Nepal : The Struggle for Democratic Stability

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*** A short introduction to Nepalese Political History

Modern history of Nepal is said to begin from the time of a young king named Prithvi Narayan Shah who used to rule a small but powerful kingdom in the Northern part of Nepal called Gorkha. He united Nepal by 1768, which was divided among more than 50 kingdoms – principalities.His descendants ruled as absolute monarchs until 1846. In 1846, after a series of events culminating to a coup d’état, a Hereditiary prime ministershipof the Rana Dynasty took executive power in their hands, reducing the kings and the descendants ofPrithvi Narayan Shah to a constitutional monarchy.The Rana regime fell after a popular uprising in 1951. The period I’m discussing in this paper is that of after 1951 till today.

While Rana were ruling Nepal, British were the super power in the south and around the world.Previously, Nepal and the British had fought war over territorial disputes, and Nepal had to relinquish 1/3rd of its territory to the British. When Nepal under first Rana PM helped the British to quell the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the Brits suddenly found an ally in the North. To reward Nepal for its help the Brits returned some part of the southern land back to Nepal.British and subsequently the Indian influence has been there in Nepalese politics since then.

To the north, the Himalayan Ranges and the harsh climate bordering Tibet act as high walls and creates a physical barrier expect for some mountain passes. Although Geographically Nepal has been landlocked nation since it came into existence, India from three sides and Tibet from one side (China after 1959) but historically, culturally Nepal has been India locked since the time immemorial.Compared to the south, trade and commerce, cultural exchange, people to people communication is very less.

*** Geography

Geographically, Nepal has three topographic belts that run east-west. The Himalayas and the mountainous region in the north, the hills or the pahadsin between and the Terai in the south.

Terai, which is locally called Madhesh, runs parallel to Indian border and which is mostly fertile plains.It used to be thick jungle, except for few pockets of settlements very close to the Indian border. These days, due to better infrastructure, industrialization and productivity of the land, this region has densest population in Nepal.  This region also has highest concentration of Madhesi population which share a very close cultural link to the people of adjoining Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The Terai is also home to Tharu, Santhals, Dhimals and other aboriginal communities.

The mountainous and the hilly region are inhabited by Brahmins and Chhetris, which were the most prominent in bureaucracy and governance, security forces, access to education, etc. Apart from Brahmins and Chhetris, there are other ethnic groups such as the Newars and the mongoloid ethnic communities such as Magar, Tamang, Rai, Gurung, etc.

*** Nepalese Struggle to Achieve and Nurture Democratic Stability: The Internal and the Extraneous

Currently, Nepal is in an election season. The recent second round of election that happened in 28th June, 2017 is a part of a total of three rounds of nationwide elections to elect representatives of local government bodies in Nepal after promulgation of a new Constitution in 2015.  The first round of the local election happened in 14th May and the third round is scheduled on 18th September. Thelatest Constitution gives constitutional recognition to the local bodies and entrust these local bodies with unprecedented and wide range of powers to legislate, execute as well as apply judicial powers within their area, which is a paradigm shift in governance system in Nepal. Further down the pipeline, the constitution mandates that there ought to be Federal Parliamentary election and Provincial Parliamentary election within January 2018. If these elections are conducted within the mandated deadline, it will ensure another paradigm shift in Nepalese governance system – implementation of federalism and hopefully, a firm constitutional track for the foreseeable future.

All these developments appear to be just a normal exercise of electoral democracy that happens regularly in a democratic life of a country – if observed without having historical and present context in mind. Notwithstanding these developments, the road ahead is not smooth and the picture is not that rosy. To analyse and anticipate the political future that is ahead of us, we must look into our political past and our political present. At the least, one must look at the road Nepal has journeyed in the last 70 years, the struggles we had internally, the help we sought externally, and the ever looming interests and interventions of the southern neighbor and other international actors.

We will look at our political history from the standpoint I just mentioned, but I’m afraid that you will not reach a conclusion as to how the future of Nepalese governance system, democracy, or the life of the nation itself will turn out to be. But you will hopefully understand something. Hopefully, you will understand that we had been struggling and we are struggling to achieve and nurture Democratic Stability in our country.

This now brings me to my topic. Let me try to explain to you why I wanted to confine my speech within this topic.“Struggle to Achieve and Nurture Democratic Stability: The Internal and the Extraneous”.

Democracy – because it’s implied that every people, including the Nepalese, want to live in a society where they arebound only by laws which are made by their elected representatives and which place only reasonable restrictions upon their fundamental rights. The famous Gettysburg Address of Abraham Lincoln almost always comes to mind while discussing Democracy -“Government of the people, by the people” but I’m not quite sure about “Government for the people” part anymore.

Stability–because nobody wants the government, the prime minister, the whole set of cabinet and the coalition itself to change every 9 months. 26 Prime Ministerships in 27 years! That brings a whole lot of problems including lack of stable government policies, lack of accountability, increased impatience among opposition rank and file, bigger window of opportunity for external influence, government policies going in the hands of bureaucrats, medium to long term policies becoming leadership-less, politics being oriented towards short term gains,among others.

Going towards the second part of the topic. The struggle here is mostly internal – the actors being the king previously, parties believing in multiparty democracy, factions within these parties, maoist rebel groups who were transformed or rather forced into multiparty democracy, and now politics based on ethnicity.

There are some other actors in this theatre too. I’ve named them ‘the extraneous’. The word extraneous, as the dictionaries tell me, hasseveral meanings. One meaning of the word is ‘Of external origin’.A dominant force of external origin in Nepalese politics has always been India. It has an influence in most political parties, it is said to be an important player in recent government formations, it has a significant say on the Madheshi based political parties, and the list goes on. Another meaning of the word extraneous would be ‘separate from the object to which it is attached’. Past political developments have shown that the west too have their interests at stake and thus, they too have jumped into the stage. The third meaning of the word extraneous would be ‘irrelevant or superfluous’.At least legally, most of these interventions are in violation of the principle of ‘non-intervention’ in the internal affairs of the country. From a nationalistic point of view, it is disturbingly unnecessary, superfluous and irrelevant.The only thing that connects the internal to the external, sadly, is the lack of this nationalistic point of view among the internal actors. Many actors within Nepal have either sought or acquiesced to the Indian intervention to topple autocratic Nepalese governments.However, neither did Nepalese actors, nor did India stop there. Now,the ‘Indian factor’is so prevalent ,that leading online newsportals write that a certain police official of Nepal went to New Delhi on his own to lobby for himself as the next Inspector General of Police. True or false, these news have become a part of ‘get agitated today, forget tomorrow’ routine for the Nepalese people.Opinions in Newspapers, editorials, netizens flocking to social media to criticize with the wittiest lines and TV and Radio discussions for today but no lesson to take for tomorrow.

The struggle for a democratic system of governance is atleast 70 years old. Until 1951, our Kings were ceremonial and the country was ruled by autocratic and dynastic rulers from the Rana family. The PrajaParishad and Nepali Congress at that time together with King Tribhuwan’s support were struggling to overthrow the Ranas. In a dramatic move, King Tribhuwan took refuge at the Indian Embassy and he was flown to India soon after. This prompted the then Rana Prime Minister to dethrown King Tribhuwan and install his four year old grandson Prince Gyanendra as the king. This move from the Rana Prime Minister prompted huge demonstration in the country which forced the Prime Minister to reconcile for a political settlement. On top, India refused to recognize the new king. Finally, a power sharing deal was signed in New Delhi. After few years of political tensions, but in which the King had a firm hand, there were voices for electing a Constituent Assembly to write a constitution by elected representatives of people. This demand was sidelined, but a democratic constitution was framed in 1959 and parliamentary elections were conducted by Kind Mahendra in which Nepali Congress won a high majority. This was the first ever democratically elected parliament and Nepali Congress’ BishweshworPrashadKoirala became the first ever democratically elected Prime Minister of Nepal. Koiralaboldly started to start ties with the world and tried a measured approach when it came to dealing with China and India. He instituted progressive land reforms which werenot taken well by the feudal aristocrats who formed the power base of the King and the military .But the first democratic constitution of Nepal, the first democratically elected parliament and Cabinet could not last long. King Mahendra suspended the constitution, dissolved the parliament and imprisoned B.P Koirala and senior leaders of Nepali Congress in a swift coup d’état in 1960.

In 1962, King Mahendra established another constitution, wherepolitical parties were banned, and a so called ‘suitable for the soil’ or maatosuhaudo autocratic system was imposed.He termed his arrangement as “Party-less Panchayati Democracy” which, he claimed, rooted on village level democracy conforming Nepal’s ancient tradition.  Mahendra always claimed that his “arrangement” was temporary in nature and Nepal would revert back to pluralistic democracy one day.King Mahendra died in 1972 while the partyless system he started was firmly in power in Kathmandu. Some political parties had hoped that the Western educated new monarch King Birendra would bring in political changes to re-establish multiparty polity. The palace and courtiers had at that time no incentive to initiate any change and shed their authority which they enjoyed without any accountability. Few reforms were intitiatedin 1979 after a disputed referendum which was prompted by nationwide student led demonstrations. The Prime Minister was no longer appointed by the King but by the majority of National Assembly that was elected by local representatives. This was kind of hybrid system between erstwhile arrangement and some element of parliamentary democracy. Since the groups were not organized in any ideological basis in the RP, often the members came together with a sole purpose of ousting the Prime Minister so that one of them could get chance to become minister in the next cabinet. The influence peddling by the Palace and the courtiers also played role in some of the government changes. No PM was sure how long he would last; instability had become institutionalised by then. By now, India had already been fed up with the ruling political elites resulting from protracted friction over Zone of Peace proposed by Nepal, trade and transit treaty, acquisition of Chinese weaponry by Nepal.This was the first time India had used Nepal’s geographical vulnerability to impose its will.

After a popular democratic movementin 1990 led by Nepali Congress with a significant support of the Left Front coupled by the dire economic conditions resulting from Indian full-fledged blockade parliamentary democracy was re-established. Under the 1990 constitution, which lasted until 2001, there were 10 Prime Ministershipsin as many years. 5 personalities became Prime Ministers, two of whom were loyal servants to the autocratic royal dictatorships before.Parties broke like biscuits, governments fell like house of cards; and the political left, right and centre were as soluble as brine (salt and water). On top of that..Ideological inclination (socialism, Marxism-lenninism, or the political spectrum divide of right, left and centre) which the political parties in Nepal always professed to practice disappeared. Dealing with anyone at any cost just to dislodge the PM of the day became the mantra for all.

By that time Nepal had a new monarch, King Gyanendra, younger brother of the King Birendra, whose entire family was killed in a royal palace massacrecarried by his irate and drug influenced son. King Gyanedra represented hard-line faction of the palace and courtiers who had enjoyed privilege without being held accountable for their actions during the party less Panchayat era. While his predecessor and his brother King Birendra was mostly above politics after the constitutional arrangements of the second phase of democracy, the new monarch was waiting for an opportune moment to strike and restore the “active and dynamic leadership” of the king during the Panchayat era. He did not have to wait for long. Political parties were squabbling in the parliament and the streets all the time on insignificant issues while a new political force inspired by the Cultural Revolution era MaoTse-tung was fomenting rebellion among the rural people who increasingly felt left out and betrayed by the political parties sent to power by their votes.A civil war had ensued.Governance was mostly limited to district head-quarters and the urban areas. Nepal was a democracy, but it was not stable

This democracy did not last long. KingGyanendratook power in 2002.Doing this, he slowly became a common enemy of Maoist rebels and the democratic parties. India had also grown impatient with the King. A 12 point understanding was concluded between the 7 democratic parties led by Nepali Congress and the Maoist rebels in New Delhi. In 2006, after another popular movement, the king relinquished powers and handed it back to democratic forces. The maoist rebels joined mainstream politics. An interim constitution was formed and a Constituent Assembly Election was held in 2008. The demands that rose almost 60 years before was finally being realized. The Constituent Assembly also acted as a parliament and could elect Prime Ministers by giving its majority. That constituent assembly gave 5 Prime Ministers in 5 years.Due to lack of the required 2/3rd majority of any party and due to lack of consensus, the Constituent Assembly could not give Nepal a constitution. The Supreme Court had declared that the mandate of Constituent Assembly was over and was thus dissolved. Again, Nepal was a democracy, but it was not stable.

After the democratic movement of 2002, a new kind of force had emerged in the political scene. As we were heading into the first constituent assembly election, the inhabitants in the Southern belt of Nepal, who identify themselves as Madheshi started political agitation and a popular movement started in the south. The situation got pacified only when the major political parties agreed to the demands of Madhesh based political parties which included provision of autonomous federal structures, inclusive representation of madhesi people in the elections, among others. During the functioning of the first parliamentary elections,ethnicity and indigenous community based cross party caucuses started emerging demanding separate and autonomous provinces in the areas where their ethnicities had a majority. This turned into a quagmire as some fringe political forces wanted Nepal to be a Hindu state, some wanting the Kingdom back and some wanting federalism to be scrapped. It was widely viewed that the Madhesh based political parties had support of India and the divide among other ethnic lines were supported by the Europeans.

A caretaker, non-partisan government oversaw a second Constituent Assembly election in 2014. Nepali Congress and the UML were in power and the Maoists and Madhes based parties were in the opposition as protracted negotiations were underway to reach a consensus. A 7.8 Richter scale magnitude earthquake that killed nearly than 10,000 and injured 20,000 more changed the course of our politics. The Maoists suddenly sided with the Congress and UML and through a ‘fast track route’, a Federal Democratic Republic Constitution was about to be promulgated by this assembly. The Madhesh based parties were agitating and strongly condemned this move by the major political parties present in the Constituent Assembly. One day before the official promulgation of the constitution, the Indian Prime Minister sent the Foreign Secretary as a special envoy to postpone the promulgation of constitution by a few days and meet the demands of the agitating Madhesh based parties. The parties did not listen to the Indian envoy sent by the Indian Prime Minister. The Constituent Assembly, by an overwhelming majority, passed the constitution. The madhesh based parties led another strong popular agitation in the south. While the other countrieswelcomed the Constitution made by representatives of the people, India merely ‘noted’ the development and imposed a full scale blockade. Fuel tanks were stopped from entering Nepal, medicines were in short supply, there long queues before the gas stations and the economy of a country that was reeling as a result of the recent earthquake was collapsing. The people were agitating under the leadership of Madhesh based parties, the government was not heeding the Indian pressure, top leaders were not ready to term the Indian act as blockade,While Kathmandu and other parts of the country was celebrating the arrival of the constitution and the government was not being able to curb black-marketting and enforcing law and order. A face saver for everyone was necessary, more so for the Indian government. It got its face saver only when Prachanda, the coalition partner of the then Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli withdrew support and announced his own candidacy as Prime Minister.

Coming back to where I started – the local elections. Prachanda took the office of Prime Minister with the support of Nepali Congress and also the Madhesh based parties. The agreement was that soon after the local elections would complete, the Nepali Congress Leader SherBahadurDeuba would be handed over the premiership. As the Madhesh based parties were threatening to boycott the elections if their demands of constitutional amendment was not met, the local elections had to be fragmented among 2 and later among 3 rounds. The constitution amendment proposal is not yet passed because the UML and few of its partners are all that stand between the government coalitions’ 2/3rd majority. As I was writing this paper, the development of the last few days are:

  • it is reported that the Indian Ambassador invited the Madhesh based leaders and advised them to take part in the 3rd round of elections which is being conducted in the province where Madheshi community is the majority.
  • Themadhesh based leaders agreed to take part in the 3rd round of election under the same banner of a unified party formed few months back.

At present, it seems that the 3rd round of local elections will be held as planned. However, the constitutional mandate is that by January 2018, fresh Federal Parliamentary elections and Provincial parliamentary elections will have to be held. It is not sure if the Madheshi parties would participate in those elections until their demands of constitutional amemdment is met. What’s sure is that the constitution cannot be amended without a full cooperation from the opposition party UML and its allies in the parliament – and they are opposing any such amendments.

After the completion of the 3rd round, the local bodies will have an elected local representatives for the first time in 20 years. At least for the next 5 years, local level democratic stability will be guaranteed. But at the national level, if parliamentary elections and provincial elections are not held in time, constitutional crisis is bound to follow us again.

*** Few Takeaways

One can see it clearly that it is mostly the national actors that are responsible for not being able to sustain and exercise democracy in the country. Political parties were good at fighting for democracy, but were weak at keeping it. Some of the main reasons why our parties failed in providing a stable democracy in Nepal are:

Political parties learned from the politics of last few years of party less panchayat system and applied it to the new found parliamentary democracy. In the last few years of the panchayat system, the king had allowed Prime Minister to be elected by the majority of National Assembly called the Rashtriya Panchayat. But since party based politics was outlawed, the divide in the National Assembly was never based on ideology or policy. Often, the National Assembly members came together with a soe purpose of ousting the Prime Minister so that one of them could get a chance to become minister in next cabinet. Even after the multiparty democracy was restored, political partieswere supposed to behave as one entity representing one political ideology and policy. But the politics started getting increasingly personal.

  • Culture of impatience: The political parties in opposition never had the patience to wait for 5 years till the parliament finishes its course, go for next election and win confidence of the people and come to power. This culture was inter party as well as intra party. The opposition would take advantage of the rivalry between two towering personalities within the ruling party to topple the government.
  • Leaders never retire. The same politicians are in the game for 27 years or more.
  • Main reasons for the current Madhesh crisis:

Madhesis were not adequately represented in previous political systems.
Illiteracy and ignorance among people as a reason for

Supreme Court of Nepal’s decision in 1999 that ethnic languages cannot be used as one of the working language in local bodies even if the vast majority of the local body spoke that language.

Ethnicity based identity politics.

  • UP, Bihar politics marred with ethnic, it was bound to start in Nepal some day
  • Lack of local democracy: For 20 years, local governance bodies were representative-less. The local issues directly related to people were not addressed in an accountable manner. This discontent channeled into the madhesh crisis.
  • Political parties, the leaders within those political parties and now the madhesh based parties all have sought help from India or even China in certain cases, to gain an upper hand in National politics.

Amid internal everlasting quibble among political parties, all the major superpowers have found their interests, agendas and actors to further those agendas in Nepal.

  • India has its own security threat coupled by an ambition to be the regional hegemony. India has been using, and it has been used by – various actors within the prominent political parties. Almost all those seen against Indian influence today have benefited from it previously.
  • India’s inability to accept Nepal as a sovereign nation. This desire for regional hegemony on the part of our southern neighbor.
  • The west sees Nepal as a geo-political ulterior motive. Its experiment with instilling ‘ethnic nationalism’ took a back foot during the second Constituent Assembly election.
  • Britain: The British Ambassador to Nepal Andew James Sparkes had to resign from the british Foreign Service itself, after the Nepalese government summoned him after he ‘suggested’ the Constituent Assembly members to guarantee that people are free to change their religion as they like. The British were further in controversy when reports emerged that their Ambassador had met a separatist leader. A motion was proposed in the British parliament urging Nepal to conduct local elections only after the demands from the Madhesi quarters of constitutional amendment has been met.
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