Understanding the Nepali Revolution: Baburam Bhattarai
(Nepal’s Prime Minister, Dr BABURAM BHATTARAI, visited India in his first bilateral trip since taking office, in the third week of October. Bhattarai spoke at the Jawaharlal University, Delhi, where he had earned his PhD from the Centre for Study of Regional Development, about the political evolution in Nepal, particularly after the 1990 and 2006 movements as seen through the prism of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).
Before beginning his substantive speech, he declared, “I am what I am because of JNU,” amidst thundering applause and cries of Lal Salaam.
The full text of the speech, provided to Kafila by his office, is being posted below for the record.)
Today I would like to present before you some aspects of the political developments in Nepal in recent years, and the possibilities and limitations for radical transformation inherent in the current alignment of forces. All major revolutionary upheavals, like the English revolution, the French revolution, the various European nationalist revolutions, the American revolution, the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution, the Indian freedom movement and so on, as well as the attendant changes that they precipitate, are available for historical and contemporary judgement. The Nepali revolution is no different and it is, therefore, both inevitable and necessary, from the viewpoint of democratic practice, that politically oriented people all over the world are entitled to, and will entertain, a wide variety of assessments about the trajectory, the achievements and the possibilities of the political course that Nepal has undertaken. Of course, these assessments and judgements are informed by greater or lesser degrees of appreciation of the domestic and international co-ordinates within which every great social and democratic transformation is attempted and achieved.
Great democratic transformative projects achieve different levels of success because these domestic and international co-ordinates both enable and constrain the forces of radical democracy. Within these enabling and constraining circumstances, the forces of democratic change experience fluctuations of will, imagination, energy, mood, understanding and organizational capacity. The French revolution underwent different phases, from Jacobin radicalism, to Thermidorean reaction, culminating in Napoleanic monarchy. The English revolution sparked a civil war that deposed a king but could not abolish monarchy. The American revolution began with high ideals but led finally to the oligarchy of corporations disguised as a two-party democracy. The Russian revolution began with war communism, transitioned to the New Economic Policy and then succumbed to techno-bureaucratic managerialism. None of these were inevitable. The co-ordinates within which radical political movements begin contain both progressive and regressive possibilities and the outcome depends on whether the movement can seize the opportunities, heed the limitations and assess the potential that exists in any given situation in order to advance the cause of social, economic and political democracy.
Nepal’s transformation of the last few years is poised delicately within an institutional conjuncture that represents both old feudal Nepal and new democratic Nepal. Political realities are constituted by the prevailing constellations of class and social forces of domination and resistance, as well as by their corresponding institutions and agencies. These constellations are not entirely and always constant. Some elements of the ruling constellation represent the hardcore of reactionary interests. This is the segment of the constellation that constitutes the counter revolutionary constant, which has to be whittled down to its weakest point if it has to be overcome. Other social and political forces, which by virtue of old associations and allegiances and the residual legacies of history are often seen to be part of the ruling power bloc, are, in times of radical democratic change, amenable to persuasion and democratic reorientation. As the transformative democratic impulse in Nepali society moves towards the accomplishment of its goals, it is necessary for all such progressive forces to come together and work with purposive unity in overcoming all the traditional obstructions that stand in the way of the new Nepal this trajectory of new Nepal was conceived of in 2005 and 2006 with the signing of the various instruments and agreements of peace and democracy between the Maoists and the other political forces in the country, who had hitherto been in an uneasy and increasingly lopsided relationship with the feudal forces led by the now abolished monarchy.
When the CPN (Maoist) launched its revolutionary political movement, change was already underway in rural Nepal. Some traditional aspects of life had changed. Agriculture was in crisis, migration had caused changes in family structure, remittance had begun to incrementally monetise the village economy, but lack of economic growth had left the rural populace with few local opportunities to earn their livelihood. As the subsistence basis of rural Nepal was being increasingly undermined, neo-liberal policies were introduced by Kathmandu, which added to the difficulties of rural Nepalis. This was in addition to the institutionalized forms of historical discrimination that segments of the Nepali populace were subjected to, as Dalits, as Janajati and as women, by the feudal dispensation, a significant part of which continued to retain its influence despite the apparent political change of 1990. Under these conditions, the Maoist movement made rapid advances in building a broad social coalition against monarchical feudalism. Forging this social alliance of disparate oppressed groups was important not only in the rapid ideological transformation in the country but also in formulating and refining a programmatic agenda to suit the aspirations of a wide spectrum of society. The class composition and the ideological disposition of the institutions of state, those that survived from the period of monarchic absolutism and those that were established after the 1990 movement, did not reflect even remotely the new political sensibilities and sentiments that were emerging in Nepali society. The institutional polity that was created by and reflected in the 1990 Constitution, was a historic compromise through which the major political parties were admitted into a polity that had hitherto been controlled entirely by feudal forces. Under the pressure of an emerging bourgeois economy that was not large enough to independently initiate and complete a bourgeois democratic revolution, the old feudal polity made some limited procedural modifications in its functioning and accommodated, to some degree, a new set of politico-economic interests. The main function of the 1990 polity was to organize the hegemony of the state, through the mobilizing capacity of the political parties, without introducing any substantive socio-economic reform or any visible dilution in the regime of class exploitation.
This was a self-negating arrangement because the architecture of the 1990 polity was incompatible with the emerging aspirations of the Nepali populace. The feudal system is inherently anti-democratic and its method of class rule, based on extra-economic domination, militates against even limited bourgeois democracy. Moreover, this compromise, between parties seeking parliamentary government and the old feudal classes, even if such a contradiction could somehow have been politically reconciled, was executed hastily and without sufficient institutional elasticity to enable conflicts to be resolved within the framework of its own political rules. As a result, by the very design of its political and constitutional architecture, in the event of conflicts that could not be resolved through negotiations, the democratic segment of the polity would have to concede primacy to the feudal royalist class, failing which the polity would fall apart. As it transpired, from 2001, since the palace massacre, the feudal royalist elements of the polity increasingly gained supremacy at the expense of the democratic element. By 2002 parliament and the local bodies were dissolved, severely crippling the capacity of the parliamentary parties to organizationally reproduce themselves by depriving them of their accustomed forms of functioning and patronage. The limits of a bourgeois parliamentarism dependent primarily on the pleasure of the monarchy and its feudal retinue were exposed, leaving the mainstream parties with few options but to agitate against or colloborate with the palace, and some of them were doing both by turn.
By the time the second ceasefire collapsed in late 2003, the parliamentary parties were in crisis, and the king had gained almost full control of the polity in Kathmandu even as the authority of his state was steadily depleting in the rest of Nepal, the CPN (M) had made significant progress in consolidating support in the country and the mass of the people were insistent in their demand for democratic change. In response, the king seized full control of the state in early 2005, and with that the Constitution of 1990 was in tatters and the polity that it established was officially defunct, creating the ground for the acceptance of one of the main demands of the CPN (M)—the election of a Constituent Assembly to write a Constitution to radically restructure the state on democratic and socially responsive foundations. Now that the balance of forces in Nepal was tilted in favour of redrawing the architectural fundamentals of the state, an alliance was forged in late 2005 with the progressive democratic forces in order to oust the monarch, create the conditions for minimum democracy and proceed with the task of radical transformation through the Constituent Assembly. It took two and a half years of relentless struggle against hostile and regressive forces before the Constituent Assembly elections could be held in 2008. The results of that election vindicated the long political odyssey of the CPN (M), but the eventual political configuration of the Constituent Assembly was not conducive to an early or easy settlement of all the pending issues that stand in the way of democratizing the state and its institutions, reforming the economy to make it consistent with democratic principles, and transforming the social climate in order to eliminate discrimination, so that the basic and inalienable right of all citizens to livelihood, health, education, freedom, cultural expression, dignity and all the other indispensable necessities of modern life is secured.
In arriving at this point, the pace of developments has been uneven, the process has been periodically acrimonious, negotiations on necessary issues have sometimes come to a standstill, unanimity, except on some exceptional issues, has been elusive, the direction of movement in crucial matters has not always been uniform, and the complexities of government formation have on some occasions led to protracted political stalemates. Periods of rapid movement have been punctuated by periods of deadlock. Yet, for all that, agreement on crucial issues is highly probable, as some major achievements of the recent past prove. Within a short period of convening the Constituent Assembly, the institution of monarchy was abolished, removing the lynchpin of the feudal oligarchy, and Nepal is now a secular democratic republic. This is a major achievement, when we consider that until 2005, the 250-year-old monarchy was considered by the major political formations to be a crucial and indispensable symbol of Nepal’s unity and integrity. In many influential quarters the stability of Nepal was seen to be contingent on the durability of monarchy as an institution. In addition to this, the principle of federalism has been accepted as a national necessity, even though there are differences of opinion between the major political parties on the blueprint and modalities of its implementation. At no point have negotiations between the major political parties broken down so completely that agreement was not possible on urgent matters like government formation and the extension of the Constituent Assembly’s term. Admittedly there are difficulties and delays in the drafting and promulgation of the Constitution, because the completion of the peace process has been made a prerequisite for undertaking this task. While some of the differences between the different political parties pertaining to the peace process are fundamental and obdurate they are not necessarily irreconcilable. Nevertheless, the protracted delay in the writing of the Constitution and the restructuring of the state, pending a resolution of disputed issues that have impeded the completion of the peace process, is neither helpful nor healthy. Long transitions can sometimes attain a perverse persistence, leading to the appearance of what Gramsci calls “a great variety of morbid symptoms” in that interregnum when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”. There have been moments in the past few years when events of this nature have briefly threatened to flare up, but were fortunately defused in time for the polity to revert back to the relatively stable if low level equilibrium that has now become it routine feature.
To preempt the emergence of such a crises, over which nobody, not even the most organized force, will have any control, and about which nobody, not even the most astute analyst, can predict anything, it is necessary to identify the constraints to the immediate completion of the peace process, ensure its irreversible completion with honour and dignity, and then proceed with the necessary urgency to the unavoidable task of drafting the Constitution with due attention to all the details mandated by the electorate, within as reasonable a timeframe as is minimally necessary to complete it with diligence. The Constitution is a year and a half overdue and the Constituent Assembly cannot be extended interminably without eroding its legitimacy and credibility. The difficulties in which the peace process is mired reflect two levels of problems, to understand which we must turn to the class configuration of the present conjuncture as well as the political antagonisms of the last two decades. One level of the problem is represented by the antiquated riff raff who constitute the unreconstructed feudal end of the political spectrum. It is relatively small but vocal and has a visible presence in some of the influential institutions of Kathmandu, including some political parties. It also has some degree of international connections, financial muscle, social pedigree and surreptitious habits, is utterly ignorant of the historical process and has no agenda save to obstruct any change that will threaten what remains of its class power. For these remnants of the feudal past, the obstruction of the peace process is vital in order to forestall the new Constitution, state restructuring and the democratization of the Nepali polity, economy and society. Their political imperative consists of ensuring through every means at their disposal every possible delay in the settlement of the peace process. Their propaganda, both overt and covert, lies in hurling abuse, primarily at the UCPN (M), but also, when the occasion demands, at the democratic sections of the other political parties as well. They have spent a tireless amount of time and effort in predicting the imminent doom of the UCPN (M), during the years of the People’s War, on the eve of the Constituent Assembly election results, and every time differences of opinion are expressed inside the party fora, as will happen in every democratic party which respects plurality of opinion as a matter of policy. The petty self-interest of this class is always presented in the lofty guise of peace, democracy, national unity and other recently borrowed concerns that are alien to its historical character.
The other level of the problem lies in the climate of mistrust that is a product of the antagonism that developed between the major political parties that were part of the 1990 polity and the UCPN (M) in the course of the People’s War. This does not represent a fundamental, irresolvable contradiction in the peace process. This is an incidental legacy of the recent past, in which the respective trajectories of the bourgeois democratic parties and the revolutionary democratic forces came into conflict because the former allied themselves with the moderately reformed feudal state against which the CPN (M) launched the People’s War. At various points the CPN (M) offered to talk terms with the parliamentary parties of the 1990 polity to forge a broad democratic alliance against the palace led feudal forces, based on the understanding that a democratic republic is the indispensable condition for deepening the new democratic revolution. However, until 2005 when the king took over state power and discarded the compromise of 1990, they rebuffed these overtures. If it was possible for these parties to ally with the CPN (M) in 2005, until the People’s Movement of 2006 which ousted king from state power and reduced him to a ceremonial role, the possibility still remains for them and the UCPN (M) to come to an understanding on the completion of the peace process, the principle of which has been accepted by both sides. The differences on this question pertain to various technical modalities on the number of PLA soldiers to be integrated, the qualifications for integration, the salaries for the different categories of soldiers and the assignment of the integrated soldiers. These are not issues of a specifically class nature, but are issues that involve political bargaining in order to secure leverage in further political bargaining on other matters. Quite naturally this involves very subjective mutual assessments of relative strengths and weaknesses in the bargaining process. At various points in the past there has been convergence between parties on certain key issues of the peace process without an agreement being reached. The consensus, which has so far eluded the leaders, primarily for want of diluting hard positions, depends on the prevailing attitudes that the parties have about each other and the strengths and limitations each assesses about itself in relation to the limitations and strengths each assesses in the others. That is part of the inescapable mathematics of competitive electoral politics. The political mentality of each party in a stalemate is determined as much by its own internal culture as by its perception of the internal cultures and mentalities of the other parties it competes with. Part of the problem so far has been that this issue has periodically become a bargaining point to delay discussion and progress on other issues connected to democratic transformation. However, given that all issues in the peace process are negotiable provided they are approached in good faith and with mutual respect, it is possible for an agreement to be reached.
As when such an agreement is reached, the drafting of a democratic Constitution can be taken up. It is at this point that the present political conjuncture will be confronted with the problems of democratization, as different class interests and political orientations will test the commitment of various political forces to a democratic Constitution. It is a matter of some importance that Nepal initiated the peace process and the Constitution writing process at a time when the global neo-liberal project was at the peak of its power. A few months after the Constituent Assembly was constituted, the neo-liberal project of global domination by finance capital had plunged into its most serious crisis since the Great Depression. The continuing crisis of the Eurozone and the prolonged credit, investment, employment and demand crisis in the major economies of the world, the collapse of WTO talks after Cancun and Doha on the question of agriculture, as well as the comprehensive failure of the policy prescriptions advocated for the last three decades by the international financial institutions, have created a new global climate in which it is possible for nation states to pursue greater autonomy in matters of economic policy and economic restructuring. Self-reliance can today realistically take the place of globalised dependence. Exploitation based on multi-lateral trading rules designed for the benefit of the rich countries can be reduced in scale and more bilateral trade relations based on equal principles of mutual benefit can be negotiated. However, for all this to be achieved it is necessary to transform the domestic economy along more equitable lines. While the investment climate has to be improved, agriculture and labour need to be protected. Welfare measures have to be introduced for which the tax base will have to be expanded and made more progressive. Land reform will have to be undertaken in order to remove the disparities in the agrarian economy so as to make agriculture more productive. And the financial sector will have to be stabilized by restricting credit for real estate speculation that distorts investment patterns in the economy. These policies will necessarily involve conflicts with diverse class interests and the final outcome will depend on the wisdom with which the parties put the national interest above sectional interests.
Along with these economic reforms in the interest of greater national self-reliance, the project of state restructuring with a view to aligning it more symmetrically with the social composition of Nepal has acquired great urgency. In the current political conjuncture, federal imperatives co-exist with unitary impulses. Federalism has become the central tenet of the emerging Nepali polity, even though the current institutions of the state, for the most part, reflect and perpetuate the unitary traditions of old Nepal. At the mass level, new groups have surfaced and new demands and agendas are constantly being voiced in public. Some of these involve differences between competing ethnic and regional demands, some of them involve conflicts with old and entrenched social groups and state institutions. Even though most parties, including some erstwhile palace surrogates, currently espouse federalism as the unavoidable necessity of the present moment, the federalist vision of each of them differs in intent and extent. Most of the larger parties have been articulating their vision of federalism in abstract generalities, while civil society and the new political and ethnic groups have been espousing their cause in programmatic terms. The aggregation of all these different conceptual and substantive positions furnishes the basis for an overall national perspective on the federal question. The statutory federalism that finally emerges in Nepal, officially devolving power to the constituent social and territorial units of the republic, will have to negotiate between these contending visions while at the same time preserving a national entity secured by the state. The depth of federalism within the width of nationalism is the challenge before the state, the Constituent Assembly, the national political parties, the regional parties, the ethnic groups and the minorities. This involves calibrating the appropriate role and power of the different territorial units and the social constituents of Nepal and entails both administrative decentralisation and social-cultural autonomy, particularly with regard to custom and customary law, community practices, language protection, culturally informed education, marriage and family codes. At the same time, overarching national laws will be required to reconcile the minimal legal and cultural pluralism that a genuine federalism requires with the minimum unitary needs of the nation-state. Mediating between these different needs will test the competence of the political parties, especially since many of them have only recently accepted the principle of federalism.
The federal requirements of the present will have to struggle against the residual unitary legacy of the past, while at the same time accommodating the institutional standardisation and uniformities that the nation-state requires. The programmes, statements and intentions of the parties in this respect, the analytical and organisational capacities of the different forces representing varying shades of federalism and unitarism or combinations of the two, the obstructive and enabling roles of the different institutions of centralised state and society, as well as the practical constraints to satisfying everybody, are important factors in determining whether the federalism that is being discussed is a functional, nationally integrated version or is a set of ad hoc and inconsistent compromises between forces that can exert their muscle and arrive at short-term solutions that will merely serve to defer the real impact of problems until another crisis is precipitated. It is also necessary to contend with the legacy of the historical reluctance of Kathmandu, as the political and economic centre, to concede power to the rest of Nepal. However, the balance between unitarism and federalism in the emerging polity is not necessarily a purely class issue. For the unitary institutions and tendencies, federalism represents a loss of power. For some forces, federalism represents an unknown factor that inspires more apprehensions than hostility. For representative political groups, federalism represents an opportunity to expand political and administrative institutions. While there are differences on the particular modalities of implementing federalism, it seems reasonably clear that eventually the political sentiments on the ground will prevail and Nepal will become a federal democratic republic.
From a realistic, radical, revolutionary perspective these factors constitute the possibilities and limitations offered by the present political conjuncture, within and outside the Constituent Assembly, for the democratic transition in Nepal. The assessment of the political co-ordinates and the possibilities it offers must be accompanied by a creative capacity to build the necessary alliances to consolidate the democratic revolution. This requires both flexibility and firmness—strategic flexibility and purposive firmness. It also requires a realistic appreciation of the external co-ordinates of domestic politics, a factor which, because of its particular geo-strategic location and its history, affects Nepal to a very high degree. There have been both advocates and critics of the path pursued by the UCPN (M) of moving from armed struggle to parliamentary politics. The revolution in Nepal took the path it did because of the necessities dictated by its circumstances and the opportunities offered by its historically determined socio-economic conditions. In taking this path the UCPN (M) has, I believe, taken the right decision, based on a concrete understanding of the concrete situation.