Development of Democracy in Modern Nepal

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by Chandra Prakash Singh 23 August 2019

The winds of change began blowing in the thirties when anti-Rana organisations were formed and the Prachanda Gurkha in 1931, and the Praja Parishad in 1935. Several Nepalese leaders of the time including B.P. Koirala and D.R. Regmi took a very active role in Indian Nationalist movement and even jailed by the British. In the changed circumstances, they began to think of founding an organisation to carry on the struggle for democracy in Nepal. They founded the ‘All India Nepali National Congress’ at Varanasi on 31 October 1946 with the guidance and support of Indian socialists like Jayaprakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia, in particular. The then Rana regime received a great jolt in August 1947 when the British withdrew from the Indian subcontinent, and the new Indian dispensation refused to cooperate with the Nepalese autocracy as earlier. Further, for a number of years Kathmandu witnessed political instability which resulted in ‘Delhi Settlement’ with the help and interference of the then Indian government. Ultimately, King Mahendra who assumed power in March 1955 promised for holding the first ever Parliamentary elections in 1959.

The first dawn of democracy

In that kind of situation, Nepal needed first a constitution which provided for Parliamentary system and acting on the idea King appointed a Constitution Commission with Bhagwati Prasad Singh as Chairman and four other members. On 12 February 1959, the King gave Nepal a 77– Article Constitution which ensured a Parliamentary form of Government based on universal franchise. It was presented to the nation just a week before the Parliamentary elections were to be held. The constitution was modeled on the British pattern and incorporated all the characteristics of parliamentary democracy. The Parliament was to be made of two Houses – the House of Representatives (Pratinidhi Sabha) and the Senate (Maha Sabha), including the King. Pratinidhi Sabha was an elected House having 109 seats.
The election process for the House of Representatives started on 18 February and ended on April 13, 1959. The Nepali Congress, the largest of all political parties, who commanded a mass base, won 74 seats out of 109. The Nepali Congress polled the highest number of votes; however, the percentage of its polled votes was less than 15 percent of the total electorates and about 37 percent of the total votes polled. Next to it was Gurkha Parishad who got 19 seats. In entire nine political parties participated in this first general election of Nepal’s history.

Further developments followed as per the schedule. On 4 May 1959, B.P. Koirala was elected leader of the Congress Legislative Party and the next day, the Constitution had accepted the principle that the leader of the Majority Party in the House of Representatives would be the Prime Minister. After a gap of ten days King Mahendra invited B.P. Koirala to form his government, and consequently, on 27 May 1959, a 19– member Council of Ministers was constituted with 8 Cabinet Ministers and 11 Deputy Ministers. The contrary was the fact that formation of the Council of Ministers took place before the King inaugurated the commencement of the Constitution which came into force on 30th June 1959 and the Parliament on 4th July 1959.

Under the new Constitution which provided for the Parliamentary System, several arrangements were simultaneously made that undermined the Parliamentary sovereignty. In it, the King was empowered to reject the recommendation of the Prime Minister to summon or dissolve Parliament. Another infringement was relating to the post of the Prime Minister in which the King was given the discretion to appoint even an outsider to the office of the Prime Minister if he found no person commanding the confidence of the majority in the House. The King was given power to dismiss the Prime Minister after consulting the Rastra Parishad (Council of States). But above all, the constitution itself was the result of the King’s promulgation. The first elected government of Nepal, under the premiership of B.P. Koirala was allowed to function having sandwiched between people’s aspirations and King’s uncontrolled powers.

As a result months after the formation of the new dispensation signs of clash between the King and the Prime Minister began to take shape towards the end of 1959. Provocation was provided by Koirala’s assertion at a public meeting in Nepalganj that he derived his authority from a mandate of the electorate, which implied that he could not be thrown out at the pleasure of the King. The growing power and prestige of Koirala both inside and outside Nepal pained King Mahendra and he feared the end of royal power in Nepal.

Post-dismissal Effects

The fear of His Majesty was translated into action on December 15, 1960, when King Mahendra took over the government by a Royal Proclamation, dissolved parliament, deposed all ministers including B.P. Koirala. The reasons for abrogating the system were explained in the royal proclamation which stated that stability and progress expected to be brought about by the elected government had remained unfulfilled; administration was paralysed and lawlessness had become rampant; selfish and group interests had gained momentum. Thus for ending this sorry state of affairs and for furthering the cause of democracy suspension of parliamentary system had become necessary in the national interest.

The official version of the causes was inadequate. Politically, two charges were levelled against the Parliamentary system that brought its end. In the first place there was no adequate background for the smooth functioning of the Parliamentary system and the people were not prepared for the system. Secondly, the political parties, instead of enlightening the public were misleading and confusing the people. However, at the heart of the matter remained the fact that King Mahendra was opposed to political parties because he viewed every kind of organised popular force as a threat to his absolute power.The King suspected that the Nepali Congress leaders were indulging in a plot for the eventual abolition of monarchy.

Externally too, it was considered as a serious setback to the democratic efforts in the country. Since the coming of King Mahendra in 1955 he adopted the policy of diversifying Nepal’s political and economic relations with regional and world powers at large. They all helped Nepal in the hope that the country, having self-reliant economically would be able to stand on its own feet politically broadening the base for democratic norms.

Cooperation between the two elements of the time – the King and the Nepali Congress was the need of the hour. By taking over the government, the King had virtually imposed a dictatorial rule in Nepal. The event reminded the prophetic words of King Tribhuvan who told Koirala nine years ago” you don’t know my son (Mahendra). He is a thorough reactionary ……….. a diehard Rana supporter ……. He will make Nepal, and he will make all of you, weep.

The changeover from democracy to dictatorship continued in Nepal for decades. King Mahendra ruled and reigned till his death in January 1972. His death was followed by the coronation of his son King Birendra, during whose dispensation, the agitation for restoration of democracy was fastened. The age-old system of absolute monarchy in Nepal was replaced by constitutional monarchy on April 8, 1990. King Birendra agreed to the demands of the people for putting an end to partyless Panchayat system. He agreed to a new constitutional arrangement in which he would continue to be head of the state but the governance would be the responsibility of a cabinet answerable to Parliament.An Interim Government was formed on 19 April 1990 with Krishna Prasad Bhattarai as the Prime Minister of the country. Elections on a multi-party basis were held in May 1991, resulting in a clear, though thin majority for the Nepali Congress. Next to it was the Communist Party of Nepal, who registered a strong presence in Nepalese legislature.

Democracy restored
With the coming of Democracy in Nepal in the early nineties social and political power of Maoism was felt in Kathmandu. For centuries and with the advent of King Mahendra, despite diversification of foreign economic relations of Nepal with major regional and world superpowers, the country remained backward in spheres of agriculture, industry, trade and commerce, health facilities, road and transport, education etc. On the otherhand Nepal not only established its diplomatic relations with various countries but made them strong from politico-strategic points of view, especially at the cost of its age-old intimacy with New Delhi. Though Nepal’s diplomatic relations with China was established in August 1955, the latter had left far behind India and other powers in influencing the Palace and the people of the country. The main reasons for forceful entry of Maoism in Nepalese society and politics were the economic backwardness of Nepal and Kathmandu’s strong political relations with the Peking. However, no less important role was played by the internal dissensions of the Nepali Congress which not only made Maoism a strong force in Nepal but The Communist Party of Nepal – United Marxist- Leninist emerged as the single largest Party in the general elections, held in November 1994 and formed government under the premiership of Manmohan Adhikari.The Nepali Congress was only a few seats behind the Communists, it was a moral defeat, accepted so by Koirala.

Despite the establishment of constitutional monarchy Nepal lacked political stability on account of dissensions among the leaders of Nepali Congress and rising power of Maoism. Economic and social backwardness of Nepal added fuel to the fire and a large section of the people began to lean towards the Marxist ideology. Gradually Nepal was moving towards a phase of lawlessness. It gave birth to Maoist insurgency which disliked the King and the Political system, equally.

In fact, the deteriorating condition of Nepal was a failure of the political system itself. The Parliamentary system has been failed miserably in managing popular aspirations of economic well-being and social justice. Political leaders and elected representatives of the people gave priority to their preoccupations with power and pelf rather than to the concerns of their wider social constituencies. However, the king himself played a significant role in deserting the political system and did not hesitate to quietly patronise the unfolding Maoist rebellion during 1996-2001. In an abrupt and dramatic development the bloody night of June 1, 2001, came and the Crown Prince Dipendra murdered his parents along with other relatives. Gyanendra, the younger brother of King Birendra, became the new King of Nepal. The year not only witnessed a complete transformation of the monarchy following the palace massacre but it also lent greater stridency to the Maoist rebellion that had already gained a considerable social support and self confidence to challenge the kingdom’s armed forces.

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