In Kathmandu, the conventional wisdom has it that you show up early on voting day: the lines at the booth may be longer, but the chances are that no one else will yet have voted in your name. And trouble, if it comes, comes in the afternoon. On 10 April, I joined the women’s line outside the voting booth at Sano Gauchar, in Baneshwor. Conversation mainly had to do with the electronic voting machines that were being tested for the first time in Nepal, courtesy of the Indian government, and whether it might be possible, if no one minded, to jump the queue. (Everybody minded.) The Nepali Congress Party’s candidate ambled by at one point, offering the women polite namastes, and the men hearty handshakes. Hot on his trail came a huddle of irate Maoists: ‘He’s not allowed to canvass! If he wants to come to the booth, he has to sit to one side!’ The offending candidate had left by then; so it was the Maoists who sat to one side, glowering.
Inside the voting booth – lined, intriguingly, with the Stars and Stripes and bald eagles – the choices before me were many, all unappealing. The first of the three main contenders was the Nepali Congress, a socialist party in origin but somewhere between feudal and neo-conservative in practice; it’s led by the Koirala family, Nepal’s sad version of the Nehrus or the Bhuttos. Then there was the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), which slips and slides between neoliberalism and Communism, unable, apparently, to sit tight at the centre-left. The third contender, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), was unlike the others in having its own army. It was not for me, an American-educated leftist, to vote for armed Maoists. Dispiritedly, I voted UML. The Nepali Congress went on to win in that constituency.
We were voting for a constituent assembly, a 601-member body that would draft a new constitution, effectively giving birth to a ‘New Nepal’. The constitution would be promulgated in two years’ time, and the country would become a democratic republic – or else a Communist republic, or, for that matter, an absolute monarchy. It would all depend on the outcome of the election.
That the election was being held at all was a pleasant surprise. It was more than half a century late. After Nepal rebelled against its autocratic rulers for the first time in 1950, the Nepali Congress, which had led the democracy movement, wanted an elected constituent assembly to draft a democratic constitution. But before this could happen, King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah re-established his dynasty’s absolute rule. Plans for this – or any other – democratic election were rapidly abandoned.
The call for an assembly was not sounded again for another 40 years, this time not by the Nepali Congress, but by their arch rivals, the Maoists. In 1990, riding the wave of democracy that had swept through Eastern Europe, Nepal rose up once more against the autocracy in a movement led by the Nepali Congress and a coalition of leftist parties that included the Maoists, but was dominated by the party that went on to become the UML. A constitution was swiftly promulgated, turning the country into a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy.
By the second general election, in 1994, the Maoists were already denouncing parliamentary democracy as an instrument of multinational capitalism and neocolonialism. It also surely rankled that they had won so few seats in the elections. In 1996, they went underground and launched a ‘People’s War’, demanding sweeping reforms. Thousands of lives and much anguish later, only two of their demands turned out to be non-negotiable. One was the abolition of the 240-year-old monarchy, the other a new constitution drafted by an elected assembly.
Vol. 30 No. 13 · 3 July 2008
From Manjushree Thapa
I wrote in the LRB of 8 May about the election of Nepal’s new Constituent Assembly and its plans to abolish the country’s 240-year-old monarchy. On 28 May, the Constituent Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of this, transforming this ragged old kingdom into the world’s youngest republic. Before the vote could take place, there had been a lot of bickering about whether the next head of state should be a president or a prime minister, and who should be vested with executive power. It is not the Nepali way to settle such things ahead of time; the country has always had a slapdash, last-minute, make-it-up-as-you-go-along ethos. But when the parties at last reached an agreement and got around to passing the vote, the streets erupted. Crowds of overexcited republicans pressed towards the royal palace, demanding that the king, Gyanendra Shah, leave at once. But he had been given 15 days: the police fired tear gas, the crowds dispersed.
Nepal was not colonised in the 19th century, so did not go through decolonisation, or any such struggle for self-definition, in the 20th. To the republican majority of this demographically very young and politically very left-wing country, scrapping the monarchy felt like the defining event in the nation’s history. To the monarchist minority, it felt like a terrible loss.
Nepal’s monarchists come in two varieties. There is the daft kind, who purport to believe that the king is – or was – an avatar of Vishnu, and not just the divine ruler of Nepal, but the emperor of all Hindus. They expressed their fury by setting off bombs ahead of the vote. The other variety of monarchist, the constitutional kind, is more reasonable. As the vote approached, they argued that since the Shah dynasty founded Nepal, Nepal should preserve the monarchy as a harmless relic. It didn’t help their cause that Gyanendra Shah had done little but cause harm. Still, they floated hopeful proposals. If not a constitutional monarchy, perhaps a ‘ceremonial’ monarchy? No? Then how about a ‘cultural’ monarchy? Why not a female line of succession? Or maybe we could bypass the king and his successor and install a ‘baby king’?
The desire to be ruled, even if only symbolically, is a surrender to nostalgia. Fortunately for republicans, Gyanendra Shah didn’t inspire sentimentality. Before he became king he had a reputation for misusing royal privileges and having links with the criminal underworld. When he became king in 2001 after the massacre of his older brother, he proceeded to dismantle the democratic constitution of 1990, and resumed absolute rule after the military coup 0f 2005. Gyanendra’s son, the crown prince, Paras Shah, is no more attractive: he has a history involving manslaughter, drug use and reckless endangerment involving fast cars, loaded guns or both.
While its neighbours India and China lurched towards superpower status, Nepal it seemed was stuck forever battling its own kings. The rise of republicanism was a sign of increasing confidence, and a recognition that the country must not remain a tin-pot monarchy. We will not be able to rejoice for long, however, because the party-political bickering that preceded the vote will only get worse. The main task ahead is the drafting of a new constitution, which will determine whether Nepal ends up a communist republic or a liberal republic. The Maoists, as the largest party, claim the right to lead the Constituent Assembly; but the other parties worry about the continuing existence of their military arm, the People’s Liberation Army. The army, too, might prove mutinous. ‘Parties Fail to Reach Consensus,’ was the headline just days after the republic was declared. More of this – much more – lies ahead.