In Nepal, time to press the poll button

The far-right, far-left and those uncomfortable with power-transfer to new groups have come together to obstruct the country’s elections. India must stay the course in pushing for polls there

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:22 pm IST

Published - August 05, 2013 12:34 am IST

The fundamental fault-lines in Nepali politics over the past 10 years have constantly shifted. Between 2001 and 2005, there was a triangular power-conflict between the King, parliamentary parties and the Maoists. This eventually crystallised into a battle between monarchists and republicans. With the People’s Movement of 2006 and the April 2008 elections to the Constituent Assembly (CA), Nepalis sent out a clear message in favour of a democratic republic.

The subsequent polarisation was between the Maoists and non-Maoists. The former saw their success in elections as a political victory which gave them a licence to implement their “revolutionary agenda.” But this caused the non-Maoist forces to distrust Maoist commitment to democracy, and they came together to isolate the former rebels. This fault-line became somewhat less intense when the Maoists returned to power in August 2011, and gave up their military structure. But older parties continue to see Maoists as upstarts who illegitimately displaced them.

Since 2012, as the CA entered its final lap, the key fault-line has been between forces which favour identity-based federalism and those against it. The Maoists, Madhesis of the plains, and ethnic groups in the hills, argued for a federal model, which would enable transfer of power to excluded social groups. This would be somewhat similar to the process of State reorganisation that took place in India in the 1950s, and which continued at regular intervals.

But the Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified-Marxist Leninist), catering to their social base of hill Hindu upper-castes, resisted. They manufactured baseless fears that the country would “disintegrate.” At best, they favoured “administrative federalism,” which would allow hill Hindu castes to retain hegemony. The outcome was the end of the CA without drafting a constitution.

The pushback

A common thread is the struggle between those forces who sought to retain elements of the past feudal political structures, and those who wished to democratise Nepali politics. The “pro-change” forces had the upper hand after the 2006 Janandolan. But the CA’s end in May 2012 galvanised all those who had lost out.

So, monarchists began claiming that the CA’s republican declaration no longer held. Sections of the NC and UML, and Nepal’s conservative intelligentsia questioned the need to embark on a democratic exercise to write the constitution. An ultra-left faction had splintered from the Maoists to continue its quest for a “People’s Republic.” So if the royalists and conservatives felt changes had gone too far, the far-left thought it had not gone far enough. They alleged that Prachanda and the Baburam Bhattarai-led Maoists, by accepting the line of peaceful and constitutional political change, had betrayed the revolution.

An unlikely alliance between all these forces is now in force. Their central objective is to disrupt elections for a second CA, slated for November 19. If polls are not held, the Chief Justice-led election government will collapse. Royalists will project this as an end of the interim constitution, and demand the revival of the monarchical 1990 statute. The anti-Maoist politicians feel that they have already achieved the aim of “mainstreaming” the Maoists; there is now no need to follow their agenda of CA elections. The anti-federalists think this is the best way to stall the identity-based demands of the marginalised. The ultra-left calculates that this is the best way to create a crisis, and prepare the ground for people’s revolt.

Explaining ‘anti-Indianism’

A key obstacle for them is India.

While Delhi wisely chose to stay away from the federalism debate, it has unambiguously pushed for elections as the democratic method to assess the balance of power.

When an ambitious President began developing direct political ambitions to assume power — which would have led to a new conflict — India advised him to stay within constitutional limits. When parties could not agree on an acceptable caretaker election arrangement, Delhi encouraged the CJ-led government as a one-time measure with the limited mandate of holding polls. This was not ideal, but was the only compromise formula. When forces of the right and left began speaking of an unelected constitution-writing commission, India suggested that any alternative to a CA would lead to instability. Delhi has also laid out the red carpet for leaders of all Nepali parties with a consistent message — hold timely polls.

Precisely because India, led by an exceptional diplomat in Kathmandu, Jayant Prasad, has stuck to a democratic line, the “unholy alliance” outlined above has turned ultranationalist. They feel that if India steps back, the polls, and political transformation, can be derailed. Delhi must not get swayed or intimidated by these spoilers.

Message to Koirala

NC president Sushil Koirala — who is on a visit to Delhi — has been the least constructive politician on constitution-writing (by opposing CA extension and identity-based federalism), the peace process (by opposing integration of Maoist combatants on respectable terms till the very end), the election arrangement (by seeking the CJ’s resignation in a move that would have derailed the caretaker arrangement), and bilateral relations (by encouraging anti-India rhetoric). India must mince no words in telling him to accept new political realities, behave responsibly, and show the relevant flexibility to hold polls.

Nepali parties should reach out to the opposition forces and meet legitimate grievances, for instance increasing the share of the Proportional Representation quota which would ensure an inclusive house. But if certain forces, like the ultra-left, continue to be obstructionist, the state must assert its authority.

India must not involve itself with engineering alliances, funding parties, or trying to shape poll outcomes. But given its role as the host of the 12-point understanding which led to the current political process, it would only be correct for India to invest its political capital in pressuring all Nepali forces to go back to the people. This is the only way to save the Federal Democratic Republican framework, and revive the diminished hopes in Nepal’s transformation.

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