by Kul Chandra Gautam
at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University, UK
26 April 2013
Let me begin with a disclaimer – I am not a learned scholar, nor even a serious student of the Communist ideology, and have only a superficial understanding of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist philosophy and practice.
But I have had the opportunity to visit and witness the reality of a number of countries, including Nepal, where political parties espousing Marxist-Leninist-Maoist (MLM) ideologies once wielded state power and, in some cases, are still highly influential.
My remarks today on the “Nepalese Enigma…” are based on these first-hand observations and impression.
I have witnessed the work of a range of Communist parties and governments – which often prefer to call themselves “socialist” or Marxist-Leninist or workers’ parties and movements – engaged in both peaceful electoral campaigns as well as armed revolutionary struggles and insurgencies.
Some of these were brutally suppressed and defeated, while others triumphed victorious and ruled many countries and entire regions of the world.
I have seen and read about the enduring resilience of some Communist parties and regimes, and their efforts, both sincere and tactical, to adapt the practice of MLM ideologies to their local realities as well as to the changing global circumstances, in countries ranging from Albania, Cambodia, Chile, China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Mongolia, North Korea, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Romania, Russia, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and its many successor states, and the ex-Soviet republics such as Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
My latest fascination is with the enduring appeal of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology in my home country, Nepal, where cumulatively nearly two-thirds of the country’s citizens voted for political parties that identify themselves as “Communist” in relatively free and fair national elections in 2008.
Historically, most Communist parties aim to establish what they call “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. This is justified as according to classical Marxist–Leninist thinking, the state is a tool in the hands of the ruling class, and the long-term goal of Communists is to establish the working class as the ruling class.
Today Nepal holds the record of being the only country in the world where a Communist party espousing a rather extremist Maoist ideology has managed to transition from armed insurgency to become the largest political party through multi-party elections.
This party – the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) – or UCPN (Maoist) – has been giving mixed messages as to its true commitment to multi-party democracy, as it says it supports multi-party competition but formally opposes the concept of pluralism.
It is worth noting that even China and North Korea claim to be “multi-party democracies” but with the proviso that all other parties must work under the guidance of the ruling “vanguard party” that essentially controls all state institutions.
Nevertheless, with the recent defeat of the Communist Party in West Bengal, India where it had gained and remained in power through democratic elections for nearly 3 decades, Nepal is now the only remaining sizable country where Communist parties of various stripes cumulatively enjoy the support of the majority of the country’s voters.
Decline and Resilience of Communist Ideology
To many in the West, Communism might seem like a relic of the past, obsolete and irrelevant, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and withering away of some large Communist parties in countries like France and Italy.
Indeed, many obituaries have been written about the death of Communism, and I suspect that most young people today, would not recall or appreciate how dangerously the world was divided between the anti-Communist NATO bloc and the pro-Soviet Warsaw pact countries at the height of the Cold War which lasted nearly half a century.
Communism as originally envisioned by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels failed to pick up any serious traction in advanced capitalist European countries.
But Vladimir Lenin gave it a new twist and made it triumph in pre-capitalist Russia. In doing so, Lenin shrewdly reinterpreted Marxism to suit the realities of Russia, earning for himself a hyphenated name alongside these great philosophers as the greatest practical implementor of their philosophy.
China’s Mao Zedong refined the Marxist-Leninist doctrine further, giving it a new meaning and relevance in the context of the feudal Asian agrarian societies.
A blend of this Asian brand of Communism with a touch of hyper-nationalistic sentiments, combined with anti-colonial or neo-colonial and anti-imperialist rhetoric still continues to have strong appeal in several Asian countries.
Indeed, for about three decades since the Maoist victory in China, its original claim that under the right kind of leadership even feudal, agrarian societies could bypass capitalism and leapfrog from feudalism directly to socialism and eventually to communism gained some adherents not only in Asia, but as far away as Peru, El Salvador, Nicaragua and among some fringe groups in other Latin American countries.
But this proved completely wrong as China itself practically dumped this theory in the late 1970s. In terms of economic policy, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping took a great leap forward from Maoist dogma to capitalist pragmatism when he said famously that it was glorious to be rich, and that “it does not matter whether the cat is black or white so long as it catches mice”.
Like China, several Asian countries, including Vietnam and Laos have now adopted highly pragmatic capitalist policies for their economic growth, while retaining the dominance of the ruling Communist parties in political affairs.
The relative success of this model so far, with the spectacular economic growth and poverty reduction achieved by China and Vietnam even while depriving their people of political freedoms and democratic rights, has meant that the appeal of Communism still persists even in relatively open societies like Nepal, some parts of India and, I might add, in some fringe leftist academic circles in advanced Western countries as well.
Evolution of Communist Ideology in Nepal
In the case of Nepal, there seem to be several additional historical factors that account for the continuing appeal of the Communist ideology.
Like many other ideas, fads and winds of political change, Communism entered Nepal via India.
During India’s anti-colonial freedom struggle against the British Raj, many Nepalis living in India joined the Indian independence movement.
Some of them actually joined the Indian National Congress Party that was spearheading the “Quit India” movement led by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
While their main focus was liberation of India, many of them saw that as a prelude to overthrowing Nepal’s then authoritarian and isolationist Rana regime which had been in power for over a century, partly because of British India’s patronage and protection.
These Nepali activists in India, believed and hoped that when/if the colonial rule in India ended, it would soon trigger the collapse of the Rana regime in Nepal.
To realize their objective of overthrowing the Rana oligarchy and to bring about democratic change in Nepal, some Nepali activists in India formed a Nepali Congress Party modeled after the Indian National Congress.
In India itself, in the course of their freedom struggle, some Indians began to feel disenchanted with the Congress Party, as they felt that most Congress leaders only sought to replace the white British colonists with the “Brown Sahibs” of India, rather than bringing about radical socio-economic changes.
They feared that the “Brown Sahibs” would actually perpetuate the values and life-styles of their erstwhile British masters, or those of the traditional conservative Indian Hindu power elites. They wanted to see a more radical, egalitarian change in favour of India’s poverty-stricken masses, including the historically marginalized low-caste Dalits, indigenous Adivasis and other deprived communities.
Partly to champion their cause, and partly inspired by the utopian vision of Communism, a group of these radical Indian activists formed the Communist Party of India and embraced Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist ideals and rhetoric.
In the course of time, a similar trend developed among the Nepali political activists in India, leading to the birth of a Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) in 1948 under the leadership of Pushpalal Shrestha.
Most members of the CPN were actually former members of the Nepali Congress (NC) party, who were rather disenchanted with the soft and seemingly bourgeois nature of the NC. They sought a more radical and militant approach as favoured by India’s Communist party.
While collaborating in some common issues like India’s liberation from the British Raj, and Nepal’s liberation from the Rana oligarchy, the Nepali Communists tried to distinguish themselves from the NC as representing a more progressive and pro-nationalist force. Their Nepali nationalism was increasingly equated with being anti-Indian.
Following the independence of India in 1947, the anti-Rana, pro-democracy movement in Nepal picked up strong momentum as it received full support from India’s new rulers.
The century-old absolute rule of the Rana family was overthrown in 1951 as part of the Indian-facilitated “Delhi Agreement” which involved a power-sharing compromise with an interim coalition government comprising some members of the old Rana regime joined by some leaders of the Nepali Congress under the patronage of a supposedly Constitutional monarch.
This was supposed to be a temporary arrangement until elections were held for a Constituent Assembly that would draft a new democratic Constitution.
The ‘Delhi Agreement’ was hailed by the Nepali Congress as a victory for democracy, but was denounced by the Communists as a sell-out compromise.
BP Koirala, the charismatic leader of the Nepali Congress was a social-democrat. He had deep misgivings about Communism and the Nepali Communists. He and the NC repeatedly spurned the Nepali Communists’ offer for collaboration.
The NC saw itself as the guardian of democracy in Nepal, and saw the Communists as well as most other political parties as not truly committed to democracy.
The Communists, on the other hand, viewed NC as a party of the bourgeois elite, not truly committed to a progressive and egalitarian transformation of Nepal.
The Communists bitterly denounced the 1950 India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship and later the Koshi and Gandak river agreements as unequal treaties that were harmful to Nepal’s sovereignty and national interest, whereas the NC either supported them or remained neutral.
The Communists found a better partner in Tanka Prasad Acharya who as a short-term Prime Minister in the mid-1950s took some bold initiative to establish diplomatic relations with China; tried to follow a more equi-distant policy vis a vis India and China; and projected himself as a true nationalist.
The Communist Party fared rather poorly in the first ever general elections in Nepal in 1959, securing only 4 out of the 109 seats in the national parliament, compared to 74 seats won by the NC.
After King Mahendra staged a royal coup d’etat and dismissed the popularly elected NC government in 1960, all political parties were banned for nearly 3 decades during the “party-less” Panchayat regime.
Many NC leaders were jailed; some went into exile in India and launched a low-intensity armed opposition against Mahendra’s Panchchayat rule; and a few were co-opted into the Panchayat system.
Mahendra considered the NC as the biggest threat to his absolute rule and sought to suppress it forcefully.
The CPN was ideologically against a system of monarchy and had a republican plank from the beginning. But King Mahendra found the Communists a useful counter to the more popular and powerful NC. He tried to play CPN against NC, sometimes subtly projecting NC as Indian agents, and CPN as more pro-nationalist.
Thus although both NC and CPN – and indeed all political parties – were officially banned from 1960 to 1990, the CPN found it relatively easier to operate “under-ground” than did the NC.
Indeed throughout the Panchayat period, while many NC leaders went on exile in India, Communists stayed inside the country and mingled with the people and organized at local level. They presented themselves as genuinely grassroots democrats, while projecting NC as elitist and aloof from the people.
Despite the restrictions on all party-affiliated political activism during the Panchayat regime, the CPN found a way to organize a wide network of trade unions, e.g. the largest network of teachers’ union, human rights groups, etc. whereas NC was quite lackluster in doing so.
The CPN proved very skillful in infiltrating the Panchayat system and trying to undermine it from within. Thus the CPN decided to contest the National Panchayat elections in 1985, and campaigned for its candidates’ victory vigorously.
Some of the winning candidates (e.g. Padma Ratna Tuladhar) then spoke eloquently from within the rostrum of the National Panchayat, and boldly denounced the Panchayat system itself. This gave the CPN greater visibility and respect as a daring champion of real democracy.
The CPN was also seen as more democratic in its internal organization and operation, whereas the NC had become beholden to dominance of a few leaders from prominent political families.
The NC leaders did speak about progressive ideas – such as land reforms, abolishing the caste system and the practice of untouchability. But they were seen as not following through on such ideas energetically.
The CPN leaders and activists, on the other hand, seemed to more readily practice what they preached and showed that they actually defied some of these traditional practices in their personal behaviour, thus projecting themselves as genuinely progressive. For example, quite a few Bahun Communist leaders were married to Newar women, some of whom were Communist leaders in their own right.
Following the fallout between the Soviet Union and China, Nepal’s Communists also split into pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing groups.
Given the close friendship between USSR and India, most pro-Moscow Communists tended to adopt a slightly softer anti-Indian posture, whereas the pro-Beijing groups continued their more strident anti-Indian nationalist rhetoric.
Ever the master of “divide and rule”, King Mahendra took advantage of this split, and played off one Communist faction against the other. Quite a few pro-Moscow Communists actually joined the King’s Panchayat system and became known as “royalist Communists”.
Over the decades, the process of CPN breaking up into many factions, some more radical than others continued.
As in Communist movements throughout the world, dissidents and factional leaders denounced their rivals as revisionists, rightist opportunists, ultra-left dogmatists, secret royalists, lackeys of Indian expansionists or American imperialists, traitors, or worse.
Some of these groups had their favourite international role models, such as North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, India’s Naxalite leader Charu Mazumdar, or Peru’s Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman, known as Comrade Gonzalo.
In 1971-73, a regional faction of the CPN in eastern Nepal known as the Jhapa group even launched a violent armed rebellion, inspired by and imitating the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, India.
Claiming itself as a liberation movement for the oppressed peasants, the violent Jhapali Communists focused on targeted assassination of individuals who were considered as “class enemies”.
Thankfully, it turned out to be a localized movement that was forcefully and effectively suppressed by the Government.
Quite a few of today’s “who is who” in Nepal’s Communist movement were involved or associated with the Jhapa andolan. Many of them today express remorse about their involvement in this violent movement, but then quickly add with some pride that they were able to make a rapid course correction once they realized that they had made a serious mistake in resorting to this violent campaign.
Transformation of CPN-UML
In mid-1980s, the faction-ridden Communist movement of Nepal found a charismatic young leader in Madan Bhandari, who became the Secretary-General of the largest faction, the CPN (Marxist-Leninist), which later became the Unified Marxist-Leninist party (CPN- UML) in the early 1990s.
Recognizing the downfall of old-style Communist regimes and parties in much of the world, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bhandari came up with the concept of “Peoples Multi-party Democracy”.
This acceptance of multi-party democracy, turned the CPN-UML into essentially a mainstream social-democratic party. This party line endured the death of Madan Bhandari in a car accident in 1993, and established the democratic credentials of CPN-UML.
After a people’s movement dislodged the Panchayat regime and established multi-party democracy in Nepal in 1990, general elections were held in 1991. The CPN-UML performed very well in these elections, getting a respectable 28% of the votes, and winning 69 of the 205 seats in the national parliament, and thus becoming a close second to the NC that won 38% of votes and 110 seats.
It is worth noting that the predecessor of today’s Maoist party, the Samyukta Janamorcha won only 9 seats and got 5% of the votes coming out a distant 3rd.
In the next 1994 general elections, CPN-UML actually defeated the grand old NC by winning 88 seats (and 31% votes) compared to NC’s 83 seats (with 33 % of the votes) in a 205 member parliament.
Thus we saw that 37 years after the founding of the Communist Party of Nepal, CPN-UML, became the country’s largest political party after adopting Madan Bhandari’s line of “people’s multi-party democracy” and transforming itself into a respected mainstream social-democratic party.
We also saw the emergence of a generally healthy two-party system in Nepal in the 1990s.
Though short-lived and unstable, the national governments that came to power after the 1991 and 1994 elections brought about a breath of fresh air in Nepali politics and economics.
The first government led by the NC introduced many market-friendly economic reforms, privatized several loss-making para-statals, broke up some state-owned monopolies and ushered the fastest economic growth in Nepal’s modern history.
The second government led by CPN-UML, introduced a number of small but symbolically important and populist social welfare measures – e.g. the beginning of a modest old-age pension system, and a direct block grant for each village called “build your own village” campaign (aafno gaaun, aafai banaau), which unleashed a plethora of local infrastructure and development activities that began to change the face of rural Nepal.
Democratic competition through elected local governments, the flourishing of non-governmental organizations, and a communications revolution that connected people even in remote areas with access to telephones, FM radio stations, and exposure to a diversity of viewpoints, began to empower people to express their views and assert their rights.
Of course, there were the usual teething problems of a new democracy in a still very poor country with high levels of illiteracy and poor infrastructure. New forms of corruption emerged, and the gains of development were not equitably distributed.
Predictably, it was not easy to satisfy the revolution of rising expectations of people in an open society, increasingly exposed to the forces of globalization.
Normally, a functioning democracy tends to have self-corrective mechanism against such flaws, and had it been allowed to flourish further, it would probably have taken such measures. But alas, that was not to be so.
The Rise of the Maoists
In this situation, we saw the emergence of a radical Maoist party, which had earlier failed to garner much support in democratic elections, proclaiming that the system of multi-party parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy was totally unsuitable to tackle Nepal’s problems, and calling for an armed revolution to change the status quo.
This Maoist party launched a “People’s War” in 1996 with many utopian promises that were cleverly but deceptively tailored to different audiences.
To the ordinary people, the Maoist promised heaven on earth – that people will be given free health and education, guaranteed employment, no need to pay back their loans, land expropriated from feudal landlords would be given to the tiller, and radical social reforms would be enacted to uplift the status of the oppressed, dalits, janajatis, etc. and equality among men and women would be guaranteed.
To garner support for their “People’s War” the Maoist played the ethnic card to the hilt. They promised various ethnic and regional groups that once they win the war and liberate the country from the clutches of the feudal lords, they will ensure full autonomy with the right to self- determination for all major ethnic groups. They would also turn Nepal into a federal republic and the main basis for federalism would be ethnic identity.
Pandering to ultra-nationalist sentiments, the Maoist issued a 40 point demand that was laced with opposition to Indian “expansionism”, British-American “imperialist domination”, and preserving Nepal’s cultural purity.
To the politically conscious people of Nepal and to the international community, they offered a perfectly moderate, democratic-sounding message that the Maoist stood for “genuine democracy”, including the abolition of the autocratic monarchy and reforming its power-base, the Royal Nepalese Army.
That would be achieved through a popularly elected, sovereign Constituent Assembly, which they promised, could choose whatever form of government the people desired.
While the Maoists’ expectation was that the people would choose a progressive, “people’s democratic republic”, if the people choose any other system of government, including a genuinely constitutional monarchy, that too would be acceptable to the Maoists.
However, any such “bourgeois democracy” would, of course, be only a transitional step to the Maoists’ ultimate goal of a “people’s democratic republic”.
In their communication with other political parties and representatives of international organizations, the Maoists promised to respect human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press and other features of a liberal democracy.
But in their action, they systematically disregarded their verbal commitment to honour these principles.
The message given to the Maoists’ own activists and party cadres, was essentially a vision of a political, social and economic system that was chillingly reminiscent of the standard, highly centralized, militarized and xenophobic one-party dictatorship like some other Maoist regimes in the world.
Now, to their credit, in the early years of the Maoist movement in the late 1990s, the Maoists promoted and implemented a number of progressive, populist measures that genuinely attracted many people’s support.
In areas under their control or influence, the Maoists banned child marriage and polygamy. They raised the status of women. They effectively abolished untouchability and some of the worst aspects of the Hindu caste system. They banned alcoholism, gambling, prostitution and exploitation of tenants by landlords.
Sometimes they protected ordinary people from the exploitative and corrupt practices of money-lenders and petty bureaucrats in local governments.
Although the methods they used were rough and arbitrary, many women, and people of low caste and class felt liberated by the Maoists from oppression and exploitation.
Initially, there was some genuine popular support for the Maoists based on such progressive measures. However, such good deeds were soon overshadowed by the violence, brutality, intolerance, ruthlessness and even banditry that became common features of the Maoist insurgency in later years. The Maoist practice of forcing people to make “voluntary contribution” for their cause earned them the notoriety of Maobadis being synonymous with “Khaobadis” or extortionists.
The destruction of infrastructure, interruption of basic services, breakdown of the rule of law and civil administration, severe restraints on the work of NGOs and civil society organizations became the hallmarks of the Maoist “people’s war”.
All of this seriously affected the wellbeing of ordinary, poor people far more than that of their presumed enemies – the rich and the privileged.
As the rich and powerful always found an escape route, often by bribing the Maoists, the biggest victims of such destruction and breakdown of services were actually poor people living in areas where the Maoist movement established its early strongholds.
Perhaps the worst – and lasting impact of the Maoist insurgency was in two areas: 1) the glorification of a culture of violence that haunts Nepal even to this day, and, 2) the terrible impact on the education and well-being of children, as schooling was disrupted, many youngsters fled their homes to avoid being recruited as “child soldiers” and went to seek shelter and employment in urban areas or as migrant workers abroad.
During the insurgency, most infrastructure development activities came to a grinding halt particularly in rural areas; local governments stopped functioning as the Maoists tried to set up their own parallel “people’s government”, “people’s courts”, etc.
Innocent, ordinary people came under cross-fire between Maoists guerillas and the Royal Nepalese Army resulting in nearly 15,000 deaths, thousands disappeared, and hundreds of thousands displaced.
While military expenditure and the size of the Nepali Army grew, the pace of development slowed down, and Nepal lost out both in terms of democracy and development.
The Stalemate and the Peace Process
By 2005, it became clear that neither the Maoists nor the Government were going to win this senseless fratricidal civil war.
Many national and international groups had offered to help resolve the conflict. But in the end, an understanding was reached between the Maoists and Nepal’s seven major parliamentary parties that they would unite against an increasingly arrogant and authoritarian new King Gyanendra, who had come to power in 2002 following the horrific royal palace massacre that killed almost all family members of the previous King.
With the gentle prodding of India, a “12-Ppoint Understanding” was reached to end the armed conflict, to conduct elections for a sovereign Constituent Assembly that would draft a new Constitution, to end the King’s autocratic rule, and to usher progressive socio-economic transformation of Nepali society.
Buoyed by the 12-point agreement, a massive peaceful people’s movement took place in 2006 which forced the King to give up most of his powers, to restore the parliament that had been dissolved four years earlier; and to set up an interim coalition government, including the Maoists.
A subsequent Comprehensive Peace Agreement formally ended the decade long conflict, initiated a peace process for the integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants with support from a special political mission of the United Nations.
After some delay and much haggling, elections were held in 2008 for a Constituent Assembly that would also act as a parliament. A mixed proportional representation system was chosen, which gave Nepal its most inclusive legislature in history.
The very first sitting of the CA/Parliament abolished monarchy and declared Nepal to be a secular republic. It was also agreed in principle that Nepal would become a federal state instead of a unitary one as before.
Once the common enemy of the Maoists and the parliamentary parties – the King – was removed from power, significant differences began to emerge between the Maoists and other parties on many key issues – including the demobilization, integration and rehabilitation of some 23,000 Maoist combatants , including some 4000 child soldiers; security sector reform involving the Nepal Army; setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to provide justice to victims of conflict; and above all agreeing on a new Constitution.
Elected for a two year period to draft the new Constitution, the Constituent Assembly failed to do so even after multiple extension of its mandate which lasted for four years.
The key unresolved issues which prevented the finalization of the Constitution and led to the dissolution of the CA in 2012 were disagreement on the system of government – e.g. parliamentary versus presidential or a hybrid arrangement ; and the basis for federalism – e.g. the size, shape and number of federal units, and whether they should be ethnicity/identity-based or based primarily on other economic, environmental and geo-political considerations.
Behind the surface, there is a deep trust deficit regarding the genuine commitment of the Maoist to democratic norms and values, on the one hand, and some questions about genuine commitment of older parliamentary parties to issues of inclusion, equity and social justice, as viewed not only by the Maoists but also by many historically deprived ethnic and regional groups.
The Waning Charm and Credibility of Maoists
Let me now revert to the issue of the appeal of Communist ideology, and in particular that of the Maoist party’s charm offensive with the people of Nepal as well as the international community.
Most Nepalis who support and vote for Communist parties, do not really understand what Communism really stands for. Even most members and leaders of Nepal’s Communist parties would not have read Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Lenin’s What is to be Done?, Mao’s Red Book, not to mention Rosa Luxembourg’s dissenting views.
But there is a popular and populist conviction among many Nepalis that Communists – and in particular Maoists – generally stand for the poor and the oppressed; that they support an agenda of inclusion and equity and are against social injustice.
Although many people fear and dislike the Maoists’ use of force and intimidation, Communists still enjoy widespread support among the poorest segment of the population, and particularly the most marginalized communities, including the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system, the Dalits and other deprived groups.
However, I believe Nepal has now reached a turning point. As the level of education and literacy among the people has risen, people are becoming more critical thinkers and are no longer so easily persuaded by populist slogans and grandiose empty promises.
As an open society, with even ordinary people in remote areas having access to information from multiple sources, people can now make more informed judgment.
Communist parties, including the Maoists, now have had a chance to lead the government, rule the country, and show how they deliver on their promises. And in terms of delivery, the track record of the Communist parties, like that of other parliamentary parties, has been a mixed one.
The Maoist party, for example, is more inclusive of the great diversity of Nepal’s population than most other parties, including at the middle leadership level. And its rhetoric of progressive transformation of society rings quite attractive.
However, the glaring gulf between the Maoist’s words and deeds has now become so obvious that they can no longer expect to enjoy the very generous benefit of doubt that people gave them in the CA elections in 2008.
For example, the Maoists started their whole insurgency with a list of 40-point demands in 1996, most of which were highly exaggerated, undemocratic and impractical anti-Indian slogans. But when they came to power and led the government, the Maoists sensibly did not implement any of their own original demands.
On the contrary, they signed new agreements with India which were completely opposite of their original demands. This has revealed the opportunistic hypocrisy of the Maoists for everyone to see.
The Maoists raised loud slogans against corruption by other political parties. But when in power, they resorted to corruption on a scale that was probably unprecedented in Nepal’s history.
The Maoist leaders proclaimed that they did not own any private property, and whatever property they had, it belonged to their Party. However, in the years since the end of the conflict, there have been dramatic revelations of how many Maoist leaders have fabulously enriched themselves, and played many tricks to hide their private property.
Indeed, most of the revelations of the Maoist leaders’ corruption and enrichment have come from their own party cadres and rank and file. It has been widely reported that many Maoist leaders siphoned off huge amounts of funds that were allocated by the government for the Maoist combatants in cantonments as part of the peace process. The sense of betrayal and anger among the combatants because of this blatant corruption and deception by their leaders led to riots in many cantonments in February 2012 when the Maoist-led government had to mobilize the Nepal Army – their erstwhile enemy – to control the situation.
It has now been revealed that significant amounts of money that the Maoist extorted or looted, including huge cache of gold and other valuables from safe deposit boxes of banks during their insurgency, was pocketed by individual commanders instead of being given to their Party coffers to run the war.
What has happened in Nepal is not uncommon or unprecedented. While the Communist propaganda worldwide speaks about creating a classless society, once in power, like other bourgeois parties, Communists too become corrupt, nepotistic and self-serving, and create a privileged class of their own nomenklatura. As Milovan Djilas, a disenchanted former Communist leader of Yugoslavia wrote in the late1950s, far from creating classless societies, MLM regimes everywhere tend to implant what he called a “New Class” of privileged communist elites.
During the insurgency, the Maoists projected a puritanical image of themselves as opposed to gambling, alcohol consumption, and other social evils. But after the end of the insurgency, the Maoists captured all the gambling casinos of Kathmandu and used them as their cash cows; sometimes engaging in violent factional rivalry for their control.
During the insurgency, the Maoists bitterly accused other parties for misusing funds allocated for local development. After emerging as the largest political party in 2008, the Maoists specialized in manipulating and often forcibly snatching contracts for local development projects, through unholy alliances with other political parties in the “All-Party mechanism” for administering huge sums of local development budgets at the district and village levels.
In the Comprehensive Peace Agreement as well as in the Interim Constitution, there were strong provisions for ending impunity and providing justice for the tens of thousands of victims of conflict who suffered from arbitrary arrest, extra-judicial killing, torture, rape, disappearance and other serious crimes against humanity. There were many victims as well as perpetrators on both sides of the conflict.
When in power, the Maoist leaders made no attempt at all to prosecute the perpetrators of such heinous crimes even against their own cadres. On the contrary, they entered into a tacit alliance with their former enemies, the Royal Nepal Army, to seek blanket amnesty for all perpetrators, including those who had brutally tortured Maoist cadres and ordinary citizens, falsely accused of being pro-Maoists.
To the great disappointment of victims of conflict from their own party, the Maoists pushed for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that does not meet international standards and the legitimate hopes and demands of the victims of conflict – all in the name of “safeguarding the peace process”.
Many Maoist leaders accused and even convicted in courts of law for serious crimes against humanity have been protected, promoted and sheltered by the Party. To hide or justify such actions, the Maoists have offered a quid pro quo protection to their former enemies accused of similar crimes.
Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission, civil society organizations, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have publicly criticized and opposed such actions, but the Maoist leaders have not paid any heed.
It is true that other political parties too have been complicit in many such practices, but given the Maoists’ high decibel self-righteous pronouncements – as the defenders of the poor and powerless and agents of the progressive transformation of Nepali society, the hypocrisy of the Maoist idealism hits people on the face.
Sometimes the Maoists try to justify their violent actions by invoking the examples of wars of liberation against colonialism or apartheid or other historic revolutions against extreme oppression. But while there surely is much injustice, inequality and corruption in Nepal, it is not of such magnitude as to justify the Maoist insurrection and brutalities.
Nepal was neither a colony nor an insufferable dictatorship when the Maoists began their armed campaign in 1996. Instead, it was a budding and hopeful democracy, albeit with its share of flawed institutions and individual leadership.
There are many other countries in the world that have even worse level of poverty, inequality and corruption than Nepal, but have chosen to fix their problems through non-violent democratic means.
Given the very meager tangible achievements for ordinary people compared to the violent convulsion forced by the Maoists, history is unlikely to judge the Maoist insurgency as a justified enterprise.
Given all this, and a major split in the Maoist party recently, it is doubtful that the Maoists will once again receive the “benefit of the doubt” from fellow Nepalis, as they did in the last election.
In light of all this, it is rather curious that many foreign diplomats, particularly the Europeans, have been rather charmed by the Maoist rhetoric of the empowerment of deprived communities, of equity and social justice, and secularism. One gets the impression that with the end of the Cold War and Communism no longer posing a threat to Western democracies, many Europeans naively mistake the progressive-sounding rhetoric of the Maoists as if it reflected some Scandinavian-style social-democratic values, although with some regrettable violent excesses from time to time.
Considering the reality of how Nepal has made considerable progress, with generous foreign aid, in terms of reaching many of the Millennium Development Goals, but great inequality persists, it is understandable for enlightened donors to be attracted to whoever speaks the loudest about inclusive and equitable development which is also now a la mode in international development debate.
One gets the feeling that while Western donors are, of course, aware of and opposed to the use of violence and intimidation by the Maoists, and their authoritarian tendencies, they still give the Maoists the benefit of doubt, because, like many Nepalis, they too have been disenchanted by other older parliamentary political parties whose slogans are less attractive, and whose past performance in government was rather uninspiring.
The case of the Indian approach to the Maoists is even more intriguing. India declared the Nepali Maoists as “terrorists” earlier than most other countries. But it allowed the Maoists to operate fairly freely within its territory and engaged with the Maoist leadership through its intelligence operatives. When the Maoist anti-India rhetoric became shrill, the Indians tightened the screws on them, but when the Maoists became more pliant, India tended to cuddle them.
The Indian policy vis a vis the Maoists seems to be devoid of any principles but strictly pragmatic and even erratic. India is a great democracy domestically, but its foreign policy is not guided by democratic principles but by very pragmatic security and economic considerations, as is the case of China. On balance, the Maoists seem to have cleverly played their cards vis a vis India and benefitted more from its patronage rather than suffering from its sanctions.
Based on my travels around the country and interaction with peoples of different communities, I have the hunch that ordinary Nepalis are now becoming more sophisticated and discerning in their political judgment, and the Maoists or any other political party, for that matter, can no longer count on people being swayed by slogans and promises.
But on balance, I would predict that the Communists will continue to be a major political force in Nepal for the foreseeable future. However, their success will increasingly depend on their ability to transform and rebrand themselves, a process that was started by Madan Bhandari of CPN-UML in the early 1990s, and which the UCPN (Maoist) started at its 2013 party convention in Hetauda, where it announced that it would renounce violence and pursue capitalist development policies somewhat emulating Deng Xiaoping’s policies.
It is, however, still too early to tell if the Maoist transformation is genuine or fake, as they continue to give mixed messages with many caveats, and cleverly keep all options open.
As in other democracies, particularly in developing countries, Nepal too will surely continue to be vulnerable to the politics of patronage, and of money and muscle power which play an important role during election times. So what will happen in the next election in Nepal is hard to predict.
I tend to think that we will have another hung parliament or Constituent Assembly after the next election, which will again fail to draft a new Constitution or will draft such a compromise document that it will be subject to many amendments within a few years.
One legitimate and democratic way to overcome this problem would be to go for a referendum on the most contentious issues on which the political parties fail to arrive at a consensus in a reasonable time frame.
I happen to think that though poor and illiterate, the democratic judgment of ordinary Nepalis on the most important but contentious issues will be generally wise, judicious and sensible.
As Sir Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest”. And may the Nepalese, like people everywhere else, be doomed to this imperfect form of government, rather than a perfect “people’s democratic republic”.