After the Kingdom

What next for Nepal?

The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Story of Nepal’s Maoist Revolution Aditya Adhikari Verso, 320 pages, £20.00
01 October, 2014

NEPAL WAS FIRST PROMISED a constitution written by a democratically elected assembly in 1951. A popular movement had just returned to power King Tribhuvan Shah, ending a century of autocratic, hereditary rule by the Ranas, chief ministers who exercised effective control while keeping an ostensibly sovereign monarch on the throne. Tribhuvan had allied against the Ranas with forces such as the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal, banned parties founded on Indian soil, many of whose activists cut their teeth in the Indian independence struggle. Though Nepal was never colonised, the Ranas were in many ways servile to the British; among other things, they supplied cheap mercenaries to the British military, deferred much foreign policy to the British government, and sent troops to help quell the 1857 uprising in India. After 1947, the new Indian government threw its weight behind the anti-Rana coalition. As part of his elevation, Tribhuvan agreed to usher in multi-party democracy, and hold elections for a constitutional assembly.

Tribhuvan died in 1955, his promises unfulfilled, and left the throne to his son Mahendra. A struggle ensued between the new king and a Congress-led transitional government formed in 1951. In 1959, Mahendra unilaterally promulgated a multi-party constitution that preserved much of the monarchy’s power, which the political parties accepted in return for the guarantee of democratic elections. When the Congress swept those polls, Mahendra seized power by force, banned all parties, and suspended the constitution.

In 1962, Mahendra decreed a new constitution that established government by a system of panchayat councils that, though ostensibly democratic, preserved royal power. Over the next three decades, the antagonism between the palace and the democratic parties simmered, and then boiled over, culminating in a bloody uprising led by the Congress and a cohort of leftist parties against the next monarch, Birendra, in 1990. Birendra first loosed the security forces against the protestors, but was later forced to negotiate, and the result was a re-establishment of multi-party democracy. But the parties, even from a position of strength, settled for a constitution that was equivocal on the role of the king, who retained a potentially pivotal influence as a constitutional monarch.

When the Congress was voted into power in 1991, the parties that led the 1990 uprising became rivals, cueing a decade of political gamesmanship and inept governance that shattered early hopes for meaningful democratic reform and development. Though the system of rule had changed, the lion’s share of power and resources remained with upper-caste Brahmins, as it had before the uprising.

Disgusted with the corruption and cronyism of “bourgeois democracy,” in 1995 a small, radical group called the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) submitted forty demands to the government. On the list, which included calls for progressive socioeconomic reforms and a reconfiguration of Nepal’s relationship with India, was the demand for a popularly elected constitutional assembly. The government’s reaction was predictably dismissive, and the Maoists abandoned the capital to wage war from some of Nepal’s poorest and most marginalised areas, where their doctrine of revolutionary political and social reform found ready ears.

Over the next 15 years, a civil war claimed over 17,000 lives, and a new king, Gyanendra, seized absolute power and eventually abdicated. The Maoists, riding their promise of transforming a historically Hindu, high-caste-dominated kingdom into a secular, multi-ethnic federal republic, signed a peace deal and won the highest number of seats in elections for a constitutional assembly, held in 2008.

Within half a decade, the monarchy was formally abolished, and the Maoists disarmed. But after five prime ministers in less than five years, the constitutional assembly was dissolved in May 2012 without fulfilling its purpose. In November 2013, Nepal voted for a second constitutional assembly, and the Maoists were routed by the two major establishment parties, the Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist). This January, the assembly met for its first session, already delayed despite promises to deliver a new set of laws within a year.

Under an interim constitution, the government limped along, and continued to fail millions of its subjects. A staggering 56 percent of grade-ten students failed the official exams for their high-school diplomas this year, and every day over a thousand people leave the country for employment in the exploitative labour markets of South East Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. In 2014, more than half a century after the promise of a democratically drafted constitution was first made and broken, Nepal is still waiting.

TWO NEW POLITICAL HISTORIES, Prashant Jha’s Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal and Aditya Adhikari’s The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Story of Nepal’s Maoist Revolution, look in great depth at events in Nepal since the start of the Maoist rebellion, and at their potentially transformative effects on the country’s future. In broad terms, both authors present that history as a struggle between the old and the new—the country’s entrenched social and political elite, headed first by the palace and then increasingly by the establishment parties, and those yearning for progressive reform, whose champions the Maoists positioned themselves to be. Perhaps more than at any other moment since the creation of a unified Nepal by a Shah-led conquest in the middle of the eighteenth century, today the foundational myths of Nepali nationalism stand on shaky ground, and the very definition of a Nepali—who is one, and what she or he should expect from the state—is in play. Jha and Adhikari provide insight on how Nepal got here, and where the country might go next.

Battles of the New Republic : A Contemporary History of Nepal Prashant Jha Aleph Book Company, 384 pages, R395

Nepal is divided geographically into three horizontal bands: the Terai plains bordering India to the south, also known as the Madhes; the sub-Himalayan hills, or Pahad; and the high Himal up north. Between them today lives a population, packed most densely in the south, approaching 30 million, of over a hundred officially recognised castes and ethnicities, and speaking over a hundred different languages. To cobble together a nation under Shah and Rana rule, and especially since Mahendra took the throne, the government perpetuated a definition of Nepali-ness that privileged the Nepali tongue, Brahminical Hinduism and other cultural markers of the high-caste Pahadis who formed the regime’s backbone and bureaucracy. For the ruling classes, the peoples of the north, with cultures and languages interwoven with those of Tibet, were porters, nannies and soldiers. Those of the south, with strong cross-border ties with north India, were suspected anti-nationalists, to be subjugated in the interests of the Nepali nation. The Nepali slur for these Madhesis and for Indians, still common today, is “dhoti,” after the garment traditionally favoured in the Madhes and the north-Indian plains. Even after the 1990 uprising, these patterns of privilege and prejudice endured. Broadly, they still do.

In the schoolbooks of the royal years, Nepali history proceeded from king to benevolent king, from glory to shining glory, beginning with the “unification” of the country—by the sword, yes, but in this version nobody seems to have complained—by the Shah kings. Revisions in the 1990s inserted mention of the democratic movements of 1951 and 1990, but the monarchy still managed to come out looking rosy. After the leading political parties of the democratic 1990s hitched themselves to the palace, they made little effort to change the story—unsurprisingly, since it upheld the prevailing hierarchy of classes, castes and ethnicities.

But the 1990s also created unprecedented opportunities for democratic expression. Following liberal economic reforms, private media took its first steps, and the movement of people, goods and ideas accelerated. Across a deeply unequal society, stories of dissent and discrimination found larger audiences. That process continued into the 2000s, despite government efforts at censorship following Gyanendra’s seizure of absolute power in 2005. After the end of the war, a relatively free but fragmented media and intelligentsia carried on scrutinising the politics and ideals of the past and the present.

Jha and Adhikari continue this project of rescuing Nepali history from the royalist pap that has long smothered it. The authors are both journalists, as well as friends and collaborators, who came of age during the 1990s and experienced the subsequent vicissitudes at first hand. That said, in Battles of the New Republic and The Bullet and the Ballot Box they take significantly different approaches to both material and methodology. Jha is bold: a single-volume history of a country’s transformation from a kingdom into a republic and all that this entails, especially in a land as diverse as Nepal, is prone to faults of omission. But his tale succeeds admirably in transmitting a sense of the magnitude and significance of recent events. He covers the Maoists, but also engages deeply with other key actors—most notably the old democratic parties, Madhesi activists and politicians, and organs of the Indian state. For its path-breaking coverage of these latter two especially, many prominent commentators on Nepali affairs have already declared Battles of the New Republic a landmark achievement.

Political activism in the Madhes, the densely populated plains of southern Nepal, has surged since the start of the Maoist insurgency. RAM SARAF/ REUTERS

Jha builds his account using copious interviews—perhaps no other Nepali journalist boasts the same access to key activists, politicians, bureaucrats and intelligence officials—and weaves the voices of a plethora of characters together with personal memoir in the style of narrative journalism. That, combined with Jha’s complex outlook as a high-caste Madhesi with personal and linguistic ties both to Nepal and India, as well as to those exercising power in Kathmandu and those grappling for it in the Madhes, renders this as much a significant social history as a political one.

While Jha works thematically, Adhikari’s narrative is more strictly chronological. In laying out, step by step, the birth, growth and evolution of the Maoist party and the armed rebellion, The Bullet and the Ballot Box is cogent and detailed. But its concern is mostly only with the Maoists, and it fails to engage deeply with several other dynamics that have played out since the 1990s, such as the rise of Madhesi politics. We learn much of what the Maoists did, but get less of a feel for how their choices reflected shifts in a far-reaching political web that tied them to the palace, multiple political parties and movements, and India—and this weakens the book’s account of the Maoist movement itself.

For individual stories of the movement and the hopes and changes it has kindled, Adhikari relies less on interviews and more on fiction, poetry and memoir dealing with thorny social issues and the war, a profusion of which has emerged in recent years. His summaries of these texts—most available only in Nepali—form a remarkable literary and social history that is especially valuable to anyone curious about the wealth of new Nepali writing but unable to read the language. Sprinkled throughout the book, these sections are some of its highlights, and enliven what can, at times, seem a dry procession of facts.

FOR CLOSE TO A CENTURY, Nepali political activists have been divided on the root causes of the country’s underdevelopment. Some see the problem, in their own terminology, as one of “feudalism,” involving long-standing domestic patterns of social and economic inequality, bolstered by the monarchy. For others it is an issue of “nationalism,” wherein Nepal has been deliberately kept feeble and subservient, first by the British Raj, and then by the Indian state. Dismantling the monarchy, in this latter view, will only further this weakness. Another fraught question is which groups and methods deserve credit for the end of the monarchy—the Maoists, with their strategy of protracted war, or the democratic parties primarily responsible for mobilising the widespread non-violent protests that sapped the monarchy’s last vestiges of legitimacy.

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)’s insurgency against the state was presided over by Prachanda (top right, poster). The war lasted over a decade, and killed more than 17,000 people before a peace deal in 2006 brought the party into mainstream JONAS BENDIKSEN / MAGNUM PHOTOS

Every disagreement on these issues, as Jha points out in Battles of the New Republic, has played out openly in the Maoist party itself. Before the fall of the king, Baburam Bhattarai, the party’s chief ideologue, consistently argued that the palace, and not India, was the party’s and the country’s primary foe. A relative latecomer to the project of armed revolt, he was an early proponent of abandoning the war in favour of contesting elections. These views caused multiple conflicts between Bhattarai and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the party’s secretary, better known by the nom de guerre Prachanda. For much of the war, Prachanda remained deeply distrustful of India, even as he and much of the Maoist leadership fled across the border to evade arrest in Nepal. At one point, Jha points out, Prachanda was ready to ally with the monarchy against the political parties, though his eventual goal remained the overthrow of the king and the establishment of Maoist rule. Even after both Prachanda and Bhattarai agreed to end the war, dissent within the party continued. In 2012, a faction alleging the party had lost its way since joining mainstream politics split off under the veteran hardliner Mohan Baidya, and renewed the call for armed struggle.

Jha’s record of these and other quarrels within the party shows the Maoists to be malleable, open to new ideas and influences. “I learnt from the negative experiences of other communist struggles,” Prachanda tells the author at one point. In Jha’s analysis, “Nepal’s Marxist ideologues were not necessarily fighting for a communist utopia … they only hoped to overhaul the existing ‘relations of production.’” But Jha does not force-fit his narrative of the party to that view, and by the end of the book we are left with room to weigh for ourselves the truth of it.

Jha’s sympathies lie with the Maoists, but his summary of their failings in his postscript is still trenchant. Looking back at the party’s dismal showing in polls for the second constitutional assembly in late 2013, Jha blames the Maoists for specific tactical miscalculations that weakened their political standing, and more broadly for failing “to govern in a manner which would improve livelihoods of citizens” and getting “sucked into Nepal’s degenerate political culture.”

Jha is equally sympathetic and critical with the other political stream he investigates in detail—the emergent Madhesi parties. Jha parlays his knowledge of the Madhes into unprecedented access to leaders and activists of all ranks and stripes, and crystallises it all into a unique contemporary account of the region’s politics.

The Madhes has historically been a crucial theatre in Nepali politics. It was deeply involved in the popular movements of the 1950s and the late 1980s, even as Madhesi politics remained guided primarily by the establishment parties and their largely Pahadi leaders. Madhesis hoped that the establishment of democracy in 1990 would end discrimination and make them, in every sense, equal citizens. But when that dream died over the following decade, discontent grew. That trend continued into the 2000s, as the state weakened and the Maoists’ radical agenda of equality and devolution of power sparked imaginations. A large number of politically conscious Madhesis joined the Maoists, but found the party’s almost exclusively upper-caste, Pahadi leaders still did not understand the full weight or thrust of their desires. Many left the party disappointed, and helped drive a surge of political groups predicated explicitly on a unified Madhesi identity and agenda. The strongest among these was the Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum—or the MJF—founded and led by a former Maoist, Upendra Yadav.

At the end of the war, though, these groups were still largely insignificant in the power politics of Kathmandu. That soon changed. In January 2007, following violent clashes between Maoist and MJF activists, Madhesi anger against the Maoists and the state ignited. Efforts to supress the uprising backfired, and as the government’s control over the region slipped, it was forced to guarantee greater Madhesi inclusion in the legislature and government administration.

Following the success of the uprising, the MJF became a key coalition partner in the Maoist-led government. In return, the Maoists elevated several Madhesi leaders to key offices, and four MJF leaders were given cabinet positions. But already the impulse that had catapulted the Madhesi movement was flagging. As Jha demonstrates, a common set of grievances had, for a moment, united the Madhes under a cohesive list of demands and a sense of pan-Madhes unity. But as Madhesi leaders rose and began to dispense patronage, factionalism seeped down through the ranks. The MJF, and other Madhesi parties, soon fragmented, and in most cases disillusionment with the Maoists and the government increased. This has now opened up room for new demands and allegiances, as the sense of unified Madhesi identity gives way to old divisions of caste and ethnicity. Some objected to the domination of high-caste groups, such as the Yadavs, in Madhesi politics; others, such as the ethnic Tharu community, resisted being lumped together politically and territorially with the Madhesis. Madhesi politics had already been lawless, and as the grip of both the government and the Madhesi parties weakened a series of independent armed groups sprang up, often masquerading as political outfits while extorting businesses.

Jha’s account of the uprising, and the movement for political assertion that it propelled to new heights, is the heart of his book. He tells the story—which includes a second, more limited uprising in 2008—with great drama, profiling the personal and political trajectories of several activists with an intimate, ground-level view of the tumult. His sympathy for the region is unmistakeable, as is his enthusiasm for its overdue awakening. The changes of the post-war years would have been unimaginable under the old royal order, and the Madhes’s rise is a clear sign of a democratic opening in Nepal. The same is true of the many other regions and minorities now standing up for their rights.

Yet the resulting political fragmentation, by sapping the region of its collective bargaining power, could ultimately undermine the Madhes’s ability to extract concessions from the Kathmandu government. The Madhes will be crucial to the country’s future—Jha describes the region as “the swing force in Nepali politics”—but it remains frustrated and volatile, and a potential tinderbox. “Yes, they should have more representatives,” a Congress district secretary in the Madhes tells Jha. “But you know, right now, it is Pahadi–Madhesi. Tomorrow, it will be about forward–backward, Yadav–non-Yadav, Madhesi–Tharu, Hindu–Muslim in the Terai.”

Adding to all this, in the Madhes as elsewhere in Nepal, is the deeply divisive issue of federalism. Today, Nepal has 14 administrative zones, organised under five Development Regions each encompassing a vertical slice of the country. The development they have delivered has been slow and far from uniform. During and after the war, the Maoists raised popular hopes of a new division of provinces along ethnic lines. The devolution of power, they promised, would remedy a slew of inequalities. But Nepal’s mosaic of ethnicities defies clear geographical separation; during the first constitutional assembly, various parties and committees proposed anything from six to 14 provinces. In the end, disagreement on this issue was a leading cause of the assembly’s failure, though the parties did agree upon an 11-province model just weeks before the collapse.

But even before the assembly fell, as the federal agenda played out in Kathmandu’s web of intrigue, both supporters and opponents of the Maoists started questioning the party leadership’s commitment to the issue, and whether it was, in fact, just a bogey conjured up to mobilise support. After the Maoists’ rout in the elections for the second constitutional assembly, that debate returned, and with renewed significance. In Jha’s view, the party’s loss traced back in significant part to their failure to push harder on the matter. Other commentators disagree, and have hailed the Maoists’ defeat as a popular vote against the idea of federalism itself. In the second constitutional assembly, the debate continues.

ADITYA ADHIKARI, in The Bullet and the Ballot Box, frames his story within a sprawling, complex question. “Despite all the odds stacked against them,” he writes, the Maoists became “the only rebel group in the post-Cold War era to gain state power through Mao’s strategy of a protracted People’s War. How was this possible?” He quickly cites “the weakness of the state,” the “poverty that made large sections of the population receptive to a radical ideology,” and several other general reasons. Then he steps back from these more systemic matters:

this book is primarily concerned with what the Marxists call the ‘subjective factor’—the personal journeys of Maoists who participated in the rebellion, their beliefs and aspirations, their experiences in forests, villages and prison cells, their relationships with one another and with local communities, the tensions between individual Maoist leaders, their conflicting aims and strategies.

Adhikari’s characterisation of the Maoists as “the only rebel group” to gain power through “People’s War” is vexed. The party ultimately achieved power by contesting elections, and winning them; further into the book he says as much himself. Calling their movement a “Maoist Revolution,” as the book’s subtitle does, is also contentious, since whether the fall of the monarchy will translate into the kind of lasting social change that would justify the term is still far from clear. At times, the Maoists’ success in gaining power seems to overshadow their failure to implement many of their promises. In these and a small accumulation of similar instances, a touch of romanticism occasionally glints through Adhikari’s prose.

But Adhikari’s is not a deeply ideological history, although he does sometimes flirt with Marxist jargon. This is not a story of class contradictions inevitably launching a society to some higher stage of development, nor is the author more interested in large historical forces than in the people driving and experiencing change. By depending heavily on personal accounts, The Bullet and the Ballot Box is a pragmatic attempt “to depict Nepal’s Maoist rebellion as a human event made up of individual choices and destinies—something more than the ineluctable march of history.”

This allows Adhikari to acknowledge some facets of the Maoist movement that Jha overlooks. For one, he incorporates accounts from women—of which Jha’s book is completely bereft. This is a significant omission, since women formed a large part of the Maoist political cadre and army. Adhikari reveals that the party offered many women an escape from restrictive traditional roles, but also describes their frustration with the degree of male dominance that persisted in the organisation. This resentment grew particularly after the war, when women were allowed very little voice in negotiating the future of the country.

Women formed a large part of the Maoists’ political cadre and army. Adhikari’s book describes the freedom that the revolt afforded many of them, as well as their frustration at the persistence of patriarchy within the party. JONAS BENDIKSEN / MAGNUM PHOTOS

Adhikari writes in some detail about the rebels’ military outlook, particularly how they drew inspiration from the Chinese Maoists, though there is little attention to how these tactics may have shaped their fortunes. His analysis of the Maoists’ political ideology is more telling, and shows, as Jha does too, how the rebels adapted to the conditions of the country. “Their early encounter with Marxism had led the Maoist leaders to conceptualize their struggle in traditional Marxist–Leninist terms,” Adhikari writes, but they soon realised that “ethnicity and caste were stronger forms of identity than class, and hence potent bases for political mobilization.” To reconcile this realisation with their ideological roots, the Maoists developed what Adhikari calls a “Leninist theory” of the origins of ethnicity. “They argued that ethnic groups, rather than being primordial remnants, had evolved during the process of Nepal’s uneven development,” as “oppressed communities developed bonds of solidarity based on their common language, culture and territory.” But such theoretical calisthenics came with a condescension that disillusioned many of their supporters among the minorities. The Maoists, Adhikari recognises, “believed that only their party could effectively manage ethnic demands.”

In his postscript, Adhikari returns to the question of why Nepal’s Maoists have risen to power where other leftist guerrilla movements of recent times have failed. His reasons are rather vague—the rebels “were not solely driven by ideological fervour,” he reminds us, “knew they could not rely solely on military force” and “made sound strategic calculations”—and do not add up to a clear argument. But the book as a whole, with its many personal histories, is a testament of the hopes the Maoists kindled in a great variety of Nepalis, and those form perhaps the strongest argument for the party’s ascent.

ANTI-INDIAN SENTIMENT has long been a major plank of Nepali nationalism, and Nepali national identity is defined partly in opposition to its Indian equivalent, exacerbating suspicion of the “Indianised” Madhesis. Nepali politicians and journalists have tended to maintain a certain omertà regarding the details of Indian involvement in the country’s politics, restricting themselves to euphemistic vitriol against “foreign forces” conspiring against them. In part this code of silence is the result of a lack of access to candid sources, but it also owes to the fact that every Nepali political institution, from the palace to the parties of the extreme left, has a history with India that is not in its interests to publicise. Behind the scenes, during the war and since, all the major political forces have maintained ties to India, and tried to secure Indian support to strengthen their hands.

Jha punctures the myth of Nepal’s complete historical independence from Indian influence, and also praises some instances of official Indian involvement, such as aiding the alliance of the Maoists and the political parties during the popular movement against the king in 2006. After considering India’s regional interests and the history of the “special relationship” between the two states, Jha commiserates with Indian concerns. “There is merit to the argument,” he writes, “that India’s core interest in Nepal is security, especially given the fact that the two countries share an open border.” But beyond the principles, he objects to the specifics of the Indian approach. He quotes an anonymous intelligence officer of India’s Research and Analysis Wing saying that “We could have lived with a Maoist dictatorship if it was 5,000 miles away but, across an open border, we cannot risk it.” In Jha’s view, the very premise of Indian policy—that the Maoists were out to establish a dictatorship—represented a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation.

After the the Maoist-led government was elected in 2008, India set out to undermine it, convincing and coercing numerous parties and factions to withdraw support at key moments. Jha describes how India fomented divisions within the Maoist party to the point that “the top could deliver nothing to the cadre … increasing the gulf between the top and the bottom.” Indian diplomats and intelligence officials persevered in their negative campaign until “the incentives for the other side changed, and caused a transformation in its behaviour which suited the establishment.” Meanwhile, Nepal continued to reel under worsening governance and corruption, and the collapse of the constitutional assembly suspended hopes for progressive reform. In 2013, the Maoists finally renounced arms and disbanded their army—which had been corralled into cantonments under UN supervision after the ceasefire—thus opening the way, with Indian support, for elections to a second constitutional assembly.

Jha comes to a scathing verdict. “It seemed India really wanted pliant agents,” he writes, “and was just not mature enough to deal with autonomous political agents in a neighbouring country.” Further:

What India was attempting with the Maoists was not a simplistic strategy of isolation, though. It was emulating a highly sophisticated tradition of statecraft it had practiced, with mixed results, in Kashmir with the Hurriyat Conference and, in the Northeast, with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah).

Engage, coerce, divide, frustrate, exhaust, corrupt, lure, repeat the cycle, and give nothing.

Adhikari, whose book also touches on Indian involvement in Nepali affairs, concurs unequivocally. “The Indian state was familiar with such games. They had, after all, been played before, often successfully, in dealing with hostile groups in Kashmir and Northeast India.”

Neither author opposes Indian involvement outright, though. Nepal’s future, Jha argues, lies in greater co-operation with its southern neighbour. The same is true of all realistic Nepali leaders and commentators, including many Maoists who were once virulently anti-Indian. What both authors advocate, and Nepalis have long asked for, is that India cease to micro-manage Nepal’s internal politics, that it let Nepalis make their own mistakes, and refuse to intrigue with any parties that approach it. But neither seems to believe with much conviction that relations will move in this direction.

Since both books went to press, however, Nepal–India relations seem to have followed the authors’ wishes to a degree neither could have dared expect. When Narendra Modi flew to Kathmandu in early August—the first official visit by an Indian prime minister to Nepal in 17 years—India appeared to have sat up and listened. Speaking before the second constitutional assembly, Modi pointedly avowed recognition of Nepal’s sovereignty, and promised not to interfere in its internal affairs. He offered a billion dollars in development credit, Indian aid for building infrastructure, and much more. He stopped his convoy to thank the crowds waiting for a glimpse of him, and was greeted like a rockstar. The Nepali media proclaimed a new era in bilateral ties.

As the euphoria died down, prudent questions on whether India will deliver on all these promises cropped up. The most crucial promise, that of non-interference, might well be the hardest to keep. The current government, dominated by the old establishment parties, is far more palatable to India than any future Maoist-led administration might be. The true test of India’s commitment will come the next time events in Kathmandu go against Delhi’s wishes. But, for the first time in a long time, there is room for optimism.

SINCE 2008, Nepal has seen six different prime ministers, endless political infighting, a sharp spike in corruption, and growing disenchantment with the government and the ruling class. The king is gone; there are some new faces among the country’s economic and political elite; but the status quo remains largely unchanged, and Nepal’s poor still have precious little to show for the revolution that was meant to be theirs.

The Maoists have renounced violence, but with a state struggling to impose the law and no clear programme to address the grievances that sparked the war in the first place, the threat of new insurrections has merely been delayed, not defused. The Maoists alone cannot be held responsible for such systemic and societal crises, and much of the blame must go to the elites and establishment parties that have long acquiesced to the present dispensation. But the party does bear a heavy burden of culpability in the public mind. For a while, the Maoists seemed the country’s best hope for progressive change, but their failure to deliver on their transformative promises has been abject.

Adhikari argues that the Maoists were “never comfortably established in power,” and hence “never in a position to fully meet people’s expectations.” But he recognises, all the same, that they “seemed overly focused on grand plans such as state restructuring rather than concrete programs and policies for improving people’s lives.” Jha concurs, and quotes Baburam Bhattarai admitting that the Maoists “had lost the plot as far as their class base was concerned.”

But there has been progress, too. Jha points out that “Nepal was declared a secular state and the monarchy was abolished,” and “Madhesi and ethnic groups forced open the doors of the polity to marginalised social groups.” Especially in the countryside, Adhikari writes, there were “many instances where indigenous and lower-caste groups felt a genuine sense of liberation,” and though some “old norms re-emerged” after the war, “the social fabric of the villages transformed significantly through the ten years of the Maoist rebellion.”

Here, the Maoists deserve credit. Jha holds that the “political movement led by the Maoists created a popular new consciousness, shook up political structures and social relations, and ushered in a republic.” In Adhikari’s assessment, the Maoists “taught large sections of the population to organize and agitate in the face of injustice, instead of quietly accepting their position in the social hierarchy.” Today, Jha says, “Nepal is slowly moving towards creating a state that is more open, more democratic, more inclusive, more egalitarian and more just for its citizens.”

Speaking about constitutions in 1862, the Marxist Ferdinand Lassalle, who founded Germany’s first socialist party, delivered a text that would become a minor classic of leftist literature. It offers a useful lens for examining Nepal’s current predicament. The “actual constitution of a country,” Lasalle argued, “has its existence only in the actual condition of force which exists in the country: hence political constitutions have value and permanence only when they accurately express those conditions of force which exist in practice within a society.”

The underlying issue in Nepal’s constitutional struggle, and the one most difficult to understand, is the interplay between the sociopolitical changes of the last two decades and the stubborn forces of the status quo. Adhikari and Jha clearly demonstrate the disconnect between the transformations of recent years and the calcified political structures that still prevail. As to where the current balance lies, and how it will shape the promised constitution, the authors shy away from stating definitive conclusions. This is prudent, since without the benefit of hindsight and with the political parties currently reluctant to show their hands, there are simply none to offer.

Indications so far, however, are that the new constitutional assembly feels sufficiently unthreatened to behave with supreme complacency. Perhaps the most telling example came in mid July, before the release of the latest budget. Assembly members pressured the government to allocate fifty million Nepali rupees in “development funds” to each of them, to be disbursed per their will and without oversight in their respective constituencies. Members also demanded that the government allow them to import cars free of duty, and threatened to stop work unless these wishes were met. Eerily, the fiasco echoed a scandal from the 1990s, when parliamentarians successfully extracted duty-free cars and discretionary funds from the government, which were then unsurprisingly misused. This time around, after public backlash, the demands were tempered, but assembly members still received ten million rupees each to do with as they please, and showed little sense of remorse or shame. Nepali society seems to have grown sharper teeth for keeping its elected representatives in line, but the attitude of the representatives themselves appears unchanged.

At the assembly’s current pace of work, it looks set to fail its initial guarantee of a new set of laws within a year of being sworn in this January—and so break, yet again, the promise of a democratically representative Nepali constitution. If it does rush through to deliver on time, the assembly would leave little to no opportunity for meaningful public deliberation on a draft document—something that is vital given the scale and complexity of the hopes many of Nepal’s less fortunate citizens have pinned on it. Even after all the years of bloodshed and strife, instead of embracing and responding to a society in deep flux, Nepal’s current political leaders, as in the past, seem determined to bridle change until crisis once again overtakes them.