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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 10, March 1, 2014

Nepal: A Neighbourhood Story

Monday 3 March 2014, by Dipak Malik

The Himalayan cultural topography, which sparks out loudly its colours in the society, politics and day-to-day life in Kathmandu valley and around, has returned to the task of drafting a republican Constitution for the second time.

It was hardly a surprise when the term for the first Constituent Assembly ended in 2012 after four years of intermittent exercises, yet was not able to settle the ticklish issues and produce a Constitution. The first Constituent Assembly had a majority of Maoists; as a result apart from the Constitution-making exercise, the task of governance was also entrusted to the Maoists. The Nepali Maoists, after the 1949 Chinese Revolution, were perhaps the first to replicate a ‘free Red zone’ idea in the western hills of Nepal whose sheer backwardness, absence of communication line and extreme poverty led the Maoists to build a parallel zone. This experiment in all likelihood brokered no possibility of being replicated in the Kathmandu valley, Eastern Nepal and the Terai areas except in the Jhapa area adjoining Naxalbari.

To give sound governance for a population, who were struggling to install a non-feudal, democratic society and regime, there was little relief after waiting for two centuries by the newly arrived democracy. Yet the Maoist regime gave some initial relief by abolishing the monarchy, but soon the worn-out formula of forcefully creating hegemony started boomeran-ging on them. The idea of coalitional advance was lost in the endless confabulations for replicating the Chinese-style people’s democracy. After years of battering and fruitless romanticism and rhetoric the Maoists have finally reverted to the meaningful domain of parliamentary democracy.

The battle for a democratic set-up started early in the 1950s in Nepal. It was an almost impossible task in this recluse Himalayan kingdom to usher in a more open system. But it goes to the credit of a sensitive leader like B.P. Koirala who stuck to his guns. BP was enmeshed into the dominant political ideological strands like democratic socialism, which he had picked up from the Indian experience as he was part of the Indian freedom struggle, a Nehruvian touch and the impact of the Socialist Party as well as the close comradeship with Jayaprakash Narayan. BP was equally influenced by Gandhi; though Gandhian praxis had no possibility in Nepal, he was equally beholden of certain facets of the October Revolution and one of its iconic leaders, Leon Trotsky. Besides these, BP was equally a trend-setter in Nepalese literature with his deep psycho-analytical frames—one could easily keep him in company with the Frankfurt School who have produced a whole lot of literary criticism with insertion of Freudian/Jung analytics in hitherto prosaic straightfaced Marxism. It was largely the charisma of BP that transformed the Nepali Congress into a historic instrument to usher in a democratic society from a feudal order.

The Maoist influence in Nepal was strong from the very beginning; it was spread on both sides of the fence. King Mahendra courted the People’s Republic of China to ward off the influence of India, which had become the bastion for the democratic struggle of the exiled Nepalese democrats and Communists from Nepal as well as the late version of Maoists who were essentially struggling against the monarchy whereas some fellow-travellers of the Maoists in Kathmandu were coopted by the monarchy in the early period.

Yet, it has to be admitted that balancing India and China for the small Himalayan kingdom was more out of compulsion than of choice, though in the long run sans the monarchical autocracy it was a step towards a relatively potent sovereignty of Nepal as a nation. The Maoists, who were on the other side of the fence, of course, were experimenting with the given theories of the Chinese Revolution of the past in the troubled thirties mostly engineered under the domineering leadership of Mao-Zedong who was by then able to purge out all the serious Marxist ideologues and theoreticians from the party and form his own brand of peasant revolutionism. The Maoist thesis of semi-colonial, semi-feudal, comprador capitalist categories did not fit into the Nepalese situation. Nepal was never semi-colonial, albeit it was literally a protectorate of the British Indian Empire and later on turned into a ‘semi-dependency’ of India and distant USA as well as laced with the ‘cameo’ performance of the People’s Republic of China in its hostile design against India, particularly in King Mahendra’s time. It was a full-fledged feudal society instead of semi-feudal as observed in China. There was no question of comprador capitalism as Nepal had not entered into the capitalist development phase; it was largely a growing mercantile economy.

It was in fact a fully feudal state and society, which needed a broad spectrum of anti-feudal forces to come under one umbrella. Whenever Maoists as a praxis picked up this position, they clicked, but when they retreated to the groovy caves of the 1930 model of Maoist praxis, they floundered.

At the moment in front of the second Constituent Assembly is the task of carving out a federal structure with the mode of election of the President and Prime Minister becoming the bone of contention. The Nepali Congress has returned with a thumping majority in the second Constituent Assembly. The Nepali Congress and Prime Minister Sushil Koirala are trying to forge an alliance with a number of small and big parties but primarily the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), the second largest party, and Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which is substantially reduced to a rump. The CPN (M), however, has chosen to sit in the Opposition. The very idea of forming a National Front Government, taken by the Nepali Congress, shows a mature and realistic step. With the old world of Cold War gone, the differences between the democratic-socialist creed of the Nepali Congress and a more tempered and realistic Leftism have come down.

It is noteworthy that if India’s Constituent Assembly had three strong contenders with irreconcilable ideas, it would have been difficult to smoothly arrive at a republican Constitution in 1950. This makes Nepal’s transition to a full-fledged democracy more complicated compared to any other attempt in a new Republic-making exercise in the world. Yet, it goes to the genius of the Nepalese leadership at the moment to build a large consensus with differing ideological streams.

As the Nepalese call the coalitional exercise across-the-board ‘national reconciliation’, it has a long-term input in the new nation-building exercise. The post-Cold War scenario offers a fresh and healthy ground for modern democratic nation-building ventures, which was of no avail to B.P. Koirala, yet his grooming up in the Indian milieu of Socialists and Marxists as well Nehruvians kept him in good stead with Left forces outside the Nepali Congress too, whenever historically necessary. Then the shift-over to K.P. Bhattarai’s liberal profile brought back the idea of the National Front. Now it is the turn of Sushil Koirala, the current Prime Minister, with his open and flexible overtures, to turn the idea of the National Front and coalition politics into an immediate possibility. It seems that the long nurtured democratic moves from the 1950 revolution onward are now ready for harvesting.

The UPA-1 had the opportunity in India to build a sustainable coalition but due to Dr Manmohan Singh’s worldview of perpetuating a Cold-War psyche and mechanically following the privatisation and globalisation path the Gujral doctrine was deprived of offering a congenial framework for South Asian unity. Nepal has thus a bigger possibility to provide the new model of nation-building in the post-Cold War period.

The political forces in Nepal are very agile and pro-active, internal democracy in parties like the Nepali Congress and even in the CPN (UML) and CPN (Maoist) is very vibrant compared to India. The presence of internal party democracy is a pre-requisite for building a sustainable democracy in a new nation like Nepal. Sometimes one can also see brinkmanship in Nepal where parties come to split and rejoin later. This shows that democracy is ultimately getting rooted in Nepal.

Nepal has some other hopeful features which augur well for democracy. Its media is quite mature and keeps an eye on developments within China as well as Pakistan and Bangladesh with much more alracity than Indian papers, which is the vantage point of Nepal. It naturally becomes a soft reconciliation centre for building an objective South Asian perspective compared to New Delhi or Islamabad. The SAARC has its headquarters just in front of the old Rana palace but more than the building of the SAARC, the idea and spirit of the SAARC may take a leap if we in India as well as Pakistan take a leaf out of the consensus-making spirit of Kathmandu. South Asian unity may also help Nepal to break away from the vicious circle of migration-mercenary supply-mandir-medievalism as the only economic recipe.

It should be noted that a democratic Constitution can be ushered in by a nationalist political class but it takes centuries to build up true democratic values. In Nepal the four-Varna Hindu caste-system was imported and grafted during the Malla regime borrowed from North India, but it could not develop strong roots like the Indian brand of caste-based Hinduism. The loose social structure, which brings people to cohabitation and coexistence, has many other dividends. The emerging Nepalese middle class is more cosmopolitan in its outlook than the disjunctioned expanse of the Indian middle class. The Nepalese middle class is comfortable in picking up threads from its two giant neighbours, India and China, as well as from the Western world with much ease. It does not suffer from the duality of the Indian middle class, which has one foot in the cyber world and another foot in the caste-system. This bodes well as a more cohesive society and makes a better landing base for democracy. So, in all likelihood democracy in Nepal would have many additional features and an easy transition from the age-old feudal society. Some Nepalese opinion-makers feel that Nepal’s sovereignty stands threatened. But prima facie Nepal’s sovereignty is in a healthy state. During King Mahendra’s time the People’s Republic of China and to some extent Pakistan had become backseat drivers of the Hindu kingdom of Nepal due to the King’s hostility towards democracy as well as India. Today the Chinese are knocking the door of each and every political party so that their interests are not hampered. Nepal’s sovereignty depends more on unity between the democratic forces; any breach in it will rather weaken its sovereignty.

Prakash Man Singh, the General Secretary of the Nepali Congress, feels that the Nepali Congress has won the trust of the Nepalese people due to its multi-class, multi-ethnic, democratic, consensual approach. Pradeep Giri, a veteran of the Nepali Congress, is confident that Constitution-making would be completed within a year.

Sushil Koirala, the current Prime Minister of Nepal, remains, however, the kingpin of this coalition-making exercise as he has an amiable profile, which is necessary for coalition-making. His firm faith in democratic socialism is also a binding force to bring in the forces from the far Left, which have come to a realistic approach at the moment after years of experimenting with the 1930 vintage recipe of Maoism. This coalition between the Congress and Marxists in Nepal, if it succeeds, will be a new benchmark in the experiment of Third World democracy as well as nation-building.

Prof Dipak Malik is the Director, Gandhian Institute of Studies, Varanasi.