Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”, the blog that knows that even Bob Seger can’t save Nepal from its political troubles.
In this week’s post, we’ll examine the continuing struggle of lawmakers in Nepal to draft a new agreed upon constitution in a country that has seen seven new constitutions in the last seven decades. A political assembly charged with drafting a new constitution in 2008 has yet to complete its task and an interim draft of laws does not contain any provisions for elections or fresh representation.
We’ll look into what the political turmoil is and how Nepal came to be so politically divided. While Egypt’s struggle to bring about a long term constitution is taking the headlines, Nepal’s long struggle to do the same shouldn’t be lost from view.
On November 29th, Nepal missed a deadline to reach an agreement on writing a new constitution and forming a new government. What does missing the deadline mean?
Well, pretty much nothing. The President of Nepal, Ram Baran Yadav, has been exasperated at the lack of progress from the Constituent Assembly (which was subsequently dissolved), which for nearly 5 years has failed to draft a formal, official, long term constitution.
President Yadav called for new elections to be held on November 22nd to replace the political gridlock with his counterpart Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, but that deadline also passed without any progress. Most likely, a new deadline will be agreed upon, but will also not be any serious line in the sand.
The problem is quite befuddling because under the interim constitution that elected the Constituent Assembly in 2008 with the assignment of drafting the new government, there is no provision to hold new elections. At the same time, the interim constitution gives President Yadav hardly any executive authority; making his post largely ceremonial. So, the current politicians haven’t been able to write a new constitution, and no authority exists to put new policy makers in their place. Quite befuddling indeed.
This is causing a political crisis not just in the government, but around the country as well. Nepal only recently emerged from a 10 year civil war in 2006 and some worry that a new crisis may emerge from an inability of lawmakers to form a democratic government. Given the unemployment rate (40%), extent of poverty (avg. income = $3/day), and the failure to reach an agreement on the federal budget, a popular crisis does seem more likely.
The current fractious political environment consists of 35 different political groups, with the majority group in the Assembly being the Nepali Communists, but even they are split. Further, the Nepali population of 29 million contains wide cultural differences with dozens of languages and dialects.
But given just this surface information, the political crisis in Nepal is still a bit of a mystery. To get into the why and the how, let’s take a look at the history of this Himalayan country and see what clues might provide steep insight.
Nepalese Early History: Kingdoms and Outside Influence
The majority of Nepal’s history centers around the kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley and their influence from surrounding states and cultures. Nepal, since becoming an organized kingdom, has been a unique case of remaining independent despite its geographic predicament of being sandwiched between China and India. Nepal’s geography and topography allowed it to remain independent from outside forces, but also has hampered any attempts at expansion. A consistent theme in Nepalese governance is singular rule and political corruption; two issues which have left much of Nepal underdeveloped and impoverished.
Nepal came to adopt singular rule in a monarchy through outside influence. The great Mauryan Empire of North India (321-185 B.C.E.) established a Hindu precedent for all South Asian countries and especially in Nepal, that centered the King as the dharma or upholder of the cosmic law of the universe. This kept the King, or “Maharaja” as the “righteous center”of the political universe.
The initial kingdoms of Nepal from the Licchavis (400-750 AD) to the Malla kings in the 12th – 18th Centuries saw both Buddhisim and Hinduism becoming the primary religious practice in Nepal, saw the influence of the Newari people eclipse Sanskrit languages, and an increasingly militaristic culture from the Muslim Turk invasion. The regional Malla kings were not related, but adopted the name of Malla at the end of their name, which means “wrestler” or warrior in Sanskrit to indicate greater strength and power.
In 1482, the Malla kings struggled with a succession and the Central Kathmandu Valley was divided into three kingdoms based on the three main urban centers: Kathmandu, Bhadgaon, and Patan. The period of the three kingdoms, also known as the period of the “later mallas” lasted until the mid 18th Century. From the conquests of the Mughals throughout India and South Asia, Nepal gained military technology and administrative practices; seen in the use of Persian terminology for offices and procedures.
Militaristic influence brought the raja of Ghorka to take over the Kathmandu Valley in 1768 and created a singular Nepal under the Shah dynasty. But continued aggression was an international disaster for the Ghorka ruler as it led Nepal into disastrous collisions with the Chinese (1792-3 over control of Tibet) and then with the British (Anglo-Nepal War of 1816-1818). At home, because power struggles centered on control of the king, there was little progress in sorting out procedures for sharing power or expanding representative institutions. For example, when a family or faction achieved power, it killed, exiled, or demoted members of opposing alliances. Under these circumstances, there was little opportunity for either public political life or coordinated economic development.
To maintain unity, the pattern of the king and the families who retained powerful positions was to give away land tax free (birta) to local landlords and administrators. This system ensured little central government interference in local provinces and kept a near feudal system in practice for the majority peasant population.
Modern Nepal: Executive Dictatorship
A squabble over Nepalese administrative positions allowed an ambitious young officer Jang Bahadur to ascend to the position of Prime Minister in 1851. Jang Bahadur through a purging of rivals, sidelining of the monarchy, and consolidation of familial power became essentially an omnipotent dictator. In 1858, King Surendra bestowed the honorary martial title of Rana onto Jang Bahadur, starting a tradition among his heirs that made this Prime Minister dictatorship the Rana period.
On the positive side for Nepal in the 19th century, Rana’s relentlessness did much to squelch political infighting that hampered Nepali administration and his shrewdness of recognizing the importance of allying Nepal with the British (assisting in the Sepoy Rebellion) was key in keeping Nepal independent. Bahadur, through a visit to London, was influenced to modernize the Nepali legal system and brought Western culture to Nepal. But Jang Bahadur Rana was only able to do this by reducing the King to essentially a prisoner in his own home. The King was still the symbolic leader, but in practice had no power. By purging his political opponents, Rana was free to disseminate power to his friends, followers, and family; therefore ensuring his efforts would not be reversed upon succession.
Given the semi-alliance with Great Britain that Jang Bahadur Rana had established, as long as the British remained in South Asia, the successive Rana rulers had support from the British (It helped that the British East India Company had decided that Nepal wasn’t a hospitable topographical locale for production). Nepal supplied the British with troops in World War 1 and in return was given an annual payment of 1 million rupees as well as better diplomatic relations. By keeping a relevant armed forces at hand, Nepal’s army offered a way to achieve a higher social status and relieved social pressures.
But as the British ran into serious political opposition in India in the 1930s and 40s, similar movements occurred in Nepal against the singular Rana rule. Mohandas Ghandi’s India National Congress motivated an anti-Rana movement in Nepal called Praja Parishad (the People’s Party) formed by exiled Nepalese which advocated an overthrow of the Rana regime and a move to democratic governance.
This group eventually became the Nepalese National Congress, but realized that as long as Nepal had colonial backing from the British, the Rana would continue to rule. As opposition through journals, newspapers, and political parties increased, the crackdown from the Rana became more stringent like the outlawing of the Nepali National Congress in 1948. Underground movements persisted though.
With the British leaving India after agreeing on an independence in 1947, the Rana lost their imperial backers and a small revolution ensued with mass demonstrations in 1950, and eventually an Indian-brokered agreement which placed the King, King Mahendra, back in the driver’s seat in Nepal with a coalition style Parliament which included several rival political parties: the Nepali National Congress, Nepali Communist Party, and the Praja Parishad.
Under this set up, various short-lived governments between 1951 – 1959 were formed under an interim constitution, but there was never any chance for any political party to form a legitimate government because King Mahendra (who had the power of controlling the military) kept replacing uncooperative ministries with more favorable ones. The “democratic” experiment ended when increasing violence in Nepal (which he may have orchestrated) gave the King the opportunity to use his “emergency powers” to dismiss the elected cabinet and change the Nepali government back to a singular monarchy in 1960.
Royalty and Civil War
Between 1960 and 1991, King Mahendra and his successor King Birendra oversaw a non-party governing system which kept all the power with the King, even though the National Assembly was directly elected by 1980. The monarchs launched land reforms and infrastructure development during this time but political developments were slow.
Pro-democracy demonstrations and anti-government violence grew especially loud during the transition of the monarchs in 1972 and again in the late 1980s due to a deteriorating economic environment. A fall out between the Indian and Nepali governments over trade resulted in a closing of two major trade routes into India, instituting a near-embargo for Nepal from its biggest trading partner. The economic decline was significant, reducing nominal GDP growth from 9.7% in 1987-8 to 1.5% in 1989.
Pro-democracy demonstrations promoted by the Nepali Congress Party and student activists were so violent that King Birendra acquiesed to demands and holds democratic elections for a national congress in 1991 after a democratic constitution was written. But as with the first experiment with democratic governance, political stability was short lived.
An election of a Communist led government in 1994 was quickly dissolved the following year because of a split within the Communist Party. A radical faction called the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist split from the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) because of their participation in the parliamentary process – an apparent violation of Marxist ideology.
This split led the CPN-Maoist to lead “The People’s War” in 1996 against the government (which still had the King in an executive leadership position, albeit with substantially less power). This guerilla war was violent and lasted ten years (complete with a UN peace keeping mission); ushering in with it frequent changing of the Prime Ministership until 2005, when once again the King, this time King Gyanendra, declared the state of emergency and dissolved the government. During this direct royal rule, Maoist rebels and main opposition parties agree to a plan to reinstate a democratic government. A cease-fire was instituted in 2006 when the King agreed to reinstate the government and end direct royal rule.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended the ten year civil war and allowed the Maoists to play a part in the formation of the new government. They played a major role in influencing the government to finally abolish the monarchy in 2007 and the Maoists gained a large following, picking up many seats in Parliament in the formation of the Republic of Nepal in 2008, with that pesky interim constitution.
Conclusion: Old Heritage, New Unstable Republic
This story of Nepal is a long-winded and breathless tale, and not just because of the lack of oxygen in the Himalayas. Nepal’s independence despite its predicament of being sandwiched between two powerful and ancient kingdoms is quite fascinating and unique. Borrowing culture and assimilating people and traditions from its neighbors have greatly influenced Nepal over the years, but perhaps have also been reasons for its continuing inability to form a stable democracy.
The continuing patterns of political instability and recurring monarchy all have several precedents and underlying explanations that we have gleaned from this history:
- The Hindu influence of the King as the dharma or cosmic law of the universe set the need for a single ruler.
- Military might and control of the army has been key for maintaining rule for most of the Nepali kingdoms and the Rana; a tradition borrowed from the Turk and Mughal invasions.
- Placating measures of land handouts in return for political support allowed Nepal to be ruled by a central monarch, but also instituted a tradition of political corruption and aristocratic governance.
- Singular rule and repression kept political dissidents on the sidelines, but eventually anti-Rana movements boiled over. Without British protection, Nepal had to start addressing the democratic desires of the people.
- The sheer variety of political parties, dissidents, cultures, and peoples hampered democratic experiments and continually brought the ever-present monarchy back into play.
So, the inability of Nepal’s current representatives to draft a constitution has its roots in political instability, a diverse constituency, and a cultural heritage of monarchy.
Nepal’s emergence from its civil war is arguably much better off than other conflicts in Central Africa and elsewhere, but it still presents the situation of an emerging democracy with a particularly difficult challenge in writing a constitution that protects people’s rights without a return to monarchy. That fear of a return to monarchy has led to the predicament of the President having limited powers.
Going forward, cooperation of some kind will have to made among the diverse political parties to be able to put anything concrete on paper. Perhaps some international assistance would be of use, maybe from the majority party of India. Without anything concrete, however, Nepal may slip back into conflict if they continue to delay and set meaningless deadlines. The international community should do its part to prevent this Republic from being a failed experiment.
Further political instability will only continue to deprave the majority of Nepalese from enjoying basic necessities and liberties; something even a ceremonial President has the power to avoid.
Until the next stalled democracy in k-kk-kk-kk-kk-kk-kk-Kathmandu,
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Sources and Further Reads:
Library of Congress Country Studies: Nepal http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gdc/cntrystd.np