New Delhi: Asserting that a return to monarchy would help Nepal to build a strong bulwark against foreign interference, a senior official of Nepal’s pro-royal party also noted that the border controversy – or the new political map depicting disputed territories under India’s control – is not an issue that will find resonance with the electorate in the current general elections.
On November 20, Nepal will go to the polls to elect their representatives for the Parliament and Provincial Assemblies. It will only be the second election held under the 2015 constitution.
Among those in the fray is senior vice-president of Rastriya Prajatantra Party, Rabindra Mishra, a recent entrant to the party and an unusual face in Nepali politics.
A journalist with BBC Nepali service for nearly two decades, he resigned from his job before the 2017 elections and jumped into electoral politics with a newly-created party Bibeksheel Sajha Party aimed at providing an alternative to Nepal’s grand old parties. He lost by 819 votes against the three-time Nepali Congress incumbent from the Kathmandu-1 constituency.
This time, he is once again contesting from the same constituency but as a candidate for the RPP, a pro-monarchy Hindu nationalist party. The RPP’s manifesto had called for the reinstatement of the monarchy, a directly-elected prime ministerial system, and pledged to scrap provinces.
When he was still in his earlier party last year, Mishra had released a thesis on Nepal’s future, which attracted some criticism, both internally and outside the party, for his declaration of support to the monarchy and opposition to federalism and secularism. In the aftermath, it became apparent that he would be changing ship – which he did in September this year.
With Nepali citizens disenchanted with traditional politics, RPP hopes to capture some of the frustration this time with more votes. In previous 2017 elections, the party, which had been in a government with Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist), won a single seat in parliament.
In an interview with The Wire, Mishra, who was inducted as senior vice-chairman of RPP, spoke about the reasons for his ideological change and why the monarchy is necessary to have strong “balanced” ties with India and China.
Below is a condensed version of the conversation. It has been edited for clarity and style.
There seems to be a lot of frustration over political parties fielding the same old faces. It had seemed for some time that Nepalis were ready for an alternative political voice. But you have gone the opposite direction, from a new party to an established legacy party. Why is that?
We started the Sajha party in 2017 and did pretty well in that year’s election. We became the fifth-largest party, and I lost by just a whisker against a very prominent leader in a very prominent constituency in Kathmandu. And the party, in a way, was doing okay, yes, there were various problems, but it was okay.
As I started to move on, at some point, I slowly began to realise that the agenda with which we were building the party, the acceptance of the republic, federalism and secularism, won’t help in the long term. Once I realised this, I changed my course and came up with a political document titled “nation above notion”. After that, there was a bit of a problem in the party, and later on, in the local elections, our results were pretty bad, and I resigned from the leadership of the party on moral grounds. As I resigned, I also realised that the constitutional monarchy is crucial for the country’s long-term interests, stability and sovereignty.
Yes, the monarchy had made mistakes in the past – kings had made mistakes in the past. But, despite their mistakes, this institution is extremely important given the changing geopolitics of the world, which is shifting towards South Asia. Being surrounded by two big countries, which will be number one and number two economies by 2030, the western world would obviously show a keen interest in Nepal.
Geopolitics is getting sensitive around Nepal, but internally, the institutions are so weak, so weak. All the major institutions are badly politicised. There is political intervention in every institution of the country, apart from the Nepal army which is relatively free from interference.
The bureaucracy, anti-corruption body, the president’s office, the judiciary and universities, all are compromised. Even the doctors and engineers are so badly politicised. We are also one of the most corrupt countries, as per Transparency International.
When institutions are so weak, when the geo-political situation is getting more critical, ethnic and religious sensitivities are rising – the only institution that can bind this country is the monarchy. I thought this issue had to be raised. I raised the issue, and my agenda was close to the RPP, so I joined them.
You use a geo-political argument to claim that monarchy is good for Nepal. Do you mean to imply that the monarchy had stood up against India in the past or that there was not much Indian interference at that time?
In a way, yes. Nepal’s international prestige and the way the institution of monarchy dealt with India and China was much more balanced and respectful earlier. After the country turned into a republic, our international prestige has gone down.
For example, to be very honest, the new Indian ambassador comes down to Nepal, lands at the Kathmandu international airport and from there, he directly goes to meet the foreign minister and the very next day, he meets the prime minister. And he can meet whomever he wants.
In the case of the Nepali ambassador in India, even after being appointed and joining the office in Delhi, one doesn’t even get an appointment or meeting with the Indian foreign minister or foreign secretary for months and months. That’s the kind of situation that we are dealing with. It is happening with other countries as well. You are interviewing me from Delhi, so I am mentioning India. It is a similar case with China and other countries. These things do matter in international diplomacy.
King Birendra of Nepal with Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India in New Delhi
1980 AD @Vintage_Nepal pic.twitter.com/d6Kz6YnfkP
— Vintage Nepal (Rare Historical Pics & Vids) (@Vintage_Nepal) November 3, 2022
When there was a monarchy, King Birendra proposed the idea of a Zone of Peace. More than 125 countries had agreed to it. Of course, India did not agree, but that’s a different issue.
That proposal was important in the changing geopolitics of the world. That was very important for a landlocked, underdeveloped, militarily and economically weak country.
An impression held among a section of Indian people is that if there is a Hindu party in Nepal or if Nepal is a Hindu kingdom, it will be friendlier to India. How do you view this perception?
If a Hindu party or Hindu state was going to be more friendly to India, I am sure that PM Modi would have encouraged that in Nepal. I am not sure Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi is doing that. (laughs)
The fact is that Nepal has more than 80% Hindu population, and there is a 10% Buddhist population. As a Hindu state, Nepal was doing perfectly fine. It was not a fundamentalist state. It was not a religious state like many Arab countries. It was just a Hindu state by name, but there was freedom for other religions, and they used to exercise their religion peacefully.
After Nepal became a secular state, a big section of the Hindu population was very disappointed. The Christian conversion rate is one of the highest in the world. The religious demography is changing in Nepal, and if not now, this can create a problem in the future. That is why Nepal should return to being a Hindu state.
You mention that you joined RPP for ideological reasons. But is ideology playing any role at all in these elections? There are parties with diametrically opposed ideologies joining together in pre-election coalitions. The RPP is also allied with CPN-UML, a communist party. So what does ideology mean in Nepali politics?
The ruling party has an alliance with five more parties. But in the case of RPP and UML, the case is different. There are only three places where RPP supports the UML and vice versa. It is not an alliance as such. Just electorally, the parties are helping each other in three constituencies. That’s all.
As far as if this is the end of ideology in Nepali politics, I don’t think so. Ideologically, Nepali society is getting more and more polarised. One major reason is that in the last 15 years after Nepal turned into a republic and became secular and federal – if the system had worked well, if corruption had gone down, if governance had improved, if there was proper service delivery, I don’t think that this system would have been attacked by those who are supporting the monarchy and who are against federalism and secularism. But, the system is not working at all, and corruption is high.
They got rid of one king, but there are certain families of political leaders where all the family members behave like kings.
The political intervention in all major institutions is so high. And the deterioration of political institutions in Nepal is so bad that people are unhappy about it.
The major political parties in Nepal have a long history, and they have politicised every aspect of society. That’s why society is getting polarised among those supporting the changes that happened in the last 15 years and who don’t support those changes.
Unless these current politicians start behaving correctly, I don’t think things will change.
If all the parties are in alliances and the same old parties are in the fray, can the electorate expect any change from this election?
From this election, RPP will have a strong presence in parliament. When we have a strong presence, I think that it will act as a big slap to big political parties on the one hand, and on the other hand, that will be the first major step in bringing Nepal back on track.
Can I pin you down on how many seats RPP will likely get?
I haven’t been giving figures and numbers, as things are unpredictable. But, the wave of RPP throughout the country is very high, and we expect to do very well.
You expect to do well in your constituency that you lost narrowly.
I lost by 819 votes. But that basically means that if I had got 410 of those votes, I would have won at that time. We are pretty confident that we will win in this constituency.
You said there was a yearning for change, but change is a very abstract term. What do voters mean by that? What do the voters want this time?
My agenda is divided into three sections. One is the long-term peace and stability, and sovereignty of this country. I have described that as my political and social agenda, where I have talked about constitutional monarchy and directly elected prime ministership.
I have also talked about restructuring local bodies and abrogating federalism. At the same time, I have spoken about the Hindu-Buddhist state. RPP only talks about the Hindu state, but in my book, I have spoken of a Hindu-Buddhist state for various reasons that, if I start to explain, will take a long time.
The second deals with political economy, extreme intervention in all institutions, controlling corruption and good governance. At the same time, I have talked about economic stimulation and creating employment.
One thing that inspired me to get into politics after two decades of journalism was because I thought that public education and public health in Nepal are in disastrous situation. I argue that free public education and public health should be fundamental human rights, and all the citizens in the country should have equal access to it.
Are foreign relations with India, especially the border dispute, an electoral issue in these elections?
The Millennium Challenge Corporation funds received some time ago were a major controversy in Nepal. Similarly, the border issue with India has been raised from time to time. But, unfortunately for Nepal, all these agendas get sidelined during the time of elections, and people tend to vote according to their political alignment.
I asked that question as, during the last elections, UML’s good showing was attributed to the Indian ‘blockade’ of 2015.
Absolutely. When it comes to the issue of patriotism, Nepalis become very passionate and emotional about it. So in the 2015 blockade, all Nepalis thought India unnecessarily imposed the blockade on us, which was a huge pain for the Nepali population. Oli, at that time, took a strong stance and finally, the blockade was over. That definitely had an impact on the election.
Also, what he did before the 2017 elections was that the UML and Maoist Centre joined hands, and they said that they would merge after the elections.
So big communist parties coming to power would create a stable government, which would be good for the country. They did unite, but it didn’t happen. So in 2017, the blockade issue did have an impact.
Will the new map and the border issue have any impact at all this time?
I don’t think that the resonance is the same. Hardly people are talking about it. So, I don’t think that has created any kind of impact in these elections.
Do you feel that RPP has a different position on relations with India compared to other political parties?
Nepal’s democratic political parties are self-centric as they don’t consider the country’s long-term interests. There is also no continuity in lots of foreign policy issues.
With the RPP, we have been saying that we want to have an equidistant relationship with India and China. We will not accept intervention, but we will stay friendly. It is all about how we implement that. We are pretty sure that we will do much better than earlier guys.
Lastly, circling back to my first question – do you think there is any space left for independents or new parties in Nepali polity?
Given my five-year experience in building an alternative political party, I think in the current situation, you can create a party that can have an existence but can’t get to the top and rule the country. It is so very difficult for various reasons.
The second thing is that the idea of alternative politics has not been explained correctly in Nepal. Alternative politics means good governance, service delivery, controlling corruption, stimulating the economy, and creating jobs.
Suppose the people choose their leadership with a high level of integrity and competence; who know what this country needs for the changing geopolitics, which can drive this country towards development and prosperity; in that case, people will stop talking about alternate politics.