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  • Nepal:Between Dictatorship And Anarchy
  • Sumit Ganguly (bio) and Brian Shoup (bio)

By any measure, Nepal's experience with democratization has been a tragic failure. Despite a 1990 popular revolution and the king's subsequent embrace of what looked like a serious attempt to introduce multiparty competition to the world's only officially Hindu divine-right monarchy, recent Nepalese history has been fraught with instability and strife. A decade-old Maoist insurgency has left more than 11,000 people dead and effectively denied the government's writ across huge swaths of the kingdom's 140,000 square kilometers. Throughout the 1990s, one frail government after another fumbled while the country's economic and political problems grew worse. The royal household suffered a tragic blow in 2001 when the crown prince gunned down ten relatives including the king before killing himself. Then in February 2005 the current holder of the throne, Gyanendra, carried out a "self-coup." His dismissal of the legislature and seizure of power mean that Nepal now finds itself, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, mired that much more deeply in a strange and bloody battle between the opposed and yet similarly antidemocratic ideologies of communism and royal absolutism.

While Nepal has long been among the world's poorest nations, is home to an array of distinct ethnolinguistic and religious groups, and is wracked by a violent insurgency, neither the country's poverty nor its diversity nor the armed Maoist campaign suffices to explain Nepal's failure to make serious progress toward liberal democracy. Neighboring India is a variegated society where widespread want has long been a [End Page 129] problem, yet India's democracy is vibrant and the country's movement toward liberalization substantial. Nepal's political and institutional failures clearly predate the insurgency and indeed form part of the causal backdrop to its rise.1

Nepal's difficulties with democratization spring from both institutional and historic factors that have choked off popular participation, reduced political competition to little more than a scramble for gain by well-placed elites, and left the country with no sense of overarching national identity. The "mainstream" political parties, which an observer might expect would be a major force for democratization, are actually shifting factions preoccupied with narrow caste or personal concerns, and have no substantive platforms to offer. The parties wrangle with one another and with the palace while ordinary Nepalese watch their country sink further under the weight of governmental corruption and fecklessness. Given these conditions, it is small wonder that the Maoist insurgency at first drew considerable sympathy from exasperated rural residents.2

The kingdom of Nepal took on its modern shape during the middle of the eighteenth century under the Gurkha king Prithvi Narayan Shah. His long series of local military conquests secured control of the Kathmandu Valley and made him ruler of a substantial independent state between China to the north and British India to the south. By the nineteenth century, the monarchy's power began to fade as new land to distribute among the nobles became scarce and opportunities for advancement diminished. Administrators, military leaders, and nobles formed alliances among themselves in order to secure economic and political advantages.

Despite the monarchy's claims to divine status, few people in Nepal had much to do with it, as local affairs remained in the hands of nobles. Palace intrigue and scheming reached their nadir in 1846 when a bloody power struggle left a noble named Jang Bahadur, leader of the Kunwar family, and his troops the largest force standing. Within a little more than a decade, this praetorian figure would become hereditary prime minister and found a regime—known by its royally bestowed title of Rana, an honorific typically reserved for individuals who show bravery in battle—that would dominate Nepal for most of the next century.3 The Ranas stripped the king of real power, but preserved the monarchy for the façade of legitimacy that it offered.

In order to forestall challenges, the Ranas cultivated a friendly relationship with the colonial regime in British India while keeping Nepalese domestic society politically and culturally isolated. They ran a deliberately backward feudal system designed to...


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pp. 129-143
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