Social media offered an interesting conversation for Nepalis home and abroad as the results began to be broadcast of its first legislative election held last week under the new constitution promulgated in 2015. A Nepali Congress stalwart and a former Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat, often known as the father of neoliberalism in Nepal, conceded defeat against a lesser known candidate representing the United Communist Party of Nepal Maoist (UCPN). Mahat lamented about losing an election for the first time in his 23 years long democratic career. To this, came a witty response, from another former Finance Minister Devendra Raj Panday – also of Nepali Congress but a maverick than an insider, ‘who will “defend democracy” in Nepal now that Dr Mahat has lost the election?’ thus playing a pun on Dr Mahat’s controversial book “In Defence of Democracy” which had argued that economic liberalization was the epitome of Nepal’s democracy. The ethos of this conversation is found in other ongoing discourses on development and democracy that sought to make sense of this paradigm shift in Nepali politics.
A country that had a regime change, not during the 1960s era of developmentalism but during the 1990s era of neoliberalism, Nepal found it virtually impossible to go beyond the libertarian speak of “free market” to grapple with the pressing issues of caste, class and gender discriminations nor was there a political will among its democratic leaders to initiate and follow through the complex projects of infrastructure and institution-building. It is hard to disacknowledge the role of the radical left which forced these issues to the table which led to a fundamental national restructuring, from Hindu monarchy to a republic, from centralized to a federal state, from libertarian to a first-ever system of affirmative action for the marginalized communities. It is expected that political weakening of neoliberal stalwarts like Dr Mahat may finally put a question mark on the hegemony of neoliberalism so as to allow a renewed opportunity for the country to reflect on a wider meaning of development and dignity for all its citizens.
Policy and paradigm aside, the current round of electoral wins and losses have more practical implications for stability and coherence of development. One commentator reminded that the CEO of the National Reconstruction Authority had resigned from his position simply to contest the election (and lost) baring for all to see how little ownership he had for such a sensitive project of post-earthquake rebuilding even as the victims remained roofless a whole three years after the earthquake. The same CEO had earlier resigned from the job of the Vice Chairman of the National Planning Commission in 2015 when the Left took charge of the rule from Nepali Congress, signaling extreme partisan politics and hence tainting a developmental institution that had earlier been less partisan.
As of 12 December, 2017, the Nepali Congress shrunk to winning just 21 seats in the national parliament alongside Left Alliance’s 113 seats. This moment of “massacre” for Nepali Congress, as a seasoned Nepal-watcher Professor David Gellner put it, opens a Pandora’s Box about the nexus of democracy and development beyond policy and bureaucracy. Editor of a leading newspaper opined that the Congress had lost because they did not go beyond the scaring tactics of the threat of “Left dictatorship”. Voters refused to be persuaded that a seasoned CPN(UML) might have dictatorial instincts nor did they believe that CPN(Maoist) may return to radical politics after sticking to mainstream politics throughout a turbulent decade when it underwent several rounds of party reshuffling. The surprise announcement of Left Alliance, especially after it came forth with a joint election manifesto, the common people weighed in their promise of political stability against the Congress hodgepodgism.
While a decisive win of the Left Alliance raises for a developmental focus on the dignity of the marginalized, it is difficult to ignore the problematic truth that the mastermind of this grand alliance, former PM KP Oli, is a polarizing figure who has shown no mercy for those who did not fit his jingoistic view about what it means to be Nepali. He was one of the staunchest hardliners against the Dalits, the Janajatis, the Madheshis and the women who sought to challenge the misogyny and caste elitism in making (even) of a “new” Nepal. While Baburam Bhattarai who had portrayed himself as an advocate of some of these causes during the constitution-writing process opted out of the Left Alliance within just weeks of getting in, he still won the election from his home constituency, against a Left Alliance heavyweight Narayankaji Shrestha, thus confirming his credibility among the people on political inclusion. After resigning from CPN-Maoist and founding his new party Naya Shakti immediately after concluding constitution-writing, Baburam Bhattarai has shifted his focus mainly on development which has been criticized for being “not enough Marxist” but it is also not neoliberal in the way Dr Mahat or his team may see it. Bhattarai’s current approach to development seems to also concern itself with the cultural and economic microcosms of Nepali society and nation – a direct contrast to Oli’s grand politics of signing of trade and transit treaty with China followed by overtures about One Belt One Road Initiative deliberately snubbing India especially during its blockade of the border with Nepal.
It is yet to be seen whether this new election mandate will eventually translate Nepali politics into a materializable vision for national development.
*Author teaches at Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi