New direction

Print edition : January 05, 2018

Supporters of the Communist Party Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) take part in a victory rally in Kathmandu on December 12. Photo: PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP

K.P. Oli, Communist Party of Nepal (UML) leader. Photo: REUTERS

Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachand”, Maoist Centre leader. Photo: NAVESH CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

The Left alliance, forged just before the elections, makes spectacular gains in the Parliament and Provincial Assembly elections, but the challenge before it is to fulfil the voters’ aspirations for a corruption-free, vibrant and dynamic Nepal.

Nepal’s recent elections were historic. The new Constitution adopted in September 2015 mandated that a new Parliament and Provincial Assemblies must be in place by January 2018. When a coalition of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) assumed power in August 2016, there was widespread scepticism if elections at the local, provincial and national levels would be held successfully to implement the new Constitution. Nepalese people and the leadership, including the Election Commission, deserve compliments for completing the electoral process, which looked almost impossible 16 months earlier. Nepal is now well set on the path of stability and development, in a broader sense, although some political and constitutional issues remain to be resolved.

The contest

Elections were held on November 26 and December 7 for national and provincial legislatures. Direct, first-past-the-post elections were held for 165 seats in a 275-member Parliament. The remaining 110 will be filled by proportionate representation depending on the votes secured by specific political parties. Similarly, 330 of the 550 seats in the seven Provincial Assemblies were put to direct vote and 220 will be filled through proportionate representation. The main contest was between the Left alliance of the Maoist Centre and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist-UML), forged just before the elections, and the reactive Democratic alliance of the Nepali Congress, the Madhes and other parties that remained unformalised. At the time of going to press, the Left alliance had secured 115 seats. The Left alliance was also way ahead of the Nepali Congress in proportionate votes for which counting was still in progress. In the Provincial Assemblies, the Left alliance had bagged 239 seats. Left alliance leaders had claimed that the alliance would secure a two-thirds majority. They might not reach that number but would be very close to it.

What has led to this spectacular victory of the Left alliance is its strong leadership, in the UML’s K.P. Sharma Oli and the Maoist Centre’s Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachand”. Both these leaders are great communicators and powerful mobilisers. They were backed by strong grass-roots organisations and plenty of resources. The alliance was forged from top down and there were doubts whether the cadres would respect their leaders’ wishes to support each other, forgetting years of mutual conflict and rivalry. But the electoral outcome has set aside these doubts.

While forging the alliance, it was also declared that the two parties would be merged after the elections. There are issues of ideology, leadership and, most of all, power-sharing that remain to be resolved before the two formations are integrated into one communist party. Prachand has declared that the process of party unity will be pursued simultaneously with the formation of the new government. The validity of such political statements made in the enthusiasm of electoral victories, however, will be tested with time. There has also been widespread speculation in the Nepali media that the Left alliance was facilitated by strong Chinese support as China is resolutely anchored into expanding its economic and strategic presence in Nepal.

The massive victory of the Left alliance also owes it to the weak contest put up bythe Nepali Congress and the Madhes parties. As noted earlier, the move for forging a Democratic alliance under the leadership of the Nepali Congress came only as an afterthought, in reaction to the Left alliance, and it remained a work in progress as the alliance could not be firmed up. In fact, Nepali Congress leader Bimlendra Nidhi, who was tasked with forging the alliance, ended up alienating some Madhes leaders, so much so that he lost to Rajendra Mahto, the leader of the Madhes coalition called the Rastriya Janata Party. Some other alienated Madhes leaders, such as Hridayesh Tripathi, felt forced to contest, and even won, on the UML ticket. The Madhes parties were also internally fractured. They went to the polls in two different formations, with yet another, led by Bijay Gachchadhar of the Tharu region of Terai, merging with the Nepali Congress on the eve of the elections.

Sher Bahadur Deuba, the president of the Nepali Congress, proved to be a weak leader. He failed to unite internal party factions, which adversely affected the electoral fate of some prominent party leaders such as vice president Ramchandra Poudyal, Ramsharan Mahet, Shelhar Koirala and K.P. Sitaula, and even his wife Arju Deuba. He is not an effective communicator and his ideological credentials on democracy are not viewed as consistent and firm. He was also blamed for promoting nepotism and favouring corrupt, criminal and business interests while distributing the ticket.

The Left alliance was also not free from such blemish, but its damage was controlled organisationally. The Nepali Congress’ main campaign slogan was to scare people from voting for the Left alliance as that would destroy democracy and bring in a totalitarian system. This did not cut much ice with the voters. It would have been better for the Nepali Congress to contest elections on its achievements such as leading Nepal’s democratic struggle through decades, mainstreaming the Maoist insurgency, giving Nepal its first Republican Constitution, improving its economic performance and holding elections in record time against heavy odds. There was also very little in the Nepali Congress campaign promising development and progress.

The challenge

The Left alliance, therefore, swept the polls, except in Province No.2, which is a Madhes stronghold. It will have its government in all the six other provinces as well as at the Centre. It would, however, be misleading to read the massive victory for the communist parties as a victory for communism in Nepal. In voting for the Left alliance, Nepali voters have sent some clear messages. The first is that they have voted for Nepal’s rising new nationalism, which has two distinct components. One, that it is confident and assertive and two, that it is development aspirational. Fuelled by Nepal’s young population, this nationalism wants stability and progress, which has eluded Nepal for the past many decades, especially for the past 10 years when the aspiration for change and progress was unleashed by the Jan Andolan (People’s Movement) of 2003-06, preceded by a 10-year Maoist insurgency of violence and mayhem. This nationalism is also driven by hill-upper castes and wants to see Nepal united and strong, suspecting that Madhes’ rise in Nepal’s political structure may threaten it internally as well as externally. It has a strong anti-India undercurrent, triggered by India’s senseless policy of economic coercion for five months following the adoption of Nepal’s new Constitution in September 2015. It inflicted a strong sense of hurt and humiliation on ordinary Nepalis.

Then Prime Minister Oli and his UML cleverly mobilised this sense to consolidate its hold over the widespread national sentiment. He then also moved to explore the possibility of diversifying Nepal’s dependence upon India by harnessing cooperation with China. This strategy of internal political consolidation has its roots in the old monarchical order, but it projected Oli as a leader who could be bold and resourceful in standing up to India. The UML victory in the current elections is solid evidence of his political sagacity and dynamism.

The second message given by the Nepali voters is of a complete rejection of the incompetent and dubious leadership represented by the Nepali Congress under Deuba. This has resulted in the demand both from within and outside the party for an urgent and immediate change in leadership. A young and victorious party leader Gagan Thapa has publicly demanded Deuba’s political retirement. Even before the elections, Nepali Congress secretary general Shashank Koirala had hinted that Deuba would not be acceptable as a prime ministerial candidate. Nepalese democracy would need a strong opposition and it remains to be seen as to how the shrunken Nepali Congress and its relatively new and young leadership will emerge to undertake this challenge along with the Madhes parties.

The third strong message from the Nepali people comes in the form of a snub to the forces of regression that were trying to revive the religious dominance of Hinduism against a secular Nepal and also revive the monarchy in the name of the failure of republican and transformational political forces. These forces of regression, represented by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, have been administered a humiliating defeat. Against such forces, the voters even empathised with the new and aspiring but so far unsuccessful political alternatives—represented by the Naya Shakti Party led by former Maoist leader and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and the Bibeksheel Sajha Party led by Ravindra Mishra—that promise a corruption-free, vibrant and dynamic Nepal.

All those who have stakes in Nepal’s stability and development must understand and imbibe these messages. The Left alliance, in particular, must take cognisance of the first message that calls for sincere commitment to development and capacity for good governance on its part. The alliance leadership has made public statements to that effect, but it may turn out to be easier said than done. The massive electoral victory may easily drive the alliance leadership towards arrogance and complacency. Neither Oli nor Prachand established himself as a provider of good governance in his past tenure as Prime Minister. They have played political games and managed power dynamics remarkably. Theirs has been a politics of carefully distributing patronage to control governing, even constitutional, institutions and aggregate the components of powers and authority, often at the cost of public good and social justice. This politics of patronage, both at personal and party levels, may have to be given up if the new government led by them has to deliver on the expectations of the voters and average Nepalis.

Foreign policy challenges

No less difficult it will be for the new Left alliance government to deal with Nepal’s key foreign policy challenge of engagement with its two giant neighbours, India and China. Both of them preferred to warm up with China to demonstrate their sense of national independence vis-à-vis pressures from India. China is Nepal’s next-door neighbour and it must take initiatives to benefit from China’s phenomenal progress and prosperity. More so because China is coming forward assertively with attractive infrastructure projects under its Belt and Road Initiative to lure Nepal and establish its economic stakes and possibly its strategic presence there. Nepal is a key component in China’s broader South Asian strategy in this respect. What the Left alliance needs to be careful about in its engagement with China is to ensure that economic engagement and its immediate gains do not lead to long-term dependency. Nepal may carefully take clues from the experiences of other South Asian neighbours such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives and even Pakistan. Its geopolitical imperatives of being sandwiched between China and India also compel Nepal to steer clear of any such economic engagement with China that may impinge adversely on India’s security sensitivities and vice versa.

On India’s part, it is high time it understood that business as usual will not do any longer in its Nepal policy. A careful understanding of the new electoral messages from Nepal is an absolute must for Indian policymakers. To a considerable extent, it was India’s distorted priorities and impulsive operational style that fed into Nepal’s new nationalism and drove the Left leaders closer to each other and to China. Indian leaders must rely more on their resilience and accommodation than muscular and one-sided diplomacy in approaching Nepal. India has had smooth and easy relations with the governments of both the UML and the Maoists-led governments in Kathmandu. That experience has to be reinvented. The interested constituencies of and around the National Democratic Alliance government in New Delhi must also understand that post-election Nepal has no room for the revival of a Hindu state under a constitutional monarchy. One hopes that both Kathmandu and New Delhi will grasp the gist of the Nepali voters’ messages correctly in creating conditions for creative and cooperative bilateral relations.

S.D. Muni, former Special Envoy and Ambassador, Government of India, is Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.