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.