In Nepali politics, you can never trust your friendsThe one common factor through Nepal’s history has been that alliances never last.
In Macbeth, Shakespeare’s play about the disloyal Scot general who commits regicide and becomes king and is then haunted by his betrayal, we get a sense of what loyalty and honour stand for in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition. Perhaps this comes from Judas’ betrayal of Jesus; perhaps honour remained the last moral code during the fractious medieval era. It may be a facade—after all, the younger George Bush invoked several Christian principles during his Iraq invasion, as do Trump and his conservative supporters in their rhetoric against what the US president calls ‘far-left fascism’—but Western politics continues to make Christian values of loyalty and honour one of its pillars. One can also sense it in how the US accuses China of not living up to the international order as envisioned by it.
The Sanskritic-Hindu worldview, however, has no such qualms. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, one of the oldest political treatises, remains quite pragmatic in its approach. For example, the raja-mandala—‘circle of kings’—is a theory of interstate relations that keeps a king at its centre and his friends, allies, enemies, and enemies’ allies, and even neutrals, as encircling him. As historian Upinder Singh writes, ‘And yet, after introducing and explaining the raja-mandala, Kautilya immediately undermines it, making it apparent that the arrangement is neither a fixed nor a stable formation… allies cannot always be depended on for support’.
Such cold pragmatism concerning friends and enemies is the hallmark of another Sanskrit political treatise disguised as fables, the Panchatantra, two of whose books are titled Mitra-bheda (‘Dissent between friends’) and Mitra-labha (‘On winning friends’). ‘Beneath the veneer of humor...is a great deal of political tension, conflict and violence… [The Panchatantra] reveals the underbelly of courtly society and society at large, shorn of pious platitudes. Dharma is mentioned in passing, but is of little importance’.
Alliances never last
Like many of us, I too marvelled at the ease with which this current government—‘history’s strongest’ but quintessentially propped up by individual fief-lords—is unravelling. The anti-Oli alliance within his own party may please several of his detractors, but we are all aware of the impermanence of political coalitions in Nepal. Why, Pushpa Kamal Dahal himself pulled the rug on Oli’s government in 2016, leading the Chinese (who are now running from pillar to post to save the current government) to then accuse Nepali politicians of playing the China card against India as it suited them. Two years later, they shared the same stage. But of course, the rivalry never went away.
The one common factor through Nepal’s history has been that alliances never last. What makes our ruling elite prone to betraying each other and breaking alliances with regularity? It is not a new phenomenon either. Betrayals among our ruling classes go as far back as early medieval times of fragmented states. KP Malla writes, ‘The fabric of this feeble political structure was, moreover, drenched with a passion for killing, pillaging and genocide… Alliances were ruptured as soon as they were formed. Patan goes out to destroy Devapatan; Devapatan, to destroy Sakhu; Tripura, to demolish Tokha; Tokha, to set fire on Nuwakot; Palaucok [sic] encircles Panauti, and so on’. Jealousy among the three Malla kings of Nepal valley led to their discordant approach towards the Gorkha threat represented by Prithvi Narayan Shah, who used deception and disloyalty with equal measure (Ranajit Malla was his mitaba, godfather, after all). Bhimsen Thapa was done in by the other courtiers, who were in turn wiped out by Jung Bahadur Kunwar and his brothers. The sons of Dhir Shumsher rose one bloody night after turning on their uncle; and from the perspective of Mohan Shumsher, Tribhuvan too betrayed him by running to New Delhi.
Some monarchists like to believe Nepali politics was more stable during the Panchayat. But if the kings replaced their prime ministers as they did their suits, could the era really be termed stable? There were 15 prime ministers between 1960 and 1990; an average of a new one every two years. Perhaps the semblance of stability comes from the fact that most of these prime ministers were re-appointed: Tulsi Giri, Surya Bahadur Thapa and Kirti Nidhi Bista were each appointed prime minister thrice in this period, while Lokendra Bahadur Chand and Nagendra Rijal took on the post twice.
What was bad went to worse
Of course, the Panchayat’s instability pales in comparison to the post-1990 political musical chairs, when prime ministers changed quicker than one could say Singha Durbar. Alliances were broken with ease, and there is a close parallel between Oli’s shaky position and Girija Prasad Koirala rallying up his own party-mates to pull the rug from under Krishna Prasad Bhattarai’s feet in the late 90s. Koirala would, however, be on the receiving end of the most significant betrayal in contemporary times, when Dahal scuttled the Congress leader’s ambitions to become the first president of republic Nepal. Had Prachanda honoured their agreement, the history of the republic would certainly have been different. Now, all the ‘fierce one’ has to show for his 10-year-long insurgency is the number of deaths, and, even then, he turns defensive and argues the state has killed more people.
Although Oli has had his share of U-turns too—he’s been a royalist minister, a former Naxal, pro-India and anti-India both—no other Nepali politician has strayed so far from his roots than Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who built up a (bloody) career on the ideals of identity, self-determination and devolution of power, and gave up everything to side with the very forces he had once fought. It is a tragic fall for a once-romanticised guerrilla leader; a Castro who succumbed to conservatism, a Che who turned into Dick Cheney.
And so, we come to the current political drama, an entirely predictable one that will perhaps lead to new permutations and combinations that will inevitably return to a familiar conclusion: alliances are never to be trusted in Nepali politics.