|Maoists Lead Nepalís Transition to Democracy|
|By Anuj Mishra|
|Sunday, 20 April 2008|
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Half a century past a promised date, Nepalis finally voted on April 10 in an election to the Constituent Assembly (CA) that will write its constitution. The CA on its first sitting is expected to abolish monarchy and establish a republic.
The opera that was Nepal
Ensconced between two giants of Asia, India and China, Nepal has had its fair share of geo-politics imposed unfavorably over the last half a century. As it sloughed off the skin of the British colonial client Rana regime in early 50s, the new political setup envisioned an election to a constituent assembly. However, the colonial legacy of British Raj in south Asia passed on to India, which, true to its newfound status as a regional power, was quick to assert influence through almost direct interventions in tiny countries that dotted the Himalayan foothills, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim.
These tiny state-lets were byproducts of the clash between colonial expansion and the geo-strategic imperatives of the early 19th century south-central Asia. India eventually annexed Sikkim and brought Bhutan under its security umbrella, rendering it a quasi-sovereign state But Nepal’s peculiarity, mainly its long standing heritage as one of the major powerful native states of the 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 behind-the-curtain role.
The decisive moment came when the people of Nepal in the most exemplary grassroots revolution overwhelmingly rejected the Nepali monarchy’s fifty years of promise of rebate on democracy in April 2006.
Although most of the diplomatic community in Nepal, including the US, the UK and India, remained conservative and tried to impress upon political parties to accept the King’s offer to nominate a Prime Minister, the people on the street made their demands clear and ultimately prevailed on the guarantee of the complete transfer of sovereignty to them. This followed the peace process of the last two years, and finally resulted in the election to the Constituent Assembly.
The appeal of the Maoists
The Constituent Assembly is expected to abolish the monarchy as its first act and radically restructure the state, which remains a most 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 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 for negotiations with the Royal government in 2002. By the time they forged alliances with other political parties that adhere to the multi-party democracy leading up to the April 2006 movement, their transformation from a Leninist party into a more pragmatic modern political force was more pronounced, although their “Maoist” brand and traditional Marxist paraphernalia belie their impending 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 the capitalism. This seemingly ideological posturing has much benefited the Maoists’ exercise in historical pragmatism – their acceptance of the multi-party democracy and the liberal economic system, which they are quick to point as still being true to their Marxist credo.
The moderating influence of democracy
In a marked contrast to his pre-election diatribe against other political parties, monarchy and the “imperialist forces of India and America”, Prachanda gave a very reserved and conciliatory speech in his election victory rally, emphatically pleading everybody, especially the international community to not doubt his party’s commitment to multi-party democracy. This evolution of Maoists into undoubtedly what is going to be a more or less liberal democratic party with disparately 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 the political parties over the last two decades of the difficult exercise in democracy. Pervasive poverty (majority of Nepalis live on less than US$ 0.21 per day) in an oppressive society explains the mass appeal for leftist politics. However the left forces’ radical agenda have always tapered off as they approached governing, explaining the discrepancy between ideological stance and 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 facing 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 different pane of maneuverability than was accorded to the UML. However, with the donor community and India, in Nepal’s case the most important powers, the former being the benefactor of much of Nepal’s development budget and the latter with its enormous economic clout, the Maoists have limitations in their maneuverability. Hence, however strange it may appear, Nepal’s move from Monarchy towards a liberal democratic republic is being led by a party which calls itself Maoist, which it will not be, save its name.