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General Elections in Nepal - a Preliminary Assessment:

 

The results of 199 constituencies out of 205 of the General Elections of in Nepal have come in.   The Nepali Congress (NC) has obtained a comfortable majority with 109 seats and  the United Marxist League (UML) has secured 67 seats.  The Rashtriya Praja Party has won 11 seats and other minor parties make up the balance 12 seats announced so far.  The elections were generally peaceful.  The call for boycott of the elections from the NCP (Maoist) had a poor response except in remote parts of  Rukum and Dolpa districts. 

In the first General elections in 1991 conducted after the introduction of Constitutional monarchy, the Nepali Congress had obtained a clear majority, but could not produce a stable government for long due to infighting amongst the top three leaders, G.P.Koirala- the then Prime minister, Ganesh Man Singh, the Supreme leader of Nepali Congress and K.P.Bhattarai, the Party President. It is hope of many well wishers of Nepal that the present government will last its full term. 

The second General election produced a fractured Parliament with no clear majority for anyone.  Numerous permutations and combinations were tried, six in all, but none resulted in a stable government.  For a while, it was thought that the United Marxist government led by the late veteran communist Man Mohan Adhikari would have a long tenure, but even that failed due to infighting amongst the UML with the party splitting almost vertically with Bam Dev Gautam leading the break away faction. Significantly, Bam Dev Gautam's party did not win a single seat this time. 

In the present election, contrary to the general belief that there will once again be a "hung" parliament, the people of Nepal have given a clear mandate to the Nepali Congress for stability and progress. 

It had often been felt by those who supported the democratic movement in Nepal in 1990 both from inside and outside, that the change to democratic polity had not resulted in "good governance" and some cynics said the people appeared to be  better off  in the old Panchayat regime when parliament members were selected and not elected!   Until 1990, Nepal had not either experienced democracy as is generally known or seen the working of  democratic institutions.  People  who had high expectations from their political leaders in the changed regime were justifiably disappointed.  Many of those leaders who had suffered immensely in the Panchayat regime and had sacrificed their entire youth for the cause of the democratic movement were found to have lost their ideals.  They began to enrich themselves at break neck speed. With the exception of one or two, it was not the case with the first generation of the leaders in independent India.  People who were traveling by cycles were suddenly seen moving about in imported luxury cars.  Those who used to buy bread from "Krishna Pavrotti"( a bread outlet for the common man in Kathmandu) were seen buying bread from Annapurna, the five star hotel on the Durbar road near the Palace! 

The scramble for power, position and wealth by those who had worked for democracy till then saddened many.  From the Indian side, the expectation that the Indo Nepal relations will not only improve but that the economic relations will be  placed on a stronger footing, was belied.  Article 126 of the Constitution introduced by the interim government led by K.P.Bhattarai  virtually foreclosed any meaningful cooperation in the field of water resources also.  Water was one asset which Nepal had in plenty and a very useful straight forward commercial relationship could have built up in the last eight years.  But despite regular talks and agreements, nothing had changed on the ground. 

Winners and Losers: 

The Nepali Congress leadership except for Shailaja Acharya has generally got through.  Like Robert Bruce, Bhattarai tried again and again and finally succeeded in winning in Parsa, which he contested once before.   For this, he should thank the Terains though he had no special love for them.  One welcome winner is P.L.Singh, the adopted son of late Ganesh Man Singh.  Singh is generally liked by all factions in the Nepali Congress and he is considered to be a "doer."  He is friendly, accessible and popular. He should do well.  

The UML led by Madhav Nepal will be the main opposition.  When the communists came to power earlier after the second general elections, there were misgivings in India that they may prove to be trouble some to India, but were proved wrong.  The General Secretary of UML, Madhav Nepal who visited India as Deputy Prime minister earned the respect and admiration of many in India by conducting himself with dignity and proving to be an astute politician attuned to the needs of Nepal.  He was one person who took it upon himself to get the agreement on Mahakali river going as he realised, more than the Nepali Congress leaders that the economic salvation of Nepal lies in meaningful economic cooperation with India. 

The RPP ( Rashtriya Prajathanthra party, also known as National Democratic Party) has made a good showing winning 11 seats.  Prominent losers were its Secretary- Rabindra Sharma and Dr. P.C.Lohani.  The last one was an eminent intellectual and though one may not agree with his views, he had a point of view and was impressive in the debates in the Rashtriya Panchayat. 

The Nepal Sadbhavana party improved its position, by winning five seats but its popular leader of Terai, Gajendra Narain Singh lost in Saptari by a narrow margin of 17 votes.  Gajendra Narain Singh had untiringly worked for  Terain causes and he symbolised the aspirations of the Terai people as a whole.  His rejection by the people is a surprise.  There were complaints that he was becoming too autocratic and had never allowed other leaders to "grow."  Perhaps G.N.Singh will have some time now to take up the organisational work of the party. 

The new Government: 

Unless there is some last minute change, Bhattarai is expected to be selected as the leader of the parliamentary party of Nepali Congress.   He is a product of Benares Hindu University and a scholar in his own right.  Though jovial and affable he was never considered to be a serious person and is prone to flippant statements.  He is also easily swayed by the coterie round him.  Most important is his health factor.  Some people feel that he is too senile to lead the party.  He needs the full support of Girija Prasad Koirala, who surprisingly even before the elections gave away the leadership of the parliamentary party to Bhattarai.  It is necessary for both the leaders to sink their differences, forget the bitterness of the past and work together for the full term. 

Tasks before the Government: 

The government has many problems to attend to.  Some of the more important ones are 

 * Cabinet formation: Bhattarai has to accommodate all factions in the composition of the Cabinet.  Firstly, there is the division between those who remained outside the Panchayat regime and those who crossed over after the introduction of the Constitutional monarchy.  Secondly, in the past, Kathmandu valley took the lion's share in the cabinet.  A fair representation to include the northern and the Terai regions will have to be worked out.  Thirdly the G.P.Koirala's faction will have to be given its due share if there is to be some stability.  

 * Indo-Nepal Relations: There has been a demand for revision of the 1950 Indo-Nepal treaty.  This demand is from all sections of the people of Nepal.  It is time that India reviews its position with regard to such treaties not only with Nepal but with Bhutan also.  These treaties were well suited for the colonial era but are no longer relevant in the present day globalised economic order where each country has voluntarily given up a part of its sovereignty for the economic good of the whole.  No alliance on reasons of security can be forced on any sovereign country.  
   
Some policy makers in India complain that Nepal is not clear as to what it wants.  This is not true.  What Nepal wants is the removal of certain humiliating clauses affecting its sovereignty like import of arms, compulsory consultations with India on certain matters and at the same time retaining the "people friendly" provisions like free flow of people and goods between the two countries.  This can be worked out. 

In the near term, there is no possibility in the improvement of bilateral schemes relating to water resources.  Until Nepal realises that it has a level playing field in the exploitation of its water resources no progress is possible. 

*  The Maoist menace: The continuing law and order problem created by the Maoists in some of the remote northern districts needs to be attended to.  The Indian newspaper Hindu in one of its editorials has described the problem as "exaggerated."  The problem cannot be treated lightly as is prone to be when it occurs in remote regions and the capital, Kathmandu is not affected.  It is more a social problem and has to be tackled as such.  It has already taken more than 800 lives, a figure, big enough for a small country like Nepal. 

*   Economic Development: Bhattarai in one of his first meetings with the Press, mentioned poverty alleviation as his priority.  Nepal which had a surplus of food has become a net importer.  Agricultural production in the Terai region has come down dramatically.  Dependence on foreign aid for balancing the budget is continuing.  The tourist industry which is the main foreign exchange earner continues to be sluggish.  Literacy rate is below 40 percent and communications with remote regions are practically absent. Problems are galore.  Nepal needs the good will of India for its economic prosperity. 

*  Bhutanese refugees in the east: The Bhutanese refugees now in Nepal exceed 100,000.  Bhutan has taken a stand in the past that in the absence of a stable government in Nepal no progress can be made in the identification and repatriation of the refugees.  Dependence on UNHCR for sustaining the refugees cannot be continued indefinitely.  There is need for a new initiative. 

Future: 

Is Nepal moving towards a viable political order?  Much would depend upon the performance of the government being formed by the Nepali Congress.  The King as the constitutional head of the country has conducted himself in an exemplary manner.  Nepal though small in size, is as much a multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-cultural country like India.  The King is still the unifying factor, though there is no going back to the old Panchayat days. 

Dr.S.Chandrasekharan.                        27.5.99 

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