Nepali Times
State Of The State
Forward march to the past


A month after February First, the nation seems to be hunkering down for the long haul. The highways have re-opened, the panic is postponed. The capital Valley is once again in a bubble.

The surest sign of ordinariness in Kathmandu's party circuit is a return to party-bashing. After-dinner conversations bemoan the perennial leadership crisis in the kingdom. The comfortable classes forget that they perhaps wouldn't have been as comfortable if the politicos had been slightly more honest. Every sinner has a future, it seems, but saints sometimes have horrible pasts.

True, better leaders would have been produced if political parties were more vibrant. But parties do not grow in a socio-cultural vacuum. The objective conditions of society make them what they are. The UML, to take the most illustrative example, grew as a design of the Panchayat in the late-1960s to appropriate the proscribed NC's turf. Like the Maoists in the mid-1990s were considered by a section of hyper-nationalists to be 'patriotic', UML cadres thrived on silent support of the Kathmandu elite. Even during the 1990 elections, UML candidates rode the willing shoulders of remnants of the ancien regime to victory.

By ceaselessly trying to topple fragile governments during the 1990s, the UML was digging its own hole. A parliamentary system just couldn't survive when the main opposition party was hell-bent on exposing its rival from within and lambasting it from outside. Even Laloo Prasad Yadav and his arch-rival Ram Bilas Paswan in Bihar state elections last week showed more courtesy for each other.

With the country's two leading parties showing so little respect for one another, both became victims of the 'grand design'. The d?nouement came in May 2002 when parliament was dissolved even though the situation demanded that its term needed to be extended beyond the normal five years.

It has been downhill ever since for the UML. Since 4 October 2002, its policy drift got worse and the party couldn't decide whether it stood for parliamentary democracy or just wanted to get into Singha Darbar by hook or by crook. When it chose the latter, it alienated the cadre.

The UML realised soon enough that it had been squandering political capital for a few crumbs from the high table of state power. Promulgation of a revised TADA through ordinance proved that the claims of 'half-corrected regression' were even more hollow than it sounded. But such are the trappings of office that none of Madhab Nepal's nominees in the cabinet showed the courage to step down on matters of principle.

In desperation, Comrade Nepal thundered: "UML isn't going to run away from responsibilities with its tail between its legs." But he was already sounding like a tiger going meow. In what must be one of the worst pathologies of power in any parliamentary democracy, UML ministers kept loyally wagging their tails till the last moment before being booted out of office.

Now, with Nepal and other leaders under house arrest and second-rung apparatchiks in hiding, the UML's HQ at Balkhu wears a desolate look. The same forces that put the UML on a pedestal brought it tumbling down.

As long as citizens are seen as immature, undisciplined, untrained, and hence ill-suited for statecraft, there is no way this leadership crisis will be resolved. If politicians claw at each other and can never see beyond the next curve, they will continue to be used by those who think it is their manifest destiny to decide what is good for the country.

In times of crisis and instability, right-wing populism has more powerful appeal than left-wing populism. The marginalisation of the UML is therefore natural. But its relevance in the coming days will depend upon the course chosen by its 'acting' general secretary Jhala Nath Khanal. The traditional elite can never be the longterm ally of a party that calls itself 'Marxist' and 'Leninist'.

The UML must reinvent itself as a force of the middle path. Survival there depends on accommodation rather than acrimony with other political parties.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)