During the period following the second People’s Movement in April 2006 and the negotiations for the Comprehensive Peace Accord later that year, part of the political settlement was consensus on the need to restructure the state and society to be more inclusive. At that point, no one was sure how much power the Maoists – or the marginalised groups they had championed – really had, but their demands clearly had to be taken seriously in order to support the peace process.
Once in government, however, the Maoists (whose senior leaders are themselves from the traditionally dominant groups) quickly began to reveal their own weaknesses – through corruption and failure to produce visible improvements in the lives of the poor: the ‘peace dividend’. Given the fact that the development bureaucracy charged with implementing the promised changes was run almost entirely by the same dominant elite, this failure is not surprising.
Neither the Maoists, the traditional parties nor the development partners have recognised the need to incentivise inclusion through all levels of the bureaucracy, and to identify and support sincere advocates for the broader inclusion agenda among the traditional political elite. It did not help that unrealistic demands were made by historically excluded groups unfamiliar with the concepts and mechanisms of representative democracy. In both the first and second constituent assemblies, opportunities to articulate and debate the core issues of recognition and voice for Nepal’s diverse minority groups were missed, or indeed actively avoided, by the Maoists and the traditional parties. Federalism and whether it would be based on identity or economic viability became the proxy issue that blurred the real options for restructuring the state and society at a deeper level.
Over time, the simple persistence of the status quoists undermined the Maoists’ already tottering credibility and reduced their ability to mobilise their rural supporters. When the cantoned Peoples’ Liberation Army was finally disbanded (rather than moving in large numbers into the national army at all levels as the Maoists had hoped), the Maoists’ bargaining power dropped precipitously. They were forced to move from revolutionary to coalition politics. Since then, especially after the second Constituent Assembly elections, the traditional ‘upper-caste’ hill Hindu political elite has reasserted itself. Partly in response to the perceived insult of having been labelled ‘other’ in the electoral law, they have self-identified as a separate indigenous ethnic group, the Khas Arya, and the centre-right political parties they control are today dominant once again.
As the traditional political forces have regained power, there has been pushback against the concept of social inclusion, a concept they label as a foreign construct that has promoted ethnic politics and identity-based federalism, thus threatening Nepali national integrity and undermining its ‘social harmony’. Ranking officials in the government have criticised certain high-profile donor efforts to support excluded groups, and some projects were even forced to shut down.
A prominent example is the fate of the Janajati Empowerment Programme, a DFID-supported capacity-building project for the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), to reach excluded indigenous groups with development and empowerment programmes. But NEFIN’s core agenda centred on securing ethnic federalism in the new constitution, and so it ignored DFID’s request to refrain from participating in strikes or bandhs – a common form of anti-government protest for activists groups across South Asia. The government felt that by supporting an activist group like NEFIN, DFID was taking sides on a critical political issue. In the end, DFID (and other donors) withdrew support to NEFIN, but its relations with the government remained strained for several years and, after having been an early pioneer, it has remained very cautious on inclusion, shifting most of its efforts to supporting gender equality, which is not perceived as ‘political’.
Meanwhile, the government, facing pressure to show progress on the development front, continued to seek donor support even though such funding often came with requirements to address issues of exclusion. Indeed, few politicians or public servants wish to appear hostile to the idea of equity and social justice and, at a personal level, many educated members of the elite feel considerable ambivalence about the salience of caste, ethnic, regional and gender hierarchies, which they see as incompatible with their own modern democratic ideals of equality between all citizens.