Nepali Political parties are effectively under the thumb rule of a small coterie
Jan Sharma, Senior Journalist
So far 62 parties have applied for registration with the EC. These include 14 parties represented in the Assembly – the Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist), NC (Democratic), Nepal Sadbhavana Party (Anandi Devi), Nepal Majdoor Kisan Party (NMKP), Jana Morcha Nepal, Samyukta Jana Morcha and CPN-M, known as SPAM, as well as Jana Morcha Nepal (KC), Jana Morcha Nepal (Subedi), Rashtriya Prajatantra Party, Nepal Janasakti Party and Nepal Sadbhavana Party. None is ready yet for the elections.
The oldest among the political parties is the NC committed to “nationalism, democracy and creating a just, dynamic, independent and egalitarian society.” Fresh vision and ideas are not its forte. It has been effectively under the control of Girija Prasad Koirala. Its activities are mainly confined in the village tea shops and district headquarters because its workers have been beaten and harassed in the countryside. The eleventh general convention of the party in September 2005 decided to remain neutral on monarchy after having concluded that “even though the constitutional monarchy was established as a result of the agreement between the people and the king, this agreement has time and again been unilaterally violated by the king. In this context, monarchy is no more relevant in our party statute.” But Koirala, a split personality who favors a “ceremonial monarchy” as well, rejected in May 2007 demands for convening a special general convention of the party to discuss and take a clear position on monarchy.
The CPN-UML seeks a “total transformation of the Nepali society” by establishing “janatako bahudaliya janabad.” This indeed was a great leap forward in the history of communist movement in Nepal. It came in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the adoption of capitalist reforms in China under its paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Thus, the CPN-UML long ago rejected the concepts of one-party dictatorship in favor of plural and competitive democratic system. It has remained a moderate left party even if CPN-M has stolen most of its grassroots cadres. The 12th meeting of its central committee in August 2006 approved the plan to have a referendum on the choice between loktantrik ganatantra and constitutional monarchy, arguing that it was not certain that the elected constituent assembly would necessarily opt for a republic. Its insistence on proportional representation reflects reluctant to go to the polls. It is also in the process of finalizing Vision 20, outlining the strategies in the fields of income and employment, education, irrigation and drinking water, electricity and communications.
The NC (D) is a breakaway faction of the NC, which refused to endorse Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s decision to extend emergency in order to “keep the momentum” of the on-going military campaign to quell terrorism unleashed by CPN-M whom he accused of having “betrayed me and let down the country.” The disciplinary committee of NC expelled Deuba from the party’s ordinary membership in May 2003, which did not affect Deuba continuing as caretaker premier but did further widen fissures in NC. The party split vertically, which was natural and expected. Its birth reflects both the frustration with Koirala’s long but largely wasted innings in Nepali politics. His failure in helping build foundations for strong political and economic institutions and processes based on the rule of law, good governance and independent justice system is indeed monumental. The on-going efforts for unification of NC and NC (D) is expected to be neither dignified nor just.
No party has split and merged more than RPP, which now has at least three separate formations. One is led by Pashupati Shumshere Rana and the other by Rabindra Nath Sharma. The Rashtriya Janasakti Party led by Surya Bahadur Thapa, who fresh from a visit to New Delhi, is oozing with confidence for an “alliance of non-communist democratic parties.” He has rejected SPAM’s right to decide the fate of monarchy, saying people should decide the issue at the Constituent Assembly.
The NSP claims to espouse the cause of the Terai people but its members during the 1990 regime were nothing more than of ornamental values. Faced with challenges from the left and right, it is seeking a common ground with other non-communist formations, especially on monarchy. The party had split following personality clashes and ego during the fourth general convention in Rajbiraj in March 2003. However, the two factions decided to unite in June 2007.
The Nepal Majdoor Kisan Party (NMKP) has been active in Bhaktapur. Its boss Narayan Man Bijukchhe (Rohit) is worried that key decisions in the name of the sovereign Nepali people are being made in New Delhi and Washington. He was the first to admit that political changes in Nepal in April 2006 came largely because of the role played by India and America. Instead of focusing on only political issues, Bijukchhe wants the current government to resolve problems of peasants. He says although part of the SPAM, it is not responsible for delays in elections.
The CPN-M is the only party that has its own military, the ‘people’s liberation army’ and para-military forces. At the second national conference believed to have been held in Goa, India in February 2001, CPN-M adopted Prachandapath to combine “armed mass revolt” and “people’s war” in what was described as a “progressive shift.” It also amended its statute to allow the formation of a three-tiered leadership – a central committee, a politburo and a standing committee, perhaps reflecting the power struggle between Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai. The central committee meetings at Chunwang in October 2005 and at Kamidanda in September 2006 endorsed the policy of “effective political interference and mass mobilization” which laid the foundations for the 12-point understanding between the SPA and CPN-M. The strategy devised since then combined the “people’s war, people’s movement, talks and diplomatic initiatives” as various forms of revolution. Key officials have been assigned different professional groups to keep the momentum of chaos and “struggle” until final seizure of power.
Whether the CPN-M will give up arms and join the mainstream is not clear. It cannot join the political process by “having a gun stashed in their back pockets.” If it gives up arms, the people will be no more obliged to bow to it. There is also a wide gap of understanding on what the CPN-M wants and what SPA understands CPN-M wants. Its main goals are restructuring of state, election of a constituent assembly and a federal loktantrik ganatantra. Restructuring means integration of the “two armies to build a new army, integration of two laws and law courts to build a new one, unity of new and old regimes to undertake revolutionary land reforms, write off agricultural loans, adequate wage to workers and integration of education system.” It has not given up its primary goal of the “long-term people’s war which is to destroy the reactionary regime and build the new people’s regime.” It could be perhaps for this reason that the United States continues to list it in terrorist category as it has “neither renounced violence nor changed its behavior.”
One party, two party or multi-party?
If the CPN-M finds a Kerensky, it will take full advantage of the current chaos, just like between the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II and the final coup that propelled Bolsheviks to power. If this happens, it is possible, at least theoretically, for Nepal to be under a single party communist dictatorship. Another possibility is if the two major formations – CPN-UML and CPN-M – integrate into the mainstream left force. CPN-UML called for unity among “forward looking patriotic, pro-people and supporters of social justice” to achieve the goals of drafting a new constitution to establish loktantrik ganatantra through election to the Constituent Assembly.” Subsequently, CPN-UML and CPN-M agreed to work together for the proclamation of Nepal as a loktantrik ganatantra if elections for the Constituent Assembly are delayed. A member of the ruling coalition in India instantly endorsed the agreement, saying India would have no problem if Nepal became a republic.
Despite the rich rhetoric, unity is not possible between CPN-UML and CPN-M because they are rival forces if one goes by the mood at the Lenin Day talk program organized by the Kathmandu Valley regional bureau of CPN-M on April 22, 2007. The situation today is such that no political party would be in a position to do anything if the CPN-M and CPN-UML unify. Yet, the fact of life is unity between them is next to impossible. Such a unity will not only vertically divide SPAM and produce a dramatic change in power equation but also but divide the international community on their policies on political alignments. There is a sea of differences in political, economic and social programs between them. CPN-UML’s Madhav Kumar Nepal has ruled out unity because of policy differences, international situation and ground realities. Even the concept of loktantrik ganatantra has different connotations for CPN-UML, which is committed to democratic ideals and style, CPN-M, which looks at the concept as yet another form of “people’s war.”
It is theoretically possible for the non-communist parties to form an alliance, as suggested by Surya Bahadur Thapa. It is also possible for the NC and CPN-UML to engage in “permanent cohabitation” for the “establishment of permanent Loktantra and permanent peace through the Constituent Assembly” as reportedly suggested by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the party’s delegation which visited India in June 2007. The Indian suggestion was described by Prachanda as a “game plan to finish the Maoists.”
Erosion of Established Political Parties
The political parties became part of the political process after a 30-year old ban on them was lifted in 1990. As they began to get reorganized and expand their network on a national scale, they began to reflect contradictions in their goals and policies to suit everyone. They pursued contradictory goals of democratic socialism and policies of liberal capitalism. The highly centralized structure of the party prevented issues at the grassroots from being heard at the central level, and as a result policy formulation and interventions suffered. The parties were devoid of ideology, policy and programs for social and political transformation, which only perpetuated exclusion because there was little active participation. The party organizations declined qualitatively, and narrow thinking benefited only groups and subgroups within each party. Local and national issues became secondary. This wide gap between the political parties and the society eroded the democratic structure introduced in 1990.
It is ironic that the political parties are effectively under the thumb rule of a small coterie, thus discouraging young talents. For example, only “active” NC members can vote but its president and general secretary have the arbitrary power to decide who are active and who are not without attributing reason. Only half of the 31-member central working committee is elected, the rest are president’s nominees. The party machine dances with the whims and swings of the party president, who is accountable to none but himself. Other parties are not very different even though the voice at the grassroots is heard by the central leadership of CPN-UML, CPN-M and NMKP. CPN-UML encourages open debate within the mandate of the national convention. The debates are sometimes so intense that it vertically split in 1996 following the acrimonious debate on the controversial Mahakali Treaty. The party would have avoided split had there been no flow of money – allegedly from extraneous sources as admitted or suspected by the party members themselves – to swing the vote.
The main sources of income of the parties are membership fees, levies from members occupying remunerative positions, contributions and donations from business houses and “some outside” support. For example, the NC raises Rs. 100 from “active members.” CPN-UML collects Rs. 5 per month from “organized members.” CPN-M, perhaps the richest party has a centralized system where the party decides who gets what. This applies even to the party legislators. The tricky part is the donation from business community. Very little information is available on such funding. Business houses contribute undisclosed amounts to parties on the condition that the figures are not disclosed to anyone. Once the figures are disclosed, other parties with far less influence ask for more. In order to make this transparent, then Finance Minister Prakash C. Lohani introduced a system under which the donations to the party were waived of income taxes. The plan never took off. A new study on the political parties recommends the need to look at proposals to provide state funds to enhance transparency.
The main job of the political parties should be to fulfill the constitutional obligations of holding free, fair and credible elections for the Constituent Assembly. Instead of focusing on the elections, the political parties are focusing on spoils of office and other trivial issues, skirting the primary responsibility. The main victim of such a lack of trust and confidence would be democracy and good governance.