The rise of a strongmanReferring to the sweeping authority that the parliament reinstated after the 2006 people’s movement wielded, to strip the king of all his historic and constitutional powers, people often said in jest that Nepal’s legislature was unable to do only one thing—to make the rivers flow upstream.
Referring to the sweeping authority that the parliament reinstated after the 2006 people’s movement wielded, to strip the king of all his historic and constitutional powers, people often said in jest that Nepal’s legislature was unable to do only one thing—to make the rivers flow upstream.
Back then, all the decisions including government formation were taken in consensus among the parties in parliament. The two years until the first Constituent Assembly was elected in 2008—by then the rebel Maoists had joined the political mainstream as a significant force in the interim parliament—was probably the time when the country underwent most radical transformations. One after another, policy and political changes gave people a feeling that parliament had indeed been sovereign.
For the masses that had seen the undemocratic regime of then-king Gyanendra Shah and the preceding periods of political instability, misrule and terror created by the Maoist-Royal Army crossfire, the level of freedom that had descended on the Nepali soil was a surprise.
The 2008 CA elections endorsed the revolutionary agenda of the Maoists, establishing them as the single largest force in the first election they had participated in following their decade-long insurgency against the unitary state. The Assembly brought about unimaginable political changes in the form of republicanism, inclusion, federalism and secularism.
As is evident to the watchers, the following decade was a political tug-of-war between the supporters and opponents of these four tenets of the present Nepali state.
During the political transition, Nepalis experienced one of the harshest times in history. Right from the middle of the conflict, youths had started leaving the country in droves out of desperation and hopelessness—the lack of hope for jobs, peace and equal opportunity. Corruption and nepotism took their ugliest shape. Industry was in ruins and power outages were chronic, leading to a freefall in domestic output, saddled with regular decline in agricultural yield. The educational sector, both basic and higher, had been unable to prepare citizens for the country’s changing needs and growing challenges. Society in general failed to embrace the revolutionary changes. When a large part of Nepal was still trembling from the devastation caused by the 2015 earthquakes, a bigger calamity befell people in the form of India’s economic blockade.
The aftermath was more difficult. The nation had never been as deeply polarised as the time surrounding the promulgation of the constitution passed by the people’s representatives. Right from the time of constitution drafting, political differences were giving rise to ethnic divide. Its worst form was the last Madhes Movement in which the country was divided between the supporters and opponents of the new constitution. The dispute stretches to this day, simmering.
Nepalis have always yearned for a strongman to rise and fix the country’s ills present in the form of underdevelopment, backwardness, misrule, and inadequate and inefficient service delivery. That was precisely the reason why they initially supported the royal takeover by Gyanendra and later voted Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” to power. Frustrated at the missteps of the now deposed king, they soon revolted against him. Then, when time came to vote for a political party, they rejected the traditional powers Nepali Congress and then-Communist Party of Nepal (UML), lured by the promises of the untested Prachanda who inspired awe.
Discounting his political adventurism, Prachanda made some genuine efforts to address the demands of ethnic and Madhesi communities in relation to the restructuring of the state. Even though what survived in the fight against traditional forces was a compromise, the transformations enshrined in the constitution cannot be undermined. Prachanda’s aura faded when he got bogged down in hardcore politics and failed to address people’s urgent economic needs. The conspiracies against him demand separate discussion.
KP Sharma Oli’s rise last year as one of the strongest leaders in the Nepali history was another popular endorsement of a strongman. Oli had shown his brave face by standing up to India’s highhandedness when the mammoth neighbour made issues with the contents and procedure as Nepal adopted its constitution. I had argued in this newspaper ahead of parliamentary and provincial elections in November-December 2017 that Oli’s UML deserved a chance given his promises in the face of the economic and political mess created chiefly by the Congress and the Maoist parties.
It’s nearly a year since the powerful government of the UML and the Maoist forces combined as the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) was formed. As people begin to hold the government commanding a two-thirds majority in Parliament, with the backing of the disgruntled Madhes-based parties, accountable to its electoral promises, Oli’s position falters.
Nonetheless, the government today has a solid backing of parliament as in the days of the interim legislature. The federal parliament can pass the bills easily ignoring the concerns of the opposition. The NCP commands six of the seven provincial governments while the central Tarai administration in Janakpur is led by the two regional parties that back the federal cabinet. By no means is the Oli administration weak.
But does Oli maintain his grip on the political-administrative apparatus? As many of the country’s chronic problems remain, has Kathmandu not been
disoriented? Has the government lost its track as citizens clamour for justice and a fair share of state resources? Have development schemes got their due priority?
They say, to discredit a political party, send it to power. By whatever motive or merit, the first communist government of the country, a minority one, in 1994-95, gained unprecedented popularity during its nine months in office. Having been at the helm for much longer now—11 months—political headwinds are already blowing against Oli.
When it was rumoured during merger negotiations between the two communist allies early last year that Oli might not complete his full five-year term, many probably feared that another prime minister from the party might not be as capable as him. What prepared people in less than a year to accept that Prachanda might as well replace him much earlier than mid-term?
Is it the government’s love for pomp, bombast, and drama—anything other than promised results? Have local representatives already frustrated the people with their greed for cash and car? Has the commoner President forgotten her roots since she came to dwell in Sheetal Niwas? Or is it not corruption when your close comrades indulge in it?
Will Nirmala Pant, the teenage victim of rape and murder, get justice anytime soon?
Or will this government of the party that gained political ground in the name of the proletariat take people for a ride too?
Lest they forget, if democracy survives communist dominance, next round of elections won’t be too late to arrive.
The writer tweets @GuragainMohan