Nepali Times
1951, 1960, 1972, 1980, 1990, 2001

As with geology, political pressures welling up within Nepal tend to be released in a ten-year cycle of social seismicity. Nepal's "geo-politics" since 1951 has followed this rule. Four years after India got independence, the Ranas finally decided that their time was up. It took ten years of tinkering with this and that before the winds of change also wafted up the Himalaya, and we had our first-ever democratic elections. The Nepali Congress swept the polls, but King Mahendra and BP Koirala realised that Nepal was not big enough for the both of them. In 1961 democracy was shelved, parliament dismantled, elected leaders put in jail.

Remember, these were the bad old days of the Cold War, Nehru was trying to mix Soviet-style central planning with monopoly capitalism, and the Great Leap Forward over, Mao was preparing for the Cultural Revolution. Our own homegrown "suited-to-the-soil" Panchayat ideology was sustained by a grand design for development. We were starting from zero, so everything we built (highways, hydropower, hospitals) were huge achievements. A little over ten years later, King Mahendra died. It then took ten more years, despite King Birendra's efforts to revamp education, for the pressures to build up sufficiently for students to rise up to demand democracy.

The crisis was defused by the 1980 referendum in which Panchayat-with-reforms won 55-45. It was business-as-usual for another ten years, but by this time so much pressure had built up that the lid very nearly came off. The 1990 Jana Andolan was the Nepali equivalent of the winds of democracy that swept across eastern Europe, Thailand, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The king became a constitutional monarch, he agreed to dismantle the Panchayat superstructure, a new constitution institutionalised political parties and multiparty elections were held.

The euphoria of democracy did not last long. From very early on, it was apparent that freedom fighters who went straight from their jail cells to take oaths of office were going to let the people down. But we told ourselves: democratic transitions are by definition messy, just give them some time. Now, time has run out, our transition has lasted too long, and it is messier than is permissible for a country with our capability.

Today, ten years after the renewal of democracy, the stench of political decay hangs heavy in the air. As in Animal Farm, it is getting more and more difficult to recognise our erstwhile revolutionaries and freedom fighters. When we look at their faces we don't see anymore the selfless sacrifice, incarceration and exile that many went through. All we see are the grinning, greedy countenances of leaders we trusted who have let us down-not once, not twice, but over and over again. The euphoria has now been replaced by disillusionment, apathy. Millions of impoverished Nepalis are unlikely to wait much longer for democracy to work its way out of its self-inflicted paralysis. Unless the right to vote leads to measureable improvements in the quality of their lives, Nepalis will see democracy as a trick. Radicals from the left and the right, religious zealots and separatists will fill this vacuum.

In the past ten years, the political leadership of all parties have had a chance to rule. But all they have shown is fecklessness, callous immorality, and a fatal deficiency in the art of governance. They have squandered their mandates in petty infighting, self-enrichment and self-centredness, radicalising a seething citizenry and bringing the country to its present state. Today, 50 years after our first taste of democracy and 10 years after restoring it, the moral of the story is: Democracy doesn't come with an indefinite guarantee. It needs to be safeguarded by careful and vigilant application.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)