Nepal’s democracy on the brink

The crisis of democracy in communist-led Nepal raises a fundamental question: Can a democratic transition succeed where communists dominate?

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review


Nepalese Prime Minister Oli, dubbed “Oily Oli” by his critics

Landlocked Nepal has lurched from one crisis to the next for a quarter-century. Now the country is on the edge of toppling into dysfunction. The turmoil also carries major implications for India, with which Kathmandu has traditionally maintained an open border. 

Nepal has been in a state of severe political flux since 1990, when it embarked on a democratic transition. But recent developments in the country — which lies between India and the Chinese region of Tibet — are a reminder that democracy means more than just holding elections. In Nepal, an absence of sound institutions has been compounded by constitution-making without political consensus or proper attention to the interests of minority groups.

This constitutional mess is at the root of violent protests and political upheaval that are accelerating spiraling prices for essential items in the impoverished Himalayan country. In the latest crisis ethnic groups have been polarized by a new constitution and a blockade of the border with India is preventing imports of essential goods, including fuel and medicines. The political and economic turmoil comes on top of last April’s devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks — the country’s worst natural disaster in more than eight decades.

Nepal adopted a new constitution in September, a whole generation after its democratic transition began with the introduction of a multiparty democracy within the framework of a constitutional monarchy in 1990. That experiment opened the door to a bloody Maoist insurrection that ended only when a peace accord in 2006 paved the way for the insurgent leaders to come to power.

The current constitution emerged from a tortuous eight-year constitutional drafting process that involved two elected constituent assemblies. The first abolished the monarchy in 2008, but became gridlocked by political infighting and missed a mid-2012 deadline set by the country’s Supreme Court. The second assembly, elected in 2013, drafted the constitution and, when it came into effect, was transformed into a legislative parliament.

A constitution must represent all the country’s citizens — the U.S. constitution, for example, begins with the words “We the people.” But multiethnic Nepal’s latest constitution reflects the will of the hill elites that have long dominated its power structures, discriminating against the people who inhabit the country’s southern plains along the 1,872km border with India — an area known as the Terai. Further complicating the issue, the Madhesi ethnic group that dominates the plains has historical, cultural and family links with India.

The constitution creates a federal republic divided into seven new states, merging parts of the ancestral homelands of the Madhesis with those of the hill states. The gerrymandered boundaries leave the plains people politically weaker, while giving the hill people greater political representation than their population size merits.

Disaffected minorities

Minority groups contend that the constitution also undercuts federalism by granting little provincial and local autonomy, and diluting affirmative action. No democracy can be stable and safe if it does not protect minorities. In Nepal, the disaffected minorities are large, making up nearly a third of the population.

For any country, the implementation of a new constitution signifies a promising new beginning. But Nepal’s constitution has provoked a virtually open revolt by the plains people. Since the constitution’s adoption, two damaging divides have emerged: one between Kathmandu and the Terai, and another between Kathmandu and New Delhi, which has called for a more inclusive constitution.

To end its prolonged political instability and arrest its deteriorating internal security, Nepal needed a unifying figure. Alas, what it got in a political upheaval in October was the appointment as prime minister of Khadga Prasad Oli, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) — a divisive figure who spent years in jail in the 1970s and 1980s for waging war against the state.

Oli’s maneuvers have deepened Nepal’s ethnic and political fault lines. Dubbed “Oily Oli” by his critics, he has publicly mocked protesters and their demands, fueling civil strife. He has also stoked tensions with India, feeding deep-seated suspicions about India’s intentions that often surface when internal problems intensify. Mistrust of India flows in part from the tensions generated by the disparity in the power and size of the two countries, and in part from overlapping ethnic and linguistic identities.

Oli’s communist-dominated government has blamed India for Nepal’s crippling fuel shortages and political crisis. Seeking to deflect attention from its own role in triggering the crisis, it has accused India of imposing an “unofficial blockade” on the cross-border movement of oil and other supplies to Nepal. In reality, the disruption in supplies has been caused by mass protests against the constitution by the Madhesi and other minority groups.

Police have shot and killed dozens of protesters blockading highways or staging other confrontations. But they have failed to evict protesters from the key border junction at Birgunj that accounts for 70% of the volume of trade with India. The protesting groups say they will not lift the blockade unless the constitution is amended to safeguard their interests.


Nepalese foreign minister meets his Chinese counterpart on Christmas

Meanwhile, the Oli government has tried to play the China card against India, trumpeting a commercial agreement with Beijing and a Chinese gift of 1,000 tons of fuel. The gift was enough to meet barely two days’ requirements. More importantly, it demonstrated that Nepal’s dependence on India for essential supplies is a matter of geography. China could replace India as Nepal’s main supplier only if the Himalayas were shifted.

Passport free

India is increasingly concerned that Nepal’s turmoil could spill over into its northern plains. Moreover, some 6 million Nepalese work and live in India. Before Nepal’s latest crisis flared, New Delhi repeatedly told Kathmandu that China and Pakistan were taking advantage of the open Indo-Nepalese border — which remains a passport-free crossing, despite the blockade — to engage in activities detrimental to India’s security. Nepal has also become a transit point for the flow of counterfeit currency and narcotics into India.

India has stepped up diplomatic efforts to broker a political settlement in Nepal, despite past experience of being blamed for interference in the internal affairs of its smaller neighbor. India recently hosted Nepalese Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa, who brought a proposal to introduce two constitutional amendments. Talks were then held in New Delhi with the Terai protest leaders, who said the two suggested amendments did not go far enough to address their main concerns. India is urging both sides to show “maturity and flexibility to find a satisfactory solution to the constitutional issues.”

Britain recently joined India in calling for “a lasting and inclusive constitutional settlement in Nepal,” reflecting fears that the current crisis could provide an opening for China to extend its influence in Nepal, while the Terai movement could become radicalized and secessionist. India and other outside powers want to see a stable, united Nepal focusing on economic growth.

Water-rich Nepal has the potential to become a prosperous state. The country boasts one of Asia’s highest levels of water resources per inhabitant, with up to 83,000 megawatts of potential hydropower reserves. If it harnessed the natural bounty of the Himalayas to produce renewable electricity for export, Nepal could turn water into “clear gold,” generating hydro dollars to fuel development.

Today, Nepal produces less than 800MW of electricity from all energy sources for its 30 million citizens. Extended power outages are common, even in Kathmandu, and Nepal imports electricity from India even though it controls the upper waters of several rivers suitable for hydroelectric power generation that flow south across the border.

Such has been the rapidity of political change in Nepal that democracy has yet to take root. The democratic transition, far from being the curative that the Nepalese had hoped for, has engendered unending disorder, puncturing Nepal’s reputation as a Shangri-La. The crisis of democracy in a country where the two main communist parties and smaller Marxist groups can between them secure the largest share of the popular vote raises a fundamental question: Can a democratic transition succeed where communists dominate?

If Nepal remains battered by political upheaval, it clearly risks becoming a failed state — a development that will have major trans-Himalayan implications. Before it is too late, a tottering Nepal must accommodate its minorities so that its constitution produces peace, not violence that derails democracy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author. He is currently professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi; a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin; and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. 

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2015.