The story so farWe have to understand the past to make sense of Nepali politics today
Excerpts from the last chapter of Sanjay Upadhya’s new book Democracy in Turns: A Political Account of Nepal which looks back at the country's struggle to construct a new democratic identity under 7 constitutions in 7 decades.
It is a rare republic where the deposed monarch enjoys state privileges under the successor regime, continues issuing messages on national observances, and whose activities and movements draw abiding political interest.
Former King Gyanendra Shah may have become a commoner in May 2008 through a constituent assembly vote, but he has not been out of the public’s imagination. Supporters blame the abolition of the monarchy for the country’s sordid state today. Critics accuse him of continuing to play spoiler from behind the scenes.
Both groups wonder what the ex-monarch might plan next. If King Gyanendra’s coup on 1 February 2005 removed the vital cushion the political parties had provided between the people and the constitutional monarchy, today’s political class has lost a referee in the turbulent power play, even though they are reluctant to admit it openly.
The prime beneficiary of the repeated breakdown of democracy in Nepal was, without doubt, the monarchy. Yet it would be wrong to blame the palace, which always retained significant influence through its hold on the military and the loyalty of the traditional elite, for engineering the collapses. If the last 15 years of Nepal’s political development have provided a lesson, it is that the monarchy was not the country’s problem, at least not the preponderant one.
The institution has always been controversial, beginning with whether Prithvi Narayan Shah was a unifier or a conqueror. Mahendra, who is remembered mostly as an autocrat, has undergone some rehabilitation lately as a nationalist who raised Nepal’s international profile and built its early infrastructure. The tragic nature of Birendra’s death has etched him in public memory as a modernizing monarch attuned to the popular sentiment.
But the collective consciousness easily forgets that most of his benevolent achievements were under the still reviled partyless Panchayat system. Dipendra’s three-day reign was a technicality.
The circumstances of King Gyanendra’s enthronement, his reputation as a palace hardliner and shrewd businessman, his son’s poor public image, and especially the debacle of his second takeover, reinforced a negative image. His actions and activities as ex-king have helped to rehabilitate that persona somewhat, assisted in no small measure by the conduct of the politicians succeeding him.
Beyond the demonisation of the monarchy, the blame game has been insidious enough. Many point to the internecine bickering in the NC. Others single out the CPN-UML for spending most of the period as a disruptive opposition or a would-be NC in power. The Maoists have been castigated for wrecking a system that stood every chance of working in their quest to build a nebulous new Nepal.
External powers have been accused of fostering instability to further geostrategic ends. Others have targeted the feudal culture the major political parties had fought against for decades but ultimately succumbed to. Then came the stark question: Had real democracy ever been achieved?
Nepal’s failure to consolidate broader reforms and sounder institutional arrangements became clearer as the euphoria of the 1951 revolution and the two People’s Movements wore off. The fact that the Maoist insurgency was driven more by a combination of historical, economic, social and gender grievances than ideological fealty to the Great Helmsman told its own story.
Monarchists continued to stress the reality that the democracy movements had taken place while Nepal was caught in India’s geostrategic adjustments. The implication that the three democracy movements were a foreign-inspired ploy is an insult to Nepalis' underlying aspiration for freedom. However, the dismal performance of the political parties made it harder for them to fight off such explanations.
In the aftermath of all democracy movements, the political leadership moved ahead with a progressive discourse amid heightened public expectations but was hardly prepared for the challenges of governance. Having won the right to choose their leaders, the people now had to ensure they did not go astray.
In theory, checks and balances among the executive, legislature and judiciary were carefully written into the constitutions. However, those entrusted with operating them brought their personal perspectives and prejudices. Great emphasis was placed on the supremacy of law and order in the emerging open and transparent order.
The commitment was undermined by such things as the haste with which the new leaders withdrew criminal cases against some of the high-profile offenders. Yet the same personalities and proclivities kept getting re-elected, further sullying the national conversation.
Distrust ran deep among the protagonists. NC leaders could not forget how the palace allowed communists greater freedom to operate during the partyless decades. The communists, worried by the global tidal wave against their ideology, were anxious to prevent the NC from striking a broad coalition with the palace.
Ideology - Personality
With the two main political forces having emerged from the anti-Rana movement and matured in their own fights against three decades of palace-led partyless rule, Nepali politics perhaps had a greater propensity for confrontation. In that context, the emergence of the Maoists to provide a more radical hue to the political ambience could only have had disruptive effects.
By the end of the 1990s, the ideological content of the NC and the CPN-UML was not very different. It nevertheless provided a framework for two sturdy players to build on the newly acquired democratic gains. The key imponderable was whether the two major parties would revert to their personalized leadership. They soon did. Personality conflicts were enough to attract a host of other factors to justify splits.
The NC has an obvious advantage. Having driven three successful movements for democracy, its credentials are impressive. Moreover, there is no alternative liberal democratic party in the field. In the absence of formidable external competitors, the tendency towards factionalism has grown. Not every dispute has been about power and patronage.
Those in the NC advocating some form of continued cooperation with the communists, like Ganesh Man Singh and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, were guided by the practical politics of People’s Movement I. The anti-communist flank, represented by Girija Prasad Koirala, was too wedded to ideological considerations. That rigidity was used to mask factionalism. But royal assertiveness would lead Koirala to join hands with both the CPN-UML and, later, the Maoists.
The CPN-UML’s strong organizational footing was weakened from the start by its ambivalence on major national issues during the 1990s and after. As the main opposition party, the CPN-UML attacked the Koirala government for what it called a ‘sell-out’ of national sovereignty. Once in power, the CPN-UML was entangled in the ‘Mahakali Package’ that provoked similar attacks. Moreover, the CPN-UML’s position on Mahakali reflected serious infighting in the leadership and philosophical perplexity on the party’s status in a democratic system. The party’s anti-corruption campaign fizzled amid similar self-interest.
Such behaviour bolstered criticism that the CPN-UML excelled in turning every vital national issue – corruption, economic development, good governance, women, ethnicity – into a political weapon to serve narrow partisan purposes. That criticism would dog the party well into 2021 during the parliamentary ratification of the $500 million MCC grant.
The smaller communist parties had a minuscule electoral representation. Despite this, they were accepted as active members of the combined opposition. For the main opposition party of the day, such broad basing proved politically expedient. The corrosive effects were two-fold: As ideology gave way to narrow politics depending on the winds of the day, the smaller parties were tempted to exercise power disproportionate to their influence. Similar was the case of the royalist right.
Divide and (Mis)Rule
As the Maoists became deadlier in their attacks on the symbols of state as part of their ‘people’s war’, they became shrewder in political pursuits. Behind their arcane prose lay a clever campaign to play off power centres in Kathmandu. They succeeded in pitting the palace and political parties against each other.
Blaming the parties for corruption, mismanagement and cold indifference to the people’s concerns, the rebels were subdued in their comments against the palace. When Maoist leaders sometimes hailed the palace’s nationalistic credentials, it easily raised suspicions of collusion. Reported contacts between palace confidants and the rebel leadership went on to deepen such suspicions.
By holding consultations with the CPN-UML and other communist parties, however, the Maoists could sow suspicions in the royalist and NC camps. Most parties, for their part, appeared to acknowledge the political, social and economic grievances behind the movement while in the opposition. Once in power, they relied on the reinforcement of police units.
The rebels also gained from pitting one faction within a party against the other. In July 2001, Prachanda virtually ensured Deuba’s ascension to the premiership by insisting that the rebels would not negotiate with “Girija or Girija-like” leader. After the first peace talks’ failure, the rebels lost little time in reaching out to Koirala. This tactical gambit helped their immediate political objective but raised questions about their motives.
The prime reason for the constitutional deadlock, in the end, was the Maoists’ threat to disrupt the elections, which led to the two royal takeovers. Those tactics continued long after the Maoists joined competitive politics. Their role in creating and destroying a unified communist party between 2018 and 2021, doublespeak on the MCC compact and craftiness in striking power-sharing deals could only erode the polity.
With political forces locked in intra- and inter-institutional skirmishes and leaders struggling to halt the depletion of credibility, key non-political actors emerged to exercise significant influence over the national discourse. The creation of a strong judiciary independent of executive and palace interference was a major achievement of the People’s Movements. As the top judicial authority of the country, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of a law or legal principle, orders and decisions were binding on all.
As the guarantor of fundamental rights and personal liberties laid down by the constitution, the Supreme Court had the authority to declare a law as void ab initio if the bench found that it contravened the constitution’s provisions. The Supreme Court also had the power to issue appropriate orders and writs, including habeas corpus, mandamus, certiorari, prohibition and quo warranto.
In exercising those powers, the judiciary became an early participant in the political arena. Of the four prime ministerial orders on the dissolution of the House of Representatives in the 1990-2002 period, three ended up at the Supreme Court. Both dissolution orders under the republic were tossed out by the apex court. From the Tanakpur Accord to the Citizenship Bill, judicial interpretation became a predominant feature of the political discourse. The Supreme Court ruling that the Tanakpur Accord was an agreement, not a mere understanding as Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala had been insisting, weakened Koirala’s political standing and emboldened the opposition CPN-UML.
The Supreme Court infuriated the political class in other ways. By striking down the provision of pensions for former MPs, the judiciary was accused of needless political activism.
After 2006, packing the judiciary with political loyalists in the name of consensual governance made impeachment an easy and tempting resort once the political opportunity arose. Meanwhile, justice for common people was getting out of reach both in terms of cost and time.
Hailing them as members of the ‘permanent government’, the political leadership moved swiftly to assure top bureaucrats of job security if they worked honestly within the new policies and directions. Initially, the middle and lower-level officials appeared to be more loyal to their political mentors than the civil service.
As for the military, the royal takeover of 1 February 2005 was the most explicit role the institution had played in politics. The generals were subsequently credited with help in ensuring the end of royal rule as well as the smooth advent of the republic. (A less charitable view holds that the generals simply scrambled to preserve their institutional and individual interests in the emerging order.) Another positive instance was the initiative the chief of the Nepal Army undertook with his Indian counterpart to ending the Indian embargo in 2015-16 following the promulgation of the Nepali constitution.
In the post-2006 years, the military has remained behind the scenes and eschewed a political role. The question is whether this is out of lack of opportunity or interest. Having successfully blocked the aspects of the peace accords relating to its downsizing and ‘democratization’, the over 90,000-strong force has been participating in development and humanitarian activities. Its growing interest in commercial ventures has raised unsavoury questions about professionalism as well as the implications for the polity. The police forces lack the training and equipment to ensure public security and to safeguard basic human rights, a condition exacerbated by constant political interference and corruption within.
Even before the people could properly appraise how different the new leaders were from the discredited ones they replaced, new allegations of corruption began circulating. It was politically inexpedient for the new leaders to try to explain to the people that the scourge of corruption would be magnified in a multiparty system because of the expenses organized politics entailed and the liberties it presupposed.
However, the people could not contemplate the prospect of political instability creating more frequent election cycles and the need for additional reliable (and renewable) sources of cash flows. The power games that came to characterize the NC’s majority governments over the course of the late 1990s, in particular, raised the threshold of political budgeting by several notches.
In the absence of credible monitoring from the state, electoral politics became an exercise in fund-raising. In an economy still struggling to raise money for regular state expenditures, political fund-raising could hardly have avoided stepping into the realm of the shadows. As a result, politicians found themselves having to work on a personality that hardly conveyed their ideological orientation or policy position.
Amid public perceptions that corruption had increased rather than lessened in the post-Panchayat years, the CIAA found itself at the centre of political deliberations. Proof was hard to come by in specific cases, but there were constant allegations of ministers taking commissions from contractors or improperly steering business to their own family or friends. The NC and CPN-UML appointed party activists and loyalists to senior positions in the bureaucracy and state corporations with the dual objective of ensuring prompt implementation of policies and political mobilization. The Maoists were quick to emulate the other parties. Those not part of the patron-client relationship were going to shock the polity.
The constitutional guarantees of freedom, equality, democracy, human rights and sovereignty encouraged women, trade unions, human rights activists and ethnic groups to voice their grievances. The perception that the system was unable or unwilling to address such concerns soon set in. During the 1990 constitution drafting process, suggestions on ending the excessive domination of a few caste groups in all important spheres of national life were cast aside as a distraction to the larger imperative of consolidating democracy. Disaffection with the 1990 democratic reforms grew as the representation of historically marginalised ethnic, caste and religious groups in politics, elections and other state structures declined compared to their representation during the Panchayat period.
Although the CPA did not make any reference to federalism, Madhesi and indigenous activists pressured the government into enshrining it in the interim constitution. However, during the protracted 2008-2015 exercise, the inclusion imperative was advanced to the point where it precipitated a backlash from dominant social groups and closer scrutiny of inequities within disadvantaged groups, stalling the representational justice agenda.
Federalism was a demand driven by the desire for local self-governance, improved service delivery and true political and economic empowerment of people through grassroots democracy. With its implementation, public sentiments began souring amid budgetary and agenda issues, recurring political turmoil, the ineffective performance of provincial government.
Moreover, the quest for inclusion conflicted with other realities of state-building. How many provinces, ethnicity- or identity-based, could a resource-strapped country afford, especially when offices were seen more as a source of patronage than empowerment?
The ethnic- vs. identity-based inclusion and representation debate gradually morphed into the general alienation of the Nepali voter from the political process. Although constitutionally sovereign, many Nepalis feel they are unable to choose their own representatives. Since the parties lacked internal democracy, the selection of candidates became a compromise among the powerful competing factions.
Each party put up just enough ‘right’ candidates to meet the constitutional requirement. The people discovered that the sanctity of the ballot box was further undermined by the politico-bureaucratic nexus that registered voters, oversaw voting, supervised security and influenced the media.
The restoration of democracy in 1990 sparked a proliferation of professional organizations, trade, consumer and student unions, human rights organizations, environment protection groups and women advocacy agencies. This outpouring of public activism was in conformity with the broad-based, participatory and transparent milieu Nepal’s emerging democratic structures pre-supposed. Decision-makers in power confronted in the vibrancy of civil society a catalyst for empowering initiatives.
But the political and bureaucratic conformity that thrived under the partyless decades often stood in the way of cooperation. Undeterred, the non-government sector influenced the democratic process through such platforms as public hearings and the emerging vibrant media. The quest to limit the state’s ability to impose arbitrary rule resonated in the deliberations.
The strains between the state and the NGOs took little time in surfacing and grew exponentially after 2006. The government, which traditionally funnelled development assistance, saw NGOs as competitors for donor money. The NGOs, for their part, remained critical of the waste and inefficiency of the state. A civil society that benefited from foreign funding found it hard to foster candid discussions on matters of importance to the broadest audiences. The perception that civil society organizations had become part of the political system and had little incentive to challenge the status quo gained ground. The depth of the mutual animosity shrouded the space where their missions converged.
The best gauge of the influence of the ‘foreign hand’ in Nepali politics is perhaps the regularity with which the term appears in the political conversation. Perceived or otherwise, the notion that Nepalis are not the ultimate arbiters of their fate has struck deep roots. Admittedly, foreign powers bring their own interests and expectations into their engagements with Nepal.
For a country with Nepal’s dependence level, managing these pressures was always going to be difficult. The task was made even more challenging by the sharp shifts in the individual interests of foreign players such as India, China, United States, United Kingdom, European Union.
The pervasive effect of the ‘foreign hand’ in the economic sphere carried pronounced political implications. The state’s neo-liberal economic policies, which began during the waning years of the Panchayat system, limited growth to a few urban areas. At other levels, gender, regional, caste, class and sectoral levels disparities widened. The structural adjustment and macro-economic stabilization programmes prescribed by the IMF and the World Bank brought distant promises to the people.
Cuts in agricultural and industrial subsidies led to production crises, job layoffs, migration of youth to urban areas and abroad. Privatization, touted to boost efficiency, resulted in asset stripping by the powerful and influential. As donors’ pleas for public patience failed amid the pains of the people, the political system came under severe strain.
Opposition parties led heckling, sit-ins and walk-outs, which often became the language of policy deliberations. General strikes and transportation stoppages became the more menacing manifestation of freedom. The wider corrosion was visible in the weakening of the tourism industry. Discontinuity and interruptions delayed project implementation, resulting in cost overruns. Perceptions that contractors and middlemen illegally profited from all this only went on to add to the electorate’s anguish.
A mutation of group dynamics would go on to produce pejorative terms like ‘factions’, ‘lobby’ and ‘coterie’ within the parties, terms which indicated careerist pragmatism and the paucity of principles that would lead both the large mainstream parties from one quagmire to the next in the years to come. The corruption debate became part of the wider discussion on the criminalization of politics.
The people had the right to be angry with their leaders – and they had more channels of venting their fury. The freedoms unleashed by the People’s Movements, incomplete as they might have been, were unprecedented in scope. Without being fully aware of its significance, the notion of popular sovereignty retained a clear appeal among the masses.
Nowhere were they manifested more than in the sector that conveyed and channelled public grievances. A market fed for decades by state-own publications saw almost a dozen broad-sheets in Nepali and three in English. The FM spectrum became crowded with commercial and community broadcasters.
Private television joined hands with the state network to enlighten, entertain and often exasperate the people. Social media levelled the playing field, sometimes sensationalizing ideas and events to the point of shocking the system.
New and old media became a true mirror of grievances and resentments. In this sense, at least, democracy proved to be its own worst foe. Without an alternative, however, democracy itself – in its various manifestations – has taken turns in the Nepali public imagination as well as the public square.