With unconditional surrender of Upendra Yadav and likely capitulation of Mahanth Thakur, it will take Madhesis a while to reorient, reassemble and reorganize
When an SUV in which UML Supremo Madan Bhandari and his fellow apparatchik Jibraj Ashrit were traveling together plunged into Trishuli River at Dasdhunga in May 1993 killing both of them on the spot, the propaganda machinery of the party immediately went into overdrive. What appeared to have been an accident by all accounts was portrayed as an assassination. It didn’t help matters that the chauffer Amar Lama had swum to the riverbank and survived.
Before long, militant cadres of the party had hit the streets. Violence erupted in Kathmandu. Credibility of the ruling Nepali Congress swiftly eroded as security agencies resorted to force to maintain peace. A perfect crisis has been created. The UML called upon its cadres to turn shock into strength and begin mobilizing the masses. Soon afterwards, the party rode upon a sympathy wave into Singh Durbar and became the first communist outfit in history to get into government through parliamentary elections.
In an unexplainable turn of events, Lama was shot dead in broad daylight in Kirtipur a decade later. But by then, the UML had already milked Dasdhunga mishap dry of all its political potentials. These days, nobody even talks about the ill-fated SUV, its hapless chauffer or its high-profile passengers considering that the UML propagandists discussed little else for much of the 1990s. Political memory is indeed selective—only useful episodes are commemorated while mundane affairs are allowed to be devoured by collective amnesia.
The government formed towards the end of 1994 by UML was a minority one and it fell within nine months. But the ruling apparatchiks of UML internalized the power of an old axiom of realpolitik: A serious crisis is too good an opportunity to let it to go to waste. When Gorkha Earthquakes hit Nepal, the UML Supremo Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli realized that perhaps this was an opportunity that he has been preparing for all his life.
By some unfortunate circumstances, that was also the time when there was a dotard in Baluwatar who suffered from illusions of greatness. Deluded by the supposed grandeur of his surname, Premier Sushil Koirala was more than willing to be taken for a royal ride. A few remnants of the ancien régime, one of them his boss of yesteryears, probably succeeded in convincing gullible SuKo that the only chance for him to get into history books was by promulgating a constitution when the ground beneath his feet was literally shaking.
In retrospect, it sounds incredulous that the PEON could have been so cavalier in the middle of a catastrophe. Rescue, relief and rehabilitation efforts for the survivors of the Gorkha Earthquakes were put on the back burner where they remain till today. Foreign donors were told to hold their horses. They are still waiting for positive signals to release their largesse. Priority shifted to politicking. Moneybags eyeing easy pickings once the reconstruction began were asked to loosen their purse strings for political purposes instead.
Diplomats from a friendly neighborhood country began to marshal their overt and covert resources to seize the moment. A complacent neighbor with a longstanding stake in the peace process was caught unawares as a hush-hush deal was struck between all ethno-nationals of the country to issue a charter through the ‘fast track’ in contravention of all constitutional procedures.
The date was June 8, 2015 when visions of an inclusive future of Nepal lost its decisive battle against supposed glories of an exclusivist past. It took two years for the phased regression that had begun with the dissolution of the first ever Constituent Assembly in the history of the country to come to fruition. Once the 16-Point Conspiracy was signed and sealed, the HAMNSA (Hindu, Aryan, Male, Nepali Speakers) ruling elite were back in full control of the country that they believed belonged exclusively to the descendents of those Gorkhali warriors and priests that had initially built it with their blood, sweat and sting.
Even though the concept dates back to Greek philosophers and early Brahman scholars that came up with the quip Brahmansa Brahmno Gati, social scientists Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton proposed the theory of homophily (Love of Sameness) in the 1950s and revived the old saying that birds of a feather flock together. It was status homophily of ethnic sameness and caste solidarity that brought the political class together on the same platform. Value homophily of shared principles, similar attitudes and identical beliefs were shelved and ideological differences were forgotten as the conspiratorial compact began to institutionalize the agenda of ethno-nationalism.
Though not in formal command, that would come a few months later, Supremo Oli was the real steerer of the regressive juggernaut. In the art and craft of demagoguery, Supremo Oli has no equal in Nepali politics. With vituperative turn of phrases, he manages to pander to inherent prejudices of the dominant majority against the ‘other’ and incite baser instincts of ‘greed, fear and hatred’.
The propaganda machinery of the UML unleashed all its dogs of ethnic combat at one go. Groupthink was encouraged among caste coequals across the party line. Strategic ignorance was promoted to diffuse the effect of contradictory information. The media was mobilized to feed an insatiable demand for confirmation bias. Belief consonance of ethnic politics killed the fellow-feeling that was born out of facing the misery of first few shocks of the Gorkha Earthquakes together. The public sphere of second half of 2015 in Nepal will prove to be a goldmine for students of demagoguery in future.
Demagoguery is a strategy of doing politics at best and a character flaw of an authoritarian ruler at worst. Sometimes similar in effect, populism is an ideology of a sort. It has been defined as ‘a call to the power of the people to shape their own destiny’. Prolonged incarceration had provided Supremo Oli an opportunity to perfect his demagogic rhetoric. Maoist rabble-rouser Pushpa Kamal Dahal, on the other hand, had refined his populist appeals while in exile. It didn’t take Dahal long to realize that demagogic despair in Nepal held much higher appeal than populist hopes. He easily signed on the dotted lines when conspiratorial oligarchs sweetened the deal with guaranteed immunity and possible prosperity.
Though undoubtedly vainglorious—he took excessive pride in his own incorruptibility, impartiality and nationalist credentials—SuKo wasn’t communal or casteist by conviction. He was probably led to believe by the coterie of opportunistic henchmen around him that if a statute, howsoever flawed, wasn’t issued pronto; it may never materialize in his lifetime.
Excluded from early negotiations, all-weather politician Bijay Kumar Gachhedar was brought on board at the last moment to give a color of diversity to what was essentially a casteist compact. The controversial constitution of September, 2015 grew out of the genetically modified seed of the 16-Point Conspiracy.
With the Narayanhiti Massacre of June 1, 2001, the slow but irreversible end of monarchy had begun. The-then King Gyanendra merely hastened the process with his Creeping Coup starting with the dissolution of Parliament. After June 8, 2015 compact, the Republic remained in name and form—federalism had been junked, it was inserted into the charter due to the directives of the Single Bench of the Supreme Court—but its essence vaporized in less than a decade of April Uprising and subsequent Madhes Movements of 2006 that had promised equality, equitability and dignity for Nepalis of all ethnicities.
A synthetic category of Khas-Arya was later created to give the cover of respectability to the politics of Bahun hegemony. Antonio Gramsci says that a State, in essence, is a combination of political dictatorship and cultural hegemony. Schemers of the 16-Point Conspiracy know that the supremacy of one caste can’t last long unless it’s backed by at least an authoritarian political order. With two-third majority in the parliament and direct or indirect control over almost all municipalities and federating states, there is nothing to stop the Oliological government in Singh Durbar from having its way.
Janjatis have lapsed into submissive silence. Dalits have yet to find a political voice. With unconditional surrender of Upendra Yadav and likely capitulation of Mahanth Thakur, it will take Madhesis a while to reorient, reassemble and reorganize. That’s where Premier Oli has a window of opportunity. He can design a soft landing through cosmetic constitutional amendments and save the face of those that have prostrated themselves at his feet or continue with his exclusivist tendencies and wait for an inevitable crash.