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.

What made the 10 April election unlike any previous election here was the keen participation of the Maoists. The People’s War had exceeded all expectations. In a series of carefully planned attacks, the People’s Liberation Army had drawn first the police, then the military, into an atrocity-ridden counterinsurgency, compromising the moral standing of the democratic state. Then, helpfully, the monarchy self-destructed: King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah was killed in a massacre at the royal palace in 2001, supposedly by his son. So addled was the Royal State Council that they named the son, comatose with a bullet to the head at the end of the killing spree, the next king. When he died two days later, his unpopular uncle, Gyanendra Shah, ascended the throne. This gave instant appeal to the Maoists’ call for a republic. In 2005 Gyanendra Shah further undermined the monarchy by dismissing the elected assembly. The following year a democracy movement put paid to absolute rule for the third time. On this occasion the Maoists provided the muscle, while the Nepali Congress and the UML served as a more acceptable façade. The success of the movement opened the way for peace negotiations between the Maoists and all the democratic parties, known collectively as the Seven Party Alliance, or SPAM.

Nobody was keener to see an assembly election held than the international aid community. Aid makes up more than half of Nepal’s budget, but despite, or perhaps because of, the millions of dollars that agencies poured in to support the peace process after April 2006, there was little to show for it. In the aid industry, ‘advocacy’ is the slogan of the day, the assumption being that informing people about their rights ‘empowers’ them to improve their lives, which is fine in theory. In practice, advocacy often boils down to seminars, conferences, workshops and ‘interaction’ programmes held in five-star hotels, or, less luxuriously, in ‘the districts’ (as everywhere outside Kathmandu is called).

The aid industry started to fund advocacy projects relating to the election even before a date was set for it, as well as a host of other campaigns intended to reconcile the warring parties. Transitional justice, the end of impunity, conflict resolution, good governance, human rights, accountability, peace-building, institution-building, capacity-building, social inclusion: all this was on the agenda. International experts flooded Kathmandu, eager to test the latest methodologies. Hotels, restaurants and dance bars thrived. Prostitution boomed. Massage parlours were ubiquitous. The supermarkets began to stock unfamiliar foods: wine from Australia, France, South Africa and Chile, parma ham, tinned anchovies, wholewheat pasta, and cheeses – blue, mozzarella, brie, parmesan. The effect was to bureaucratise what might otherwise have been a revolution in the 19th-century sense, complete with the radicalisation of the sans-culottes and a backlash from the ancien regime. Aid had a moderating, even civilising effect on the Maoists; but it also lulled the Nepali Congress and UML into complacency.

SPAM dilly-dallied over the peace process. Plans to restructure the army and integrate the People’s Liberation Army into it stalled in the face of public defiance by the army chief, General Rukmangad Katuwal, an absolute monarchist given to badmouthing democracy in articles published under a pseudonym. As for truth and reconciliation, neither the Nepali Congress nor the UML wanted to upset the army by pushing for it. The Maoists were not eager either. They had killed 4870 Nepalis in the course of their People’s War – fewer, it’s true, than the 8377 killed by the state – and the families affected were still waiting for justice. But the prosecution of war crimes was just not on.

SPAM’s main achievement thus promised to be the election. When they cancelled it, first in June, then in November 2007, alarm broke out among donors and diplomats in Kathmandu. ‘Do you think it will ever happen?’ became the question of the day over lunch at the pricier restaurants. ‘If it could happen in Iraq and Afghanistan, it can happen here,’ one diplomat assured me days ahead of the June cancellation. Somehow this did not seem reassuring. Immediately before the November cancellation, I told another diplomat that, frankly, no, I didn’t think the election would happen this time either. She was quite irritated. ‘We’ve already organised election observers,’ she cried. ‘It has to happen. There’s no choice!’

Indeed, there was no choice. Funds, in the aid industry, are disbursed only on the production of slick reports boasting of concrete results, called ‘deliverables’. The international community needed Nepal to hold this election, and now. It prodded an indolent SPAM into action. In a sterling demonstration of the aid industry’s investment in ‘capacity-enhancement’, the Election Commission set up more than 21,000 voting booths throughout this rugged, impossible country. As voting day neared, the leaders of the Nepali Congress and UML bragged that the Maoists would come in a distant third, and everyone else in Kathmandu seemed to agree. ‘The Congress has thrown so much money around, there’s no way the Maoists can win,’ one poll-watcher told me. Other experts alluded vaguely to briefcases of money being moved out of the Indian Embassy to ensure the victory of key non-Maoist candidates. But it is in the districts that votes are won and there the Maoists proved to be hungriest. Because they had cleared the field of their rivals during the war, theirs was the only party to be fully organised, from the centre down to neighbourhood cells. Unlike the UML, they wooed voters in the local patois. Only the Maoists stood for change, which the people were desperate for. Undeniably, they also benefited from the fear that they would relaunch the war if they were defeated.

In retrospect, it seems ridiculous that the Nepali Congress and the UML agreed to go into the election against a party that was still armed; but then no one was holding a gun to their heads, not literally. As voting day got closer, their local cadres did raise the danger of a late surge in the Maoists’ favour. Kathmandu didn’t listen.

For a while it seemed everything would be OK. Despite fears of poll violence, there was a 60 per cent turnout on 10 April. Trouble did come in the afternoon, but only enough to mean the vote had to be repeated in 75-odd booths. Even before the polls closed, jubilation set in, not least in the international community. A ‘deliverable’ at last! Naturally, all the parties had indulged in intimidation, proxy voting, ballot stuffing and the destruction of ballot boxes where their showing was poor. (Some burned the boxes, others poured water into them, others just tossed them into rivers.) Polling officers were abducted at one booth to prevent them from crying foul. Eight political workers died in the campaign, and two on voting day. But given that hundreds of deaths had been feared, relieved analysts were able to dismiss all this as ‘chheet-phoot’, or isolated incidents. For a full 24 hours, euphoria reigned. And then the results began to show the Maoists in the lead.

Khagendra Sangraula is one of Nepal’s most celebrated writers, an engaged intellectual of the classical kind, a leftist, sharp, outspoken and unafraid. I had always looked to him for help when trying to understand what I thought of as Nepal’s ‘weird left’. He has long been a fierce critic of totalitarianism, of both the right and the left. He was also assiduously unpartisan – until three weeks before the election, when, as he put it, he took a great leap forward, to endorse the Maoists.

As the election results trickled in on 24-hour television news programmes, and as sporadic victory parades erupted throughout Kathmandu, I met him at his home in a neighbourhood of high-rise concrete blocks. I wanted to know how it felt to have given up his long-standing independence.

‘Yes, I’d always maintained a so-called neutrality, hadn’t I?’ He fingered an unlit cigarette. ‘Always covering myself, always balancing my language: if I scolded Congress a little, I’d scold the Maoists a little too.’ He laughed. ‘I figured,’ he said, ‘our history was reaching a decisive juncture. Nothing is static at such times. To maintain neutrality would be hypocritical.’

He drew up a simple, two-point agenda: an end to the monarchy and federalisation (a Maoist policy that had proved very popular). He went on to publish articles and a pamphlet in favour of republicanism and also spoke at political rallies. The first of these came at the end of a day’s door-to-door canvassing by a key strategist of the People’s Liberation Army, who goes by the nom de guerre of Badal (meaning ‘cloud’). ‘That was in a very poor settlement in Chitwan,’ Sangraula said. ‘The people there liked Badal. And I wanted him to win.’ He gave a speech endorsing the candidate.

On his return to Kathmandu, he counterbalanced this by endorsing a Nepali Congress candidate, a friend who was running on a republican platform: ‘He’s not a big revolutionary, but a revolutionary of the right size, like me.’ Then he spoke, causing an immense stir, at a Maoist rally in Kathmandu. ‘By then there was no turning back,’ he explained. ‘I sat on the stage, feeling uncomfortable. All the camera-wallahs were stunned: what’s he doing here? Talking to fifty or a hundred people in small rooms, I feel that is my size. It’s not for me to speak in front of tens of thousands. Two or three times I left the stage to smoke. I went out, I talked to people, I just couldn’t feel at ease.’ His short speech focused on republicanism, but it was seen as a strong endorsement of the Maoists.

All this contributed to the Maoists’ late surge. By the end of campaigning, Sangraula had also spoken at a rally for the Maoists’ chairman, Prachanda (‘fierce’), counterbalancing this, yet again, by speaking at a rally for his friend, the republican Nepali Congress candidate. He told me he had also looked for a UML candidate to endorse, but couldn’t find one.

I told him that his endorsement of Prachanda had surprised me. He laughed again. In 1999, he published a novel about the work that an NGO had done to help bring about the liberation of the Dalit, the so-called untouchables. Prachanda, then in the thick of his People’s War, had mentioned in a newspaper interview that he had read it, and found it sufficiently anti-revolutionary to merit ‘material punishment’ for the author. As his cadres had demonstrated, this could mean anything from imprisonment in a labour camp to torture and murder – by beating, shooting or beheading.

The rapprochement between Sangraula and Prachanda took place at the start of the peace process. Sangraula and a friend went drinking with Prachanda and the Maoists’ second most powerful leader, Baburam Bhattarai. ‘Baburam drank Coke, we drank alcohol.’ They stayed up till two, talking. Prachanda admitted that the distance between those who had gone to war and those who hadn’t had bred misunderstandings. ‘Baburam acted as the superglue that night,’ Sangraula said. ‘He said: now that we’ve reached a ceasefire with the seven parties, Khagendraji and Prachandaji must also reach a ceasefire.’ They did. And how.

‘I’ve never condoned the Maoists’ love of violence,’ Sangraula said, emphatically. ‘I’ve written about – even condemned – their excesses. But now, looking at what I did, I feel pride rather than regret. What I did, I did right.’ I envied him his certainty.

We sat for a while longer on his front porch. He smoked, his talk flitting over the months ahead. How, he wondered, would the constituent assembly abolish the monarchy? ‘They’ll have to tell the king: we’ve decided. Take your bedding and move. What if he refuses?’ He worried about the possibility of a backlash from the army, and from the upper classes. He talked about the Maoists’ inexperience with parliamentary procedures, and his fear that they might be corrupted by power. ‘Our job,’ he said at one point, ‘will be to help the middle, the upper-middle class – whom the rest of the world trusts – to accept the Maoists’ showing in the election, so that the Maoists won’t have to go back to war.’ Later, he said that our job was to speed up the abolition of the monarchy, and also to write about all this. ‘I agree with what Trotsky said, that the workers carry out revolutions for their own liberation, and the bourgeoisie write about it.’ The Maoist memoirs he had read were interesting, but all the poems and stories were dreadful. ‘I’m a bourgeois, after all. It’ll be up to the bourgeoisie to write about all this.’

Would he find time to do so? I asked.

He paused, then said: ‘Being involved in the intellectual life of a nation, that’s an addiction. To give it up is as hard as giving up cigarettes or alcohol.’ He had promised himself he would return to writing after the election, but it wasn’t looking likely, not yet.

By then he’d had several calls on his cellphone. The Maoists’ lead had widened into outright victory. They were set to govern Nepal, and to oversee the drafting of the new constitution. This astonished and pleased Sangraula, and left me rueing the many failures of the centre-left.

What kind of constitution would we get now? Would it uphold basic individual rights? And what of the incomplete peace process: would the Maoists really let go of their People’s Liberation Army? Would they agree to the prosecution of war crimes? I left Sangraula at the offices of a leftist newspaper, where he could celebrate among like-minded friends.

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Vol. 30 No. 13 · 3 July 2008

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.

Manjushree Thapa

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