As the deadline to draft a new constitution draws closer, it’s worth pondering over the decades gone by and the political achievements and failures of the country since democracy’s second coming to Nepal in 1990. The Post’s Bidushi Dhungel and Gyanu Adhikari spoke to Nepali Congress leader Minendra Rijal—member of the Special Committee for the Supervision, Integration and Rehabilitation of former Maoist combatants, former Minister for Culture, and also an avid onlooker of Nepal’s transformation—about past shortcomings, the 1990 and 2006 movements, the civil war, the possibilities for economic development in the future. Excerpts:
What do you think are the major turning points in Nepali politics since 1990?
The 1990 itself was a major turning point in a number of ways. First, it was a culmination of a 30-year struggle to restore democracy. The country had to go through a difficult struggle for 30 years. Second, it was also an event that marked a lot of confidence and commitment to start work to help people realise their dreams. It was also a major turning point in the sense that the entire world was dominated by Washington Consensus in terms of economic policy. And Nepal, without questioning its merit, adopted liberal economic policies and thought that it was only way out of poverty. In addition, a party that always was at centre-point of Nepali political arena deservedly got the first good opportunity to implement its vision for the country. The changed in 1990 also changed the political reality of the country. The leftist movement established itself as important player in Nepal’s future.
What were the problems in democratic practice in the period after 1990?
Nepali Congress was largely a movement until then. It was not very well organised. It had a good following but little experience in running the state. The expectation was high that the country was going to move forward in the right direction. Other problem was mainstreaming a left political party which has a significant presence and following among people. Their role as opposition provides evidence of this. At the same time, NC was also not ready to accept that the opposition that needs to be taken into confidence and made a partner in the task of nation building. Then the NC faced an unexpected defeat of its leader in parliamentary election. This precipitated a serious power struggle. Mr GP Koirala became the prime minister. He was opposed to left politics in the country, and was fully convinced that it was his time to lead the nation into modernity, and that even a democratic opposition should not obstruct him. Naturally, UML was not willing to oblige. Within the party, GPK started to consolidate his power base. This antagonised two senior leaders within the party. The power struggle eventually split the party into two. Despite these political problems, the country was showing signs of economic change. There was some response to the liberal policies followed by NC. One could easily see changes in urban centres including the capital. There was change among the urban elites — changes in their lifestyle and roles. As a group they began to feel that they had a say in the country’s destiny.
One school of thought says that it’s because the lack of inherent democratic values practiced by the leaders — nepotism, patron-clientalism and currption — that played a role not only in democratic malfunction but also in inviting a conflict.
I don’t disagree but I wouldn’t overemphasise the role of the political conflict within the party to the turn of events that happened after 1996. The parties and their functioning were not yet institutionalised. But more importantly, there was change happening in broader society. There were elections. People were politicised and realised that they deserved better and that the government had a role to help them. They also realised the government was not being as helpful—as catalytic—in helping them realise their dreams.
A huge political consciousness followed after 1990s struggle. At the same time, elites in urban centres, capital, and district headquarters were able to take the most advantage out of the system. When we talk about the shortcomings of democratic politics in the 1990s it would be injustice not to talk about the achievements. The size of our economy grew many times over. The physical infrastructure facility multiplied several times. Achievements were made in reducing maternal and child motrality rates. And the private sector grew rapidly.
But isn’t it also the same politics that gave rise to a civil war?
The country was responding to a new economic policy but the gains were limited to a few. Many in villages started realising they weren’t getting the benefits. There was a disconnect between elites in capital and urban centre and the masses of rural people. The disconnect was not limited to geographically distant villages. People of certain identities realised that one or a few identities were getting benefit out of the system. Maybe it was because they were better prepared than others to get the most benefit out of the policies pursued. The size of the youths was growing — almost 250,000 youths were entering the job market every year. Many were pushed to accept unemployment. Many even in the rural areas engaged with agriculture had aspirations to move out of agriculture, especially the youths. But there were no jobs for them. They started to think that something needed to be done to change the system quickly. That probably provided the breeding ground for the armed Maoist movement. But as the Maoist movement started gathering momentum, the country started paying price for the armed struggle. Some of the gains made in early 1990s couldn’t be sustained, including delivery of services to the marginalised.
Did the economic policies pursued by NC were responsible for starting and fuelling the conflict?
To be fair, NC’s policies provided a base for leapfrogging in the economy. But because of the disconnect, felt especially by rural youth, it also provided a breeding ground for armed conflict.
Some argue that if the insurgency hadn’t occurred, the policies of the 1990s would’ve transformed the country. Do you believe that?
What’s possible is relative to ground realities we’re faced with. We still have a large following of communist parties among the masses. We still have a revolutionary communist party which needs to be mainstreamed into democratic politics. To bring an economic policy perceived to be anti-socialist or anti-communist, no matter how good that policy might be, might still create a disconnect. The policy has to be acceptable to a large number of people for it to be sustained.
How has NC’s view regarding Maoists changed over the years?
We signed the 12-point understanding with the Maoists to start a new journey to transform Nepal into a modern state. There’re a few fundamental agreements that the Maoists signed on to. They accepted the fundamentals of democracy as a way of life and political system.
Was republicanism one of 12-point agreement?
The language was very carefully drafted, calling for an “end of autocratic monarchy.” The Maoists could interpret it as end of monarchy and we could interpret it as end of autocracy.
Did the relationship change after the CA election?
Anyway, our journey until the CA election was largely a smooth one. Maoists were a positive force in that journey. But after the election, once they became the largest party in the CA, their goals changed. They wanted to bargain from the position of strength. When the Maoist-led government was formed, they became even more ambitious. They thought that a stage was set when they could capture the state completely. The biggest roadblock that they saw was the Nepal Army. That’s why they tried to create chaos in the Army to make it subservient to the Maoist cause. The Maoists also tried to bring Pashupati, as well as the institution of presidency into controversy. They tried to bring India into Nepal’s political debate by blaming it for dislodging them from the government; this was unwise diplomacy. That said, an evolution has occurred since then. We now again have a Maoist PM but they’re not thinking of state capture today. They understand the parameters within which they have to operate.
Why do you think the Maoists abandoned plans for state capture?
Their mindset today is that absolute capture of state is not possible. However, they’re actively following a policy to lead Nepal into a situation where the politics would largely be a multi-party competition between the Maoist party and its satellite parties. The problem the peace process and constitution is facing today emanates from the fact that Maoists still want to create a situation where no matter what’s written in the constitution, all institutions of the country would feel obliged to support Maoist party either because of threat and intimidation or because of greed. The sooner the Maoists internalise this is impossible, the quicker will the peace and constitution writing process conclude.
Regarding the constitution, aside from the fact that there’s no monarchy, how much further is NC willing to move from the 1990 constitution?
The 1990 constitution minus the monarchy plus federalism, secularism and provisions that are sensitive and responsive to identity politics would be a good constitution. But there are a few important facets that need to be added. For example, the longings and aspirations of people of different identities — caste, ethnic groups, Madhesi people and women. There’s a strong commitment within the country that federalism is going to do good — especially to those who are poor and marginalised. But we must realise that if we overplay the card of ethnicity, caste and language, we might not build a nation but might create sufficient chasms for it to crumble down.
What do you think needs to happen to move the country forward?
First, economic policies should take the lessons learned from experience throughout the world, this includes the importance of giving a large domain to the private sector. Second, aspirations of the people have changed and the policies we follow have to address them. The government has to be able play a catalytic role to transform their lives. We’ve changed demographically and our aspirations have change. About two million work outside the country. If the arena of partnership between the government and the private sector doesn’t help fulfill new apsirations, it’ll create a new disconnect. We have to forge consensus on economic policies to galvanise the people into the task of nation building.
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