Three things we learned

  • This past year, the continuing significance of language, inclusion, and geopolitics were made apparent
- Ajaya Bhadra Khanal
Three things we learned

Apr 14, 2015-

The New Year is going to be interesting.

On the eve of the New Year, the Constituent Assembly (CA) Chair called a meeting of top leaders. KP Oli was absent, because he was climbing Dharahara. Prachanda lamented that for Oli, Dharahara was more important than the constitution. Oli, accompanied by an oxygen cylinder, said it was difficult to climb up like the UML, but quite easy to go down like the Maoists.

People speak in different ways. Oli climbs Dharahara, all 213 steps. He sends three messages: I am strong enough to climb; I can see the view from the top; the New Year is going to be beautiful. Prachanda, while talking to the media, says he’s willing to take any risk for the sake of delivering a constitution on time. By the magnitude of his ‘flexibility’, it would appear that Prachanda has greater things in store for the future. Or at least, greater things are at stake that justify alienating the Janajatis, angering the Madhesis, and shutting the door to unification among the six Maoist groups.

We can only wonder what it could be. It’s been a common knowledge in recent months that the Maoists have backtracked from their position on federalism. It may not have been just a coincidence that the Maoists’ softening of stance follows Baburam Bhattarai’s India visit and Prachanda’s China visit.

Inclusive institutions

The second thing we’ve learnt this year is that institutions, once designed, are difficult to change. The 2006 Janaandolan sought to change the way the state and political parties respond to people’s needs, but did not have a clear vision of what new institutional structures might look like.

The Maoists, Madhesis, and Janajatis, on the other hand, had their own agenda for reforms, including the form of government, federalism, and electoral system. The failure of the Maoists and Madhesis to push forward their agenda shows how entrenched existing institutions are in our society.

Restructuring of institutions is required at two levels: at the level of political parties, and at the level of the state.

At the level of the political parties, the internal party structures allow a few leaders to extract from the ordinary party members and unions that have penetrated all levels of the society. The recent Supreme Court verdict trying to limit the role of employee unions is an example. Most employee unions are extractive institutional structures. They serve their members by lobbying for their promotion and transfers, especially when their party leaders are in power. Therefore, a meritorious government employee, if he or she is not a member of these extractive unions, has fewer chances of getting a promotion or a good position.

Given the existing state structure, top political leaders who have control over parties like the Nepali Congress (NC) or the CPN-UML have few incentives to restructure the party and the state. Making the party and the state more inclusive means giving up on their monopoly of power and privileges. Reforming state and party structures, therefore, is a difficult proposition. As many studies have shown, once institutional structures are in place, it is difficult to change them in favour of the ordinary people.

One of the implications of such a situation is that political divisions have crystallised at the local level also. Nepal is a deeply divided society. Nepal’s political parties have created a social chasm that runs vertically, from the highest level to the community level. At the community level, the divisive political allegiance has more to do with getting access to state resources and opportunities than to development and ideology.

As a result, allegiances are usually made to political parties that have a greater prospect of getting to power. Without such political allegiance, which is something more than just an affiliation, people rarely get access to state resources or even entry into the marketplace.

Indian interests

The third thing we learnt this year was that geo-strategy still matters and in ways that are difficult for us to comprehend.

India’s foreign policy experts have made it clear that India is wary of China’s growing influence in Nepal and that it is concerned about keeping China at bay. The threat of destabilisation posed by Islamic terrorist networks and by its own Maoists is another of India’s major concerns. India’s third major concern is water security.

India has persistently viewed the Nepalis Maoists as a threat to the stability of the Indian bordering states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. India’s RAW and Intelligence Bureau have an ingrained intolerance for China, Pakistan, and the Naxalites. They are also naturally suspicious of Nepal’s Maoists, especially after a recent Supreme Court verdict brought them together.

During the Maoist heydays, the red’s enthusiasm crossed over to the other side of the border. The Gaur massacre and the serial assassination of Maoist cadres in Kapilvastu coincided with the rise of armed groups in the Tarai. Now that the Maoist threat in the Madhes has subsided, the influence of armed groups has also lessened. The rise of the Madhes Movement in early 2007 was also instrumental in lessening the influence of the Maoists.

Scholars closely associated with the Chinese frame of mind argue that a horizontal demarcation of federal units in the Madhes will mean a de-facto extension of India’s ‘virtual’ border up to the Churia hills. And then, India would also be interested in supporting state and political institutions as well as leaders in Nepal that are sensitive to its security concerns, particularly in those three areas.

China’s case

The case of China is not much different. In order to maintain political stability, China needs to satisfy the economic needs of a bulging youth population. For this, China needs to expand both its market and source of raw materials to continue its trajectory of a high growth rate. China’s second greatest challenge is to tilt economic growth in favour of the hinterland that has largely remained excluded, in comparison to the affluence of coastal areas. This is combined with the threat of destabilisation in Tibet and Xinjiang provinces because of identity politics, partly fuelled by western powers.

China’s proximity to Nepal means that these three key strategic concerns are now common knowledge, even among Kathmandu’s school kids. What is not so clear is how these concerns are implicated in Nepal’s political transition. We can, however, make inferences, although there is a risk that we may easily overdetermine China’s role in Nepali politics.

From the outside, it would appear that India and China are neutral to Nepal’s internal democratic processes. However, there are a number of ways in which they, directly or indirectly, encourage Nepal’s conventional institutional structures to persist. Geo-strategy, therefore, plays a major role in the possibility of Nepal’s political transformation. The persistence of Nepal’s institutional design is partly related to the influence of geo-strategic alliances.

Published: 15-04-2015 08:40

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