A state of permanent revolutionDemocracy today is not threatened by those who oppose a government, but by the government itself.
My first ‘political’ memory is a bit hazy. I remember a mashal julus going past our home in Pokhara during the 1990 revolution. There would have been slogans, I am sure. But I was not more than six years old, so I can’t really say.
The 2006 revolution, however, is more permanently etched in my mind. It was April, and anti-monarchy was the flavour of the month. Mahendra Pul and Chipledhunga were the centres of protests; one day, we heard a protestor had been shot dead. Eventually, the agreement between the mainstream parties and the Maoists, and international pressure by way of Indian nudging, forced the king’s hand. The decade-long civil war was over; the Maoists emerged out of hiding as a revolutionary force that had brought the monarchy to its knees.
Then, Pushpa Kamal Dahal overplayed his hand after the Maoists’ victory in the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections. Girija Prasad Koirala’s ambition to become republic Nepal’s first president was scuttled, and the politics of consensus that had brought the Maoists above-ground was over. When Dahal tried to fire the Army chief, he found himself opposed not just by the Kathmandu intelligentsia, but by international actors as well. The Maoists were accused of attempting ‘state capture’—and Dahal had to resign, eventually. Protests and daily strikes marked the day.
One day, during the week-long protests called by the Maoists, I met with protestors who had come all the way from Rolpa and had been put up at a dingy monastery in Patan; they had no drinking water, and several of them were suffering from dysentery. That same week, I fled from the riot-police while on my way to work at the Post; the police charged protestors who threw stones at them, and even my press ID card wouldn’t deter the officer who nearly hit me.
By the end of the week, I wore a ‘white shirt’ and took part in a rally for peace, the same one Dahal called a gathering of Kathmandu’s ‘sukila mukila’. By next week, I regretted my participation at the white-shirt protest; despite my privileged upbringing, I was never a member of the Kathmandu elite to start with, and the calls for peace and stability while negating the demands of representation seemed to me to be another way of saying the status quo must be preserved.
I left Nepal a year later. The constitution-making process entered an impasse. Another CA election was held, but the constitution itself showed no signs of emergence. Then, in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake, suddenly everyone came to believe a constitution—no matter what the document said or did—would solve all our issues and take Nepal out of the convoluted post-conflict transition period. So when the 2015 constitution was ‘fast-tracked’, despite violent protests in the Tarai and far-west, people began to celebrate. ‘Stability’, that long-lost dream, now seemed a reality. Folks believed the country needed a constitution first; everything else—representation of marginalised people, justice, federalism, etc.—could be resolved later. They, in turn, placed their hopes in Oli, the irony in choosing a man who tried hard to scuttle the post-conflict transition in every way lost on the Nepali electorate.
Here we are now, six years later: that same constitution celebrated by thousands in shreds. Here we are now, possibly at the beginning of a Third People’s Revolution. Forgive me the cynicism when I ask: Is Oli the cause of the current instability, or is he only a symptom? Does the fault not lie with our existing political system, which the previous revolutions gladly retained despite a change in the head of state? And will it be adequate to simply demand Oli step back from the brink and reinstate Parliament? For, as my friend, the Kantipur columnist Ujjwal Prasai, has written, ‘Can the Third People’s Revolution succeed unless it challenges the ideology of the influential community that Oli represents?’
Oli, after all, is an elected autocrat—a people’s representative who has subverted the very idea of democracy. But his ouster will only be a part of the solution. Will the politics of kleptocracy and patronage change if Oli reinstates Parliament (which he will not) or elections (the new magic word, just as ‘sambidhan’ was in 2015) are held once again? Can any party be distinguished from another at this moment in time? Can we forget the betrayals that resulted in the violence and deaths of 2015? Or are we simply going to sweep them under the rug and hope for a magic wand named elections or reinstatement to go back to ‘normal’?
Politics in Nepal has come to be imagined as a continuation of the status quo: there is a deep desire among the elite to become close to the powers-that-be. The existing system works for those who play the game; inevitably, individuals calculate in favour of short-term gains than long-term stability. One doesn’t have to go beyond Nepali Congress’ wait-and-watch approach to the anti-Oli protests to witness this. Look at Oli himself, trying to cultivate a wide audience with his Pashupati visit and his wooing of ex-Maoist combatants. And who can forget his great anti-Indian nationalism now tempered down by the need to survive? Then there is Dahal, once a revolutionary, today just another politician trying to claw back to power. In between are the pro-monarchists, who believe it is once again time for a Hindu samrat. Among the ruins are the dreams of a federal, inclusive and representative Nepal. Just like the debris of the quake itself, the revolutions of the past gather dust.
Representative democracies now seem to believe they are majoritarian autocracies, as we’ve seen not just in Nepal but in neighbouring India and the US as well. The checks-and-balances that are supposed to keep autocrats in control, such as the legislative and the judiciary, have been co-opted. By any standard, Oli’s coercing and co-opting of state instruments is far too malign than the ‘state capture’ the Maoists attempted in their first attempt at governance. Social justice has taken a backseat; the will of the majority is now the guiding light. The threat to democracy today does not come from those who oppose a government; it comes from the government itself, and its many supporters and influencers who believe only they represent a nation.
So here we are now, the ‘world’s best constitution’ in tatters by the very men who made it, in a fledgeling republic so disillusioned that a section wants to go back to the feudal age of kings, while another argues in favour of a man who did not contribute to republic Nepal and bamboozled his way into becoming an elected king. The opposition is in disarray, and we are back to the daily rallies and strikes that demand much but disillusion others. Once again, we are back in a state of permanent revolution. Where do we want to go from here? Sadly, I don’t have the answers.