Communism and NepalThe opinion that Nepal will turn into a one-party communist state is preposterous.
There are interesting secrets behind why Nepal insulated itself from masquerading communist regimes found in many Asian countries adjacent to China. The powerful appeal of communism that came after the October Revolution in Russia, and subsequently with the establishment of communist rule in China in 1949, made impacts on changing regimes in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as if the domino effect (theory) worked in these countries following the advent of the Maoist regime in China. Yet, Thailand and Burma, also close to China, were spared due to various historical and geo-political reasons specific to them.
Nepal bypassed such invading trends of communism for shifting into a one-party dictatorship despite being influenced by the aggressive appeal of communism in the post-1950 period. However, the communist-China factor did play a role in pushing India and Nepal to invigorate structural security and other bilateral relations in 1950. It was done more out of paranoia and the perception that communist China was really an expansionist power, and hence the necessity of a unified effort to check it. Yet, the 1950 Treaty was only a modification of the British-India and Nepal Treaty of 1923 implying that it was both continuity and change.
Interestingly, all revolutions and movements launched for a regime change were not motivated by communist ideology. Parties both ‘left’ and ‘right’ fought for a common cause of establishing multiparty democracy. Some anti-Nepali Congress groups showed their penchant for communism, but they did not try to emulate the one-party dictatorship as was prevalent in China or elsewhere. Whoever tried to emulate Maoism were in the wilderness, and after some time, fatigue eventually led them to join the votaries of liberal democracy. Ironically, some still prefer to call themselves ‘Maoist’ or ‘communist’ by using the hammer and sickle symbol in their party flags. Today’s ruling Nepal Communist Party was able to come to power under the parliamentary process, but party leaders and cadres continue to use communist clichés if only to prove that they are different from others.
The reasons for making parliamentary communists in Nepal are location of the country, predominant role of India in the historical, social, economic and political domains, and exposure to Western values directly or through India. Nepal’s geographical location facing south of the Himalaya helped to insulate it from the north despite old historical and cultural contacts with Tibet, then a buffer between China and India. Tibet had limited commercial and cultural contacts with Nepal. Occasional wars fought between the two plus the opening of trade routes through two main passes—Kuti and Kerung—brought them closer to some extent. Thus, preordained as it was by geography and topography, Nepal’s exposure to the south remain uninterrupted despite the vicissitudes brought to the fore by the exigencies of time and situation.
Nepal came into direct contact with communist China with the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1955. The opening of the Kathmandu-Kodari road and increased Chinese presence in Nepal’s developmental activities has, to a certain extent, changed the context of the balance of power in trilateral relations resulting in some adjustments to accommodate the sentiments of Nepalis. But the policy of ‘equidistance’ in Nepal’s relations with its neighbours is a misnomer as, given the nature and multiplicity of relations between Nepal and India, Nepal’s relations with the southern neighbour cannot be equated with any country including China. The late king Mahendra, who tried to counterbalance China and India, didn’t go to offend India by unilaterally declaring the abrogation of the 1950 Treaty. His resistance to India was confined to avoiding threats emanating from his political opponents, then conducting their anti-regime activities from India, who were maligned by the king as ‘antinational elements’.
Not only the liberal ideology, but also the methods of launching struggles for achieving democracy were southern imports. The 1950 anti-Rana revolution, the 1990 movement for the restoration of multiparty system, and the 2006 radical changes including the abolition of the monarchy had external support. China, that preferred to conduct state-to-state relations until a decade ago, was not the source of ideological inspiration for the regime change. However, for strategic regions, China was perceived as a counterpoise to India and other Western influence. This was evident in the 1960s and even in 2015 as the hard-pressed native rulers, the king or party leaders, looked upon China for relief. It was also crystal clear that no country, howsoever powerful, could retain the same leverage as they used to do in the past because time and context had also made them adjust to the new emerging realities in bilateral, regional and international relations.
Nepal cannot be haunted by the spectre of one-party communist rule as is being practiced in some Asian countries. Its location, limitations, continued traditional relations, and orientations of the elites do not allow the ‘communists’ to enjoy as much freedom of action as they would wish. Thus, communism in Nepal has been sold to liberal democracy even if this model is fraught with dangers of being denigrated into dysfunctional anarchy and kleptocracy. Pointing out the maladies in Asian democracies, Parag Khanna has written in his recent book The Future is Asian (2019), “Seen from inside out, democracy in much of Asia has been more an exercise in vote banking than in political progress. Parliaments have not been the embodiment of genuine democracy but rather the junction point of local corruption and federal politics.”
Now the time has come to ‘graduate from democracy to technocracy’, Khanna argues, by inducting a large number of technocratic politicians who can deliver. Yet, caution must be taken that basic democratic values are not trampled under this pretext.
Many people argue that Chinese influence, that has increased in recent years, might push Nepal into introducing a communist regime with certain Nepali characteristics. Such arguments are stretched on the basis of some bilateral agreements concluded recently for reducing Nepal’s ‘overdependence’ on India. Access to Chinese seaports for transiting third country goods to Nepal is expected to give a new lease of life to Nepali trade and strategy for discouraging the southern neighbour to not to be tempted to impose sanctions as it did in the past. Greater connectivity through rail and road would facilitate tourism and people-to-people contacts for bringing the two countries closer to each other. These developments and trends of regional and international politics are welcome for a country like Nepal, but to jump to a conclusion that they would turn Nepal into a one-party communist state is both farfetched and preposterous.
Moreover, Nepali society is heterodox in nature. Without accepting the diversity and openness of the country, no regimented society and polity is possible. Some kind of personality cult and centralisation of power might be the features of emerging politics, but these features also need to be geared to generate regime efficiency and deliver capacity. It is also an oversimplification that the transit and transport agreements with China would drastically change the economic picture of Nepal. Reducing over dependence on India is not much linked to Nepal-China trade or transit facilities as the remedy lies with Nepal itself. If Nepal fails to accelerate the pace of development by pursuing and implementing strict financial and trade policies, no country would come to rescue it.
Baral a professor of political science and former ambassador of Nepal to India