Karl-Heinz Kraemer
Department of Political Science of South Asia, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg

Equality and participation: preconditions for ways out of crisis

Paper presented at the conference on The Agenda of Transformation: Inclusion in Nepali Democracy,
organized by Social Science Baha, Kathmandu, 24-26 April 2003.

Nepal is striving for narrowing the gap to the modern world for the past fifty years or so. This is not an easy undertaking in view of the mediaeval like feudal structures that were prevalent at the end of Rana times. It is the special problem of countries in similar circumstances that, within an extremely short period of time, they have to pass through developments that have slowly grown over decades or centuries in modern industrial states.

This means a hopeless venture for countries like Nepal. It would not be justified to deny that Nepal has experienced enormous changes after 1950. The reasons for the failure of the 1990 system have only in part to do with the developments and events of the past twelve years. For the most part, they are sought out in developments and conceptions that go back to the founding years of the modern Nepali state, i.e. the late 18th and early 19th century.

Ways into crisis

The following table may provide an overview over the different reasons for political instability without laying claim to completeness.


Reasons for political instability in Nepal

political and legal factors

·         frustrated democratic expectations

·         not particularly well-balanced political representation

·         bad governance and disregard of the constitution and subordinate laws

·         corruption and missing credibility

·         inability of the government to guaranty security and human rights

·         politicians’ and royal striving for power

social and ethnic factors

·         historical roots of social inequality

·         under-representation and denied rights of women, ethnic groups, dalits and madhesis

·         missing educational reforms

·         unemployment and lack of perspectives for the youth

·         non-development of social security

economic factors

·         rural poverty

·         stagnation of production structures

regional factors

·         India

·         Nepal as venue of the Indo-Pakistan conflict

·         unsolved Bhutanese refugee problem

international factor

·         negative effects of foreign aid

·         consequences of September 11


Most of these factors are not new to Nepal. There are only a few that have originated in the 1990s or even very recently. The escalation of dissatisfaction and unrest along the lines of the older factors has a lot to do with the achievements of 1990 and later. There may have been shortcomings and contradictions in the constitution, disregard and misuse of the same by the political leaders, corruption as well as illusory promises and expectations. But ironically, it have been the positive improvements that have contributed to the growing discontent of greater sections of the society, e.g. better and extensive education, the guarantee of well formulated fundamental rights, a more or less liberal press, the formation of numerous organizations that provide for awareness and demand for civil rights, etc.

Expectations have been extremely high when the democratic system was introduced in 1990/91. First, the general public had been fed up with 30 years of panchayat politics, but the leaders of the political parties also used the transition to stir up expectations they should have known that they would never be able to fulfil. The country was already down in 1990, and no political party, whatsoever, would have been able to change this situation over night, despite great amounts of foreign money that flowed into the country.

The next factor has to do with the question of political representation. There are already a number of shortcomings in the constitution of 1990. They have to do with the upholding of traditional elements and structures even under the current democratic system. One of the basic factors in this context is the definition of the state as a Hindu state. This mixture of politics and culture prevents the participation and integration of greater sections of society that are non-Hindu or disadvantaged according to Hindu-social conceptions. All the political parties, who should be the vehicles of representation in the modern democratic system, are especially dominated by male Bahuns[1], to a lesser degree also by Chhetris and high caste Newars; missing democratic structures of the parties prevent an appropriate participation of all sections of society.

Bad governance is another important factor that has contributed to the great frustration in formally democratized Nepal. Every party claims that democracy only exists when it is in power; there is no democracy when other parties are in power. For their personal strive for power, the political leaders have misused the constitution and its provisions for more than 12 years. The total disregard of the directive principles and policies of the state (articles 24-26 of the constitution), self-destructive fighting within the parties upto party splitting, irrational coalitions for the mere reason of power, refusal of cooperation in basic questions of state politics, and the excessive and irresponsible use of else democratic pressure tools like demonstrations and bandhs, are to be mentioned in this context.

Corruption, not unknown in panchayat times, has reached unimaginable forms in current Nepal. It is only in very recent months that the state has started to call to account some of the leading persons, but a clear line is still not found. The obvious corruption and ineffective political behaviour have caused the loss of credibility of almost all party leaders.

The so-called people’s war, started by the Maoists in early 1996, can be interpreted as a way to express dissatisfaction with this situation. But the more or less honourable original demands of the Maoists take a backseat against their violent approach. The conflict has escalated over the years with the security forces not being able to guarantee security. On the contrary, the people in rural areas were in the same way afraid of Maoists and of state forces because of their total disregard of human rights.

The royal massacre of 2001 and its aftermath have further complicated the situation. Right from his accession to the throne, King Gyanendra has claimed that he wants to be an active monarch. After the previous government of Sher Bahadur Deuba had already dissolved parliament and local bodies, King Gyanendra finally finished the constitution on October 4 by grabbing sovereignty and executive powers. The illegitimate and incompetent government, installed by him one week later, was neither able to solve the Maoist conflict nor to restore democratic structures. Instead, the conflict was now between three forces: Maoists, political parties and monarchy/security forces. The recent ceasefire seems more to be the result of changed Maoist politics than of constructive government politics.

I have already mentioned the lack of participation and integration of greater sections of society. This has to do with the history and ways of state formation in Nepal. The stratified social system has once been applied and legalized by the ancestors of King Gyanendra and their high caste supporters. It still exists in the minds of many of the political leaders, and it is reflected by some articles of the constitution and numerous subordinate laws. Those affected most are members of ethnic groups, Dalits, Madhesis and the women in general.

The continuously high growth rate of population combined with better education has given rise to further tensions. Every year, hundreds of thousands of young people leave schools with their SLC dreaming of a better live. But there are no jobs and perspectives, especially for those of disadvantaged population groups. Thanks to their education, they are aware of their rights and of the deplorable state of affairs in Nepal. These young folks are a fertile breeding ground for revolutionary movements like that of the Maoists.

The economic and regional factors mentioned in the table probably need no further explanations. But I would like to remark something on the consequences of September 11. On the one hand, then Prime Minister Deuba used the chance to jump on the American bandwagon and tried to get foreign support for a forceful suppression of the Maoist insurgency. On the other hand, misunderstands the American government that this conflict has nothing to do with international terrorism, but that it is homemade because of the numerous reasons mentioned before. The obvious American pressure not to take the movement as a political but as a terrorist issue further complicates ways to a solution.

The state of the 1990 constitution

Nepal was in a state of lawlessness in early October 2002 with a more and more violent and escalating Maoist conflict, and power striving and irresponsible politicians that had brought all democratic institutions to a standstill. There were neither a democratically elected parliament nor local bodies nor was it possible to hold elections to these institutions in a foreseeable time. I other words, the people could no longer be called sovereign. The constitution of 1990 was already almost dead when King Gyanendra finally delivered the deathblow on October 4, 2002. There has been a heated debate in the following months with the king claiming to have acted on the basis of the constitution and the party leaders calling the royal step unconstitutional. I think that both are partly right and partly wrong, and I will explain this a little bit more.

In the same way does the commitment to democracy mean little. This phrase has also been in use during panchayat times when monarchy played an absolute role of representing and controlling executive, legislative and judicial powers. The use of plural forms when the king is talking about himself, finally reminds of the traditional absolute position of the monarch. This may be explained by grammatical rules of the Nepali language, but these seem to have their reason in this kind of traditional thinking.

In the second paragraph of his October 4 address, King Gyanendra repeats his claim of solidarity with the aspect of welfare and promotion of the Nepali citizens but, this time, it becomes specifically connected to his Shah dynasty, which united Nepal in her current form by military expansion and subjugation of other territories between 1743 and 1816.[2] Following this pretended tradition of benevolent Shah kings, King Gyanendra describes the introduction of democracy in 1990[3] as one such benevolent act of the Nepali Shah kings. All those who observed the events of 1990 carefully may find this interpretation quite disconcerting when they remember how the institution of monarchy had come under pressure during the people’s movement (jana andolan) of spring 1990, especially during the great demonstration in front of the royal palace on April 6, 1990. Gyanendra’s statement is further contradicting to the numerous attempts of the palace to save as much power as possible under the constitution promulgated on November 9, 1990. So, the institutional democratization of Nepal in 1990 was, in fact, not a benevolent and farsighted act of the Nepali monarchy, but it had to be forced out of monarchy by those who demonstrated on the streets, partly loosing their lives, and by their self-claimed representatives who organized the demonstrations and later entered into negotiations with the palace.

In his further statements, King Gyanendra correctly mentions that, during the past twelve years, a number of political exercises have been adopted for the consolidation of democracy. In some of these cases, the institution of monarchy has in so far been involved as it has been defined as royal executive and legislative tasks by the constitution of 1990. But contrary to the regulations of the panchayat constitution, the king’s executive and legislative rights and duties are exclusively those of a constitutional monarch. The king can only exercise executive power on the recommendation and advice, and with the consent of the council of ministers. In the same way, the king can no longer completely refuse his assent to bills or even change such bills at his own discretion as it was normal during panchayat days.

In his address of October 4, King Gyanendra referred to the dissolution of the House of Representatives which was accepted by him on the recommendation of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. And also the setting of November 13 as election day happened on the recommendation of the prime minister. On August 6, the Supreme Court (SC) decided that such kind of recommendation is a political prerogative of the prime minister.[4] In other words: the king has had no other chance than to dissolve parliament.

Against this background, King Gyanendra is right when he denies any personal responsibility for the dissolution of parliament and the setting of the election date. The correct holding of these elections became the main task of Sher Bahadur Deuba who, after the dissolution of parliament, was no more than the leader of a caretaker government. King Gyanendra is further right in his claim that this caretaker prime minister has asked him to remove difficulties that have arisen in connection with the implementation of the constitutional rules according to article 127 of the constitution. The question is, if this situation justifies the procedure of King Gyanendra in early October.

First, it must be decided in which way article 127 is to be applied. Naturally, this article can only be applied in cases that are not solved by other regulations of the constitution. The article simply mentions the king, i.e. the head of state, who can issue necessary orders to remove difficulties in the implementation of the constitution. Such orders must then be laid before parliament. This already makes clear that the king cannot act independently from other constitutional bodies. Since the application of article 127 is an executive function, the fundamental rules of executive procedures must be observed. This means according to article 35 (2) that the king can only act on the advice and recommendation and with the consent of the Council of Ministers.[5] Besides, three conditions have to be fulfilled: the application of this power must be objectively necessary and not subjectively desirable; the order to remove the difficulty must be nor more than necessary to remove it; the order must not be incompatible with any other provision of the constitution (Dhungel at al. 1998, p. 680).

King Gyanendra, in application of article 127, removed caretaker Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and his Council of Ministers out of office. But this was neither the recommendation of the prime minister nor was it the constitutional difficulty that had arisen. The problem as forwarded by Deuba was simply that he could not fulfil the constitutional regulation to hold general elections within six months after the dissolution of the house of representatives as prescribed by article 53 (4). The reasons for this shortcoming were manifold. First, the situation of law and order in face of the Maoist insurgency was not so to hold elections in November 2002. Secondly, the SC took about two and a half months to decide on the correctness of the dissolution of the house of representatives. Thirdly, the three member Election Commission (EC), itself a constitutional body, delayed the important decision on the recognition of the split Nepali Congress (NC) groups by more than three months. Fourthly, many oppositional politicians, especially Deuba’s estranged former party president Girija Prasad Koirala who simply rejected the decision of the SC, did everything to hinder preparations for the elections.

Thus, a constitutional application of article 127 would have meant, for example, that the period of time for the holding of elections was extended for some months. And this was exactly what Deuba had recommended when he approached king Gyanendra. This would have been a strong intervention into the regulations of the constitution but, against the background of the circumstances, it would have been justified. Gyanendra fulfilled this recommendation, but only in the second position and not mentioning a time limit, which is regarded as necessary for the application of article 127 (Dhungel et al., 1998, pp. 680 f.)

In the first position, King Gyanendra mentions the removal of caretaker Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and his Council of Ministers. This brings us to the question if the monarch has any constitutional right to remove a prime minister from office. The answer is given by article 36 (5) which mentions four reasons:

a)     if he submits his resignation to the king,

b)     if a no-confidence resolution has been passed by a majority of the total number of members of the House of Representatives

c)      if he ceases to be a member of the House of Representatives

d)     if he dies.

None of this happened, and other regulations are not to be found in the constitution. This leads to the conclusion that the removal of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and his Council of Ministers was an unconstitutional act. Either King Gyanendra has been misguided concerning the monarch’s constitutional role or he has acted fully aware of this breach of the constitution. In the latter case, his procedure would have been a putsch, maybe similar to that of his father in December 1960.

The final remarks of Gyanendra’s address already have little to do with constitutional monarchy. He mentions that he himself will undertake the responsibility of governance and that he himself will exercise the executive powers. He asks the political parties for cooperation and recommendations concerning the constitution of an interim council of ministers, and already sets the conditions for the composition of this council. In other words, this is the end of constitutional monarchy and democracy. The council of ministers and political parties are treated as executive instruments that can be used by the king on his own discretion. Leaving the existence of political parties aside, we seem to be back in panchayat times. In contradiction to this, Gyanendra claims that he will never allow any compromise on the commitment to constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy.

In the end, Gyanendra leaves open how he wants to make adequate arrangements for peace and security and to conduct the elections. More than ten months of mobilization of the army, whose supreme commander the king is, had brought nothing to improve the situation in the country. On the contrary, the political, social and cultural conditions in Nepal have never been worse than in recent years. If the state of emergency has proved anything, than that the conflict can never be solved by force.

But it would be too easy to use King Gyanendra as a scapegoat for Nepal’s political disaster, for he is not the only one who has broken constitutional rules after 1990. Unconstitutional behaviour and demanding has a tradition in institutionally democratized Nepal. This may only partly be excused by the inexperience of the party politicians and the miserable conditions of the country. Personal ambitions and power hunger of party leaders, short-sightedness dependent on cultural and traditional conceptions, lacking participation of and missing understanding for disadvantaged sections of Nepal’s multicultural society, all these are further reasons that have hampered the democratization process in Nepal.

Thus, I would claim that the constitution of 1990 and its political system was already dead when King Gyanendra took his step on October 4. And for this was not the king responsible but all the political parties including the CPN (Maoist). For the latter, it may have been some kind of success since they had fought to oust this system. Against this background, King Gyanendra’s step could have been seen as a final stroke to allow a new beginning if he had interpreted his step in this way. In this case, his breaking of the constitution would have been to safeguard the interests and the well being of the people. But he did not explain it in this way. Instead, he claimed to act on the basis of the 1990 constitution in the interest of democracy. Besides, he used every chance to have the institution of monarchy being celebrated in an unbearable manner as it last happened in panchayat times.

Seven months have already passed since the royal step, and neither the parties nor the king have moved a bit to find a solution. The leaders of the political parties only have their own power interests in mind[6], and the king uses this situation to prevent democracy and instead strengthen his own position. History seems to be repeating again in Nepal.

Ways out of crisis

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[1]      To remember: The male Bahuns constitute less than 6.5% of Nepal’s total population according to the census of 2001.

[2]      Without any doubt, Nepal owes her independent existence to the military actions of Prithvinarayan Shah and his successors. But as every other ruler in history, he had first of all his own power and affluence in mind and not the farsightedness of a benevolent king who does everything for his subjects, as it has time and again been pretended by the Nepali kings and their supporters.

[3]      The events of 1990 are usually called the reinstatement of democracy. During the 1950s Nepal had already faced a number of democratic experiments with young political parties favouring the introduction of a western type of democracy and a monarchy that, at the same time, managed to restore more and more of the absolute powers it had lost to the Ranas after 1846. There was only a small interval of democracy in 1959/60 with first general parliamentary elections and one and a half years of Nepali Congress government. But all this happened under a strong monarch Mahendra who still hold key positions of power under a constitution introduced by him in February 1959 only six days before the elections.

[4]      This decision of the Supreme Court came after contradictory decisions by the same institution in similar cases during the 1990s. In these earlier cases, the Supreme Court had gone into detail before it decided for one or the other side. In this way, the earlier decisions became strongly influenced by the political affiliation of the judges. With its recent decision, the Supreme Court has finally forged about the matter defining it as a political decision of the prime minister and thus keeping it out of future judicial quarrels.

[5]      This view is confirmed by the most fundamental commentary on the constitution: Dhungel, Surya P.S., Bipin Adhikari, B.P. Bhandari and Chris Murgatroyd. 1998. Commentary on the Nepalese Constitution. Kathmandu: DeLF, p. 679.

[6]      In the discussion that followed the royal step of October 4, there have been a lot of confusing discussions within the party camp, obviously depending upon the respective personal interests of the party leaders. So, NC president G.P. Koirala demanded the reinstitution of parliament, because his NC had an absolute majority in the dissolved parliament. In this case, the NC majority would have been preserved and there would have been a chance for Koirala to become prime minister again. But the SC had already decided that the dissolution of parliament was based on the constitution, and it also was not the reason for royal intervention. The UML leaders came forward with two different options. One was the support of Koiralas demand to revive parliament. The reason was simple: Madhav Kumar Nepal hoped that he would become prime minister in this case since his UML had become the strongest party after the split of the NC. The same reason lay behind the UML demand to form a UML government in application of article 128 of the constitution. But this was a ridiculous demand since article 128 belongs to the transitional provisions of part 21 of the constitution which could never be applied after once a government had been formed on the basis of the first general elections in 1991. Finally, Deuba wants his government re-installed, because this is his only chance to return to power. His demand may be rightful against the above analysis of the royal step, but there is every doubt that his government would ever be able to solve the national crisis.

[7]      I have written on this more extensively in my MA thesis (1978) as well as in a small book on Nepalese monarchy (1981).

[8]      There would be numerous examples. I only want to mention two. The process of Nepal’s unification by the Shah rulers of Gorkha is always presented and celebrated as a glorious, selfless and positive event which is only viewed from the perspective of the ruling elite. There is lack of a social historiography of Nepal that also includes the perspectives of those sections of Nepali society that had to suffer a lot of discrimination under this system (see Krämer, 2000). Another example, I want to mention, has to do with the celebration of festivals. There is still a great lack of understanding that the different ethnic groups also celebrate different festivals. So, why call Dasain the greatest and most important festival of all Nepalis if there are groups that celebrate festivals which are more important from the view of their own culture? It’s high time to see Nepal’s cultural wealth in its diversity.

[9]      I’m sure that this is also the problem of many of the current politicians. They have been made blind for the country’s social diversity and problems because of their own one-sided education.

[10]    See also David Gellner’s suggestions in his paper for this conference.

Copyright © 2003, Karl-Heinz Kraemer