Reversing Nepal’s ‘right turn’

July 24, 2014

By Rajeev Ravisankar


The ascendancy of right-wing forces in India has garnered a great deal of attention, but a similar political trajectory is evident in other parts of South Asia. In Nepal, the return of two stalwart political parties – Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist [CPN (UML)] – and the decline of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [UCPN (M)] in the November 2013 Constituent Assembly (CA) elections has been described as a right turn in the country’s politics.

The Nepali Congress and CPN (UML) are establishment parties that at different times worked within the system of parliamentary monarchy, and are less concerned about inclusion of marginalised groups and the need to restructure the state. In fact, shortly after the CA elections, a CPN (UML) leader Madhav Kumar Nepal issued praise for the 1990 Constitution, which characterised Nepal as a unitary, Hindu, monarchic state while opening the door for multiparty elections. According to political commentator CK Lal, “the agenda of inclusion, federalism and a welfare state may fall by the wayside if the Big Two manage to have their way.”

Some of the CPN (UML) leadership came out of the 1971 Jhapa movement, a Naxalite inspired revolt against feudal land relations, and the party maintains a strong trade union base. However, it has gradually diluted its political and ideological programme and opted for reformism, particularly as it developed closer relationships with non-governmental organisations. In 1997, CPN (UML) even joined an alliance with a right-wing party in order to come to power. Right-leaning tendencies were displayed more recently when the party instructed its newly inducted CA members to wear the ‘national dress’, a move that was criticised for going against the ethos of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity.

The reversal in fortunes for the UCPN (M) came just five years after the party experienced surprising success in the first CA elections when it emerged as the largest party. Also, given the resounding electoral victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, it is also worth pointing out that the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N), which supports re-instituting the monarchy and the Hindu state in Nepal, improved their standing by finishing fourth the CA elections.

Assessing key events and political developments over the last several years provides insight into the shift in Nepal and about how to once again bring left politics to the fore. At the same time, those who insist on overstating the electoral defeat and asserting the ‘failure of the left’ must be reminded of various forms of political engagement beyond the electoral arena as well as the significant gains that progressive forces were able to secure in a short timeframe.

Nepal’s historic transformation from a Hindu monarchy into a secular democratic republic occurred in just a two year span following the 2006 Jan Andolan, which forced King Gyanendra to step aside and reinstitute parliament. Moreover, mobilisation around the 2008 elections contributed to an unprecedented level of political representation for women and marginalised communities including Dalits, Janajatis (indigenous groups), Madhesis (mainly southern plains people who are ethnically linked with bordering north Indian states), and religious minorities.

Both the interim constitution and the draft constitution that took shape during the first constituent assembly were infused with a significant number of progressive features. This includes rights pertaining to employment, education, health, and the social safety net and measures aimed at promoting inclusion into state structures of disadvantaged and marginalised groups.

However, the issue of identity-based federalism as a way to re-envision a state traditionally dominated by upper castes proved to be a major stumbling block in the constitution drafting process. As a result, the constitution did not get completed before the deadline of the constituent assembly, a failure that reflected negatively on the major parties, but the UCPN (M) in particular.

Another major difficulty faced by the UCPN (M) related to the proposed restructuring of the Nepal Army and demobilisation of the People’s Liberation Army. First, UCPN (M) leader Prachanda sacked army chief Rukmanga Katawal in an attempt to subordinate the Nepal Army to civilian rule, but faced enormous opposition from political parties and the Indian government. The fiasco caused then Prime Minister Prachanda to resign.

Also, what started as a broader push to democratise the Nepal Army and integrate Maoist combatants into its ranks turned into a difficult endeavour for PLA cadres. As the process unfolded, the project of democratisation did not go forward and integration was extremely limited. To make matters worse, PLA commanders and the UCPN (M) leadership were accused of misappropriating funds meant for Maoist combatants residing in cantonments. This situation contributed to tensions between combatants and commanders that also intersected with ethnic divisions. In response Prachanda and the UCPN (M) sent in the Nepal Army to control the unrest, a move that indicates of the extent to which the party and its leadership had been absorbed into the mainstream political logic. By the end, less than 1,500 of 19,602 PLA combatants were integrated into the NA, with many opting for retirement and a payout.

Practices of this nature changed the perception of the party leaders among the people. Some steadfast supporters of the party felt that it had abandoned political struggle, and had turned into an enterprise for particular leaders to accrue benefits and wealth for themselves. As the party re-oriented towards the centre of power, it demobilised at the grassroots level and reversed some of the gains made during the ‘People’s War’, including returning land confiscated from absentee landlords. The lack of ideological clarity on major issues ranging from federalism to economic development coupled with the NGOisation of Nepal’s politics also contributed to the reduced standing of UCPN (M). According to Feyzi Ismail, by softening their critical orientation towards NGOs after becoming a mainstream political actor, “the Maoists have allowed the NGOs to reclaim the hegemony they once had and are neglecting the mass base they worked so hard to build.”

Perhaps the most significant factor in the decline was the split in the party and creation of the breakaway faction Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist), a grouping of 33 organisations. CPN-Maoist developed out of the discontent related to the aforementioned problems, and the new formation took an antagonistic view of electoral politics. Leading up to the 2013 CA elections, the party called for a 10-day bandh and a poll boycott. The militarised presence of the armed police force before and during the elections made it difficult to enforce the bandh. CPN-Maoist supporters successfully ensured zero voting in one district, but the case against the elections did not resonate at the level they would have liked. Also, in another example of the need for ideological clarity, CPN-Maoist leader Mohan Baidya had suggested the possibility of working with any ‘nationalist’ force, including former King Gyanendra.

In this context, what is to be done in order to revive left politics in Nepal? There were murmurs of a possible reunification between UCPN (M) and CPN-Maoist, although this has not come to fruition. CPN-Maoist made it clear that unification was contingent upon resolving differences over UCPN (M) participation in the Constituent Assembly and parliamentarism, as well as the parties’ respective political programmes and views on the path to revolution, among other things.

Given the extent of CPN-Maoist agitation against UCPN (M) in the lead up to the election, potential consolidation could provide a major boost in the efforts to rebuild popular support. However, it remains to be seen whether this possible coming together would lead to a reinvigoration or further dilution of radical left politics. In the meantime, left parties have responded to the changed political situation by forming a five party alliance to pressure the CA and constitution drafting process.

While the mainstream Maoists and their allies are in a weaker position to shape the new constitution, a renewed focus on mobilisation outside of the electoral and constitutional arenas is necessary. This includes re-committing to grassroots activism aimed at social relations of gender, caste and ethnicity and also land ownership patterns.

Identifying and anticipating major issues to take up could also prove to be useful. One example is land acquisition for infrastructure and power generation projects, where political and private sector elites are already lamenting the ‘high compensation’ demanded by local people. Additionally, the gravity of the migrant labour issue in Nepal presents another arena of agitation, which could involve promoting domestic and international labour safeguards and developing a programme to address economic dislocation that feeds into waves of migration.

Left forces in Nepal also need to respond to the BJP’s electoral win by articulating a clear position and working to disrupt the political engagement of Hindutvadis. This is especially important considering the improved electoral position of the RPP-N, which was mentioned earlier. However, Modi’s election received a warm response from Nepal’s political elite, including Prime Minister Sushil Koirala of Nepali Congress and Baburam Bhattarai and Prachanda of UCPN (M).

The Hindu Right has long-standing cross-border connections and organisational and operational linkages. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has a presence in Nepal in the form of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, and the formation of Vishwa Hindu Mahasangh, which pushed for retaining the Hindu state in the 1990 constitution, occurred under King Birendra with the backing of RSS. The rise of the Sangh Parivar in India will bolster these organisations and others like the Nepal Defence Army that are more explicit about using violence.

Right-wing Hindu political forces can expect support from feudal and monarchic remnants as well as urban elites in the capital. Similar to BJP, RPP-N advocates for a ‘free market’ agenda as a companion to its Hindu supremacist politics. In the immediate, they are likely to agitate on issues like proselytisation and conversion and the secular nature of the state. Unfortunately, there is some indication of willingness among the mainstream political parties to take up these ‘concerns’. Going forward, Hindutva forces in Nepal may try to build their base by dropping the demand for reinstituting the monarchy and by altering the nature of political engagement in areas where ethnic identity politics is more salient.

The emerging political climate certainly presents daunting challenges for left parties. In Nepal, despite the setbacks experienced in recent years, left politics continues to have mass appeal and parties still enjoy strong organisational bases. Remobilising at the grassroots, critically assessing political programmes, and demonstrating ideological commitment can help in reversing the ‘right turn’.

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