The Democratic Experiment
In the early 1950s, a political style appeared that characterized much of the era after the overthrow of the Ranas. On one side stood the king, who controlled the most powerful force in the nation--the army--and found it an increasingly useful tool with which to wield his prestige and constitutional authority. On the other side stood the political parties. First there was the Nepali Congress Party, which claimed to stand for the democratic will of the people. Then there were a multitude of breakaway factions or other small parties representing a wide range of interests. The Communist Party of Nepal, for example, was established in Calcutta in 1949 but had refused to take part in the armed struggle and condemned it as a "bourgeois" revolution; despite its own difficulties with factional disputes, this party was destined to grow in a country riddled with problems. In the Kathmandu Valley, other leaders who had been locked out of high positions in the first coalition government formed a revitalized Praja Parishad. Opponents of the "antidemocratic" character of the Nepali Congress leadership and their pro-India stance, which they claimed went against the interests of Nepal, broke away to form a revitalized Nepali National Congress. In 1951 a united front of the communists and the Praja Parishad formed to oppose the Nepali Congress ministers. The themes of politics in the early 1950--class, opposition to authoritarian trends within party leadership, and nationalistic propaganda, combined with agitational united front tactics--have remained standard features of party politics in Nepal. As the various political parties slashed at each other and the king maneuvered for greater power, the country began experimenting with a limping democracy.
Nepal faced an enormous task. When the Ranas fell, only 2 percent of the adult population was literate, the infant mortality rate was more than 60 percent, and average life expectancy was thirty-five years. Less than 1 percent of the population was engaged in modern industrial occupations, and 85 percent of employment and income came from agriculture, mostly performed by tenants using archaic methods and working under uncertain contracts. There were only approximately 100 kilometers of railroad tracks and a few kilometers of paved roads in the entire nation. Telephones, electricity, and postal services combined served only 1 percent of the population and only in certain pockets. Nepalese currency circulated only in and around the Kathmandu Valley. Government expenditures went almost entirely for salaries and benefits for army, police, and civil servants, with any savings going to the prime minister. Health and education received less than 1 percent of the government's expenditures. The nation still contained autonomous principalities (rajya) based on deals with former local kings, and landlords acted as small dictators on their own lands. Caste, ethnic, and linguistic differences abounded, but only three groups--Chhetris, Brahmans, and some Newars--had any say in the national government. The Tarai, the richest area in the nation, had been systematically ignored by the government and exploited for 200 years, and many of its people felt more at home in India than Nepal. National integration was a major problem.
Between November 1951 and February 1959, there was a succession of short-lived governments ruling under terms of the interim constitution or under the direct command of the king, attempting to fashion an environment favorable for the calling of a constituent assembly that would frame a permanent constitution. As soon as the king found a ministry uncooperative or so beset by contradictions that it could not function, he replaced it with members who had smaller bases of support. At no time during this period did the faction of the Nepali Congress Party headed by B.P. Koirala, which commanded the widest allegiance, have any chance of forming a government because the king continued to postpone elections for an assembly.
When King Tribhuvan died, his son Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev (reigned 1955-72) carried on as before, experimenting with types of councils or ministries that would do his will behind a democratic fašade. Under pressure from large-scale civil disobedience campaigns, the king announced that elections for a representative assembly would take place on February 18, 1959. As political parties of all persuasions were busily preparing for the elections, the king had his own commission draw up a new constitution. He presented it as a gift to the nation on February 12, 1959, with the elections only one week away. In the first national elections in the history of the nation, the Nepali Congress won a clear victory, taking 74 out of 109 seats. B.P. Koirala at last became prime minister.
Under the terms of the new constitution, there were two legislative houses: an Upper House (Maha Sabha) of 36 members, half elected by the lower house and half nominated by the king; and a Lower House (Pratinidhi Sabha) of 109 members, all elected by universal adult suffrage. The leader of the majority party in the Lower House became prime minister and governed with a cabinet of ministers. The king could act without consulting the prime minister, and even could dismiss him. The king also had control over the army and foreign affairs and could invoke emergency powers suspending all or part of the constitution.
Against this background of formidable royal rights, the Koirala government was able to accomplish some major tasks. It finally abolished birta tenure in October 1959 and the autonomy of principalities (rajya) in the western hills. In 1960 the government revised a crucial Trade and Transit Treaty with India. It also negotiated another agreement with India on the Gandak River Project, guaranteeing territorial jurisdiction and free provision of water to Nepal. Diplomatic relations were established with the United States, the Soviet Union, China, France, and Pakistan. Koirala himself addressed the United Nations, visited China, and presided over the signing of a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with China in 1960. In the economic sphere, the First Five-Year Plan (1956-61) had been poorly conceived and executed, but the Koirala government took steps to plan effectively for the Second Plan (1962-65).
The king initially was on good terms with the Koirala government, even taking the unprecedented step of playing soccer with his brothers at the National Stadium against a team that included the prime minister and his associates. At the same time, he was publicly opposed to democracy in principle and would not tolerate any official interference in the divine powers believed to be conferred on him as king. The army, the former aristocracy, conservative landowning groups, and the king all were uneasy about the reforms of the Koirala government and the negative propaganda of opposition groups inside Parliament, including the Gorkha Parishad and the Communist Party of Nepal. When destabilizing the Nepali Congress ministry proved difficult, the king used the nation's chronic violence--widely believed to be orchestrated by the monarch himself--as a reason to act directly. On December 15, 1960, with the army's support and with little warning, the king used his emergency powers to dismiss the cabinet and arrest its leaders on the charge that they had failed to provide national leadership or maintain law and order. B.P. Koirala spent the next eight years in prison and another eight years in exile. The experiments in liberal socialism and democracy, at least as defined by the Nepali Congress, were at an end.
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