People and the State

Rajeev Ravisankar | Updated on July 25, 2014

Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal b Prashant Jha; Aleph; ₹395

An engaging account of the political history and key players of modern Nepal

Eight years after a historic Jana Andolan overturned the old monarchic order and set the stage for Nepal to transform into a secular democratic republic, the country is still without a new Constitution. The promise of radical change has come up against the reality of political gridlock. In November 2013, stalwart political parties — the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [CPN (UML)] — reclaimed their hold on power as the Maoists were dealt a major setback in the second Constituent Assembly (CA) elections. This shift could go a long way in shaping Nepal’s political trajectory.

Prashant Jha’s Battles of the New Republic comes as Nepal is poised at a critical juncture. Jha is well placed to write this account given his extensive journalistic coverage of Nepal. He delves into the various historical and socio-political forces that displaced the feudal monarchic order. He captures the magnitude of these changes, which is often overlooked in the present context, and the complex issues the country has faced in its post-conflict transition and existence.

Jha begins by recounting the most important moment in Nepal’s contemporary history — the 2006 Jana Andolan, which forced the monarch King Gyanendra to step aside. He traces the development of the Maoist-led armed struggle from the first weapons they obtained: two rifles that the CIA airdropped in 1961 for Tibetans to use against the Chinese Government. He chronicles how the Maoist movement in Nepal then drew upon discontentment against prevailing conditions and power equations in society, as well as police abuses and disenchantment with ‘moderate left’ politics.

The Maoists agitated against the feudal monarchy, an institution that was particularly autocratic under the Ranas, and later accommodated democratic openings only to close them. This happened under King Mahendra in 1960 and again in 2002 under King Gyanendra. Mainstream political parties and the parliamentary system were also criticised by the Maoists for contributing to a kind of ‘stable’ instability aimed at neutralising the opposition and preventing progressive alternatives.

As the civil war escalated, according to Jha, the Maoists realised that they could not capture the State and conventionally defeat the Royal Nepal Army, and sought to work with the mainstream parties to pressure the King. The decision by mainstream parties, such as the Nepali Congress to orient themselves against King Gyanendra’s attempts to consolidate power, proved to be the last nail in the coffin of the monarchy.

Jha’s writing reads like a long-form reportage that carries the reader by weaving together a compelling mix of political history, profiles of personalities and anecdotes. He also highlights the backstories of individuals both at the leadership and cadre levels and places them in relation to historical events, providing a glimpse into how they would end up shaping Nepal’s future.

An important theme throughout the book is the role of India in Nepal’s political affairs, and an in-depth and layered assessment is provided in the second section.

Both the Indian State and non-State political organisations have had a major influence on Nepal’s internal situation. Indian State policy seems to be one of creating and maintaining a political environment in Nepal that suits its own interests, and actively intervenes in overt and covert ways to achieve that.

Considering the rise of Hindu right-wing forces in India, Jha’s engagement with Hindutva politics and organisational links in both countries is particularly relevant. Hindutva organisations in India have supported their counterparts in Nepal consistently, and this is likely to increase in the current political climate. According to Jha, “pressure exerted on the government by the RSS and VHP” contributed to BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s decision to back King Gyanendra’s takeover of power in 2002.

The book’s latter-half examines some of the most pressing issues in post-conflict, post-monarchy Nepal. At the forefront simmer ethnic and identity issues that the monarchic Hindu State, dominated by upper-caste hill-centric elites, suppressed. Jha examines the political assertion among Madhesis, who are mainly from Nepal’s southern plains and ethnically and linguistically linked with bordering Indian states, and how caste and class intersect with this identity formation. Madhesi and Janjati (indigenous) politics point to historic marginalisation and disenfranchisement, and the need for the State to acknowledge the demand for federalism.

In the final section, Jha presents an overview of the poorly handled demobilisation of the People’s Liberation Army, which led to only minimal integration of Maoist combatants into the Nepal Army. This section also looks at the debates around drafting the Constitution, in which the model of federalism (ethnic or identity-based) to restructure the State turned out to be the most contentious. In Jha’s view, “The NC and the UML made a political choice to kill the CA rather than accept identity-based federalism,” due to the lack of agreement on a specific model.

Assessing the results for the second CA elections, Jha draws attention to the disenchantment with the Maoists for not delivering a new constitution and due to a growing disconnect between the UCPN (M) and the people. However, while progressive forces are not well-positioned at the moment, Battles of the New Republic points to a socio-political culture in Nepal that is capable of rapid change and unseating well-entrenched establishments.

( Rajeev Ravisankar is an Assistant Editor with Himal Southasian in Kathmandu, Nepal)

Published on July 25, 2014

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