In the political realm, almost all appearances are deceptive. Supremo KP Sharma Oli calls himself a nationalist, heads a communist party named after Marx and Lenin, replaces the silver jalhari at the temple of Pashupatinath with a golden one, and wants to establish that Lord Rama was born in Nepal. The supremo was re-elected with a thumping majority through a jamboree in Chitwan, which also conferred discretionary powers on him. He expects to sweep the upcoming elections with an explosive mix of jingoistic populism and xenophobic nationalism. Pushpa Kamal Dahal—once better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda—continues to assert his Maoist credentials, worships buffalos to placate annoyed planetary stars, and claims that he shares the nationalistic gotra (patrilineal kinship) with the Hindu hardliners of Nepali politics. He remains the unchallenged chief of the CPN (Maoist Centre).
Being a political platform of monarchists, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) has less reason to pretend its adherence to the constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic. It is unabashedly anti-republican, opposes federalism, assails secularism and ridicules any form of affirmative action. A contest to establish one’s anti-secularist credentials between a hardliner of the Gorkhali nobility and an ambitious monarchist of the Janajati aristocracy ended with the victory of the latter by a convincing margin. Many upwardly mobile Janajati politicos are more ardent in pursuing reactionary policies than their “upper-caste” colleagues in a zeal to assert their newfound religiosity. The new RPP chair Rajendra Lingden can be expected to infuse fresh fervour into the decadent outfit and attract more hardliners into the monarchist fold.
There was a time when the Nepali Congress was considered to be a party of democratic socialists. Along with nationality and democracy, socialism continues to be the main motto of its self-identification. Its fall into the fold of free-market fundamentalists in the 1990s was fast and furious. It embraced the liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation (LPG) agenda of the Bretton Wood Twins with the passion of a neo-convert. The grand old party is all set to hold its much-postponed 14th general convention scheduled for December 10-12 in Kathmandu. Signals emanating from its organisational elections at the grassroots indicate that the party is fast losing its ability to resist the downward slide of so-called mainstream politics.
The Nepali Congress began as a movement of the enlightened aristocracy against the fast degenerating family of rulers. Riding on the anti-establishment wave of the post-war era and the Indian independence movement, it established itself as the political platform of democratic socialists. The landed gentry of the hills and plains brought along plebeians under their protection, and gave the party its mass-based character. The support base of the Nepali Congress remained overwhelmingly rural up until the 1990s. The Communist Party of Nepal began as a bourgeois movement of small farmers, petty traders, middling professionals and occupational entrepreneurs. In a successful bid at running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, most communists jumped on the monarchist bandwagon after the royal-military coup and managed to build a massive cadre-based organisation.
In the mid-1990s, the self-declared Maoists blended the mass politics of the Congress with the cadre base of what has come to be known as United Marxist Leninist and added the highly combustible ideology of Maoism to the admixture. The resulting political explosion blew away the Shah monarchy in 2008. In one of those paradoxes of history, the failure of the Constituent Assembly began the day it succeeded in writing the first page of the republican story. The various remnants of the monarchical order, beneficiaries of the LPG policies, the cultural elite of Khas-Arya ethnonationalism, and external elements inimical to substantive changes in the status quo began to circle their wagons in fear of a progressive constitution.
The demise of political ideology and progressive idealism in Nepal was slow and painful. It was a death by a thousand cuts starting with the coup by the court that put an expiry date on the term of the Constituent Assembly. The next big blow was forming a supposedly “non-political” government to conduct fresh elections. With the promulgation of a contested constitution, the old order reasserted itself. Under revisionist prime minister KP Sharma Oli, the administration of 2018 was wedded to the ideology of ethnonational conservatism and resurrected communism of the Xi Jinping Thought variety.
In an analysis framework named after its initiator Joseph P Overton, the Overton Window suggests that politicians are limited in what ideas they can champion by the beliefs that are widely accepted throughout society as legitimate policy options. Outside this window, anything will be considered too radical to be pursued in competitive politics. Due to narratives assiduously built by the alt-right “Oliers” of public life, the Overton Window has shifted so far right of the middle ground in Nepal that a progressive agenda has almost no place in contemporary politics. Though not a shaper, the five-time Prime Minister and chair of the Nepali Congress is an illustrative product of the unstoppable shift in mainstream politics.
The late prime minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai once quipped that those who run and those who stay where they are ultimately meet the same fate in Nepali politics. The political trajectories of Girija Prasad Koirala and Bhattarai himself proved the point. In a similar vein, Prime Minister Deuba has benefited immensely from not doing much and waiting for lucky breaks. When the Nepali Congress was campaigning to restore parliamentary democracy in 1990, Deuba was ensconced in faraway London. He was rewarded with the Home Ministry after the first general elections upon his return. Perennially in waiting for his turn, the post of prime minister has repeatedly fallen into his lap since the mid-1990s. Every time, his performance has been worse than the previous term.
His first term of premiership is infamous for unparliamentarily privileges to parliamentarians. In his second term in 2001, he handed over the reins of the government to the military. His third term in 2004 was a reward from the Shah king for damaging the Nepali Congress. The achievement of his fourth term was the meteoric rise of the demagogic populism of Khas-Arya chieftain Sharma Oli. Perhaps he wants to make his fifth term equally historic.
The party and the state machinery has been mobilised to ensure Deuba’s return to the chair of the Congress at all costs. There have been credible allegations of state-sponsored violence in various places. Sharma Oli and Deuba are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of right-wing politics. The former has retained his position as the supremo; the latter is likely to emerge a strongman of his flock. The future of Nepali politics is looking to its uninspiring past.