Marx's Kathmandu comeback

Communist government in Nepal sets out to fight poverty - with a nod to the Hindu gods

Tim McGirk
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:50

Marxists have come to power in Nepal, a kingdom where Hinduism is so deeply rooted that the state airline once a year sacrifices a herd of buffalo on the runway of Kathmandu airport to ward off crashes, and where a virgin girl is worshipped as an incarnation of a bloodthirsty goddess.

The victory of the United Marxist-Leninist Party in the recent elections stunned many Nepalese, especially King Birendra, who had banned political parties until 1990 and kept most communists locked in jail. Lenin's portrait may hang in the UML party headquarters in a Kathmandu alley, wedged between the Oxford Language Institute and the Annapurna Nursing Home.

But it is doubtful if he or Marx would recognise this Himalayan hybrid of communism in a kingdom where common folk dare not look into the face of their monarch, for he is considered to be the avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Even Nepal's communists, who in the old days received infusions of cash and ideology from the USSR, China and North Korea, are no longer sure of their own identity. Man Mohan Adhikary, 74, the party leader and new Prime Minister, admitted sheepishly that he was more of a social democrat than a Marxist. The hammer and sickle fell off the party's logo several years back, and a shining sun rose there in its place. On their election win, the communists daubed auspicious ''tikkas'' - blobs of yoghurt and turmeric - on each other's foreheads.

The reason Nepal turned to communism just when it had fallen into disrepute nearly everywhere else is that the country is miserably poor. Dubby Bhagat, a writer, said: ''The communists would go into the villages and point to the richest man's house. 'See that house?' they'd say. 'If we communists win, you and I will share it'.'' This simplistic message, delivered in a country where 50 per cent of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of 32 families, proved compelling.

Power and land in Nepal has traditionally belonged to the Rana warlord clan, but their riches are vanishing: the Ranas found business too tiresome and turned over their affairs to a handful of traders who are now far wealthier than their aristocratic masters.

Mr Adhikary, sworn in as Prime Minister on Wednesday, is a bookish man with a grizzled beard and glasses that sit cockeyed under his Nepalese cap. A union activist who joined Indian protests against British rule in the 1940s, his guru is not so much Mao or Marx as Jyoti Basu, the pragmatic communist chief minister of West Bengal. Mr Basu brought in moderate land reforms and raised education and health standards to above India's average. Mr Adhikar will probably follow the same route. He says he will not nationalise companies or confiscate land.

The United Marxist-Leninist Party is only recently united and may not remain so for long. Mr Adhikary comes from the Marxist side, while most of his cabinet are Leninists. These labels may seem outdated with everyone hustling to reincarnate themselves as social democrats, but many diplomats and Nepalese are concerned that the Leninists may be far more revolutionary than they are letting on. Many of them belong to a Maoist guerrilla movement which in the 1970s swept through rich farmlands and beheaded feudal landowners.

A popular pro-democracy revolt, which started in 1990, forced King Birendra to give up his divine, absolute rule and settle for a constitutional monarchy. So far, the king has resisted meddling in politics and has kept his army in barracks.

The Nepalese Congress Party won the country's first elections under a multi-party system, but their government collapsed in July, rotted by corruption, nepotism and feuds. In the 15 November elections, the communists won 88 out of 205 parliamentary seats. As the largest party, they were invited by the king to form a minority government. Few think they will survive the full five-year term.

The leader of the Leninists within the cabinet is Madhav Nepal, a former bank clerk who now holds the portfolios of deputy premier, defence and foreign affairs. His radicalism is tempered by several constraints. If the communists overturn society too violently, vital aid from western countries would be cut off. The communists' promise of free electricity and water for peasants already has the World Bank worried about how Nepal will afford to pay back loans for a big hydro-electric project. India, Nepal's powerful southern neighbour, would never permit Nepal to escape from its own orbit into communist China's. Nepalese may dislike the Indians, but they have distrusted the Chinese even more since the invasion of Tibet.

Despite the communists' victory, a growing number of Nepalese showed their disenchantment with democracy by voting for a feudalist party. The communists advocate redistribution of wealth, but many politburo members, including Mr Adhikary, are high-caste Brahmins, who own large properties.

The Brahmin caste produces Hinduism's priests, and these communists know only too well that in this Himalayan land, the gods are still far closer to the people than the politicians are. One of the Prime Minister's acquaintances said: ''Adhikary and other Marxist-Leninists do not perform the Hindu rituals every morning before going to their party headquarters - their families do it for them instead.''

(Photograph omitted)

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