Hammer and Fickle

Nepali politics sees a major reconfiguration in time for a watershed election

The coming together of the CPN(UML) and the CPN(MC) has created a new force that, going by recent electoral results, could command insurmountable national support. narayan maharjan / nurphoto / getty images
01 November, 2017

An unusual emblem entered Nepal’s political iconography early this August. In Bharatpur, supporters of the southern city’s new mayor, Renu Dahal, sewed together the flags of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre)—stars and stripes in red and white in the first case, and a hammer and sickle in white on red in the other—and paraded in celebration. Dahal, the daughter of the CPN(MC) leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as Prachanda, won after a partial rerun of an earlier local-body election. The first, disputed run of the Bharatpur vote was held in May; CPN(MC) activists interrupted counting to tear up ballots. Prachanda was then the prime minister, at the head of a coalition between the CPN(MC) and the Congress, and, in keeping with the conditions of the alliance, he resigned shortly afterwards in favour of Sher Bahadur Deuba, the Congress supremo and present incumbent. The August celebrations in Bharatpur suggested that the alliance continued in good health, to the cost of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist)—a member, alongside the two allied parties, of the “big three” of Nepali politics in recent times.

But the combined flags soon became useless. At the start of October, the CPN(UML) and the CPN(MC) announced that they would work together in elections for federal and provincial parliaments due in late November and early December. They also declared their intent to merge afterwards into a single party—nominally a leftist one, although ideological tags mean very little in Nepali politics at present. Going by the numbers from local-body elections held across the country earlier this year—the CPN(UML) received the most votes of any single party, with the Congress a close second and the CPN(MC) a distant third—the new force could control an insurmountable share of popular support. To smooth the way for the elections, the CPN(MC) vowed to continue its support for the present government until they were concluded. That was the only good news for the Congress, which, by all indications and like almost everyone in Nepali politics, was caught cold by these developments.

Several commentators have since said that the new leftist force will essentially make Nepal a two-party state, putting an end to the rapid-fire changes of government of recent years. Since 2008, when the country abolished monarchy in the wake of a civil war, it has seen ten changes of rule amid notoriously fickle political alliances. Just since September 2015, when Nepal formalised a new constitution, Prachanda’s party has supported a government under the CPN(UML), brought it down by siding with the Congress to create the present administration, and now allied with the CPN(UML) again. The fluid allegiances of many of the country’s smaller parties make for even more dizzying reading.

The CPN(UML)–CPN(MC) partnership has sparked some consolidation. The Congress has tried to cobble together an ostensibly “democratic” counterpart to it that includes the pro-monarchy and Hindu-conservative Rastriya Prajatantra Party. But old habits, and new disagreements over how to share power and its spoils, will put these partnerships to the test. Already, the Naya Shakti Party, which is led by the former Maoist commander Baburam Bhattarai, has abandoned its initial declaration of allegiance to the leftist bloc after a dispute over the allocation of election seats. Since then, it has courted the Congress.

The stakes are especially high given the historic nature of the upcoming election, which will conclude Nepal’s transition into a federal republic, and mark the last step in the tortured implementation of the new constitution that made it so. The country now has seven states, currently designated as numbered provinces. Whoever comes to control each of the seven brand-new provincial parliaments will, unless deposed, rule for five years, and have the chance to establish themselves as regional satraps at a time of a major devolution of power away from Kathmandu for the first time in modern Nepali history.

With attention now disproportionately focussed on these two rival factions, what is being overlooked, and not for the first time, is the politics of the Madhes, in the country’s southern plains. Yet it is here, in a region historically at the forefront of discontent with Nepal’s status quo, that many of the complexities and fault lines of Nepal’s reconfigured politics and new federal geography are becoming clear, particularly when it comes to the democratic aspirations that drove Nepal’s move to a republican system. The Madhes’s two largest regional parties—the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal and the Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum Nepal—have decided on an electoral pact of their own, despite overtures from both the Congress and the CPN(UML)–CPN(MC) combine, in the hope of forming a provincial government themselves.

Chandra Kishore, a political analyst and longtime observer of the Madhes, told me last month that “popular political intervention in Nepali politics has often come from the Madhes.” He pointed to how protests and political activism in the region contributed to the fall of two previous systems of rule—the hereditary prime ministership of the Ranas, ended in the 1950s, and the autocratic panchayat system, ended in the early 1990s. When it comes to aspirations of a more equal Nepali society, he argued, the Madhes will again “be the first to take that forward.”

Ethnic Madhesis and their politicians have long complained of historical marginalisation, and had hoped that the new constitution would ameliorate this. Their demand that power be devolved under a federal structure has been met, but Madhesis, and numerous other disadvantaged ethnic groups, have accused the major parties, dominated by Brahmin men from Nepal’s middle hills, of gerrymandering the shapes of the new provinces. That grievance, and a long list of others, fuelled a popular movement against multiple provisions of the new constitution, culminating in months of general strikes and a long blockade on trade and transport moving north from India. But, amid strong resistance from Kathmandu, the andolan weakened and Madhesi leadership fragmented. The country’s southern plains are now split across five provinces, all but one of which take in significant territory to the north, diluting Madhesi demographic concentration. Among the demands of the andolan was the creation of at most two provinces taking in only the plains.

The bastion of Madhesi politics is now Province 2, comprised exclusively of plains districts and located directly north of the Indian state of Bihar. “This is the only province with a Madhesi majority,” Bhola Paswan, a local journalist, told me. The Rastriya Janata Party Nepal and the Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum Nepal won a third of all the administrative seats in the province during the local-body polls—and this despite the RJPN boycotting a large part of it in keeping with the spirit of the andolan. The RJPN and the SSFN hope to improve on that performance in the election for the provincial parliament.

According to Paswan, in light of a Madhes divided across multiple provinces and their own weakened fortunes after the andolan faded, the two main Madhesi parties “would have been compelled to come together for the elections if they wished to remain relevant in national politics” even if there had been no CPN(UML)–CPN(MC) tie-up. But Om Prakash Yadav, an RJPN leader, told me that “if there was no leftist alliance, perhaps the RJPN and Forum would not have come together as easily.” The two parties worked together during the andolan, but have divergent political roots: the senior leadership of the RJPN traces its history back to the Congress, while the SSFN brings together former members of various communist parties, including the CPN(UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the precursor to the CPN(MC). Their coming together is a reminder that ethnicity-based identity politics remains a force in Nepal, especially in the Madhes, despite suggestions by some analysts that the political reconfiguration initiated by the new leftist partnership signals an end to that mode of politics in favour of a politics of “development.”

The Madhesi parties’ main challenger on their home territory is the Congress. The leftist alliance brings together two parties that the region has particular reason to resent. The CPN(UML) upholds a conservative nationalism that privileges the dominant castes of the hills, and has remained unmoved by Madhesi demands. The Maoists supported Madhesi aspirations in the decade after the civil war, but came to be seen as betraying the region when they backed the contentious new constitution. Yadav told me that, earlier, “we were willing to be very flexible and ally with the Maoists. But that is no longer possible with them joining an anti-Madhesi party like the CPN(UML).” By contrast, the Congress has traditionally been popular in the Madhes, and one minor party from the region merged into it in the recent wave of political consolidation.

The RJPN and SSFN have been speaking to the Congress, even though a comprehensive agreement with it has remained out of reach. A possible alliance in Province 2 ran aground after the Madhesi parties demanded Congress backing for their candidates in more constituencies than the party was prepared to cede. Yadav explained that the Madhesi parties have separate outlooks on the Congress when it comes to Province 2, where they see it as their main rival, and elsewhere in the Madhes, where they know their influence is much more limited. There, he said, “if they give us a respectable share of seats, we are willing to partner with them.” He added that if neither the Congress and its allies nor the leftist force earned a clear majority in the federal parliament or in particular provinces, the Madhesi parties could hold the keys to viable coalitions.

The difficulty for the Madhesi parties, Chandra Kishore said, is that their tactical focus remains on possible arrangements of power sharing after the election rather than on projecting an alternative political vision to that of the main national parties. If that continues, in the eyes of voters “they will just be another Congress or CPN(UML).” The leftist alliance has also apparently tried to separate the Madhesi parties. Its combined manifesto makes a distinction between the RJPN as a residual “feudal” force that works to “weaken national sovereignty,” and the SSFN as one with progressive tendencies, opening the way to possible cooperation with the latter. But Birendra Mahato, an SSFN leader, told me that such cooperation is unlikely. “Our party chairperson had a communist background, but that was in the distant past,” he said. Mahato added that the SSFN’s agenda, in agreement with the RJPN, is to address Madhesi grievances with the new constitution by amending the document, “and we are open to unity with other like-minded parties.”

In August, the Congress’s Sher Bahadur Deuba, on a prime ministerial visit to Delhi, assured Indian officials that his party would work to amend the constitution to address its most contentious provisions. This drew severe criticism in Nepal, including from the Congress’s coalition partner, the CPN(MC). “Constitution amendment is an internal matter of Nepal,” Prachanda said at a press conference. “It was wrong to express commitment to amend the constitution in India.” The incident threw light on the international dimension to the present political shake-up. Some reports, including in the Indian press, have portrayed the coming together of the CPN(UML) and the CPN(MC) as a victory for Chinese interests and a failure of Indian strategy. This extends a line of thinking that saw the installation of the current Congress-led government—in place of a CPN(UML)-led predecessor that openly stoked anti-India sentiment—as an Indian triumph. To view Nepal’s domestic politics primarily as a contest between its giant neighbours is reductive, as is assigning neat geopolitical allegiances to Nepali parties, but it is clear that India and China have a growing interest in Nepal’s affairs. Trade and economic investment are becoming ever more important to the prospects of Nepal’s neighbours within the country, and both India and China have pledged massive credit as well as support for infrastructure work.

Where and how this money is spent, and also how the government’s domestic revenues and spending are handled, will be another arena of contention between Nepal’s provincial and federal governments once the new parliaments are in place. Current rules give provincial and local administrations 15 percent each of the value-added tax and excise generated in a province, with the federal government controlling the rest. The Madhes hosts a large share of Nepal’s industries and commercial agriculture, and is key to the country’s trade. The city of Birgunj, in Province 2, sees 70 percent of Nepal’s imports flow through it. The question of what benefits the Madhes receives from its own productivity could well become a point of friction, especially when provincial governments and the federal government are controlled by antagonistic parties. On this, as on much else, the Madhes will be a barometer of how Nepal’s new politics is faring.