By Maila Baje
Even in exasperation, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli excels at enlivening things.
“Attempts to make the country a guinea pig to experiment rights and make it a playground for elements with untoward objectives cannot be accepted,” he declared on Constitution Day. The phase of experimentation in Nepal was over, asserted Oli, with a proviso: “If anything is yet to be experimented here, they are models of speedy development.”
Implementing our new Constitution was not going to be easier than drawing it up. Still, we are in a ditch that is deeper than anyone could have determined. Obstacles – perceived and real – seem to emerge from every corner.
Of new Nepal’s three props, republicanism and secularism were going to be contentious. The monarchy and Hindu statehood never stood a fair chance in the political climate whipped up during and after People’s Movement II. Advocates of republicanism and secularism – domestic as well as external – knew they had to strike the proverbial iron when it was hot. Even in the heat of the moment, they had to sneak in such sweeping changes through the backdoor.
True, more than 90 percent of the elected assembly eventually endorsed the Constitution. But, then, this overwhelming support emanated from the only constituency that was allowed any consequential participation in the political process. Demonization and defamation were scarcely conducive to collective coolheadedness. The surprise, then, is that the constitution did not receive 100 percent endorsement.
The monarchy and Hindu statehood, to be sure, were not established as a political reality based on the popular vote. So it is disingenuous at one level to rue their departure without direct popular sanction. Still, a country that has practiced seven constitutions in 70 years also comprehends how everything eventually becomes political – in aspiration as well as appraisal.
It is confounding how precipitously the third peg – federalism – has fallen into disrepute. Oli’s present position and scope of participation in the past might have precluded him from greater candor. The occasion and venue of his remark have certainly amplified his message. Debating whether federalism was right for the country was useless, he said, stressing that leaders had to implement decisions that had been made.
The guinea pig analogy is vivid enough to encompass our times as well as those bygone. Counterfactuals are invariably entertaining. In this case, they may even be instructive. Take, for example, our 1950-51 revolution. With the benefit of Indian, British and American archival material, it would be fair to wonder whether King Tribhuvan would have been restored to the throne had British and American communication and forward-deployment abilities been able to compensate for India’s geographical advantage.
Conversely, had the British and Americans proceeded to act on the imperative that Nepal was vital to upholding their common interests in South Asia in the aftermath of the Raj, might the Indians have kept quiet? In the worst case, would the 1950 Treaty have receded into the irrelevance Nepal’s full incorporation into the Indian Union would have dictated?
History has a cold logic that engenders an abundance of ‘what ifs’ that looks backward and forward. Nepal has not lacked for a string of seemingly unrelated events in and around the neighborhood that have created fertile ground for experimentations of all sorts for those with the will and wherewithal.
As the Red Scare provoked the Free World to contrive an alternative that drew enough from tradition to preserve the present and pinpoint the future, the two communist behemoths weren’t sitting idly by either. If international communism could co-exist with the monarchy in Nepal, could those staid and stolid comrades be that all that bad?
Basic democracy, guided democracy, partyless democracy were all local variants of initiatives funded – if not entirely fashioned – by the leading democracies in search of a halfway house in a turbulent world. Stalin and Mao had their communes, we got our American-funded cooperatives. Such consideration makes it easier to comprehend the correlation between specific episodes of détente and those of liberalization of our Panchayat polity.
When the Berlin Wall came crashing down, things perforce took another turn. Amid the hubris of the ‘end of history’, democratization had to be pursued at all costs. Again, the imperative was to strike when the iron was hot. China after the Tiananmen Square massacre and a Russia smoldering in the wreckage of the Soviet Union provided a rare window of opportunity. If liberal democracy could succeed in places like Poland and Nepal, well, then, history could be deemed to have truly ended. Structural adjustment and macroeconomic stabilization were bold supplements. Except that the Fukuyamans failed to appreciate that the Russians and Chinese weren’t going lay low forever. Nor were the likes of RAW and ISI to lack new missions.
As the Maoists complemented the Marxist-Leninists in our communist contingent amid democracy’s discontents (while Poland’s comrades reincarnated themselves as the Democratic Left Alliance), new thinking was required. Could development and security be somehow integrated to the satisfaction of all? How about a separate Armed Police Force to maintain internal security? Might an integrated command of security forces work better? We tried those and more and ended up with a still unexplained massacre in the heavily fortified palace.
Long before King Gyanendra dismissed him the first time, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba ended up a helpless bystander as US Secretary of State Colin Powell proceeded to discuss Nepal’s needs directly with the monarch and the military chief. The global war on terror was as ambiguous as it was all encompassing. Defensive imperialism and enabling the state were ideas desperately in need of a laboratory.
When the axe did fall on Deuba, most influential foreign governments supported the palace. Our ground had lost none of its fertility. But, this time, external agents were more than willing to and capable of experimenting at cross purposes, and far beyond Nepal’s carrying capacity. No surprise, therefore, that Deuba’s second dismissal prompted such severe condemnation.
In view of those and subsequent developments, Oli perhaps want us to pause and ponder. If we want to keep contriving victimhood, manufacturing grievances and inventing new rights, we certainly won’t lack external patronage and pelf. We can still marvel at how a movement against autocratic monarchy ended up producing republicanism, secularism and federalism and where else it might take us. But at some point, we need to get real. We have what we have and must at least try to make it work.
As for guinea pigs, they have to be very fortunate to survive the experiments and live the aftermath. Human beings – and nations – need more fortitude.
(Originally posted on September 23, 2018)