Murari Sharma: Golden Age of Communists in Nepal

In 12 years, it is said, even a river changes its course. It has in Nepal, but in 65 years, shattering its old banks.

Established in 1950, during the Soviet heydays and soon after China became a Communist country, the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) had a humble beginning. It played no major role in toppling the 104-year Rana oligarchy in 1950. It only won four seats in the parliament in the first-ever multiparty general elections held in 1959.

It suffered a series of breakups. The CPN broke into two after King Mahendra in a royal coup dislodged the BP Koirala government in 1960, banned political parties and imposed the party-less Panchayat system. The pro-Moscow group supported the royal action and the pro-Beijing group opposed it. Other breakups followed due to ideological or personal differences, spawning a dozen or so Communist parties.

But in 1990, when the Nepali Congress Party (NCP) led a people’s movement to restore democracy in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the new wave of democracy on all shores, several Communist parties formed a joint front and joined the movement. Some even merged to create a strong CPN-UML (United Marxist-Leninist).

When King Birendra restored multiparty democracy, the UML emerged as the second largest party in the parliament in the 1991 general election. That is when the river of the CPN seemed to cut its banks significantly to change its course.

The 1994 general election catapulted the UML to the largest party in the parliament, but sans majority, and enabled it to form a minority government. But within 9 months, the government collapsed, thwarting the course change.

Nonetheless, the 2006 political change broke the riverbanks as never before. Communist parties insisted on suspending the monarchy. After the CPN (Maoist) emerged as the largest in the Constituent Assembly and communist parties put together attained more than 60 percent strength in the 2008 ballot, they became instrumental in abolishing the monarchy. Four Communists leaders (two from the UML and two from the Maoists) became prime minister and a Communist leader became the speaker of the house.

However, the presidency remained beyond their reach, until this year. In the 2013 elections, Communists retained their strength in the Assembly, though the Maoists were pushed to the third position. The Nepali Congress and the UML formed a coalition government and, with the help of the Maoists,  promulgated a new constitution in September this year.

In the subsequent change of guards, UML leaders bagged the presidency and premiership, defeating Nepali Congress candidates. A Maoist leader defeated his Nepali Congress rival for vice president. The Nepali Congress gave a pass to the speaker and deputy speaker. Thus, the political river has completed a course change.

Now Nepal has a Communist president, a Communist vice president, a Communist prime minister, a Communist speaker, and a couple of Communist deputy prime ministers. How long will it last?

Although predicting the political course in Nepal is no less difficult than forecasting the weather, this golden age for Communists may last for some time if the experience in the neighborhood is to go by.

In India, West Bengal and Kerala were under Communist parties for several decades. In West Bengal, the Marxists ruled for nearly four decades. In Kerala too, they have been a ruling party for a number of years. The signals are quite encouraging for Communists in Nepal also. The reasons for this are many, but let me cite a few key ones.

First, the Marxists in West Bengal went for land reform — confiscation of land of landowners and distribution to their core voters just before every election — to remain in power for decades. Never mind that the state became one of the poorest in India from one of the richest during that period. Communists in Nepal can take a page from there.

Second, other populist programs — such as redistribution of wealth through taxation, implementation of popular development projects without regard for their long-term value or sustainability, introduction of new welfare measures without considering the capacity to pay, and induction of new laws that make labor market rigid and production stagnant — helped them reelected. Communists in Nepal may follow suit.

In fact, the short-lived UML government in 1994 had introduced the old age allowance and another Communist-led government had started the old-age allowance, things the NCP government had rejected as unsustainable. This time, Prime Minister KP Oli has announced on the day of his taking office that all old dangerous bridges in the hills would be replaced with safe new suspension bridges. These programs are popular, though no one bothered to conduct feasibility and sustainability studies.

Third, the centrist NCP has shot itself in the foot so badly that it is unlikely to be up and running any time soon. Evidently, the NCP broke its gentlemen’s agreement to take the presidency and give the premiership to the UML and the speakership to the Maoists, only to lose everything.

Besides, the NC lost public confidence on nationalism. The leaders from the small regional parties protested against the new constitution arguing that is did not accommodate their demands for one state for the entire Terai region, that it made the citizenship provision more stringent than the Interim Constitution, and that it did not link number of constituencies in the plains to its population.

India sided with the regional parties. To give a boost to the fading protests in the plains, it allowed these parties to picket the access on its side of the common border with Nepal and imposed unofficial blockade on the flow of goods. To make it worse, it also presented its own seven-point demands for the amendment in the constitution as a precondition for smooth transit facilities.

The consequent shortage of petroleum and other essential products stoked anti-India sentiments in the rest of Nepal. What is more, India sided with the incumbent Sushil Koirala from the NCP to contest again for prime minister and twisted arms of the regional parties to vote for him under a constitution that they had rejected.

To win public sentiments and ease the constraints in supplies of petroleum products, Communist parties in power opened trade channels with China, breaking India’s monopoly for nearly four decades. This step has won wide public approval for them, as nationalist parties.

Consequently, if no major political or economic disaster happens from now to the next election, this Communist majority coalition is likely to remain on this golden shore until the next election due in two years and maybe in the following electoral cycle as well. At a time when Communists are vanishing elsewhere, they have reached the apex, after 65 years, and may remain there for next seven years.

Albert Einstein is perhaps right in saying, “It is not that I am so smart, it is just that I stay with problems longer.” Communists in Nepal have stayed long enough with their quest for power in Nepal.

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