The Panchayat System
For centuries the government had been run by a number of interrelated aristocratic families. Despite the limitations of a royal ban on political parties and other impediments, political parties did exist and operated clandestinely. To escape harassment or imprisonment, many political leaders went to India, where they also received logistical and other support.
Under the panchayat system, there were six government- sponsored class and professional organizations for peasants, laborers, students, women, former military personnel, and college graduates. These organizations were substitutes for the prohibited political parties and provided alternate channels for the articulation of group or class--rather than national--interests. The professional and class organizations were warned repeatedly against engaging in political activity; nevertheless, they offered the only political forum open to many Nepalese, and even some Nepali Congress Party and communist partisans considered them worthy of infiltration.
The king also launched an independent national student association, the National Independent Student Council (Rashtriya Swatantra Vidyarthi Parishad), to control the political activities of the students. The association failed to gain support, and successful student agitation in 1979 forced the king not only to abolish it but also to initiate constitutional reforms leading to the national referendum of 1980. Also in 1980, a group of dissident pancha brought a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa on charges of bureaucratic corruption, food shortages, and lack of economic discipline. Surya Bahadur, however, was a perennial political survivor and was returned to office in 1981.
King Birendra devised the Back-to-the-Village National Campaign (BVNC) in 1975. The BVNC was intended to circumvent the possibility of opposition within the panchayat and to create a loyal core of elites to select and endorse candidates for political office, thereby neutralizing the influence of underground political party organizers in the rural areas. Although it was envisioned as a means to mobilize the people for the implementation of development plans and projects, the shortlived BVNC--it was suspended in 1979--was in reality an ideological campaign to reinforce the importance of the partyless system. The campaign stressed that the partyless system was appropriate to the ways of the Nepalese people; the party system was a divisive and culturally alien institution.
Each zonal committee had a BVNC structure, with a secretary nominated by the king. The BVNC network was extended to the district and village levels so as to reinforce a national communication system. However inasmuch as the government paid the BVNC central and zonal committee members and restricted chances for popular participation, the committees carried out the same activities as the panchayat. In actuality, the BVNC was created by the king to ensure a loyal organization and circumvent active party members from gaining seats in the panchayat elections. The BVNC became an organization of centrally controlled loyal panchayat elites and an insurance policy for palace initiatives.
The only significant opposition to the monarchy came from the Nepali Congress Party, which operated from exile in India. Other parties either accepted and operated within the panchayat system on a supposedly nonpartisan basis or merged with the exiled Nepali Congress Party, polarizing politics over the issue of monarchical rule. Even the Communist Party of Nepal, divided on the tactical question of whether to seek the direct and immediate overthrow of the monarchical system or to work within it, had split into factions--a radical wing operated in India and a moderate wing underground in Nepal. Some party members, to gain tactical advantage over the Nepali Congress Party, entered the panchayat system with the tacit approval of the palace.
Ethnic plurality, income disparity, linguistic diversity, pervading regional loyalties, underdeveloped communications, and a paucity of written and electronic media also hindered party organization. The dominant high-caste political leaders were more interested in sharing or gaining access to power than in developing lasting foundations for party politics.
Reportedly, before political organizations were banned, there were sixty-nine political parties, most of which were characteristically fluid in their membership and inconsistent in their loyalties. Personalities rather than ideologies brought individuals and groups under the nominal canopy of a party. Fragmentation, recombination, and alliances for convenience were the outstanding aspects of party behavior.
In the polarized political climate, the monarchy looked at the panchayat system as its only dependable support base. The panchayat apparatus provided access for politically motivated individuals to form a new elite. Although the political leadership and following of the Nepali Congress Party initially stayed away from the panchayat system, over time, and in the absence of an outlet for political activities, some defections took place. Nevertheless, the lateral entry of some pro-Nepali Congress Party elements did not substantially change the character of the panchayat leadership, which was dominated by rural elites of the Hill Region rather than the urban Kathmandu and Tarai Region elites who had been in the forefront of political activities. The system was designed so that the established parties would gradually shrink and lose their influence and control. Once the new panchayat leadership matured, however, some members became restive under the excessive control of the palace. This group of the panchayat elite opposed the system from within and overtly joined the prodemocracy movement.
In the last four decades, there was significant progress towards democracy in Nepal's traditionally authoritarian political system. The first national elections in Nepal took place in 1959-- some eight years after the overthrow of the Rana system. The Nepali Congress Party-dominated government, victorious in the 1959 parliamentary elections, was overthrown by King Mahendra within two years--resulting in the ban on political parties. The pattern that developed over the following decades was that of a monarchy reinforcing its power through the traditional institution of the panchayat. The panchayat system, co-opted and easily manipulated by the monarchy to suit its political ends, nevertheless was slowly but steadily subjected to pressures to change. Over time the monarchy was forced by necessity to expand the role of elections in response to the mounting discontent of a citizenry living in an age of heightened political awareness and rising expectations. This trend culminated in May 1991 with the first truly free elections in over thirty years, ushering in a new political era. The Nepali Congress Party obtained a workable majority within the framework of a constitutional monarchy and affirmed the rise of a nascent democratic force.
One of the ramifications of the prodemocracy movement was the beginning of a process of integration in national politics and decision making. With an elected Parliament and demands for an equitable allocation of resources to different regions, it was likely that all regions would compete for equality in national politics and that the monopoly of power by select families would erode, as would the excessive influence of the Kathmandu Valley Brahman, Chhetri, and Newar elites.
At the beginning of 1990, the panchayat system still dominated Nepal. Although the institution itself was the object of derision from opponents of the panchayat system, it appeared unthreatened. Within a few months, however, its position eroded and then crumbled with bewildering speed. The surge of the successful prodemocracy movement sweeping Eastern Europe, parts of the Soviet Union, and several Asian countries profoundly inspired the Nepalese people. Also contributing to the sudden transformation were the economic woes of Nepal, exacerbated by India's refusal to renew a trade and transit agreement; widespread bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption at all levels of government; the misgivings openly expressed by the international donors over the country's inefficient use of aid; and a deplorable record on human rights.
In January 1990, the Nepali Congress Party held its first national convention in thirty years in Kathmandu. It was well attended by party delegates from all districts and observers from all political parties. Also present was a multiparty delegation from India, headed by Janata Dal (People's Party) leader Chandra Shekhar, who subsequently became Indian's prime minister. The Nepali Congress Party cooperated with the United Left Front parties, a coalition of seven communist factions, in a joint program to replace the panchayat system with a multiparty political system and launched the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, or prodemocracy movement.
Beginning on February 18, 1990--the thirty-ninth anniversary of King Tribhuvan's declaration of a multiparty democracy and the thirtieth anniversary of the antidemocratic usurpation of power by the palace--a series of spontaneous and sometimes turbulent mass demonstrations rocked major cities. People took to the streets to demand the restoration of a multiparty democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms. The success of the Kathmandu bandh (general strike) by prodemocracy forces on March 2 was repeated in other parts of the country over the course of seven weeks. By the time the movement succeeded in totally uprooting the panchayat system, at least fifty people were dead, and thousands were injured as a result of the force used by the authorities in suppressing the agitation. The government also had incarcerated national and district-level leaders of both the Nepali Congress Party and the United Left Front.
Unable to contain the widespread public agitation against the panchayat system and the mounting casualties, and fearing for the survival of his own monarchical status, King Birendra lifted the ban on political parties on April 8. The unrest persisted. In the midst of continued violence, a royal proclamation on April 16 dissolved the Rashtriya Panchayat and invalidated provisions of the 1962 constitution inconsistent with multiparty democracy. The next day, the king named Nepali Congress Party President K.P. Bhattarai, a moderate who had spent fourteen years as a political prisoner, as prime minister and head of the interim government. The government also freed all political prisoners, lifted control of all domestic and foreign publications, and established a commission, known as the Mullick Commission, to investigate the recent loss of life and property.
The eleven-member Bhattarai cabinet, composed of four members of the Nepali Congress Party, three members of the United Left Front, two human rights activists, and two royal nominees, was immediately entrusted with the task of preparing a new constitution and holding a general election. Pending the adoption of a new constitution, the interim government agreed that Nepal should remain under the 1962 constitution. In the interest of continuity and orderly management of public business, the interim government resisted demands from the left for a mass purge of the bureaucracy and die-hard panchayat elements. Bhattarai's goal was national reconciliation in a multiparty democracy.
After nine months of politicking, the constitution was proclaimed on November 9, 1990. Elections to the House of Representatives were held on May 12, 1991. The new government faced the immediate problems of restoring law and order, providing economic relief to the populace, and establishing its claim to sound administration, a somewhat difficult task because the parties of the interim government had been in the opposition for a long period of time. Furthermore, pro-panchayat thugs who had tried to foment chaos and law and order problems to discredit the new government had to be brought under control. The situation improved as many former panchayat leaders who had previously supported moves for a multiparty democracy openly supported the political changes and offered to cooperate with the new government- -taking advantage of political opportunism.
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