Nepal’s self-centered political leadership has repeatedly failed its people
The success of the mass pro-democracy movement spearheaded by the Nepali Congress (NC) party and the communist parties of Nepal in the 1980s had led to the establishment of multi-party democracy in the early 1990s. King Birendra, the then king, had bowed to the pressure exerted by the masses and accepted the role of a constitutional monarch under a new democratic constitution. It was a period of great hope and expectancy for a population that after generations of absolute monarchy had eventually wrested the right to elect their own representatives, who they trustfully believed would work more for the larger interests of the common man than had done the monarchy and its narrow clique. Sadly, the euphoria and positivity that the advent of democracy had heralded has, thirty long years hence, turned into exasperation and bitterness at the gross inability of their chosen leaders to provide them a stable government. The voters have tried all political parties, in turns as well as in different permutations and combinations, in election after election, but no party has been able to rise above the greed for power that its leaders have drowned themselves in.
The constant wrangling in pursuit of often narrow objectives has meant that hardly any government in Nepal’s democratic history has stayed in power long enough to do any real good to its poor and struggling population. The latest example of the callousness and irresponsibility of Nepal’s political class came on 20 December 2020 when Prime Minister K.P. Oli, finding himself on the wrong side of a factional feud within his party and facing possible expulsion both as party chief and as Prime Minister, decided to dissolve the House of Representatives, the lower house of parliament, halfway through the term that his Nepal Communist Party (NCP) had been overwhelmingly elected for in 2017. Oli, who prior to 2017 led the Nepal Communist Party - Unified Marxist Leninist (NCP-UML), and Prachanda, who led the Nepal Communist Party (Maoist), merged their parties prior to the 2017 general elections to form the NCP. Reports in the Nepali media indicate that Oli and Prachanda had agreed that they would lead the government in turns, with Oli getting the first half of the term. However, at the end of his two-and-a-half years Oli refused to honour his promise, sowing the seeds of separation. It was yet another clear case of Nepali leaders putting self interest before that of the nation.
It could be argued that there is nothing really novel about the love for power, or indeed broken political promises, and that these phenomena occur recurrently in countries around the world. The difference in the Nepali situation, as also the scale of it, will only be apparent if a bit of Nepal’s political history is delved into. In the 10-year period from 1991, when NC leader G.P. Koirala was the first to be elected Prime Minister, till 2000, when Koirala returned again to lead the government, Nepal had gone through as many as 9 governments. In this period of immense political jostling and fluidity, the NCP (Maoist) led by Prachanda and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai veered off in 1995-96 to launch a bloody insurgency that continued till the mid-2000s. Over 13,000 Nepalis lost their lives during the Maoist insurgency, through which the Maoists ostensibly sought to engineer a complete end to monarchy, a change in the political system, and socio-economic realignment.
If the 1990s were tumultuous, the first decade of this century proved to be even more turbulent for Nepal. Disillusionment with the fickleness of the political leadership combined with the uncertainty and insecurity that the Maoist violence bred. Amidst this, the apparent ineptitude of the successive governments that characterized this period bred a sense of constant instability and apprehension among Nepalis. An increasing number of them began looking back at the King’s more stable, and less chaotic, reign with nostalgia. King Birendra, a much maligned figure in the heyday of the pro-democracy movement in the late 1980s, came to be looked upon as the most viable and desirable alternative to the hapless politicians who seemed eternally embroiled in intra and inter-party machinations while the bloody insurgency raged. King Birendra was, at this stage, possibly the most popular figure in Nepal. The King’s impeccable conduct in his role as the constitutional monarch was much admired by the people. The growing chorus of calls for the King to once again take over the reins of governance directly was side-stepped by Birendra, who realized that doing so may well threaten the future existence of the monarchy.
It was in this milieu that one of the most tragic and shocking events in Nepal’s history took place. King Birendra’s eldest son, Crown Prince Dipendra, did not share his father’s respect for propriety and favoured a pro-active approach by the monarchy to putting the politicians in their place and tackling the Maoist menace. After all, even under the new democratic constitution the monarchy continued to exercise control over the powerful Nepali Army. It emerged later, however, that the Crown Prince was given to substance abuse, had mental health issues, and was involved in a romantic relationship that his mother Queen Aishwarya was by all accounts vehemently opposed to. A combination of these factors caused him on the evening of 1 June 2001, when the extended royal family had assembled for their monthly evening get-together at Dipendra’s cottage within the Royal Palace compound, to arm himself with several potent rapid-fire automatic weapons and go on a shooting spree upon his own family. After killing his parents, both his siblings, and several of his other gathered relatives, Dipendra himself succumbed to gun wounds not far from his cottage. Whether he shot himself or was shot by someone from the palace’s security detail is not known. Be that as it may, the royal tragedy deprived a large section of the Nepali people of a person they revered and looked to as being their last resort – King Birendra.
In accordance with the rules of succession, Birendra’s brother Gyanendra, who was not at the Crown Prince’s family dinner that fateful evening and hence was among the very few in the extended royal family that survived the palace massacre, abruptly found himself straddling the throne. Far from being democratically inclined, Gyanendra took such a liking to the throne that within a few years of his elevation to constitutional monarch he threw out the elected government in February 2005 and assumed all powers himself. Despite the frustration with the elected representatives being widespread amongst Nepalis, Gyanendra did not enjoy even a fraction of the popularity that Birendra did in the last few years of his reign. Quite the opposite, Gyanendra was distrusted by most Nepalis and despised by many. Within 2 years of his seizing power, the Nepali people, through another massive mass movement, forced Gyanendra to reinstate parliament in 2006. Meanwhile, in November 2006, the reinstated Nepali government signed a peace deal with the Maoists – the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) – that formally ended the decade-long insurgency. In November 2007, the parliament approved the abolition of monarchy as part of peace deal with the Maoists, who agreed to rejoin the government. In May 2008, Nepal was declared a republic.
These momentous events in the first decade of this century did not in any way impede the fractious tendencies that had become inherent in Nepal’s political system. Another ten Prime Ministers representing all possible strains of political ideology were sworn in during the period between 2001 and 2010. None of them lasted long.
The second decade of this century saw Nepal adopt a new Constitution in 2015, under which the country ceased being a Hindu country and opted for secularism instead. The adoption of the new Constitution, which was framed by almost all stakeholders including the Maoists, again raised hopes of more inclusive and stable governance that would pave the way for economic progress and a more equitable distribution of resources. These hopes, however, turned out to be short lived. Five Prime Ministers have already played musical chairs since the adoption of the Constitution, and with the exit of K.P. Oli a fortnight ago a new one is expected to be sworn in soon. As for the second decade, from the time Jhala Nath Khanal was sworn in as Prime Minister in February 2011 till date, 8 short-lived governments have ruled Nepal.
The decade that is now just a week old has begun with the loud message that it does not augur to be any better for the Nepali people than the preceding three were. The acute polarization that is on display within the NCP has effectively ended the unity that had been forged among the major leftist forces in 2017. Oli’s move has plunged national politics into turmoil, and people have also questioned the haste with which President Bidhya Devi Bhandari approved Oli’s recommendation for dissolution. Several petitions have been filed in Nepal’s Supreme Court challenging the dissolution at a time when two years of the present house’s tenure was still left. Both factions have approached the Election Commission claiming it is the real party. The five-year-old Constitution, which had actually placed safeguards against such dissolution and had recommended exploring formation of an alternative government before such a step was taken, has also come under the scanner and some people have called for it to be dumped. Things have reached such a pass that rallies calling for the restoration of the monarchy and the re-enthronement of King Gyanendra, who just 15 years ago was a deeply disliked, almost hated, figure in Nepal, have been organized in recent weeks. These rallies have also called for Nepal to revert to a Hindu kingdom.
K.P. Oli represents a fine example of why Nepal’s Prime Ministers rarely come close to completing a full term in office, and how serving the people who elected them does not really figure in their equations. Despite having realized that he had been reduced to a minority within his own party, with the numbers in the parliament, the Central Secretariat, the Standing Committee and the Central Committee of the party stacked against him, Oli decided to dissolve parliament in a desperate endeavor to cling on to power for some more time. The dissolution came hours before the NCP’s Standing Committee was scheduled to meet to institute a probe into corruption charges leveled against Oli by the NCP co-chairman Prachanda. While dissolving the house, Oli announced that the next general elections would be held on 30 April and 10 May this year, and that Oli would head a caretaker government till the elections are held. He would, therefore, enjoy power without accountability to parliament, something that has been challenged in the Supreme Court.
This was not the only instance of Oli’s greed for power coming in the way of the country’s best interests. For the time when monarchs ruled Nepal, the tiny Himalayan country has wisely adopted the policy of balancing relations with its two huge neighbours, India and China. Given the close ethnic and social ties with India and Nepal’s historical multifaceted dependence on its southern neighbour, the way this has historically played out is that Nepal has for all intents and purposes been strongly in the Indian camp, with China being the card that was pulled out every time Nepal was in need of concessions or advantages from India. In his quest to remain in power no matter what the cost, Oli has made the ill-considered and ill-advised decision to tilt the balance of Nepal’s strategic weight towards China, something that the country can ill-afford given the substantial extent and scope of its reliance on India. Oli simultaneously made the mistake of stoking anti-India sentiment in Nepal as a diversionary tactic in his desperate bid to cling on to power. The consequences of some of Oli’s short-sighted detours could well be felt in Nepal for quite some time to come.
In Oli’s term as Prime Minister, China has deepened its investment in crucial sectors in Nepal, including trade, energy, tourism and post-earthquake reconstruction. It has also emerged as the largest contributor to Nepal’s foreign direct investment. After having invested so much in Nepal, it was only a matter of time before China began to involve itself directly in the country’s political sphere, and to make attempts to have a person of its choice at the helm of the government. No sooner had the crisis within the NCP become serious that China dispatched an official as senior as Guo Yezhou, the Vice Minister of the Chinese Communist Party's International Liaison Department, to meet key Nepali political leaders including Oli and Prachanda, as well as those from opposition parties, in an attempt to direct political developments in Nepal in the direction desired by China.
Nepalis take great pride in claiming that their country’s sovereignty has never been breached, not even when the mighty British Empire had held sway over most of the rest of the Indian sub-continent. The direction in which Nepal’s political class is leading the country, especially the space in its complex political and economic architecture that it is granting to the Chinese, could well lead to that claim being laid to rest.
Nepal’s people, a large number of whom struggle every day to overcome impoverishment and are now having to cope with a harrowing COVID-19 outbreak, deserve much better from their political leadership, whose record thus far has been to consistently and unerringly prioritize their own personal political and economic interests and prospects over those of the country and its people.