External Affairs

Is the Nepali Left No Longer in the Lurch?

The maoists alliance with the largest communist bloc was an indication of several consolidating trends in Nepali politics in recent years. What remains to be seen is its viability.

UML leader K.P. Oli (left) shaking hands with CPN-Maoist Centre leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”. Credit: Reuters

UML leader K.P. Oli (left) shaking hands with CPN-Maoist Centre leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”. Credit: Reuters

As far as Nepali festival surprises go, this was a new one. The sudden announcement on Dashain – that the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (UML), led by K.P. Oli, and the Maoist Centre, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, would come together in an electoral alliance in the forthcoming federal and provincial elections and merge the two parties after the elections – was an indication of several consolidating trends in Nepali politics in recent years. The Nepali Congress, led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, seems to have been clueless about the alliance. Political commentators have remarked that the alliance could lead to a further upsurge in the rhetoric of nationalism.

For the ‘Left’ in Nepal, it makes perfect political sense to continue Oli’s rhetoric. Oli’s firebrand speeches promising to protect Nepali interests in the face of the 2015 Madhes uprising and the subsequent Indian blockade, coupled with the UML’s relatively successful performance in local elections this year, have shown that the UML’s message has takers. Further, the weakening of the Maoist party organisation after multiple splits, its relative non-performance across the three rounds of local elections, and the consolidation of the UML’s organisation under Oli, means that Prachanda enters this alliance as a secondary leader between the two. Meanwhile, the Congress is busy trying to organise a rag-tag alliance of everyone opposed to the two Communist parties – and not very successfully either.

All this means that the upcoming elections – scheduled to be held over two rounds on November 26 and December 7 – may see a Communist government returning to power not as a coalition, as Communist governments always have been in Nepal, but as a single party in majority.

Such a prospect would be a cause for concern during the Cold War days of anti-communism. However, Nepali communists have long shed the ideals of communism, if not the tag. Manmohan Adhikari, one of the founders of the Nepali Communist movement, was said to have remarked to a journalist after the 1990 movement, the Communists called themselves ‘Communists’ simply because it had a brand recognition like that of ‘Coke’.

The Communist movement in Nepal traces itself back to 1949, when the Communist Party of Nepal was launched in Calcutta under general secretary Pushpa Lal Shrestha. It had a relatively lesser role in the 1950 revolution, which it characterised as ‘bourgeoise’, and called the Congress leadership ‘a clique’, terming it an ‘anti-national’ government and accusing B.P. Koirala and others of selling out to ‘Indian interests’. After the formation of the Rana-Congress government in 1951, the opposition party Praja Parishad and the Communist party launched an agitation ‘to unmask the real character of…the puppet government’, which endeavoured to ‘put a brake on the growing movement of the peoples of India, China and Nepal’. Forming a joint front, the two parties aimed at ‘establishing a people’s government by eliminating national feudal lords, Indian capitalists and the imperialist schemers in Nepal’.

Rhetoric aside, the Communists founded several front-organisations in the country, such as the ‘Vidyarthi Federation’, the Nepal Peace Council, the Nepal Kisan Sangh, the Nepal Mahila Sangh and the All Nepal Trade Union Congress. Nonetheless, the Left was not organised enough to beat the Nepali Congress in the first-ever elections in 1959, securing only four seats. During this period, the Communist movement was marked by a vitriolic opposition to the Nepali Congress and the latter’s perceived closeness to India, while rejecting the 1959 Tibetan revolt as a ‘a rebellion engineered by a handful of Tibetan reactionaries with the aid of imperialist and some undesirable anti-Communist elements’. The ‘anti-Indianism’ of the party was best witnessed in the ‘Dalda’ agitation of 1959-60, when it accused B.P. Koirala’s Congress government of colluding with Indian merchants and destroying local animal husbandry by allowing the import of the vegetable oil from India. The Communists also protested the Gandak Agreement and the 1950 Trade Treaty between India and Nepal, and sidelined China’s territorial claims on Everest and a border incursion in Mustang.

Supporters of Unified Communist Party of Nepal (UCPN-Maoist) participate during a rally marking the 17th anniversary of the “People’s War” in Kathmandu February 13, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

Subsequent to Mahendra’s 1960 royal coup, the party – outlawed, as all political parties were – began to disintegrate in the face of its leaders’ divergent opinions towards the monarchy and the coup. Leaders Pushpa Lal Shrestha, Manmohan Adhikari and Tulsi Amatya split from Keshar Jang Rayamajhi, who’d go on to become a firm royalist, in March 1961. The three factions of Pushpa Lal, Amatya and Adhikari would go on to form their own parties respectively. Pushpa Lal and B.P. Koirala would try to come to a rapprochement through which their parties would wage the war against Panchayat collectively. A note by political scientist Parmanand in his history of the Nepali Congress states that a month before his death in July 1978, Pushpa Lal told him that ‘unless the NC and the Communist Party joined together (sic), Nepal could not be freed from the grip of the king’ – a remarkably prescient prediction in light of the twin revolutions of 1990 and 2006.

Factionalism and infighting further split the party in the 1970s, while the Communists focused – in the absence of an organised movement against the Panchayat – on rising ‘Indian expansionism’ with the 1971 Bangladesh crisis. Political scientist Lok Raj Baral notes that the war revealed ‘how deeply the communists were divided among themselves in terms of national and international events’, with the pro-China Adhikari calling the war ‘an aggression of India’, while the other factions – including Rayamajahi, who saw no irony in supporting an autocratic regime back home – applauded the ‘freedom struggle’ by Bangladeshis. The same year, inspired by the Naxalite movement, a group of Communists killed eight landlords in eastern Nepal. Among the revolutionaries was a Khadga Prasad Oli, who was jailed for 14 years until 1987 for the violence. Then on September 4, 1974, a splinter group of more radical Communists organised a ‘Fourth Convention’ of the party in Varanasi – it would go on to form the Communist Party of Nepal (Unity Centre) in 1990, with leaders such as Baburam Bhattarai and Prachanda. Manmohan Adhikari would splinter off to form his own faction in 1973, foment anti-Congress views, and even praise Mahendra for ‘his administration and statesmanship’. Yet, as King Birendra showed no signs of relenting despite a popular students’ movement in 1979 and a ‘referendum’ on the Panchayat in 1980 (in which there was overwhelming support for Panchayat, expectedly), they would once again come together in the 1990 movement that finally debarred political parties and allowed for constitutional monarchy. The present-day CPN-UML was born out of the remnants of the 1990 movement, when CPN-Marxist, led by Adhikari, and CPN-Marxist Leninist, led by Madan Bhandari, merged in 1991.

Factionalism and infighting have long plagued Nepal’s communist movements. Credit: Reuters

Factionalism and infighting have long plagued Nepal’s communist movements. Credit: Reuters

In the rocky politics of 1990s, the UML was in power twice, between 1994-1997. Its support to the right-wing Lokendra Bahadur Chand government in 1997 brought it back into government, but ‘what was left in the “Left” was easily diluted’ when the UML supported a government led by a former Panchayat prime minister. The UML strengthened its organisation during this decade despite intra-party cleavages (and splits), and maintained ‘alliances with the Palace’ and former Panchayat officials. Even during its short minority government in 1994-95, the UML had successfully propped up the party ‘as an active and powerful state organisation through party-run clientelism’.

Factionalism and infighting have long plagued Nepal’s communist movements, yet the UML has emerged relatively unscathed, despite differences between Oli, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal, the three top leaders. Despite a ‘brand identity’ built around ideals of communism and its foundations in landlord-tenant discord, the UML has long discarded them in favour of opportunism, as other Nepali parties have. But as Nepali politics undergoes a realignment after the failure of the Madhes and other minority rights movements, the UML under Oli has claimed for itself the ‘nationalist’ space directly associated with ‘anti-Indianism’. There’s also a possibility that the alliance may ‘stabilise’ Nepali politics, but this new stability will be built on ethno-nationalism of the Oli variety, with little hopes for the various identity movements across the country.

What remains to be seen is the viability of the new alliance – with Baburam Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti already withdrawing due to issues over seat allocation. Will Prachanda’s party be satisfied with lesser seat allocations, or will Nepali Communism have more surprises to throw at us?

Amish Raj Mulmi is a Nepali writer and a publishing professional.