Sumit Sharma Sameer, in Unfinished Journey: A Story of a Nation, provides a good overview of hope, anxiety, and frustration of the young generation clamoring for meaningful and viable change in Nepal. From evolution of the state to faltering of the peace process, it tries to capture the lapses on part of the political parties to translate opportunities into actions. Sameer raises an interesting question about armed movements’ ability to actually free people. Do they really liberate people?
Armed movements never free people. Like in the case of Nepal, it elevates the stature of those that initiate them, but society as a whole, is caught in an endless, and to a large extent, needless rebellion. Norman Borlaug, the father of green revolution and Muhammad Yunus, the genius behind Grameen revolution, brought about revolution that liberated billions of poor from vicious cycle of poverty, hunger, and deprivation, which armed groups in Nepal claim to be fighting for, without resorting to guns. Gandhi brought a submissive nation to its feet and an empire to its knees without resorting to any kind of violence.
Before getting into why armed movements are carried out, it is important to realize where actually they happen. Armed movements and political violence thrive in places where literacy rate is low, institutions are weak, and the political leadership is corrupt and visionless. You do not see mushrooming of modern day Robin Hood like in Nepal, in matured western democracies. It simply does not happen for a very simple reason- the chances of Robin Hood, himself getting killed or imprisoned are, almost certain. So it is all about risk and reward. In Nepal, risks faced by insurgents are too low to forgo. Plus, insurgency is a low-skill occupation. What would most of the Maoist insurgents, or for that matter Jwala Singh or Goit’s men, be doing had they not become insurgents? Did they have a successful career?
The restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990 had provided a perfect opportunity to address social inequalities but once again the political leadership failed to capitalize on the gains and bring about much needed social change. Instead of cashing in on the opportunity of transforming the nation, the new set of politicians saw it as their opportunity to enrich themselves. Nepali Congress (NC), which claims itself as the party of Nepali people that believe in nationalism, democracy and socialism failed miserably to strengthen the very ideals it claimed to have fought for. As a matter of fact, under the leadership of Girija Prasad Koirala (GPK), nationalism further decayed, political corruption flourished, and democracy, instead of getting consolidated weakened. Common men’s faith in democracy started fading away as GPK’s unquenchable hunger for power started coming to the fore. In the absence of radical social reforms to correct past inequalities, the concept of socialism remained limited to NC’s manifesto.
While GPK was strengthening his grip on power by destroying the brewing dissent within the party (sidelining Ganeshman Singh, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and the famous group of 36), something else was happening, elsewhere. Two Brahmins - Puspa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai – who had failed to fulfill their political dreams under multiparty set-up were evaluating the lucrative opportunity of armed rebellion. Their political outfit under Nirmal Lama was not going anywhere. They knew that the call for reversing inequalities would resonate with poor, especially in remote hinterland, whose connection with the state was weak, had abundance of cheap labor, and where poverty was rampant. The political parties’ inability to address the common folk’s problems strengthened insurgents’ appeal. Plus, the mainstream political parties’ halfhearted battle to defeat the insurgency and India’s policy of perpetuating managed instability in Nepal allowed the insurgency to flourish unchecked. Then came Gyanendra’s political adventurism. It provided the Maoists a lifetime opportunity to deliver the master stroke.
After the old set of fundamentalist - the Maoists - came overground, the new seminaries emerged to protest the older ones they thought had become “modernist.” The political parties’ willingness to join hands with the Maoists has legitimized violence as a political means to get to power. Once violence is legitimized, it simply does not go away, easily. It took less than one percent of the population with guns to wreak havoc and bring down the state to its knees. When the state kneels down to such a meager percentage of people, the state will always remain at the cross-hair of the radical forces that want to collapse the state. Radical demagoguery has invaded public space in Nepal with a momentum that no one is capable of reversing, not at least in the near future.
Political violence in Nepal further deepened after the Maoists came overground because Girija Prasad Koirala, Sekhar Koirala and Krishna Prasad Sitaula saw it as their opportunity to consolidate their grip on power and they wanted to achieve that by appeasing the Maoists. In order to emerge out as the only Maoist handlers, they let the rebranded PLA (read YCL) trash law and order situation in the country. The victims of the Maoists’ belligerence – both the state and people - were left to wallow in the swamp. While the perpetrator of the violence were turned celebrity by the GPK’s government, victims of the Maoist atrocities were denied even a false comfort.
Armed insurgency might have ceased but the political violence will not cease altogether no matter who gets and remains in the power. The path that both the centrist forces and the Maoists are taking will not address the causes that instigate and perpetuate violence. The major centrist parties like NC and UML are not yet ready to introduce social reforms needed to address the structural causes of conflict. On the other hand, the radical reforms that the Maoists want to bring about, will not ensure long term growth and prosperity. It might be appealing to the have-nots but it will not have the inbuilt capacity to bring about long-term changes in the lives of people.
If the centrist parties want to reclaim their lost political space, they will have to establish another horizon. The key to the moderate parties’ future lies in their ability to unlock the Madhesi, Janjati, and youth’s demands, and spearhead it. There is a transparent anger, leavened by confusion, among these groups which is provoking a drift to the most familiar port, the Maoists. Make marginalized people equal citizens rather than playing with their sentiments like the Maoists do. Declaring states unilaterally whereby indigenous or backward castes have an opportunity to foul mouth a Brahmin is not the empowerment that these people need and deserve. It does not put food in the plates of their hungry children, nor does it provide their children an educational opportunity.
Instead of wasting time in countering radicals’ propaganda, the centrist parties should use their time and resources to come up with a social reform plan of their own. They should stop trying to outshine the Maoists by re-packaging the Maoists’ agendas. It will simply not work. The challenge in distinguishing oneself from the Maoists is an enormously important task that the politicians of centrist parties are neglecting to act on. The politicians of NC and UML are busy maintaining political correctness and in the process, burying their centrist identity. The sooner you realize that winning public support is not contingent upon radical populism, the sooner you will be able to turn the tide.