A POLITICAL PERSPECTIVE
by DOUG SCOTT April 2016
Political Perspective: it may be of interest to set out the recent turbulent political history of Nepal that has been somewhat chaotic and does have a bearing on the work of Community Action Nepal in the country.
With the end of autocratic Rana rule in 1951 there followed a 10 year transitional period of quasi constitutional rule under King Mahendra. The monarch eventually decided that this experiment in parliamentary government was a failure and concluded this brief period of democracy with a royal coup. 18 months later in 1960 having dismissed the elected government the King helped set up the “partyless” Panchayat system that did have the merit of devolving government to the regions right down to village level. Real power, however, remained firmly in royal hands, with the King as head of the army and the one who chose the Prime Minister and Cabinet of the National Panchayat. This authoritarian way of governing Nepal continued for 30 years.
In 1990, after widespread protests, a parliamentary democracy was created and a new constitution drawn up. This was followed in 1991 by elections with the now reigning constitutional monarch, King Birendra. The Nepali Congress Party, under G P Koirala won a convincing victory with the Marxist/Leninist party [CPN-UML], becoming the largest party in opposition.
During the following five years one administration after the next collapsed with politicians sacked and some imprisoned for alleged corruption. The Nepalese were hardly ever best served by their political representatives who were then, as now, predominantly self-serving.
Whilst communist states in Eastern Europe crumbled and pro-democracy demonstrations took place in Tiananmen Square the communist party in Nepal [CPN] continued to gain strength. In 1996 the CPN, now better known as The Maoists, declared a “People’s War” to end corruption and to serve “the people” better. The insurgency began in the extremely poor, wild west of Nepal, remote from the centre of power in Kathmandu. It was some time before the power possessors in the capital realised they had a full scale civil war on their hands as ever more of those at the bottom of the income ladder and across the ethnic spectrum were recruited into the Maoist guerrilla army.
On 1 June 2001 an event took place that was to have far reaching consequences for the political future of Nepal. At a gathering in Kathmandu Eton educated Crown Prince Dipendra gunned down most of the extended royal family, including his father King Birendra. The King had been the unifying force, representing all the many differing cultures and ethnic groups that make up Nepal. Birendra had been more than just a figure-head in that he had helped to steer the country through political turmoil with the Nepalese again adjusting to the democratic process. Into the vacuum, arising from King Birendra’s assassination came the Maoists and the strength of their rebellion was brought home to the whole country when they overwhelmed an army barracks just west of Kathmandu in November 2001. Following the King’s assassination Prime Ministers were again sacked and replaced, in fact every year for the next five years. The army, now greatly strengthened, took on the insurgents with renewed vigour and by 2005 13,000 Nepalis had been killed in the conflict and many others remain unaccounted for.
The late King’s brother Gyanendra became King – a sour faced man with a tendency towards absolute rule. His son, the heir apparent, had been involved in several hit and run car accidents, during one of which a popular Nepalese singer was left for dead. By April 2006 all attempts by the
King to rule the country and quell the Maoists had failed. When the King declared a state of emergency general discontent only increased and the Maoists more or less laid siege to Kathmandu. A seven-party coalition was put in place after a series of strikes and bloody street protests. The “seven parties”, including the former Maoist rebels, agreed to abolish the monarchy. The Maoist leadership under Pushpa Kamal Dahal [whose nom de guerre, Prachanda means “The Fierce One”] and Dr Baburan Bhattari made the abolition of monarchy a condition before they would lay down their arms and join the democratic process. This was agreed, if only to bring an end to, what had been a gruesome civil war with the lives of thousands of ordinary Nepali’s seriously disrupted.
In the elections of 10 April 2008 the Maoists gained a majority and on 28 May the 240 year old monarchy was abolished and Nepal declared a Federal Democratic Republic. There was no turning back with the motion in the Constituent Assembly for abolition being carried with 560 votes for and only four members against. On 11 June the King left the palace. Ram Baran Yadav of the Congress Party became the first President of the Republic; Prachanda was elected the first Prime Minister and Bhattari his Finance Minister on 15 August 2008.
In May 2009, after a standoff between the Prime Minister and the President over integrating former Maoist rebel fighters into the army Yadav, exercising his Presidential powers, refused the request upon which Prachanda resigned.
A succession of Prime Ministers followed who, after being elected, resigned and so it continues to this day. Somehow the country continues to function despite acute water shortages, power sharing in Kathmandu and the instability of government. The Nepalese have finally drawn up a new constitution, dealt with the Indian border restrictions on trade, particularly petroleum products, and are now dealing with the aftermath of the mega earthquakes.
Ironically, the war that was supposed to improve the lives of the rural poor has only made life more difficult as funds for rural development were redirected to build up army strength to confront the insurgents. These events made it impossible to hold local elections to organise and manage local rural life in a democratic manner. This state of affairs continues today, 10 years since the cessation of hostilities.
Due to the fact there are no elected people’s representatives in place large amounts of government funding earmarked for rural development via District Development Committees has gone astray. One estimate is that between 25% – 30% of these funds have been misappropriated. The sums however are not huge being in the region of £10,000 per Village Development Committee [VDC], more for larger VDC’s. As an example, the government recently allocated £14,000 for the whole of the Helambu VDC of which Melamchiguan received just under £500 to fund the women’s skill development programme; it is not known where the rest of the £14,000 was spent.
Progress towards improving economic and social development has been held back with so many young men going abroad as migrant labour to India and the Middle East. At first they left home rather than face the dangers and insecurities existing during the civil war but they continued to leave in ever increasing numbers due to the spiralling corruption and rampant poverty after the war was over. They sought a better standard of living, not just for themselves but for their families, who do benefit from the remittances they sent back home. The country has consequently lost vital human
resources to assist with post-conflict recovery and to now help with reconstruction after the earthquake, especially in the depopulated rural highlands.
In his recent book, “Lost in Transition”  Kul Chandra Gautam writes about the “Maoist Mayhem” and the fact that there were gains during the Maoist ascendency. In particular, he is impressed that the Maoists tried to ban child marriage, untouchability, alcoholism, gambling, prostitution, exploitation by landlords and money lenders and that they tried to raise the status of women. Kul Chandra Gautam also noted that the good that was done soon became overshadowed by violence, intolerance and extortion through intimidation. The author concludes that when “we are in a position to make a dispassionate assessment, the “People’s War” will be judged to be 10% blessing and 90% curse for Nepal”. This is the opinion of one of Nepal’s most respected diplomats, once Assistant General Secretary of the UN, who is now active in promoting human rights, economic development and good governance. The Maoist leaders and Kul Chandra Gautam would never be natural bedfellows.
The headline on the world news section of The Telegraph newspaper website in January 2012 read “Nepali Maoist Leader Adopts Millionaire Lifestyle” after moving into a “mansion” in the exclusive Lazimpat area of Kathmandu. This move, together with his luxury cars, designer suits and expensive watches “highlighted the divide between the rich and poor within his Maoist movement”. There are no surprises here for anyone who has read George Orwell’s take upon the cycle of a revolution in “Animal Farm”.
The Maoists tried desperately to influence the media but they never quite managed to suppress it throughout the insurgency despite threats, intimidation and attempts at character assassination. The ‘Himalmedia Group’, under the direction of Kanak Mani Dixit, continued to report even handedly across the political spectrum of the failings and atrocities committed by supporters on the right and the left – the army and the Maoist. The bravery of Kanak Mani Dixit, his family and friends is inspirational and gives everyone hope for the future of Nepal.
It could be argued that overall, the civil war has helped to bring about progressive change since the electorate are now more aware of politicians and their slogans offering nothing of substance; more aware too of the social and economic stagnation resulting from power and wealth residing in the hands of an elite minority and the age-old culture of nepotism and fatalism that has to be overcome if the quest for shared prosperity can be achieved.
Kul Chandra Gautam calls for an end to the country’s penchant for seemingly endless political transition and to focus upon economic and social development. He, like so many others, wants to put aside ideological and political experiments and to get on with rebuilding Nepal. His hope is that the mega earthquakes will be the wake-up call his country needs.