Monday, June 16, 2008

Nepal Political Diary -I

What are the reasons for the Maoist victory in the constitutional assembly elections in Nepal? What motivated the Nepali people to vote for such a decisive change? Having voted for the Maoists in such large numbers, endorsing their vision of a “naya Nepal”, what are the hopes and aspirations of the Nepali people? What are the main structural features of this most underdeveloped country in the world? To find out, the author, along with three friends, travelled through the hills and plains of Nepal over a fortnight in April-May after the CA elections. This is the first of a three-part diary of the visit.

Nepal is in the midst of a political revolution. After years of rule by the anachronistic institution of monarchy, a jan andolan in 1990-91 resulting in legal political parties, elections, and a parliament within the framework of constitutional monarchy, more than a decade long people's war, a second jan andolan and the restoration of parliament with the Maoists on board, the constituent assembly (CA) elections held recently marked a distinct break with the past, soon to usher in a republic [Nepal was declared a republic by the CA on May 28] and promising a “new Nepal”. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)'s [CPN(M)’s] emphatic victory in the CA elections marked a historic first: the election of an avowedly Maoist party to power, (soon to be) at the helm of a coalition government.

It is in these interesting times in Nepal when the country’s future is being crafted that I was motivated to commence a fortnight long visit to the hinterlands and urban areas of Nepal. I wanted to unravel the reasons for the Maoist victory, learn about what motivated the Nepali people to vote for such a decisive change, and be educated about the structural features of one of the most underdeveloped nations in the world. In hindsight after my return, all of these quests have been fulfilled and I bring back the immense hopes shared by the citizens of this new republic in the making, their aspirations for a truly sovereign, self-sustainable, just and respectable life for themselves.

This writer was accompanied by friends, Aparajay, Caesar Basu and Moggallan Bharti who were research scholars at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). All of us shared one common understanding: alleviation of the plight of the teeming masses of the third world is possible only by concerted people's agency and the experience of Nepal corroborated this view. We decided to travel the width of Nepal from west to east and follow the path of learning by interacting with the people first and their leaders/representatives later in Kathmandu and craft a political diary wrought out of these experiences.

Owing to reasons of logistics, we entered Nepal through different routes. While my friends from the JNU decided to enter Nepal from the west through Mahendranagar and reach Nepalgunj, I ventured to enter Nepal through the Rupaidiha border post in Uttar Pradesh leading to Nepalgunj, on April 28. From Rupaidiha, I used a cycle rickshaw to enter Nepalgunj through the main Surkhet road which seemed to be the arterial road in the town. My first impressions were that Nepalgunj was like any other town in India. On the trip in the rickshaw to the hotel, there were three chowks. Each of these had a statue right in the middle of the road; the first one was that of BP Koirala, the second was that of Pushpa Lal Shrestha (a prominent communist leader of the past) and the third one was a mere podium. A little asking and I was told that the king's statue had been broken off the podium during the days of the emergency. It was a nice introduction to the republic-in-the-making. Nepalgunj was home to four CA constituencies, two of which were won by the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) and the rest were won by the Maoists.

The first of a series of meetings with various individuals was with a civil society representative and advocate, Shalikram Sapkota. From the look of the posters stuck on the walls of his office, one could gather that he was close to and somehow associated with the Maoists. Two posters dated in the early 2000s pointed out starkly that the Indian army's meddling in Nepal must be resisted. He explained that he had been a civil society activist against the royalty since the days of the emergency and had also been incarcerated and tortured by the police during the time. He was currently pleading a case for a bank manager, involving bad loans to rich individuals who had siphoned off the money and for which the bank employee was being blamed. The fact that both the bank manager and the advocate were supporters of the Maoists was important to me, as it explained that there indeed was a multi-class backing for the leftists.

Shalikram then led me to meet up with Narayan Jung 'Peter', a regional bureau member of the Maoists in Nepalgunj. Peter was having a talk with a Madhesi (dwellers of the Terai) activist, before we joined the conversation. The first question I asked Peter was how were they going to manage the Madhesi identity issue (Nepalgunj was very much part of the Terai) and implement radical economic reform (land reform, in particular) when the Madhesi elite has been elected in such large numbers through the MJF in the Terai? Peter asserted that political and other forms of representation for the Madhesi identities was ab initio a Maoist demand and that they were glad that this would be coming to fruition even if the leadership of many of the Madhesis in the constituent assembly were from the MJF and the Terai Madhesi Loktantrik Party (TMLP). He however was not forthcoming about the reform question and was also quite defensive about the clashes with Madhesi parties in the past (including in Nepalgunj), saying that there were some mistakes committed. Sensing that Peter perhaps was giving too many diplomatic answers on the Madhesi issue (due to the presence of the activist), I asked for a separate meeting the next day and he agreed to the same.

I then interacted with a member of the UN mission in Nepalgunj, Anuraj Jha. Anuraj had a degree in conflict management and had been deployed as a United Nations monitor during the elections (the roads in Nepalgunj were dotted with United National Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) and aid agency vehicles, suggesting the substantial presence of international organisations). The first question to him was about the reports of intimidation and malpractices by the Maoists during the elections. Anuraj however refused to accept that this was the primary reason for the Maoists' victory, saying that the sheer electoral dominance of the Maoists across the breadth of Nepal meant that there were other factors at play. The electoral strategy of alliances with different sections of the population, the reach of the electoral campaign machinery and the wide support of the poorest for the Maoists were the significant reasons for their victory, he emphasised. At the same time, he did not foresee the Maoists implementing “radical” policies and was convinced that they were sufficiently contained by the electoral process and by the game of power sharing in the mainstream polity. Anuraj himself had been touched by the experience of witnessing poverty in the remote areas during the few chopper trips he had made and was not surprised by the electoral result.

Confident Maoists

A free flowing conversation with Peter followed the next day, where he suggested in no uncertain terms that the Madhesi issue was being raked up by provocateurs from India and that the major challenge for the Maoists when in power would be the issue of federalism. He mentioned that it was not true that the Maoists did not enjoy support in the Terai, as a significant number of people in the mid-west (to which Nepalgunj belonged), including dalits and landless labourers had voted for the Maoists. The MJF's claim of a single Madhes federal state constituted of plain areas adjoining India (ek Madhes ek Prades) was not feasible as the tharu community preferred their own sub-federal unit as did others in the east. He also asserted that the Maoists will mobilise Madhesis not just on the basis of ethnic identity, but as communists and convince them on the necessity of a left ruled naya (new) Nepal. Peter's answers to every question were long drawn and drew a lot from history. When I suggested that the identity issue would be a hindrance to them in attempting radical land reform in the Madhesi areas, he emphatically said that such challenges were but to be expected and that the Maoists were committed to address them from within the system of multi-party democracy and federal republicanism. Peter asserted that the Maoists had seen bigger challenges during the people’s war and that their ideological commitment to multi-party democracy had evolved from a wide ranging discussion among themselves about the failures of other communist movements across the world. The Maoists therefore were better prepared to develop the correct praxis for the 21st century and would capably handle the identity issue by presenting their agenda to the people and mobilising them based on sound political consciousness, he said.

Madhesi Angst

After wrapping up my conversation with Peter, I sought to meet the local MJF leadership in the region. The MJF had won 2 out of the 4 seats in the area and one of the winners was Sarvadev Ojha, a former bureaucrat. On being asked about the agenda of the MJF, Ojha pointed out the disparity between the people of pahadi and madhesi origins. From politics to bureaucracy, the army and other institutions, madhesi representation was much lower in comparison to the overweening influence of people of pahadi origins, he said. It was therefore necessary to constitute a separate federal unit for the “long suffering” madhesis and hence the demand for a single Madhes, an autonomous state in a federal Nepal. To the question as to what kind of autonomous state and federal system was being demanded by the MJF, Ojha replied that the party had studied three different federal systems, the Swiss, US and the Indian models. They decided to demand a model on the lines of US federalism with external relations and defence as the only areas under central jurisdiction.

When asked as to how different their conception of autonomy was from that of Maoists, Ojha went on a tirade against communism and emphasised that the MJF wanted a liberal model of governance. On the question of welfare and land reform, Ojha was non-committal. Land reform was “not necessary”; the development of agriculture through scientific means and through investment was sufficient, he argued. He said that the MJF will not accept anything less than a “single autonomous unit for the Madhesis” and dismissed the Maoist claim that significant sections of people within the Terai (such as the tharus) were opposed to the MJF's version of federalism.

It was quite clear that the confrontation between the MJF and the Maoists in the constituent assembly will be on the appropriate model of federalism, and on the question of land refrom. It would require a complicated struggle to win over sections among Madhesis to implement basic land reform measures, let alone “land to the tiller”, considering that the MJF represented the interests of the big landowners.

Mainstream Parties Sidelined

As I strolled around the streets of Nepalgunj, one thing was palpably clear. The underclass and blue collar working sections of the city had more or less voted for the Maoists. From rickshaw pullers to street vendors, the Maobadi triumph was the common refrain. The striking aspect of this refrain was the enormous expectations of the Maoists by these people. Voters from these sections clearly had aspirations of education for their children, jobs that provide a decent living, and dignity. They had voted for decisive change as they were unimpressed with the mainstream parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [UML]. How was it that the NC, an established party that had virtually decided the course of Nepali democracy and had acted as a stabilising and guiding force, performed so poorly in these areas? This was the question that I had to put to the NC leadership in Nepalgunj.

The NC office was right adjacent to the branch office of the Nepali Chambers of Commerce in Nepalgunj. Krishna Man Shrestha was their district chief, but I got to talk more to other local leaders of the party at the party office. A senior leader of the party in Nepalgunj explained, in flawless English, the reasons for the NC's defeat. They were indeed defeated, but their role as the “premier” party in Nepal will not change, he emphasised. When prodded to explain the reasons for their local defeat, he mentioned that the Maoists had used extra-legal means and that the choice of candidates by the NC was incorrect. I asked about the NC's stance on the monarchy and the leader was evasive, as were others in the office. They emphasised that they merely wanted a ceremonial role for the monarch similar to the position held by the Indian president, but were non-committal about the future role of the discredited king. It was obvious that this pro-king stance of theirs had gone against them at the hustings. The NC would also ensure that no section is discriminated against in the new constitution. When asked as to how they would counter the radical policies of the Maoists and leftists (the UML), the leaders mentioned that the NC itself was a “democratic socialist” party but would want to manage industry-labour and landowner-land tiller relations rather than take sides. Sensing that the leader's answers betrayed a reformist, conservative orientation, one of the party members sitting close by asserted that the NC was also part of militant struggles for democracy in the past and its legacy as a party for democracy would endure no matter who was the ruling party in Nepal. It was a fair comment that underlined the seeping in of democratic consciousness among Nepal's political parties even at the local level.

No “left” love lost

The next stop was at the UML party office. This party was touted as the winner in the elections, but did poorly, coming third. I met a losing candidate, Shamsuddin Siddiqui, at the party's sprawling office (it was the most posh of all the party offices in the town). I expected Siddiqui to be optimistic of a leftist consolidation of power in Nepal and my first question was related to this. Siddiqui on the contrary turned out to be the most virulent critic of the Maoists among all political figures whom I met in Nepalgunj. He went on and on about the “unruly lumpens” of the Young Communist League (YCL) and how the election victory was “robbed” by the Maoists. He had nothing but scorn for the Maoists and ruled out any understanding between the UML and the Maoists. As regards local level politics in Nepalgunj, he affirmed that the loss that he had suffered was due to extra-legal tactics used by the Maoists and unscrupulous campaigning by the Madhesi parties. He rejected both the Maoist and the Madhesi version of federalism suggesting that the Maoists were playing identity politics despite being leftists and that it was impossible to accept the one Madhes demand, for there was nothing much in common between groups such as the Muslims in Nepalgunj and other plains dwellers, say in Birgunj. There was such bitterness in the UML leaders in Nepalgunj that it was indeed going to be difficult for any leftist consolidation in the country, I surmised.

Roaming Around Nepalgunj

On the streets of Nepalgunj, it is difficult to find many motorised vehicles and any kind of efficient public transport. Indian currency, as in other parts of Nepal, is used widely and the shopkeepers could instantly convert any amount of Nepali currency into Indian rupees and vice versa. Despite being part of the Terai, Nepalgunj was home to a diverse population with significant numbers of Muslims, tharus and other national minorities. Symbols of royalty were seen only on the currency notes; even better off hotels and restaurants were not displaying any kind of royal insignia (either of the deceased former monarch or the current one).

In the meantime, my friends had arrived after an arduous journey through Mahendranagar in the far west. Mid-way through their bus trip, they were asked to board another vehicle, because the bus operators felt that there were not many people to make the trip viable. From somewhere in the far-west region to Nepalgunj, they had to travel in a make-shift transport vehicle, with goats for company. What struck them about the far-west region alongside the east-west highway (an arterial highway built by the Indian government that connects the western and eastern parts of Nepal and runs parallel to the Terai region) was the stark nature of underdevelopment in these areas. We had read somewhere that the major political strongholds of the Maoists were in the hilly western areas of Nepal and here is where we needed to understand the reasons for the entrenched support that the CPN(M) enjoyed, as well as the yearnings of the citizens of these areas. Our next stop was in Rolpa district, considered to be the strongest support base of the Maoists, and where most of the major advances in the people’s war took place. Rolpa was also where the Maoists had built parallel institutions in “base areas” high in the hills.

Nepalgunj was an unremarkable town, and we did not particularly get a feel of being in a different nation. It was only after venturing outside Nepalgunj, into the inner Terai, and from there, to the heights of the hilly villages of Rolpa did we sense a new experience of the Nepal we had set out to see: hilly, beautiful, rugged and bristling with hope of change.

(To be continued)


Anuraj said...

It is serendipitous that I come across your blog through my Mother-in Law's google search on me! I read your article on Nepal and found it very interesting with some insightful recommendations. I am immensely enjoying reading your Nepal Political Diary-I.

Srinivasan Ramani said...

Dear Anuraj,

Thanks for your comments!. I enjoyed the conversations we had at your place too. My regards to all in family and all the best for your work.

The other two parts have also come out. Please have a look and comment on the same. Best Regards.