Why Maoists will be democrats in Nepal

About the author
Anuj Mishra is a Nepali journalist and scholar. He is a visitor, Nuffield College, Oxford

Half a century past a promised date, Nepalis have finally voted in an election to the Constituent Assembly (CA) that will write its constitution. The Constituent Assembly on its first sitting is expected to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic.

Ensconced between two giants of Asia, India and China, Nepal has had its fair share of geo-political woes over the last half a century. In the early 1950s, as Nepal shed the skin of British colonial clientelist Rana regime, the new political was meant to elect a constituent assembly. However, the colonial legacy of British Raj in south Asia had passed on to India, and, true to its new found status as a regional power, it was quick to ascertain its influence through almost direct intervention in the tiny countries that dotted the Himalayan foothills--- Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. These tiny state-lets were a byproduct of colonial expansion clashing with the geo-strategic imperatives of the early 19th century south-central Asia. Although Sikkim was eventually annexed by India and Bhutan remains within its security umbrella, rendering it a quasi-sovereign state; Nepal's peculiarity, mainly it's long standing heritage as one of the major powerful native states of pre-colonial subcontinent and its unique contribution in the up-keeping of the British Raj through the contingent of Gurkhas, meant that Nepal could not be overwhelmed outright. Or that is what India wanted - a nominally independent Nepal, albeit well within India's domain of influence.

The politics of the last half a century has been almost like a re-run of a same soap opera with different casts - the politicians vying to democratize Nepal, only to be frustrated by the same villain, the King, time and again, with India remaining in its occluded role, the force that could only ever be alluded to.

The decisive moment came when the people of Nepal in the most exemplary grassroots revolution overwhelmingly rejected in April 2006 the Nepali monarchy's fifty years of promise of democracy. Although most of the diplomatic community in Nepal (including powerful US, UK and Indian diplomats) tried to encourage the political parties to accept the King's offer to nominate a Prime Minister, the people on the street demanded and ultimately prevailed. They wanted a guarantee of the complete transfer of sovereignty to them. This has given us the peace process of the last two years, and, at last, the election of the Constituent Assembly. The assembly is expected to abolish the monarchy as its first act and to radically restructure the state, which remains a feudal and hierarchical society. Hence it was no surprise that Nepali voters have overwhelming rejected any inkling of status quo by ousting many of the traditionalist political parties, when they finally had a clear option put forward by the Maoist for a complete de-link with the past. When the world media and international observers gasp at the seeming anachronism of Nepali politics, this is what they fail to grasp.

Apart from their anachronistic name and their definitely brutal tactics leading up to the elections, the Maoists are in essence a republican force vying to convert a medieval feudal Nepal into a republic. They had drastically scaled down their doctrinal Maoism by the time they sat down for negotiations with the Royal government in 2002. By the time they forged alliances with other political parties that support multi-party democracy leading up to the April 2006 movement, their transformation from a Leninist party into a more pragmatic modern political force was even more pronounced.

The victors' "Maoist" brand and traditional Marxist paraphernalia belie their near-complete move towards mainstream. Maoist Chairman Prachanda declared in the run up to the election that his party was for dismantling the feudalism of Nepal, not its Capitalism. Not that surprising given the Marxist historicism the party believes in. This seemingly ideological posturing has much benefited the Maoist's exercise in historical pragmatism - their acceptance of multi-party democracy and the liberal economic system, which they are quick to point as still being consistent with their Marxist credo: the gradual progression towards socialism, proceeds through the current phase of a "capitalist mode of production."

In a marked contrast to his pre-election diatribe against other political parties, the monarchy and the "imperialist forces of India and America", Prachanda gave a very reserved and conciliatory speech in his election victory rally, emphatically asking everybody, especially the international community to not doubt his party's commitment to multi-party democracy. This evolution of the Maoists into undoubtedly what is going to be a more or less liberal democratic party with an anomalistic name now appears ever clearer.

While the international community, international observers and international media find it off-putting, Nepalis have become accustomed to the brand incompatibility of their political parties over the last two decades of halting democracy. Pervasive poverty (the majority of Nepalis live on less than US$ 0.21 per day) in an oppressive society explains mass appeal for left politics. However the far left's radical agenda has always tapered off as they approached government --- always ready to explain the discrepancy between their ideological stance and their political positions.

A party named the Communist Party of Nepal - Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML or UML in short) formed the world's first elected communist government under a Monarchy in Nepal in the early 1990s. For that to happen it had to shed much of its radical rhetoric, save its name. The Maoists are preparing for a similar course, albeit in a different mode. With the mainstay of the conservative forces, the Monarchy, gone and the Nepal Army unlikely to revolt, the Maoists have a greater window of maneuverability than was accorded to the UML. However, ; the Maoists do have substantial limitations in their maneuverability, not least from regard for the wishes of the international community and of India. The former provides much of Nepal's development budget and the latter has not only enormous regional economic clout, but, more importantly was midwife of the April 2006 political process. Hence Nepal's move from Monarchy towards a liberal democratic republic is being led by a party which calls itself Maoist, and which it will not be, save in its name.