New era, false dawnOne morning, at my primary school in the periphery of a village in the eastern hills, an unusual sight caught our attention.
One morning, at my primary school in the periphery of a village in the eastern hills, an unusual sight caught our attention. A red flag fluttered up a Banyan tree on a foot trail linking Myanglung of Tehrathum and Phidim of Panchthar. This was during the tail-end of the partyless Panchayat era, and at the time, the triangular national flag was the only flag we knew. Back then, since political parties were banned, this display of communist and Congress flags across the chautaras in the village was viewed as a “terrorist” act, punishable by the autocratic regime.
As we went up to the Friday bazaar after school that day, we found more flags—some being meticulously dislodged from the Banyan and Peepal trees by the authorities. Protests were raging in the cities in the fight for democracy. And while people were falling to bullets in Kathmandu, these acts of defiance in the remote areas were in solidarity with what sometimes felt like a far-off movement.
We children, of course, had no grasp of what was going on. The tailor who visited our home to stitch clothes whispered that the nirdal (partyless) polity had given way to a bahudal (multiparty) democracy. At the time, I remember, I picked up on this new, alien word and found different ways to use it. As we rolled stones down the slopes, we cautioned people to beware that ‘bahudal’ was tumbling down with force!
Even if I was unaware of political undercurrents of the age, I grew up with the revolutionary songs that were sung and danced to on family and social occasions. While I realised what they meant only as a grown up much later, state politics was something we knew early on. We did not miss any royal birthday celebrations at the district headquarters uphill. The hymns to the king and queen performed at these celebrations still ring fresh in my ear. In the fourth grade, I grappled with a piece of historical information that our teacher did not bother to explain, nor could I muster up courage to ask for an explanation: The Shah kings had lived in jail-like situations for 104 years as the Ranas ruled, but in 1951 King Tribhuvan abolished the oligarchy to usher in democracy. My question then was why the king had waited so long to banish the Ranas if he could do it so easily with a declaration. Our social-cum-history book did not explain it. It missed the part that Tribhuvan had taken refuge in the Indian embassy in Kathmandu and lived in Delhi for weeks, where a tripartite agreement was reached that ended the Rana Regime.
Subsequently, the 1990 People’s Movement and the constitution—drafted by the royals, political parties and legal representatives and granted by King Birendra—guided polity for 16 years. Then, with the three-way conflict between the constitutional monarchy, governing parties and the rebel Maoists, the constitution gradually lost its relevance. The deeply unpopular autocratic King Gyanendra could not resist the wave of popular revolt in 2006. After he gave in to popular demands, the reinstated parliament stripped him of all powers and the first Constituent Assembly drove the last nail on the coffin of the monarchy. The 2008-2012 CA perished in the political firestorm sparked by freewheeling communal thought as nationalism waned. The second Assembly was more organised, with ethnic and regional forces having somewhat lost their sheen.
But in 2015, the country writhed in the constitutional birth pangs. In light of Nepal’s home-grown decision-making, an undeclared economic blockade was imposed. But CPN-UML Chairman and then Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli stood up resolutely against this divisive policy. It did not take long to bring down Oli’s government by coercing the Maoists into siding with the Nepali Congress to keep Oli out of power. All along, Oli consolidated his party and propped up his rhetoric of national prosperity while promising to open up Nepal’s avenues by linking Kathmandu by rail to China. The pledge of economic growth and the drumming up of nationalist sentiments, it is now evident, struck the right chord with the public. As the results of the momentous federal and provincial elections show, the communists have registered an unprecedented win, while the grand old party, the Nepali Congress, has suffered a historic loss.
But more importantly, these polls will now institutionalise the federal democratic republican order outlined in the new constitution. This transition into federation from a unitary state is the dawn of a new era—one that could potentially unleash prosperity in the country as touted by the leftist alliance of the UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre).
At this moment, the winning parties cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past. After every political change, people have held the hope that the new dispensation will catalyse the upliftment from a state of poverty, illiteracy and backwardness. Such changes were expected after the referendum of 1979, in 1990, after the second people’s movement of 2006, and the current federalisation process. The earlier periods of hope soon turned into despair and frustration as the political leadership failed to deliver on the promises; it must not be allowed to transpire again.
If the incoming government cannot keep its electoral promises and fulfil the aspirations of the Nepali people, it will renew popular frustration, which means diminished prospects for today’s victors in another periodic election. As for the Nepali Congress, which is stunned by its worst return ever in a general election, the next five years should be devoted to reorganisation and reforms, while it stays vigilant of any missteps by the left government.
From a time when merely displaying party flags was tantamount to treason to now taking the first steps into this brave new world of a federal republic, this nation has indeed come a long way. This crossroads might very well be a herald of a new era of stability and prosperity. Conversely, it might also be yet another false dawn. But for the moment, breath abated, let’s hope for the best.
- The author tweets @GuragainMohan