BY SHASHI MALLA
Nepal is without doubt at the intersection of the Chinese and Indian civilizations. This was amply recognized by the founder of the Nepali nation, the Great King Prithvi Narayan Shah, whose metaphor of ‘the yam between two stones’ was translated into the foreign policy dictum of ‘equi-distance’ from the great empire of the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of the British Indian colony under the East India Company. Later when British India achieved independence and China came into its own under the leadership of Mao Zedong there was absolutely no reason to abandon this sound policy which guaranteed Nepal’s inherent existence. Nepal was after all ‘land-locked’ and a classical buffer state – existing on the borders of powerful states and which from the security standpoint of the latter, served as intermediate ‘cushions’ or ‘crush zones’. Nepal’s continued independent existence precariously depended on the current state of play regarding both the local and general balance of power [vide Jeffery Newnham: Penguin Dictionary of International Relations, 1998: 58].
With the advent of air power, Nepal’s neutrality in the Cold War and its membership in the United Nations, the role of a ‘buffer’ lost its significance. Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity was anchored in its ‘dynamic neutrality’ in the developing South Asian rivalry between China and India, between India and Pakistan, in the US-Soviet Cold War, and also in its membership of the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement. In the emerging new ‘world order’, Nepal must attempt to secure its independence by its active role in both China’s project of the New Silk Road and also America’s ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’.
The foreign policy aspect is only one side of the coin. The other side is the domestic determinants of external affairs, which are also crucial to a nation’s existence. In this also the Great Unifier, Prithvi Narayan showed great vision. He did lay down that his newly founded state would be ‘a garden in which many different flowers bloom’. Thus, long before the dawn of the modern age, Prithvi Narayan laid the steady foundation of a tolerant state, in which all ethnic groups had their autonomous existence. It was because of his dynamic leadership and later that of Jung BahadurRana that Nepal narrowly avoided becoming a British colony, and could preserve its unique way of life. After all, Prithvi Narayan had also warned of the malign ‘Mughlan’ (foreign) influences.
What is the state of the nation today?
Nepal is officially a federal, democratic, secular republic. What has been achieved? And what remains to be done to make the country livable for all? After the last parliamentary elections in which the unified Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) achieved a resounding victory and with support from fringe parties, now has a comfortable two-thirds majority with which to accomplish much. Naturally, the people had great expectations, but till date they are still waiting for tangible results. It seems the Communists are basking in their success, but not moving forward and not in the right direction. They seem to be utterly confused over theory and practice.
First, they have haphazardly proclaimed the coming into effect of ‘federalism’. This is not functioning smoothly. The division of labour between the centre and the states has not been considered in a logical manner. The division of administrative duties between the various tiers has also not been considered effectively – village/town – district – state – centre. A plausible devolution of power has not taken place.
Second, is Nepal really a functioning democracy? We do have periodic elections, but elections alone do not a democracy make. Think of North Korea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Venezuela ! At most, we are an ‘electoral democracy’, with little transparency and no accountability. Perhaps, these words do not exist in the ‘Communist Dictionary’!We also have a most ineffectual opposition, devoid of ideas and vision. Nepal’s civil society is non-functional.
Third, is Nepal really a secular state, and is secularism the sine qua non of its political existence? The situation in Nepal would be very funny, were not millions of Hindus robbed of their religious identity. According to the Marxist-Leninist creed, ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ [!], and in principle our Communist leaders should be diehard atheists. But behold, they have suddenly become practicing Hindus, using Hindu rituals and practices to impress the common people. The President of the Republic has even become an Ersatz-Monarch, taking the lead in national Hindu ceremonies, formerly reserved for the King of Nepal. In fact, the people are questioning the very rationale of establishing secularism.
Fourth, what has Nepal gained by abolishing ‘constitutional monarchy’ and installing a republic? Actually, nothing at all. Both the president and the prime minister are demonstrating monarchical tendencies. The prime minister already has considerable political powers to achieve what is necessary and desirable for the country at large. However, lately he is striving to concentrate even more power in his office. What is the object of the exercise? It must be recalled that one of the main reasons for ousting King Gyanendra was that he had allegedly amassed too much power as head of state and government. Why then was he not replaced, but instead the whole institution of monarchy abolished? This and the extinction of the Hindu State have now proved definitely detrimental to the people and nation of Nepal and was an ‘historical mistake’. The political leaders then acted not only in their own selfish interests, but also as lackeys of the Indian establishment. They effectively threw out the baby with the bath water. Since the reign of King Birendra, the main Indian agenda had been to extinguish the constitutional Hindu monarchy, which under the Shah monarchs had become the stark representative of Nepal’s sovereignty, and conversely a muscular resistance to Indian depredations – a powerful thorn in India’s flesh.
The self-serving Nepali Congress leader, Girija Prasad Koirala himself wanted to be head of state, and the Maoists most beholden to India for the covert logistical support during their 10-year long so-called ‘People’s War’, fell in line with the Indian machinations and their ‘grand design’.They were effectively India’s ‘Fifth Column’. Currently, there is some public debate whether the wrong can be (belatedly) righted by holding a referendum on the restoration of the ‘Hindu Monarchy’. The RashtriyaPrajatantra Party (National Democratic) is quite vociferous on this issue, but needs to do much more to awaken public interest. There is also some discourse within the opposition Nepali Congress, but very weak. This is currently a party that is leaderless and rudderless, lacking a grand vision and the members without elan. The party is in the doldrums ever since the election debacle to the grand strategy of the Communists [party unification of the UML and Maoists].
Thereby, the solution to their woes is hidden in plain sight! With a sense of history, the Nepali Congress has only to restore the grand alliance with the monarchy, historically established by General SubarnaShumsher and BisheshwarKoirala with King Tribhuwan to topple the autocratic century-old Rana regime. The timing could not have been more auspicious to act decisively.The Communists are not only displaying ‘inner contradictions’ among themselves, they are also exhibiting ostentation and authoritarian tendencies, not exactly esteemed by the Nepalese people. If the Nepali Congress lacks dashing personalities, it could no better than learn from Israel and recruit one or two retired generals to lead the way. From the huge reservoir of Nepali retired generals, a couple could definitely found with the necessary mettle!
The Communist government’s foreign policy is also in shambles – it’s moving erratically between the devil and the deep blue sea.This Communist government has placed its ideological tenets above Nepal’s national security interests by supporting the dictatorial, oppressive and undemocratic regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela – placing itself in direct opposition to the world’s democracies. The overwhelming majority of Latin American countries – with the exception of Bolivia and Cuba [socialist/communist] support the dynamic Acting-President Juan Guaido. Maduro remains in power only because he has the unstinted support of the military. Nearer home, the current government has not only been ignoring its other regional neighbours, it has even antagonized them. Although Kathmandu is the seat of SAARC, this Communist government – probably at the behest of India – has allowed the regional organization to linger in limbo. Lately, it unnecessarily postponed a foreign secretary-level bilateral meeting with Pakistan, just because the Indian foreign secretary was coming soon. Was this not kowtowing to the ‘Bada Sahibs’ from the south?
The Nepalese people were, therefore, hoodwinked by their very political leaders and deprived of their beacon of hope and their national aspirations. The Royal Nepalese Army could have done something then, but the top generals choose to do nothing. In the hour of need, they were found utterly wanting and acting like ‘wimps’. The Nepal Army should aspire to be like the Israeli military – maintaining distance and correct civil-military relations, but not compromising one iota where the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is concerned. Now, the Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli is striving to place the Nepal Army under his personal command. Perhaps, he strives to be a real ‘strongman’ like Kim Jong Un of North Korea or Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela!
The writer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Nepal at the Crossroads between Asia and the West: The Current State of the Nation
BY SHASHI MALLA