Nepal: Revolution’s Restorative Tangle

Pothik Ghosh

“We can be defeated both by dictatorship itself and by being reduced to opposing only dictatorship. Defeat consists as much in losing the war as in losing the choice of which war to wage.” – The Coming Insurrection, The Invisible Committee

The shelf-life of democracy in Nepal is turning out to be rather short. And instead of adhering to its ideological credo of “uninterrupted revolution” (Mao Zedong), the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) has allowed itself to become a party to this brutal interruption of democracy. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly (CA), after it failed to give the fledgling republic a Constitution in spite of innumerable extensions, has undoubtedly precipitated a constitutional crisis. Such a crisis, needless to say, has been caused because the interim constitution did not foresee that a situation like the one that currently stares the republic in its young but battered face could ever arise. To see the current situation merely in those terms would, however, amount to barely scratching the surface. What, on the face of it, is an intractable constitutional deadlock is at its heart a political calamity. The soul of Nepal – its social cohesion – is suffering from a virtually incurable fracture.

The UCPN-M-led government may believe that in deciding to call for fresh elections to institute a new CA it has done the best for democracy. Nevertheless, it would be delusional on its part to imagine that making what in current circumstances is a necessary procedural gesture would be sufficient condition for enabling the continuance of democracy in the country.

No number of elections will yield the missing social consensus for a genuinely cohesive Nepal. Envisaging the electoral process as the exclusive driver of democratisation would just not do. Not unless a vibrant politics of radical social transformation, which compels the electoral process and the polity it constitutes to reflect and embody its spirit, is in place. Such transformative politics is capable of generating an effective consensus for social cohesion because it seeks to forge a new, egalitarian form of social unity by challenging and dismantling the hierarchised aggregation of socio-economic strata and socio-cultural identities.

The stiff opposition mounted by the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) not only against the demand for a strong federal polity being championed by the Maoists and their political allies among the Madheshis and Janjatis, but even against the declaration of fresh elections by the UCPN-M-led government, demonstrates the utter hopelessness of the situation. It also serves to reveal the retrograde nature of the prevailing social consensus insofar as it has inspired and enabled forces such as the NC and the CPN-UML to resist the most obviously basic procedure in a republican democracy – declaration of elections – without any fear of taint or loss. In such a situation, elections – even if the socially dominant classes and castes that back the NC and CPN-UML allow them to be held – is unlikely to yield the kind of progressive mandate required to legitimise the framing of a strongly federalist Constitution.

Unless the prevailing hegemony of competitive identity politics – the source of social division and the absence of a consensus for cohesive Nepali society – is shattered, the demand for a strong federalist constitution, incontrovertibly progressive and democratic, will remain a pipe-dream. The fulfillment of political democracy is clearly linked to democratic transformation of a hierarchical and stratified society. And the politics that seeks to accomplish this transformation can do so by establishing unity among subalternised working-class elements across various social blocs or identities in the commonality of their struggles to not only emancipate themselves from the specificities of their respective domination but through such struggles come together to extinguish the general condition of subalternisation per se. (That, in essence, is what the revolutionary politics of working-class solidarity amounts to.) Such a political manoeuvre, in attempting to disaggregate identities and breach their homogeneity, would fundamentally alter the prevailing configuration of social and economic power in Nepal. It would also create an effective consensus for a federalised republican polity. The demand for federalism would gain legitimacy beyond the marginalised and oppressed identities, whose demand it particularly is, due to the cross-identitarian character of working-class solidarity that such transformative politics would accomplish.

Unfortunately, UCPN-M chairman Prachanda’s recent statement bespeaks no such awareness. His assertion that his party would fight polls on the plank of identity-based federalism and would win two-thirds majority in the new CA is not only thoroughly misplaced but is a tragic revelation to boot. It demonstrates how the Maoists have come to vest such complete and exclusive faith in the electoral process as if it were the demi-urge of democracy in Nepal. Electoral politics, in the absence of a larger movement for radical social transformation, is threatening to undermine precisely that which it is meant to establish: democracy. In Nepal today, it is an embodiment of the ethic of competition that underlies the acutely hierarchised, deeply class-divided and sharply fractured society.

Even more appalling is the fact that the importance of establishing the inextricable link between political democracy and radical social transformation should be so completely lost on the leadership of a political force with a recent and glorious revolutionary past. The Maoists should have known the realisation of federalism as a constitutionally enshrined principle is contingent not on sheer electoral mobilisation, but on the capacity of a political force to situate such mobilisation within the matrix of vigorous transformative politics that delegitimises identitarian competition by seeking to level the social hierarchy that fosters it. The objective basis of their politics in the most subalternised sections of the working people, thanks to their participation in and leadership of the two-decade-long People’s War, ought to have ensured at least this much. That it did not proves their subjectivity is no longer fully committed to the objective basis of their politics.

In that context, the responsibility for the current crisis of democratic consensus in Nepal should largely be the Maoists’ burden. And that, contrary to the suggestion of the preponderant anti-Maoist wisdom on the Indian subcontinent, is not because the UCPN-M has failed to sufficiently accommodate the so-called concerns of such reactionary political forces as the NC and CPN-UML. Instead, the crisis has arisen precisely because it has been too accommodating. The Maoists have, for all practical purposes, accepted the dominance of the traditional social elite by submitting to the hegemonic determination of the latter’s republicanist ideology of competitive politics and hierarchised social corporatist aggregation.

It would, however, be analytically misplaced to overstate this criticism. What is needed is to put it in its proper historical perspective. After all, it was the concerted initiative of the Maoists to deepen and democratise Nepal’s republican political process – made inevitable by the 2006 anti-monarchy Jan Andolan of the NC-led seven-party alliance (SPA) and the Maoists – that compelled the post-Gyanendra mainstream polity to concede to their demand for drawing up a more democratic social contract in the form of a new Constitution. It was this that led to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Maoists and the SPA, the abolition of monarchy and the institution of the now-dissolved CA through elections in which the Maoists too participated. When the SPA had accepted the reinstatement of the Nepal House of Representatives by King Gyanendra in April 2006, Baburam Bhattarai had categorically stated that merely restoring parliament would not resolve the problems and that Maoist guerrillas would continue to fight government forces as long as their demands for the formation of a CA and abolition of monarchy were not accepted. Such a statement proves the Maoists had then been doggedly committed to the democratisation of the emergent republican polity.

Such commitment stemmed from the objective basis of their politics in the demands and aspirations of the oppressed sections of Nepali society for greater democratisation. It meant that the hierarchised aggregation of differentially inclusive identitarianised strata become less hierarchical. The demand for a new social contract was meant to accomplish exactly that. But can such a social contract gain widespread popular legitimacy as long as society is irreconcilably divided along hierarchically and thus mutually competitive identitarian lines?

Aspirations that pertain to certain oppressed identities, no matter how democratic, will not find acceptance among dominant identities unless those identities themselves are disaggregated through a process of opening up of struggles between the dominated and the dominant within each of those identities. It is only then that the oppressed identities and the proletarianised sections within the dominant identities can come together in their common condition of oppression and their common struggle against the abolition of that condition per se. Only when that is accomplished can the democratic aspirations of the oppressed identities find wider resonance with the concerns of the subalternised sections within the dominant identities and win popular legitimacy.

This is the full implication of aspirations and demands such as federalism that the Maoists have failed to grasp in spite of having concertedly raised those demands due to the objective location of their politics among the wretched of the earth. It is time, however, they understood that their struggle to deepen republicanism was no more than a moment in the process of the larger political movement to radically transform Nepali society. Had that been their approach all along, their struggle to deepen the republican political process would have morphed into the next moment of struggle for social transformation without interruption. They should now know that democratisation of a republican polity without radical transformation of society would – even if it were to succeed – inevitably lead to the electoral instrumentalisation of the questions and concerns of the working class by different sections of the socially dominant classes and the ruling elite in their mutually competitive quest for political power. Such instrumentalisation would strengthen homogeneous identities and thus reinforce the hegemony of a hierarchical society and competitive identity politics.

The UCPN-M, so far, has given no sign that it has started comprehending its demand for a constitutionally-ordained federal polity in those terms. As a consequence, what was meant to be the means by which a wide-ranging political movement for social transformation could be waged and energised continues to be reduced to a shibboleth by the party for bolstering its case in a competitive struggle for political power. Something that rather than challenge has only served to reinforce the unequal social basis of such power. Clearly, the Maoists appear to have conflated and confused their politics of radical social transformation with the tactics of the republican moment of such politics. That has, in an ironic twist, rendered republicanism the strategic goal of a political force that professes to stand for revolutionary working-class politics.

The fatal flaw of the Maoist leadership on that score had become evident in 2005-06 itself when the party had begun diverting its political resources and energy from the People’s War campaign in rural Nepal to an urban mass movement that was erupting in the form of an anti-monarchy Jan Andolan. The problem is not that Maoist politics came out of the bush into the cities to become open. Nor can the decision of the Maoists to participate in the mainstream electoral process be faulted as such. At that moment, those were absolutely the right things to do by way of tactics. The real problem lay in the way they went about doing all that.

Whatever critical assessment the Maoists might have had of the Jan Andolan, the politics of their participation in it revealed nothing more than the acceptance of massification that was the dominant ideological and political tendency of the movement. The 2006 Jan Andolan was a movement constituted through an aggregation of different strata of Nepali society against disparate forms of domination inflicted and imposed on them by their common enemy – the monarchy – that nevertheless left the relationships of domination, power and mutual competition among its constituents intact.

The Maoist participation in that movement should have been based on a continuous questioning and practical critique of the concrete forms in which the movement engendered social relations of hierarchy and concomitant ideologies of competition even while the party fought the common battle against the monarchy without yielding an inch. In other words, the Maoists should have been the principal proponents of a revolution within revolution. Instead, blinded by their tactical paradigm of republicanism, they ended up elevating the problem of Jan Andolan into a virtue.

The hierarchised mass, shaped and guided by ideologies of mutual competition among its various constituent strata and/or identities, was assumed by them to be a repository of social unity in its apparently common struggle against Gyanendra’s monarchy. Naturally, they thought that questioning the hierarchies and segmentations internal to that mass would weaken the movement. This was probably also partly prompted by their desire to quickly seize state-power. They probably lost the nerve to undertake the protracted and arduous political odyssey needed for making such seizure contingent on altering the social relations and structure from which emanates the oppressive state-formation of Nepal. But as Maoists they should have known that “revolution is not a dinner party”, or a piece of cake for that matter.

What was required of them was to sustain the movement on the streets of urban Nepal through unceasing political activity driven by independent working-class initiative. Such a movement, if it went on in tandem with the task of framing the Constitution, would have ensured the CA debates successfully culminated in the framing of a new Constitution. More importantly, the debates and the Constitution yielded by them would have been what they ought to be in a substantively democratic socio-political formation: the legislative and institutional reflection of the popular will, which is the unceasing movement on the street towards a higher form of unity and a new order of social cohesion. The Maoists, in choosing to uncritically submerge themselves in the massified zeitgeist of the 2006 Jan Andolan, frittered that opportunity away. The republican political subjectivity they have acquired as a result is borne out by the ease with which they have continually submitted to the demands of the Indian state.

New Delhi, like a watchful big brother in the neighbourhood seeking to protect the purportedly fragile republican balance of power in Nepal, has time and again compelled the Maoists and their government to control and check the advance of their working-class base in the farms, factories and streets of Nepal. The UCPN-M-led government has, at the Indian government’s behest, repeatedly curbed the activities and democratic assertions of such movement-based oganisations as its Young Communist League and labour unions. It has also dissolved the various organs of people’s power it had developed between 1996 and 2006. For the sake of this so-called republican integrity, the Maoist-led government during Prachanda’s premiership even went to the extent of deciding to return the land it had seized from landowning classes in the People’s War phase.

The big-brotherly protection of Nepal’s fragile republican balance of power by India essentially amounts to New Delhi acting as the political executive of Nepal’s Marwari mercantile/industrial capitalists and Bihari rich peasants (of Terai) – connected to the Indian mainland by kinship ties – to safeguard their ill-gotten privilege and socio-economic power. If this is not imperialism, what is? Clearly, the republican distortions of Maoist politics is as much a consequence as cause of India’s imperialistic meddling in Nepal. Of course, the Maoists themselves are primarily responsible for having adopted a republican political subjectivity that has now not only ceased to be radical but is enabling a socio-political project that is downright restorative. But the sustained level and nature of India’s imperialistic interference in Nepal has created conditions that do not leave radical political forces with too many other options.

It, therefore, follows that unless a radical Left-democratic movement is able to gather enough mass and power in India to shatter the settled nationalist consensus from which this country’s ruling class derives the legitimacy to indulge in imperialistic interference in its subcontinental neighbourhood, the future of radical democracy in Nepal is doomed. And damned. The Indian Left would do well to understand that it needs to do much more for the revolution in Nepal than instructing and advising the Maoists and other radical forces there on how to go about their business.

That is, however, not meant to exculpate the Nepali Maoists and discharge them from the responsibility of effecting a revolutionary transformation of socio-economic and political power in Nepal. It is only to tell them that if they do not mend their ways and continue to walk the path they have been walking since 2006, the best they will be able to deliver is a messed-up passive revolution.

A shorter version of the article is published in The Economic Times (June 2, 2012)


  1. eric ribellarsi says:

    Thanks for this piece, it was very interesting in terms of its analysis of identity and fedalism in Nepal.. but I’m somewhat confused by the treatment of the Maoists here as a homogeneous whole, alternating back and forth between discussions of Prachanda and the Maoists as if they were all the same, but they have split.. I was wondering what your thoughts are on the new CPN-M and other Maoist leaders such as Biplab and Kiran?

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