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Nepal’s misty season

Manjushree Thapa
7 April 2009

A year after an electoral earthquake which created the promise of a democratic future for Nepal after years of violent insurgency and repression, Nepal is looking at the grim possibility of a wasted future.

Manjushree Thapa is a novelist, translator and writer. Her books include The Tutor of History (Penguin, 2001) and Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy (Penguin, 2005)

"Democracy in Nepal and the ‘international community'" (4 May 2005)

"Nepal's political rainy season" (12 July 2005)

"Forget Kathmandu: an elegy for democracy" (14 September 2006)

"Nepal: peace is more than an election" (29 November 2007)

"India in its Nepali backyard" ( 2 May 2008)

Everyday life has become grindingly difficult for the majority of the population. A dry winter and spring have meant a severe shortage of water in the country's reservoirs and in the rivers that feed the hydroelectric plants. There are power-outages lasting as many as sixteen hours a day, paralysing industry. There are numerous strikes and factory closures as a result of political and social mobilisation. The global recession reinforces Nepal's domestic troubles: it means there are fewer jobs abroad for migrant labourers, fewer tourists, less investment in the private sector, and the possibility of a decrease in foreign aid.

Amid these severe exigencies, the country - under a coalition government led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which won a decisive victory on 10 April 2008 (and has since added the word "United" to its name) - proceeds with the complicated task of drafting a new constitution (see Prashant Jha, "Nepal's Maoist landslide", 16 April 2008). This process is only one unfinished aspect of the peace process that began in April 2006. The country still has two rival armies - the Nepal Army and the (Maoists') People's Liberation Army. Moreover, not a single case of human-rights violations committed by either the Maoists or the military over the decade-long civil war has been prosecuted.

The achievements of the peace process - which include the elections of 2008 and the peaceful abolition of the monarchy that followed - are substantial. The danger is that Nepal's mounting economic problems and uncompleted challenges (disarmament, military unification, and accounting for past crimes among them) will overwhelm its capacity to continue the essential project of nation-building after war.  

The Maoists' charge

When the peace process started in April 2006, most Nepalis were hopeful but realistic: no one was naïve enough to expect that it would go smoothly, no one either wanted to place undue pressure on what had been a hard-won outcome.

There was an understandable tendency at the time to emphasise the positive signs and overlook early failures. The fact that three hitherto warring parties - the Maoists, the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist / UML) - had united around a non-violent, democratic platform was one such sign. The election, and the Maoists' continued transition to non-violent politics that followed their victory, were others. So what if the peace process was marked by one small failure after another? The political parties were not in open conflict, and that - by earlier standards, and especially by the account of international analysts - was good enough (see "Nepal: peace is more than an election", 29 November 2007).

But the small failures have now accrued to a point where it is difficult any more to say whether the peace process is "on" - and even if it does, whether it matters. What is on - without a doubt - is a struggle to capture state power. And in this, the Maoists are winning. 

They are using both fair and foul means to do so. The Maoists won nearly 40% of the vote in an election that the other parties agreed to and that the international community deemed free and legitimate. This gave them a major say in the constitution-making process, which they have used proactively to set the agenda for it: raising a (now-inescapable) demand for federalism, and disseminating a draft constitution to their liking, which would have Nepal follow the Chinese model.

The Maoists were of all forces best prepared for the peace process. They readily agreed to have the United Nations monitor the government-supported cantonments to which their People's Liberation Army were deployed; and they alone were unsurprised when the UN's mandate proved too narrow to prevent misdeeds (such as mass absenteeism or the high-profile murder of a businessman) in these cantonments. They have been able to use the limitations of the UN's mandate to their advantage, by institutionalising their own military while (by exercising governmental power) wearing down the rival Nepal Army.

Also in openDemocracy on Nepal's politics and conflicts:

Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal's folly: talking absolutes at high altitude" (9 January 2006)

Anuj Mishra, "Democracy from below: a grassroots revolution in Nepal" (23 April 2006)

Maya G Kumar, "Nepal on the brink" (24 April 2006)

Kanak Mani Dixit, "Nepal: the Maoist transformation's fuzzy logic" (22 June 2006)

Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal: Maocracy vs democracy" (16 November 2006)

Anuj Mishra, "Nepal's peace accord: time for caution" (16 November 2006)

Dharma Adhikari "Nepal's unsettling peace" (6 February 2007)

Prashant Jha, "Nepal's Maoist landslide" (16 April 2008)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Nepal: the human-rights test" (28 April 2008)

The Maoists' policy on the prosecution of wartime violations is equally revealing of their political ambitions. They are too intelligent to follow the previous government's bad example and offer mass impunity to violators (the dismaying "truth and reconciliation" bill of their predecessor was withdrawn amid an outcry from human-rights defenders). Instead, the Maoist-led government has declared more than 8,000 war victims to be "martyrs" and offered compensation worth 1 million rupees to their families (the total killed in the war is approximately 13,300). This is a significant sum to families facing the prospect of extended trials with uncertain outcomes. A further tactic in attempting to foil any chance of bringing wartime violators to justice is the Maoists' passage by ordinance of a bill on "disappearances", which through this process (since it evades the legitimacy of a parliamentary act) and the bill's content are designed to make litigation very hard.

These are not admirable policies, but they are fair enough in their own terms - and to be to be expected. For they are the strategies of a political party single-mindedly focused on protecting its cadre and ensuring its own ascendancy. The calculations they embody are an example to other political parties of what they should be doing: defending their own (liberal or democratic-socialist) visions, advancing their own interests.

The politics of drift

This is where the political dilemma facing Nepal becomes clear. The Maoists' steady accumulation of state power since the peace process started has left the other parties in disarray. Those who would like to see Nepal become a liberal or democratic-socialist state are at the mercy of an aimless collection of forces who lack the Maoists' clarity of purpose (see Manjushree Thapa, "The Maoists come to power", London Review of Books, 8 May 2008 [subscription only].

The veteran politician Girija Prasad Koirala of the Nepali Congress Party (NC), who lost his bid to become the country's first president in 2008, has decided to keep his party out of government. The NC's role in opposition has not, however, been constructive. Instead of reclaiming its presence at the grassroots and rebuilding itself through genuinely democratic practice, the Congress has allied with the Nepal Army in its defiance of the Maoists. This is emboldening the Nepal Army and creating a dangerous polarisation between the rival militaries. It is also turning the Congress into a force for conservatism and counter-revolution rather than for liberalism.

The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninists), for its part, is the Maoists' main ally in government - but also the Maoists' main rival for "progressive" votes. This creates a competitive dynamic whereby the UML tries to match the Maoists' radicalism while undermining them by echoing the Congress's conservatism. It is the UML that determines the balance of power in the Maoist-led government; much will depend on whether this party continues to swing both ways, or stabilises in the centre.

The third major force are the Madheshi parties of the southern Terai area: most prominently the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), which has outbid the Maoist call for federalism with its own slogan: "One Madhesh, One Province" (envisioning the country's entire southern flatlands as one long federal state). Whether and how the Maoist-led government negotiates the Madheshis down to a more reasonable demand remains to be seen.

The Maoists' response to the albeit weak challenges of their rivals indicates some of the foul means (mixed with a degree of skill) that the Maoists are employing. The red-guard-like vigilantism of the Young Communist League is an example. The Maoists had under international pressure claimed they would abolish this hated body, but have shown no inclination to do so. In the same spirit, they show no willingness (an occasional feeble gesture apart) to return any land they grabbed during the war. The trade unions they control  force the owners of businesses to negotiate under the threat of violence - which in some cases has secured better conditions for workers, but more important for the Maoists displaced the unions under the wing of competing political parties.

The people's dilemma

If the Maoist-led government's treatment of its political adversaries is tough, its way of handling the country and its people has created discontent and conflict. It has been particularly cynical in matters pertaining to caste/ethnic rights: offering to negotiate with any group that becomes militant, but ignoring moderate groups. The Madheshi-rights movement is a stark example. The inevitable result is to encourage militancy in the caste/ethnic movements.

This dynamic has the effect of pitting caste/ethnic groups against one another, as they seek to make deals with the government that win competitive favours. A government decision to include indigenous Tharus into the category of "Madheshi" is a case in point: this incensed Tharu activists, who brought the country to a halt for over ten days. For the Nepali people, this was debilitating; for the Maoist-led government, it was a good and easy way to cut the Madheshi rights movement down to size. A round-table conference could have settled everyone's demands through negotiation; but this would involve taking power away from the centre - and the centralisation of power is dear to the Maoists' heart.

The Nepali people cannot afford much more of this. They have enough problems just surviving, and have been immensely resilient in the near-total absence of government over the past few years. Politics goes on; there is strong campaigning for six by-elections taking place on 10 April 2009. But amid water and power shortages, there is a limit to what people can tolerate. There is a growing hunger for order, which two forces are ready to supply: the People's Liberation Army and the Nepal Army.

Some analysts argue that the Maoists are intentionally engineering popular desperation as part of their ongoing strategy to consolidate state power. The Maoist finance minister, Baburam Bhattarai, is one who has publicly stated that anarchy aids revolutionary transformation.

If this is so, the Maoists may be too clever for their own good. The bad faith of the Congress and UML meant that Nepal frittered away the 1990s. The bad faith of the Maoists may yet lead to a repeat of history rather than, as their ideology proclaims, its overcoming. In that event, the only losers will be the people of Nepal.

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