The end of ideology in Nepal

On 7 October, Upendra Yadav’s Janta Samajwadi Party (JSP) a member of Nepal’s five-party governing coalition, switched sides and defected to an opposition alliance led by K P Oli of the UML to contest the 20 November federal elections. The two leaders are understood to have agreed to continue the partnership beyond the election.

JSP chair Yadav had been a staunch critic of erstwhile Oli when he became prime minister after 2017 and dissolved Parliament in December 2020. Yadav then joined the Nepali Congress-led five-party coalition to successfully oust Oli.

Meanwhile, Mahanta Thakur’s Loktantrik Samajwadi Party (LSP) itself split from the JSP and was in talks to form an alliance with the UML. But when the JSP teamed up with the UML, Thakur took the LSP into the governing coalition.

Former parliamentarian Pari Thapa says that personal interests have taken precedence over ideology: “Party principles, policies, and programs have absolutely no bearing on political alliances anymore, all that matters is rank and power, it doesn’t matter whom parties ally with to achieve it.”

Nepal’s recent history of break-up, make-up politics is a proof that for parties and their handful of ageing, career politicians self-interest and a quest for power is much more important than any ideology or credo, bringing together the likes of Nepali Congress and the Maoist Centre to form a government and an electoral alliance.

Nepal’s governing coalition parties range from the supposedly Communist Maoist Centre, CPN (Unified Socialists), and Rastriya Janamorcha Party; and the quasi-socialist Nepali Congress.

While Marxism, Leninism, socialism with Communism as an end goal are core philosophies of the UML, identity-based federalism and social inclusion are guiding principles of the JSP. The could not be more different. The UML, which takes the 'People's Multiparty Democracy' as its ideological line, and the Maoist Centre, whose goal is ‘21st Century Democracy' had formed the powerful Nepal Communist Party in 2018 only to split two years later  due to political infighting between Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal.

Although ostensibly Marxist-Leninist, these two parties were ideologically distinct. If they could form an alliance, it is not surprise that even more diametrically opposed ideologies have joined hands again for the election. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

Even within Nepal's Communist parties, there are widely differing ideologies. While Madhav Kumar Nepal’s CPN-US, which split from the UML in 2021 subscribe to ‘scientific socialism’, Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led Maoist Centre’s goal is to achieve Communism through something called 'scientific socialism'. Functionally, the CPN-US identifies as being policy-oriented and a party that puts ideas above individuals, while the Maoists adhere to 'democratic centralism', which means that the party follows instructions of the elected leader.

Meanwhile, the smaller Rastriya Janamorcha, which has been critical of the coalition despite being a part of it, opposes federalism, calling for the abolition of provinces in its local election 2022 manifesto, adding that federalism poses a threat to Nepali nationalism. The Party does not support the Parliament-endorsed amendment to the Citizenship Act 2063 (2006) and had protested the ratification of the Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC) as well-- all while being a part of government.

Political science professor Krishna Khanal agrees that leaders are willing to make temporary ideological associations to gain power: “Politics has become entirely transactional. Ironically, there are no communists in Nepal even with an abundance of Communist parties.”

But while parties in the coalition are philosophically opposed, socialism seems to be the common thread running through the ideologies of Nepal’s political collectives. Lokendra Bista Magar, a former standing committee member of the Maoist Centre who left politics to take up agriculture, says that there is a difference between the socialism of the NC and that of the Communists. “The socialism of the Nepali Congress pertains to the economy and not to politics,” he explains.

Ideas, organisation and leadership are essential to any political party. The Nepal Praja Parishad, Congress and Communist parties that were established before the end of the Rana regime were built because of the need for newideas. They were born out of struggle and revolution were guided by ideas that sought to free Nepalis.

But for Nepal’s political parties, ideology and values have been reduced to party documents and declarations, having faded somewhere between the multiple struggles for democracy decades ago and Nepal becoming a federal republic.

“We are experiencing an ideological collapse in Nepal’s political parties,” notes Krishna Khanal. “I prefer to see it as an abandonment of principles rather than a lack of it. Ideologies are low on the food chain of the party structure, while those at the top do not care for principles.”

Ideological politics played an important role in underground Nepali politics during the Panchayat era, but its decline began following the end of the 1990 People's Movement.

“The idea of a party itself has been rendered null and void because Nepal’s political leadership is only concerned with protecting its own power,” adds political analyst Hari Sharma. “Nepal’s politics has become a rudderless ship, and the state has lost all accountability.

Lokendra Bahadur Chand in January 1997 and Surya Bahadur Thapa in October 1997 were elected Prime Minister by the UML and the Nepali Congress respectively after the parties failed to obtain a majority in the 1994 elections. Both the leaders belonged to the Rastriya Prajatantra Party and had been part of the Panchayat system, yet were elected by parties who had fought long and hard against it to restore for multiparty democracy.

The Maoists, who fought a ten-year armed conflict that killed at least 17,000 Nepalis, promptly gave parliamentary positions to Nepal Army personnel like Surya Bahadur Sen Oli and Kumar Fudong, who retired from the military as a Major General, once they joined mainstream politics. Now, their closest confidant in government is the former arch-enemy the Nepali Congress.

Maoist leader Ram Karki says that political parties lost their direction following the struggle to abolish the monarchy: “Nepal became a republic with the political leadership having paid no heed to our past and having no idea where we are headed in the future. Nepal’s current political mechanism is a football game without goalposts.”

Some leaders have taken this blurring of lines between right-wing, centrist, and leftist politics as an opportunity to call for the restoration of the monarchy.

The UML has joined hands with the far-right RPP to contest the November election, with RPP-Nepal chair Kamal Thapa running for parliament under the UML’s election banner, while the UML’s own high-profile leaders have been left without election tickets. In 2017, Thapa and other RPP leaders ran for the election with support from the NC.

Says Prakash Chandra Pariyar of the Bibeksheel Sajha Party: “Looking at the last decade of Nepali politics it is difficult to reconcile Nepal’s current mainstream political parties with the one that had the likes of revolutionary leaders including the UML’s Manmohan Adhikari and NC’s Bhim Bahadur Tamang.”

Political scientist Chandra Dev Bhatta warns that leaders without ideology are a threat to democracy, noting that it is ironic that it is leaders who are permanent in Nepal when it should be a political system. “The absence of political principle has meant that any political change only serves to benefit a certain faction of Nepali society,” says Bhatta.

When the state’s political parties and leaders do not function as they are supposed to, one cannot expect political institutions to function as they should. As such, our public institutions and our branches of government have begun to collapse.

“The collapse and chaos of our public institutions are entirely due to the fact that our politics is thoughtless and without integrity,” says Professor Lokraj Baral.

All this political horse-trading has also come at the expense of Nepal’s minority communities, who have been sidelined from contesting the elections. Women make up less than 10% of election nominees. The Nepali Congress, for example, has not nominated a single person from the Dalit community to contest the direct election. Madhesh-based parties have given up on the agenda to join hands with large political parties.

During local elections in May, public frustration and disenfranchisement manifested itself as independent candidates who swept the polls in major cities like Kathmandu and Dharan. This enthusiasm to run elections independently and to support such candidates has carried over to this provincial and parliamentary elections as influential Nepalis from across professional backgrounds form independent collectives to fight in the polls.

But even independent candidates lack ideological clarity, say experts. Politics is a public service that must serve the people's interests and the protection of democracy. Not only established parties but independent candidates must also have a clear socio-economic stance, on inclusivity, foreign policy, climate change, as well as on issues of secularism and republicanism.

Says Analyst Hari Sharma: “Nepalis have lost trust in politics and politicians due to a lack of ideological clarity. So it is even more imperative that alternative parties and independent candidates make their principles and agenda clear to voters.”

Adapted by Shristi Karki from the Nepali original published in Himal monthly magazine. 

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