The formation of the Communist Party of Nepal - Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) in 1991 marked a turning point in Nepal’s democratic politics. It was not because of the merger of two influential left parties: the CPN - Marxist and the CPN - Marxist-Leninist (ML). Mergers and splits among the parties on the left were so common that they would not even make the headlines, let alone a turning point. This particular merger became extraordinary because of its choreographer: Madan Kumar Bhandari, the then general secretary of the CPN-ML.
Foundation Bhandari had both vision and charisma. His vision of Nepal was a secular democratic country that would be led by the party that would garner a majority of votes in a free and fair election. Those in the opposition would critically watch the conduct of the party in power and support or oppose it based on merits. A leader of the left advocating so plainly for ‘multiparty democracy’ would irk the sceptics both on the left and the right. Bhandari would charismatically deal with both. He used the metaphor of ‘colour’ to moderate the left scepticism. “The colour of life is green,” said Bhandari to his colleagues on the left, while “the colour of the theory is grey.” Unless the ‘grey’ (fixed and static) theory was reinterpreted in light of changing times and made it compatible with the ‘green’ (evolving) needs of the people, the theory, as well as the holders of it, would go obsolete. Here, Bhandari was paraphrasing Marx that Nepal’s left should be able to change the lives of the people drawing on the ideology they had been pontificating.
To the sceptics on the right too, Bhandari would spare no words. “If you wish to indulge in politics,” he dared the constitutional monarch of the day, to “take off your crown and come to the ground to compete in elections.” It was Bhandari’s call on the monarchy to respect the negotiated order that was created after the end of the Panchayat system. It was also the reminder that right-wing shenanigans of any sort would not deter the force of change sweeping across Nepal. Bhandari’s unparalleled courage to weather the storm and his ability to live up to principles laid the foundation of the UML, which now has visibly come apart at the seams. Bhandari’s successors failed to nurture the political morality he tried to institutionalise within the party. Over a couple of years, and particularly since KP Sharma Oli’s ascent to the helm, the party has even started flip-flopping on two of its key founding principles: democratic politics and secularism.
Constitutional supremacy is the hallmark of the democratic order the UML under Bhandari’s leadership spent much time and energy establishing. However, the current leadership has blatantly tarnished this historical contribution of the party by trying to flout this very hallmark to achieve personal ambitions. Nothing illustrates this narrative better than the July 12 judgment of the Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court of Nepal. The judgment should be read – not once but many times – by the UML supporters and hopefuls.
Merit-based culture is what Bhandari stood for, at least publicly, as regards intra-party democracy. This culture soon gave way to cronyism, which allegedly started to take root soon after Bhandari. Over the last four years, the allegation has reached a new high and has also been a trigger to cost the premiership of KP Oli just over a month ago. The hasty appointment of Ashta Laxmi Shakya as the Chief Minister of Bagmati Province, on August 18, lends credence to this allegation.
As the outgoing Chief Minister Dormani Poudel hinted, Shakya’s appointment was in consideration of her shifting the alliance within the party (from Madhav Nepal faction to KP Oli’s). Given her history, seniority within the party and ability, Shakya was considered to be the most fitting candidate for the post as soon as provincial elections were over. However, she was not offered the position because of her fervent opposition to the kind of politics Oli was steering. However, after Madhav Nepal’s faction decided to establish a new party, following a months-long feud with Oli, Shakya was offered the position as she decided not to follow Nepal. Loyalty succeeded, it appears, where merit failed.
Constructive conflict handling is another. “Either you convince me or I will convince you” was Bhandari’s motto of handling differences. Bhandari would engage in serious conversations with those holding opposing ideas, aimed not at defeating and tearing the opponents down but empathising with them and, ultimately, winning them over. The current leadership is the polar opposite. Turn to prime-time television to enjoy the wrath.
In terms of secularism, UML appears to be what it is not. Like any other political party on the left, UML, under Bhandari’s leadership, launched its socio-political programme on the platform of secularism. It worked tirelessly to make the post-Panchayat constitution secular. Failing to do so, given the constitution being a negotiated document among multiple players, Bhandari registered a note of dissent in parliament. With KP Oli’s passion for Ayodhyapuri and the installation, in April, of the idols of Ram, Sita, Laxman and Hanuman amidst the fanfare not seen and heard of before, the UML under his leadership seems to be testing the water on his new plans. Alienated and cornered, largely because of his own, Oli is perhaps eyeing at exploiting Hindu nationalism to score an electoral victory in the upcoming election – in much the same way as the Bharatiya Janata Party has done in India – and prevail over his political opponents. No more comment on this myopic possibility except this curiosity: How would Madan Bhandari react to see his party on the borderline between Marxism and religious zealotism?
Alarming signs With a faction ready to split, and the ‘second generation’ failing to appeal to Oli’s organic urge to reason, all is not well with UML. A party that has played a crucial role in Nepal’s political transformation is on the verge of degeneration. A split in the UML will have a domino effect on others. So will its turn to the politics of religion. If the UML rank and file still look to Bhandari for inspiration, they should seriously revisit their unqualified idolatry for the leadership of the day. Or else, they will soon be forced to choose between Bhandari and Ayodhyapuri’s Ram.
(A PhD on human rights and peace, Kattel is a senior research fellow at Policy Research Institute. firstname.lastname@example.org)