Nepal – The Nostalgia for 1990

Kanak Mani Dixit’s efforts to portray 1990s as blissful, and Maoists to solely blame for all of Nepal’s ills, is revisionist history, facts be damned. Dixit’s rejoinder (‘The perils of executive presidency’, Jan 5) to my column (‘A question of form’, Jan 4) reveals fundamental differences in how we see recent Nepali history. The gist of Dixit’s rather simplistic world view is that the 1990s were wonderful and the Maoists destroyed it and are all evil. Let us examine this in more detail.

The 1990s

The 1990 constitution opened up Nepali society; it guaranteed fundamental freedoms and allowed groups to organise themselves at all levels; and economic policies pursued then led to the creation of a bigger middle class.

But there were two fundamental drawbacks of that period, which is what led to its eventual breakdown.

The first is obvious — the political class did not live up to the responsibility of instituting a functional democratic system. The internal wrangles of the NC and UML; the NC-UML acrimony; horse-trading in parliament; frequent changes in government; the widespread loot of the exchequer; the destruction of public institutions and state enterprises; and the tensions between parties and the palace drastically eroded the legitimacy of the system.

Democratic parties have a lot to answer for — the ‘94 dissolution, the mess between’94 and ‘99 when every alignment was tried at the centre, the way NC once again threw away the mandate it got in ‘99, the disruption of entire parliament sessions, dissolution of local governments and then of parliament itself.

These events bred disillusionment at the popular level. The Maoists then took advantage of it by using it as ammunition to discredit democracy as it existed then.

The second major problem in the 1990s was the complete blindness to aspirations of the marginalised communities. The constitution did not allow parties to be formed on ethnic and caste lines, which restricted democratic space. Gajendra Narayan Singh was booed and not allowed to speak in Hindi in parliament and in public rallies. There were no affirmative action policies, which would have begun the process of correcting the massive under-representation of ethnic groups in state organs. The Bahunisation of the bureaucracy only deepened. The Supreme Court did not allow Maithili and Newari to be used in municipalities. The country continued to be a Hindu kingdom, alienating minority religious communities and ethnic groups.

This suited the Maoists perfectly, since they could now stitch an alternative narrative — that a centralised state structure led by small Hindu hill elite had conquered and oppressed everyone else. And the Kathmandu establishment did nothing — not even basic constitutional reform — to counter that.

The sustainability of a political system depends on whether it has enough social constituencies supporting it. The fact that by the end, there were very few people backing the 90 system is in itself the biggest indictment.

This is neither a justification of the insurgency, nor do I support the politics of violence. But one’s personal beliefs cannot come in the way of evaluating the past. To portray the 1990s as blissful, and Maoists as solely to blame, is nothing but revisionist history, facts be damned.

Power shift

The best thing to have happened since 2006 is the shift of political power to newer social groups. When the capital’s well entrenched intelligentsia dreams of the 1990s, they dream of a polity where Madhesis did not crowd Singha Durbar, when there was little chance of a Magar finance minister or a Tharu home minister, when there was only one Dalit in the house of 205, when there had been no efforts to enhance women’s representation, when the country would remain a Hindu state, and where NC and UML would rule the roost.

It was wonderful as long as corruption was centralised in the palace or in Baluwatar — but when it happens in districts, it is the fault of the Maoists. (Incidentally, don’t other parties share the loot in the ‘all party’ mechanism?) It was wonderful as long as Khum Bahadur Khadka ran the home ministry as a personal fiefdom — but if another party leader does the same, it is breakdown in ‘rule of law’. It is fine when those responsible for Operations Romeo and Kilo Serra get away scot free, when the Malik and Raymajhi report recommendations lie unimplemented, or those who committed atrocities in Bhairabnath and Bardiya walk proudly — but when Maoists do the same, they are to blame solely for impunity.

At its root, the problem is one of deploying double standards for parties one likes and one does not, and of intellectual inconsistency. If Dixit likes the 1990 constitution so much, why did he accept — and fight for — the 2006 change? How can one own the change that was a result of that movement — republicanism, secularism, federalism, inclusion, peace — and totally disown the force that was instrumental in bringing that change? A more honest position would be to either take the Deepak Gyawali route, who maintains the 1990 constitution was the way to go and disagrees with the 12 point framework, or to embrace the change and its agents. Having it both ways, by being a conservative in liberal garb, is not possible. This does not mean that Maoists should not be criticised. They must — with every passing day, they give us room for it with their abundant mischief, deceit, and corruption. But they cannot be singled out and treated like a pariah.

Political culture

The worst feature of the post 2006 period is that there has been no change in the political culture, and the same instability and loot continues which is breeding anger. The Maoists have got as enmeshed in the ‘mainstream’ political-business networks and practice exactly the same form of patronage politics.

While choosing the form of government, this is the key defect one has to address. Can the system transform the political culture by changing incentive alignments of politicians? Can it be both accountable and stable? And that is why we need to at least debate alternatives to conventional parliamentary system — either a presidency which will be checked by a strong legislature and empowered provinces, or a directly elected PM constrained by a constitutional president and parliament, or an innovative parliament with minimum tenure for a government and provisions for a constructive vote of no-confidence.

That has to be the criteria, not fears about Prachanda taking over. As Pradeep Giri indicated in his Kantipur piece, even if the Maoists intend to do so, they do not have the capacity. This is so for a range of reasons — the plural polity, fragmented society, free press, constitutional institutions, an assertive young population, the demands of the marginalised, and geo-politics. Just travel to Madhes to see the heterogeneity in politics. Whenever the Maoists try to act too smart, they are promptly put in place by other forces. The political space to counter them is there; it is up to the other parties to use it.

The fear mongering about Maoists and ‘identity politics’ stems from a nostalgia for the past, and is a desperate attempt to stall, or at least slow down the pace of change towards a more inclusive polity. Unfortunately for Dixit and company, that past will not return.

(First published in The Kathmandu Post.)

One thought on “Nepal – The Nostalgia for 1990”

  1. A well written article again by Prashant dai, one which sums up succinctly the state of the political situation in Nepal and gives a befitting reply to those who want to take us back to the so called golden days of early 1990s.

    Sorry for deviating from the main focus of the piece, but I had a question to ask Prashant dai about affirmative action with regards to giving space to marginalised communities.

    (Disclaimer: Having seen the effects of reservation in India, and more importantly being a part of the “Bahun Chhetri male” clique, with decreasing access to opportunities and naturally no reservation, I am against the current affirmative action policies being implemented in Nepal)

    1. Let us look at the debate in India over reservation; where everyone accepts the need for reservation but heartburn remains over the way it is put to practice. The real question arises when certain groups manage to milk reservation for their own benefits, i.e. an elite among the disadvantaged and underrepresented emerges, which takes away all the benefits.

    Considering this backdrop, and the way affirmative action is being used in Nepal, do you not think that there should be a case of economic differentiation? It might be argued that this would lead to a lack of representation for the minorities and hence that should not be done. Fair enough, and maybe the opportunities need to be provided now to allow for effective representation of diversity.

    But what of the future? Once given, it will be impossible to limit these policies to a single generation and to the real disadvantaged. [ Affirmative action candidates in my college in India come from either affluent business families, or families where more than 1 member has been a part of the mighty All India Services like the IAS and IPS]

    This will only result in a rich Madhesi, with a higher social or caste status standing monopolising those opportunities, or the affluent Newars in the case of janajatis.

    2. Also, given the problems we have with regards to management of diversity, do you think it is appropriate to allow parties based on caste and ethnic lines? While it might go well with the notion of ‘democracy’ won’t it just be a pre-cursor to more violence?

    3. Also, what are your views on the possible future language to be used for communication by the Nepali government and its structure at the federal level or in communication with its federal units?



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