Nepal’s Maoist movement is marked singularly by the fact that in the early 1990s, when the movement began, communism was falling out of favour elsewhere in the globe. The Soviet Union, the only Communist world power in the 20th century, was collapsing. The German reunification had happened. Neighbouring India was curbing its socialist tendencies to recast itself as a liberal political economy. It was only Nepal’s other neighbour, China, which remained left of the centre, but only as far as the political and legislative structure was concerned. Its economic policy was headed quite in the opposite direction. So what really precipitated the Maoist revolution in Nepal?
Aditya Adhikari’s The Bullet and the Ballot Box shapes our understanding of this, and also of how Nepal’s Maoist revolution shaped up in the years to 2008, when the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), now the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), formed a popularly-elected government after a prolonged civil war ended the Shah dynasty’s 240-year-old monarchy in Nepal.
The book avoids the assumption of informed readers, and puts its vast research within the reach of the layman. The author begins by placing Nepal’s politics, society and governance in its historical context, though the real detailing is from the 1960s. Since the mid-18th century, Nepal’s had been a monarchy that survived despite being on a clearly self-destructive path, right until the late-2000s. The institution of the monarch had always been high-handed, enjoying almost complete power, despite the impression of a democratic tinge.
The brazen usurping of power by the monarch alienated the educated, mostly upper-caste families in the cities. It is from these families that the leaders of Nepal’s Maoist revolution rose; for instance, Baburam Bhattarai—he later became prime minister—who completed a doctoral programme at JNU in Delhi. Adhikari explains, “…while the central government in Kathmandu embarked on a nationwide expansion of formal education, teaching the diverse Nepali people about the grand attainment of their nationhood through the efforts of the glorious Shah royal family, small sections of the population, introduced to another kind of modern education, were simultaneously learning that the state elite was guilty of feudal oppression”.
Sometime in the early 1990s, the ‘differently-educated’ leaders began to articulate that the monarchy, the parties kowtowing to Narayanhiti Palace and the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) were responsible for the despair of the people. This disillusionment became fertile ground for armed revolution. On February 4, 1996, the Maoists, under the leadership of Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, sent a charter of demands to PM Sher Bahadur Deuba, listing 40 demands, threatening a civil war if the demands were not met. On February 13, after Deuba’s government turned down the demands, Nepal’s Peoples War was declared.
Adhikari gives us glimpses of those years of war with a powerful narration of the clashes and the intrigues; of life of the rebels and the changing discourse in Kathmandu. It is this changing discourse that facilitated pacts and talks between elected legislators and the Maoists and the elected government and the monarch. The many parleys and their attendant intrigues (all the makings of a political potboiler) kept each side wary. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, the civil war would have perhaps gone on for longer than it did—but for the last king of the Shah dynasty over-reaching in trying to seize absolute power. Intra- and inter-party differences were quickly forgotten by mainstream political parties, and an accord was reached with the Maoists, who agreed to join electoral politics, more out of recognition of the political reality than any opportunistic reasons. Adhikari sums up the astuteness of realpolitik, writing: “…for Bhattarai, the Maoists’ acceptance of multi-party competition was a political necessity. The experience of twentieth-century communist regimes had shown how one-party states could turn into oppressive dictatorships. He believed, therefore, that Marxists of the twenty-first century had to incorporate certain aspects of liberal democracy into their model state.”