Nepal’s recent history has been marked by milestones popularly remembered as People’s Movements. The first one in 1980 got us a referendum on the absolute monarchy. In 2006, the people took to the streets for peace and democracy.
This week, after riot police beat up civic groups and hosed them down with water cannons, there were calls once more for another pro-democracy uprising. A video clip went viral of journalist and writer Narayan Wagle stabbing the air with his forefinger: “This is the beginning of a third people’s movement.”
There had been much larger protests in recent weeks against Prime Minister Oli’s dissolution of the Lower House on 20 December, but police had stood by. Why they had to use batons and point blank water cannons against a small and peaceful march is inexplicable, unless it was to provoke a backlash.
Previous pro-democracy street protests have seen the emergence of a new political order, except in 1980 when the referendum allowed the absolute monarchy to prevail. A decade later, protests led to a lifting of the ban on political parties, ushering in a constitutional monarchy. The 2006 protests were as much a movement for peace as it was against King Gyanendra trying to turn the clock back.
The winter of 2020-21 will be remembered as one where civic groups once more had to take to the streets against what they saw as an autocratic prime minister riding roughshod over the Constitution.
The street protests have mostly been dominated by cadre loyal to the anti-Oli faction of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) as well as some pro-democracy activists. It has not yet galvanised the public, which seems to see it still as largely a power struggle between top men in the ruling party who were unable to resolve their personal differences.
This ego-clash has led to the virtual split of a party that had a commanding majority in Parliament with both factions competing for bigger street rallies.
After last week’s show of force by the Dahal faction, the Oli establishment is staging his own superspreader street event on 5 February. Most analysts agree that if only Oli and his arch-rival Pushpa Kamal Dahal could call a truce, the division in the party would evaporate.
Into the fray has plunged Bam Dev Gautam, a NCP secretariat member who has made no secret of his ambition to be prime minister even if he lost the 2017 election. On Wednesday, he launched a national campaign to unite the party, possibly with himself at the helm.
“I am not with either faction, both are at fault. I am trying to keep the party united,” Gautam told the media. “I have the influence to return Oliji and Prachandaji back to speaking terms.”
The opposition Nepali Congress has tried, unsuccessfully so far, to fill the void left by a weakened NCP. But it is the Hindu-Right RPP that has picked some wind on its sails, prompting a Communist prime minister to resort to whataboutery by offering prayers at Pashupati, garlanded to the chin.
“This for the long time will remain the defining image of Nepali Communist Andolan!” wrote lawyer Semanta Dahal on Twitter.
Where does the course of politics go from here? Much will depend on the Supreme Court verdict, as the debates drag on and writs keep piling up. Another case on Wednesday was a contempt of court against four former Chief Justices for questioning its independence.
“While the Supreme Court hears depositions, both parties are competing in using abusive language against each other and to organise bigger street tamasha,” says commentator Shekhar Kharel.
There is still a role for civil society to instill fresh hope as Nepalis look beyond the same old faces. But there is a caveat. Every time young turks have risen up, the older political parties have made sure to relegate them to the second rung.