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Analysis: Why the Maoists won Nepal

By Gopal Siwakoti 'Chintan'
April 18, 2008 17:03 IST
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Arguably for the first time in its history the Nepali nation has regained, through popular franchise, a degree of sovereignty that its servile political leadership had steadily surrendered over the years to various foreign interests. The idea of a constituent assembly to found a republic first came up in political circles in the 1950s. Today, five decades later that has become a reality and this reality is a spectacular one.

For the first time in the history of modern south Asia, a constitution is to be written in an assembly that is more representative than any other in the subcontinent. This is the long delayed revolution that so many forces both inside Nepal and outside have tried to thwart ever since it began to stir to life long ago. This is the single biggest contribution of the Maoist movement, not just to Nepal but also to south Asia -- the potential democratisation of a nation's founding charter so that the state represents the peoples' will to a greater degree than its predecessors did.

This is the meaning of the victory of the Maoists in the elections to the first popularly elected constituent assembly in south Asia. This is the victory of the Nepali people against their feudal oppressors, the triumph of popular sentiment over the malicious propaganda of the media, the success of the republic over the kingdom, the attainment of sovereignty against foreign interference and the conquest of Kathmandu by the rest of Nepal.

Why the Maoists won

The Maoists have won a majority of the seats under the first-past-the-post system and are on course to win the largest share of the seats in the proportional representation system as well. This overwhelming victory has come as a surprise to the mainstream political parties of Nepal, to the global media, to India and all the outside powers that have made a habit of interfering in the sovereign affairs of Nepal. All of them loiter in Kathmandu and chatter to each other about the destiny of Nepal. But the outcome is not a surprise to those who have kept their ears close to the ground.

What the myth-makers of Kathmandu failed to understand was that the Nepali polity was comprehensively anachronistic, based on a narrow system of accommodation of the urban and rural elites, and unable to deliver even the most rudimentary form of welfare to the vast majority of impoverished rural Nepalis. Left to fend for themselves after a series of betrayals that saw people being deprived of the agrarian livelihood thanks to World Bank-International Monetary Fund reforms, deprived of the water and natural resources thanks to Asian Development Bank-led developmental destruction, denied even basic services such as electricity and a decent education, ordinary Nepalis voted in large numbers for a political force that had articulated a new radicalism in Nepali history and underwent severe hardships to give a voice to peoples' aspirations in the course of the 10-year old civil war.

The civil war, though brutal and bloody, gave rural Nepalis an insight into the extent to which the Kathmandu-based state and the social and economic interest groups it protected would go to preserve the privileges of the few against the aspirations of the many. This is something that most observers of Nepali politics do not comprehend. There is a liberal delusion that people being ground to extinction by extreme poverty have the same distaste for class war that the exploiters of the nation entertain and hence in an election an underground force will be defeated. Yet, it was the mainstream political forces that were reluctant to hold the elections in the first instance because, being closer to the ground than commentators who live exclusively off Kathmandu, they knew the reality of just how meaningless the Nepali state had become to the Nepali people. If anything, the conduct of the Nepali Army in fighting the civil war alienated the mass of the people from the institutions of the state, including the political parties.

The mainstream political parties were themselves unable to overcome their ideological paralysis and formulate a clear vision of their politics that would at least have neutralised the loss of credibility that resulted from their craven conduct during the years that they managed the polity between 1991 and 2004. They were unable even to take a definite and categorical position on the question of monarchy and the army, both of which had caused immense damage to rural Nepal through their depredations.

In short, when the Maoists articulated politics more relevant to a larger number of Nepalis, the political forces defending the outdated polity became proportionately more irrelevant. This is why the Maoists won despite India's success in ensuring that the two major left forces, the Maoists and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist - Leninist), fought the elections against each other.

The success of the Maoists is also attributable to its amazing collective leadership and coordinated actions, which was sustained despite the intense pressure exerted by various forces, not least the media, to divide them.

External implications

The emergence of a new political force at the helm of the state has implications for all the major powers with geo-political interests in Nepal. So far all of them have invested heavily in the former mainstream parties, particularly the Nepali Congress. This has been truer of the US, the Europeans and to an extent the Chinese. With the Indians, the approach has been different. Whereas officially, India engaged with the Nepali Congress and UML, its covert agencies have maintained channels of communication with the Maoists. The intricate negotiations between the Maoists and the other Nepali political parties that took place in New Delhi in 2005 also gave the Maoists overground legitimacy and opened up communications with official India.

While the elections results have come as a shock to the Indian establishment, India will have less difficulty in dealing with the Maoists than the US or the Europeans. However, what will be interesting is the attitude of the Maoists towards Indian overtures. It is no secret that India had a significantly obstructive role to play in ensuring that the Maoists did not have any  major alliance partners during the elections and this drew the ire of the Maoist leadership.

The Indian bureaucracy, especially those who sit in South Block, has been notoriously dense and obtuse in its reading of the Nepali situation. India's Nepal policy has been shallow and ill-informed and it was only in 2005 briefly that India rectified its course. Therefore, India will have its work cut out to rebuild good relations with the Maoists, so that Nepal and India can co-exist on a more equitable basis than has been the case hitherto.

In this context, much has been made in India of the China factor, merely on the strength of alleged ideological affinities between the Maoists and China. Given that there is nothing Maoist about present day China, and given China's economic utilitarian attitude to external relations there does not seem to be much scope for any great deepening of Nepal China relations. In the past the Chinese were very comfortable in dealing with the king, even when he seized power in 2005 and there is no particular affinity between the Chinese and the Nepali Maoists, any more than there is between the Chinese and the Indian Maoists. This is primarily the rhetoric of security alarmists and hawks in the Delhi establishment and their clients in Kathmandu.

Historically, all political forces in Nepal have had more affinities with India than with any other country for obvious cultural and geographical reasons and it is difficult to see that situation changing drastically unless the Indian establishment bungles so drastically that such a situation is forced on the Maoists. As between India and China, primarily the same set of overall relations are likely to continue, though the Maoists are more likely to stand up to India's domineering than the other political parties.

In fact the country with the most to lose is the US and, therefore, by extension the UK, since the latter is but a international sub-set of the former. The new US ambassador, Nancy Powel is an unknown quantity, but she will have to live with the messy heritage of two previous incumbents who had no clue what they were doing. US and UK policy in Nepal has been utterly ill-informed and they have had very few real connections with the Maoists, who are still on the US' list of terrorists.

To date there has been no indication of any rethink on the US policy to Nepal and Nancy Powel was more keen to meet the fallen giant Girija Prasad Koirala, whose family led its party to a rout in the just concluded elections.

If there is no American rethink and US diplomacy continues to keep to its failed course, the only available option for US diplomatic personnel stationed in Kathmandu to use domestic clients to whip up an unstable climate before staging a coup. The attempt cannot be ruled out even if the success of such an enterprise is open to question.

In the circumstances, Prachanda's leadership is likely to be severely tested, much more so than it was in the underground. In the underground he rose to Olympian heights of leadership and held the movement together for 10 years despite every attempt to break it. Those same qualities will have to come to the fore if he has to steer Nepal through to a socialist republican future.

Gopal Siwakoti 'Chintan' is a Kathmandu-based human rights activist.

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Gopal Siwakoti 'Chintan'