In recent years, Nepal has experienced the most exotic trajectory of any Asian nation, going in one bound from being a feudal monarchy ruled by an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu to a democratic republic governed by Maoists. Unfortunately that is where it has stalled.
The monarchy, in the form of the highly unpopular King Gyanendra, called it a day in 2008 after a bloody, decade-long Maoist insurgency. Elections were held; the Maoists, today known as the Unified Communist Party of Nepal, emerged as the largest party and their chief, usually referred to by his nom-de-guerre, Prachanda (“the Fierce One”), became Prime Minister. But then the same sort of political stagnation and drift that had marked the insurgency years returned. Prachanda resigned in 2009. Since the monarchy’s abdication, six governments have tried to turn the landlocked country of 27 million people around; all have failed.
This week Nepal took a crucial step towards breaking that cycle of failure, holding elections to elect a constitutional assembly that could bash together the nation’s political infrastructure and finally set the country on a new and more constructive path. Few doubted the importance of the poll: Jimmy Carter showed up last week to monitor them, declaring them “a momentous step forward”. After the polls closed he pronounced himself satisfied. “The international observers, the domestic observers and all the major parties say it was a surprisingly good and fair… election,” he said.
But he spoke too soon. Now the Fierce One claims the election was fixed, and he has thrown the whole process into disarray. “We want an immediate end of vote counting and a review of the whole process of the election,” he said on Wednesday. It was probably not a coincidence that his own once dominant party, appeared headed for third place. Prachanda himself lost his Kathmandu seat to a Nepali Congress party centrist.
It is not surprising that Maoists should refuse to accept the results of the ballot box, even when – perhaps especially when – all other political forces are united in saying the vote was fair. Maoism was never about the ballot box, as Mao Zedong himself – 120 next month – would doubtless remind his comrades across the Himalayas if he were able. More fool the Fierce One for not seeing his revolution through to its logical, bloody conclusion.
It was the bloodshed that was the most horrible thing about the insurgency. This is not Latin America, with its long history of violence: until recently this was one of those secretive Himalayan monarchies, inaccessible to the outside world. The living god in his palace conducted an antique brand of government that was effectively a branch of religion, aided by his priests, soothsayers and astrologers. His writ hardly extended beyond the Kathmandu Valley. Outside the valley, the lives of the impoverished peasants had changed little in centuries.
Nepalese Maoism was cooked up on the campuses of Indian universities and envisaged the revolution spreading down from the peaks right across the Indian subcontinent like a red stain. The Maoist version of communism was preferred to the Leninist one because, as in China, it assumed not a proletarian but a peasant uprising. It resonated strongly in those steep valleys. I know because I had the opportunity to witness one of the party’s secret mass meetings, deep in the mountains, attended by hundreds of farmers. In those remote villages where government was no more than a distant rumour, and which possessed none of the amenities of a modern state, no schools, no hospitals, no running water, no drainage pipes, the revolutionaries’ message was warmly received... When the Maoists came in and treated them like human beings and promised to transform their lives, they quickly converted to the cause.
Young men flocked to the flag and went off – to kill policemen. By the dozen. For this gentle country, with its long heritage of Buddhism and Hinduism, this was the ugliest legacy of the revolutionaries: the introduction of homicidal ruthlessness into a culture which knew nothing of such things. That ugly new seam of cruelty and killing may turn out to be the Maoists’ only lasting legacy. Now it is they, like the royal court and the Nepali Congress party before them, who are holed up in the Kathmandu valley, bickering with the rest of the political elite while enjoying the capital’s civilised amenities, the faraway villages where they converted and killed long forgotten.
If Mao could speak he would tell them, forget the ballot box – go back to the villages and organise! It may even happen. But one suspects that by now the charm of the capital’s fleshpots is too strong.