be bad for Nepal, since he may be less inclined to flex his muscles and play the Hindutva card. Or maybe he still will. We will see in 2024.
The world’s two most established democracies drifting towards authoritarianism does not bode well for the rest of the world. A second Trump term in 2024 will have consequences for the global order as well as the planet.
America’s support for human rights, democracy and press freedom around the world sound hollow given a domestic political mess of its own making. Even under Biden, America’s standing in 2023 was tarnished by his carte blanche support for Israel’s war machine in Gaza where nearly 21,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of them women and children.
With its military and economic might the US still has a global reach. It also has a crucial voice in reducing climate risk.
America’s obsession with a rising China and its Indo-Pacific strategy complicates Nepal’s precarious geopolitical balancing act between its two giant neighbours. The yam has a third boulder to contend with.
Israel’s atrocities in Gaza have overshadowed other world wars in Ukraine, Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria. Because Nepalis are now spread out across the world, they tend to get caught up in almost every conflict.
Ten Nepalis were killed by Hamas on 7 October, and one is still believed to be held hostage. At least 7 Nepali soldiers in the Russian Army have been killed in Ukraine. Four are prisoners of war in Ukraine, and there are some Nepalis also fighting for the Ukrainians.
Despite immigration restrictions, the Nepal government is not able to stop its nationals from going to work in dangerous places. The only medium-term solution to this is to launch a bold campaign to boost investment and provide meaningful employment in Nepal itself.
This is what Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s address to the nation this week on the first anniversary of assuming office should have announced. Instead, we got more platitude and excuses for another lost year.