Voice of the peopleThe UML promotes one type of nationalism in Nepal, but will all their cadres follow?
The late Chandra Bahadur Gurung had his momentary claim to fame in Nepal’s history books as the standard bearer of the only party that voted against transforming Nepal into a republic in 2008. With his leader, Kamal Thapa, routed in the first Constituent Assembly election, it fell upon Gurung to embody the spirit of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Nepal) in a house that was overwhelmingly against what his party stood for—at least at that time. Yet, he persevered in all respects, many a time the lone dissenter on issues such as federalism, secularism—in fact, most of the issues that would contribute to creating a more inclusive Nepal.
When meeting him to learn his views about the political transition in his hometown of Syangja at a time when he, in a manner of speaking, still represented the small opposition in the first CA, Gurung provided the usual party spiel on the monarchy, Hindusim, and so on. Pressed further, however, towards the end of the conversation, he began—almost instinctively—speaking a language that would sound more natural for a Janajati activist. It was apparent that he was aware of the deep disconnect between what his party stood for and his understanding of the structural inequities prevalent in the country. Yet, for political reasons he was not able to articulate his feelings so openly.
We are who we are
With the local election results in for six provinces, I was reminded of Chandra Bahadur Gurung once again and what it might mean for the kind of identity politics that obsessed Nepal and Nepalis for nearly a decade. Of course, in this age of Trumpism, there is no need to reiterate that identity politics cuts both ways: practised by those who seek recognition on the basis of an identity that had hitherto been denied mainstream recognition, and more forcefully by those who want to undercut the very basis of such identities in the name of conformity to a national ideal that has usually been grafted through the might of the state.
It is a curious fact that while the 2008 Constituent Assembly election was heralded as a victory for the Maoists, the 2013 election is considered a defeat of identity politics. In many respects, the latter was no more than the booting out of the incumbent Maoists and their allies, the Madhesi parties, by an electorate that had become disillusioned with all their talk of change in the way politics is done, with barely anything to show for it. Certainly, the period before and between the two elections was marked by organising on the basis of all kinds of identities, the social one being the most prominent. But, it would be quite short-sighted to assume that the results of one election or two, points to a general trend, as the UML leadership has been insisting all along.
Leaders of the UML have been crowing about being the biggest winner in the local elections so far, and are also claiming that a repeat is possible in Province 2. But, as the saying goes, one should be careful of what one wishes for. Assuming the UML is able to achieve all this and even more, it would find itself in the curious position of continuing to insist that the era of the post-2006 identity politics is over, while also finding a large number of empowered local leaders who would be able to push an agenda at odds with the UML’s stated position on a number of issues.
Walk the talk
Take, for example, the decisions by the new mayors of both Kirtipur and Kathmandu to include Newari, or Nepal Bhasa, as another language of business in the municipal offices. Both were elected on UML tickets, and, for various reasons, the victories of both were touted as evidence of the UML’s fortunes being on the wax. The reaction of a reader to a report of the Kathmandu decision as printed in this paper is revealing: ‘Dont make compulsion of newari language in every field in ktm as it may result conflict among people [sic].’ The reader was responding to the somewhat misleading title of the story—‘Nepal Bhasa as official language in metropolis’—but it indicates the virulent opposition to any move towards building an inclusive society in Nepal.
It is also indicative of the mindset that has been carried over from two decades ago that impelled the Supreme Court to ban the use of Maithili in Rajbiraj and Janakpur, and Newari in Kathmandu in addition to Nepali, a mindset that sits very well with the largely monolithic top brass of the UML. Since we are not sure of what the UML’s current language policy is, we have to rely on the last document that was shared with the people: the election manifesto prepared for the 2013 election. Accordingly, the UML has made it clearnthat Nepali will be the language of official business, while it does go on about the preservation of other languages in a way that one can almost envision a museum of languages where one could go and press a button and hear one of Nepal’s ‘national languages’. Apparently, they did not reckon on the many party cadres within their rank and file who would think, and act, pretty much like Chandra Bahadur Gurung given the opportunity.
This may yet be just the beginning. A news item from the Udayapur district a couple of weeks ago went by with little notice, but it has the potential of far greater significance. The newly elected council of the Sunkoshi Rural Municipality decided by majority vote to rename the municipality and call it Lingchungbung, the name of a flower in the local Rai language. While correctly arguing that there are more places called Sunkoshi and they wanted a distinct identity of their own, the choice of a Rai term is highly instructive since it clearly harks to something that was lost. The Chair and Vice-Chair of Sunkoshi/Lingchungbung are from the Maoist Centre and the Nepali Congress, respectively, and not from the UML, but in days to come we should certainly be ready to expect more such initiatives. Given the recent history of unrest in the Tarai and the state’s response, Madhesi leaders would have to pursue an even more radical line, since no matter which party flag they carry, they cannot help trumped it with their social identity.
With power flowing upwards from the grassroots, this will have a bearing on national politics as well—and parties such as the UML will have no choice but to rejig their message once again. It should not be so difficult for the UML, for its rightist leanings are only of recent vintage. Even if social identity had never been granted the same level of importance throughout its ideological evolution, one can be quite sure that is what it takes to stay a winner; the UML will come up with a catchy slogan and wrap it up in rhetorical justification to encompass it all.