The monarchy is dead; long live the secular, federal democratic republic of Nepal.
As expected, right at the first sitting of the newly elected constituent assembly (CA), on May 28 Nepal was declared “an independent, indivisible, secular, inclusive, federal democratic republic with sovereignty and state authority vested in the people”. The proposal was overwhelmingly endorsed by the CA -- 560 legislators voted for and 4 against the resolution. This marked the demise of 240 years of rule by the Shah dynasty. True to their promise made before the elections, the main political actors, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [CPN (UML)] fulfilled the demand for a republic as soon as the CA was convened.
After having establishing a parliamentary form of democracy in 1990 through a people's movement, it took years of political uncertainty and instability, a people's war, and a peace initiative uniting mainstream and radical forces to overthrow the remnants of monarchical rule in the country. The formation of the eight party alliance – comprising the mainstream political actors and the Maoists -- was the first step in the isolation of the monarchy. Over a period of three years, following the people's movement to restore democratic rule in the aftermath of the complete usurpation of power by Gyanendra (the last king), a gradual shift of power away from the monarchy took place. This involved steps such as shifting ceremonial and cultural privileges, as also, importantly, control of the army to the democratic head (the prime minister), declaration of a secular character for the nation in the interim constitution and building a consensus among the eight party alliance to convert Nepal into a republic once the CA was convened.
Much credit has to go to the winners of the CA polls, the Maoists, who identified the monarchy as the fountain-head of a feudal order at the root of many a misery in the under-developed nation. Gradually, other prominent political parties also accepted the inevitable transition to a republic, due to the force of public opinion, moving away from their original endorsement of Nepal as a constitutional monarchy. Relentless public mobilisation by the Maoists and republican sections of the mainstream parties, as well as the notoriety and unpopularity of Gyanendra, ensured that nearly all political parties fell in line on the demand for a republic. The lone dissenting voice in the CA came from legislators belonging to the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (Nepal) – a group representing ruling class elements from the erstwhile panchayat era and which was part of the dubious government propped up by the disgraced Gyanendra after he had dissolved parliament.
The remarkable aspect about this transition was the way in which the road to a republic virtually became a fait accompli once the Maoists were integrated into the mainstream of the polity. Yet, significant challenges still remain for the polity in Nepal in laying the foundations of the secular, federal democratic republic. Even as the constituent assembly was convened, problems were engulfing the process of formation of a new government, with the mainstream parties unable to accept the preponderant position of the Maoists. Concerns still remain about the maintenance of consensus among the eight party alliance along with the Madhesi parties over the nature of the constitution that would have to be written within two years through the deliberations of the constituent assembly.
A primary sticking point would be the nature of the “federal” component of the republic. While the Maoists have envisioned Nepal to be confederated into autonomous regions delineated on the basis of ethnic and linguistic identity, the Madhesi parties have demanded an autonomous state carved out within Nepal based on geographical difference (Madhes state in the Terai plains). The NC and CPN(UML) have however not spelt out their bases for federal re-alignment even as they have expressed opposition to both the Maoist and Madhesi parties' formulations on federalism. Writing an inclusive constitution would also be a challenge, but the mandating of consensus by the election verdict which was arrived at through a semi-proportional representation process has ensured that the era of exclusionary politics dominated by the monarchy has ended. Other bottlenecks remain as well, but over time, with the inevitable bargaining over posts, an accommodation over some issues is expected to resolve the remaining impediments to formation of the new government. At the same time, a historic opportunity exists for left and progressive forces in Nepal to underwrite a pro-poor constitution, owing to the sheer strength of the left in the CA.
All the challenges in government formation and constitution formulation notwithstanding, the achievement of a secular, federal democratic republic in a predominantly Hindu and underdeveloped nation is truly remarkable. The Nepali polity and the public have demonstrated that concerted peoples' agency could ultimately overcome the huge challenges posed by the feudal monarchy which was entrenched through appeals to so-called “divine rights” as well as international support. The imperative of establishing a progressive political and economic system with sovereignty and state authority vested in the people still remains as the constitution writing process for the republic commences.