Nepal’s Politics: A Proverbial Understanding

August 24, 2007 at 11:00 pm Leave a comment

Nepal’s Politics: A Proverbial Understanding

By Dr. Pramod Kantha 

An Insight:  

      While crystal gazing Nepal’s political landscape I had a moment of revelation! I found myself proverb-struck by an old saying in Nepal that so powerfully summed up the recent upswings as well as downswings of Nepali politics. The saying is: Guru Gur Chela Chinni i.e. the disciple (Chela) is way ahead of the Guru. This proverb represents the overarching nature of contemporary Nepali politics.  The central theme streaming through this essay is that Nepali politicians are lagging too far behind to keep pace with the rapidly changing national/international situations and with popular expectations thus creating a crisis of governance that could make Nepal a failed state.  Like many aspects of politics, elements of proverbs can have numerous and often inconsistent interpretations. I have two competing but somewhat overlapping interpretations that I term here as progressive and regressive.  

Guru Gur Chela Chinni: Progressive and Regressive take:  

      Progressive or Broad interpretation assumes a teacher who is “enlightened.” This Guru is more interested in discovering truth, in finding eternal laws. Advancing the frontiers of knowledge for the sake of “greater good.” He measures his success in terms of the feat of his disciples. Obviously, this teacher here knows that there is a lot more out there than he or any one else knows; he remains open to the possibilities of new truths as well as to the need for revising the “old truths.” So, when he utters the cliché Guru Gur Chela Chinni, he really is expressing sincere jubilation at the fact that his disciple(s) has made a breakthrough. It is a moment of Bravo that he relishes.  

      Now the regressive or narrow interpretation. The Guru in this interpretation is an embattled self belaboring to teach his disciples “the truth.” The Guru here embodies a strong sense of leadership and the core of that leadership lies not so much in discovering new truths, but in perpetuating “the already known.” The Guru is the highest embodiment of the known truths. Self righteousness rules supreme in this model. Loyalty to clan, kinship, extended brother hood, extended cousinhood, extended lastnamehood, extended Gaunhood (villagism) and above all Lakshmihood (retaining the blessings of Goddess of wealth) rank higher than more distant and impersonal things like the rule of law, equality, national interests, humanity, peace and so on. In this model the Guru knows the best. Thus, when the Guru utters this phrase Guru Gur Chela Chinni, it is grudging but distasteful acknowledgement of something apparently impressive that the Chela might have done; however, the Guru at the bottom of his heart remains unimpressed and believes that the Chela will overcome his deviation and will return to embrace the Guru’s truth. Despite Guru’s efforts this model is inherently conflictual. Sooner rather than later, the disciples realize the vacuous nature of this paradigm and they rebel.  Such defiance/rebellion unless channeled properly opens numerous possibilities for skirmishes, battles and even all out wars thus threatening or even destroying not only the Gurus, his Ashram (academy) but also the greater society that the Guru’s mission ostensibly dedicated itself to serve.   

The Gurus and Chelas of Nepali Politics:

      For this essay the Gurus are the High Priests of Nepali politics: the high ranking party leaders, the likes of whom become Prime Ministers, Cabinet Ministers, Ambassadors, advisors to the Department, members of planning commission, Governors of Banks and Corporations and so no; mostly the cream that rises to the top and stays at the top. Disciples are the general people and underlings working under the Gurus and are supposed to have faith that the Gurus will lead them on the right path with their (disciples’/underlings’) welfare supreme in their minds as they profess. Fortunately, there is great deal of convergence between the Gurus of Nepali politics and the traditional Hindu Caste System. Most of the Gurus of Nepali politics have been and still are the traditional Brahmins, the learned caste. Scan the political landscape of Nepali politics and you will soon discover that the overwhelming majority of people who matter belong to this Guru clan far in excess of their demographic presence: just look for Koiralas, Bhattrais, Bhandaris, Gautam, Mishras, Sharmas, Neupanes, Niraulas, and Prasain and so on.  Yes, there are some others in this category who do not belong to the Brahmin caste.  

      Now which of the above two paradigms these Nepali Gurus follow? Of course, they follow the narrow “regressive” paradigm. Oops! That’s something that these Gurus had used to label the now beleaguered King Gyanendra’s regime. They called their struggle to restore democracy, the movement against “regression.” Yes, that’s right. But now that phase of Nepali politics is over and hence the words and phrases need to be recycled; they are too important to be left enveloped in the pages of history. Regressive moves are any moves that try to push societies/nations/individuals backward, moves that defy reason, moves that lead to stubbornness, debauchery, delinquency and ultimate dissipation and destruction. The Gurus of Nepali politics in that sense were very smart in choosing this word.  

Appreciation of the Gurus:  

      Unfortunately, the Gurus of Nepali politics are following the same regressive track. Wait a minute! I have some deeply felt admiration for them though. In my earlier thought and writing, I have appreciated their efforts and achievements. There are good things that must be said before I explain how they have gone awry again. I admired their patience. They struggled patiently against the royal regime to advance democratic agenda; they kept the flame of democracy burning despite long exile, jail sentences and in some cases even outright extermination. I admired them for their belated but useful realization that fighting separately against the forces of regression will not win them victory and formed united front that brought them support and success both during Jan Andolan I and Jan Andolan II. I admired their achievements. Despite critical ambiguities, the 1990 constitution recognized the principle of popular sovereignty; they succeeded in embedding Nepal’s political landscape with a degree of pluralism never seen before. Nepal’s very first post-Jan Andolan Election in 1991 saw the wherewithal of a two party system. Soon, Nepal’s new democracy passed another litmus test, peaceful transfer of power from the ruling Congress Party to the Nepal Communist Party (UML). Well, the Nepali Congress lost power because of internal split and the challenge to its leadership. To me this was a positive development given the tendency on the part of the Gurus of Nepali politics to treat themselves as indispensable to their party as well as the country. The same kind of mentality that led to India is Indira and Indira is India kind of thought process. For the Nepali Congress, it was a loss but for the Nepali Democracy it could be a gain, a vital sign of internal contest, the life blood of democracy within an organization.  

      They also shunned the earlier paradigm of “Afno Goru Ko Barah Takka,” another proverb that meant that the person had a fixed price for his oxen and did not care if it sold or not- unwillingness to adjust to the reality on the ground. Ever since the movement that led to the declaration of national referendum in 1979, the Nepali political leaders came to coalesce repeatedly. Following the referendum, it took them another decade to realign and stage another mega success in the 1990’s Jan Andolan I. They did that again, following the royal takeover of February 2005. Through their November 2006 understanding with the Maoists they perhaps excelled all their earlier accomplishment, a move that led directly to the April 2006 Jan Andolan II that not only marginalized the monarchy but has probably broken its back to the point of extinction. So far so good. 

Regressive Model and Nepali Politics:

      But it is in explaining their failure that the famous Nepali proverb Guru Gur Chela Chinni proves its power. All the elements of this narrow or regressive model come in racing to illuminate the underlying realities like pieces of an ever expanding puzzle, the puzzle of Nepali politics. The Gurus when they came into power became so enamored by power that the end of staying at the helms justified all the means. When the principles of competition, freedom of expression and ideas come in the way of their power they are ready to use this newly gained power against any one who dares to be ignorant of the practicality of the gap between their profession and practice. To the Gurus the new reality merely reinforces the common wisdom of Nepali society expressed in another proverb: Hati Ko Khane Dant Euta Ra Dekhaune Arko i.e. the elephant’s tusks look like its teeth but its real teeth are hidden.  When the push comes to shove, as they say here in America, the Gurus of Nepali politics will spare nothing to cling to power. But there is nothing new about this style of doing business. It is this continuation that supports proverbs like Old wine in a new bottle or the more the things change the more they remain the same. Series of events between 1991-May 2002 that led to the dismissal of elected parliament and later direct rule by the king speak volumes about such behavior.  

Glaring Irrelevance of the Model:  

      Nepal is a prime but not the only example where this model is not functional any more. Both the old and the new generation of disciples, more distressingly common people, now expect more. Years of neglect, corruption, violence, suppression, empty promises and despicable existential conditions have created an insatiable sense of rebellion against those in power. Series of unfortunate events like the palace massacre, widespread violence and abuse by both the Maoists and the security forces unleashed by over a decade of Moist insurgency, obsession of politicians with wealth and power and helplessness of people amidst all the nice talks about democracy and empowerment have perhaps irreparably shaken the public trust in public leaders and institutions. People no longer want to be taken for granted by any politicians, any leaders. People instead are resorting more and more to the emerging model of self-help” through massive participation in protests, demonstrations and even acts of arson and violence. In the current situation, there is little appeal for high sounding ideologies. Nepal’s April Movement as well as the ground shaking Madhesis uprising and continuing agitation by other groups is a manifestation of this increasing resort to “self help.” By failing to contain ever growing public disillusionment and through their attempt to perpetuate the “regressive model,” by questionable means, the discredited leaders have undermined the very foundations of representative democratic system.    

The Madhesh Uprising and the regressive Model:  

      Nothing has proven the bankruptcy of vision and insight on the part of the Gurus of Nepali politics more than the massive Terai unrest that began in December 2006 and continued through the early part of the 2007.  The Terai was the last bastion of political stability in Nepal. If the people of Terai can engage in open rebellion against the government and can sustain casualties higher than those incurred in April 2006 Jan Andolan II, the demise of regressive model and the rise of self help model become inevitable.  

      The Madhesis who form more than 1/3 of Nepali population, waited for years in a state of subjugation. They silently suffered years of systematic discrimination that excluded overwhelming majority of them from positions of powers, privileges and resources reserved for the elite few of the Pahade community. Madhesis were belittled and their egos thrashed through deliberate policies of land reform and resettlement schemes, policies that not only created a huge pool of absentee Pahade landlords in Madhesh but also shifted the demographic balance by moving the Pahade people into the Madhesh under a premeditated state policy. Recently, some one with inside knowledge of how things worked told me that when land was distributed in the Madhesh to the Sukumbasi, landless, there was explicit instruction not to give any land to the Madhesis. In an usual encounter, the officer distributing the land was confronted by the locals and was asked to explain why it was that the landless people of the region were not included in the distribution system. The was baffled by such daring act of being asked to explain his policy but was quick to invent an answer to get him out of the situation. He told them that if the Madhesi people wanted to go to the hills they would get the land. Of course, there was no such plan but it got him off the hook.  

Handling of the Madhesh Movement and the Future Scenario:  

      The regressive model proved its impressive relevance in examining the response of Nepal’s mainstream (core) political groups to the Madhesh movement. Having led the powerful April Movement, the mainstream leaders should have been able to gauge people’s support behind the movement. Instead, they quickly adopted an approach rooted in the old style politics of regressive model: perfunctory support for the demands juxtaposed with denouncing/even coercing the leaders, their supporters as well as the movement. Through a policy of preemption, the governing alliance also consistently jeopardized the scope for negotiations with the Madhesi groups. For example, on January 30, the Prime Minister called for talks but in the same announcement he also said that the government had decided to adopt federal system and proportional representation based on population as well as geography to meet the demands made by Madhesis and others. Constitutional amendments to put these promise into effect were made even before a single round of negotiations could be held with the Madhesi groups. While negotiations had not even started, the constituency delimitation commission had already reached its determination. The Madhesi leaders were not alone in this. The leaders of Nepal’s indigenous groups and Janjatis also objected to such highhandedness and demanded negotiations before finalizing the amendments.  

      Other outcomes of the regressive model has produced dysfunctional policies such as forcibly disrupting Terai protests, counter-mobilizing other groups (i.e. Chure Bhawar) and shunning the governmental responsibility of maintaining law and order in the Terai region. By failing to effectively investigate any of the major acts of violence in the Terai (Nepalganj, Lahan, Eastern Terai and finally Gaur) the government has shown an utter disregard for the feelings of many people who want the guilty to be held accountable thus further forcing people to resort to the “self-help” model.  

Is there Light at the end of the Tunnel?  

      Can the emerging self help model be a saving grace leading eventually to a more sustainable basis for democratic governance? As more and more people resort to this model, the political parties in Nepal will have little choice but respond to its imperatives i.e. continually align their policies with the ever changing realities. However, this will be the most challenging of all the other aspects of Nepal’s political transition. It is a paradigm shift that will overturn many prevailing realities of Nepali politics. An incontrovertible message of the Madhes movement is that the regressive model of Guru Gur Chela Chinni does not work. The Chelas now want to put what they learn to test. Besides, they are not limited to Guru in their learning; they can learn and borrow from the wider world, through cable t. v., newspapers, travel abroad, and they can also learn lessons in democracy from their own neighborhood, India. New groups are emerging every day to engage in the fashionable act of bargaining to wrest some concessions and to hone their electoral strength.  

      The bottom line is that the people of Nepal now want their long promised flight. They have bought too many tickets but the flights have not taken off. Their rage has reached its limit; they are now taking over the airport, the control tower, albeit without knowing how to streamline the operations. But what difference does it make for them? They have been grounded any way. Now they are going to ground others too. Whether this challenge will be taken up positively by the political leaders to regain confidence and revitalize the democratic process remains to be seen; also whether this new popular activism will result in better governance or unmanageable lawlessness is equally uncertain. Hope will have to rest with the collective wisdom to pave a better way.  

Pramod Kumar Kantha

Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio 


Ph.D. (Political Science 2000), University of Missouri-Columbia ( dissertation topic:  Democratic Transition and Consolidation in South Asia, case studies of India, Nepal and Pakistan)

M. A./B.L.  Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu 1985.

Teaching and Research Experience:  

Publications (brief listing)

“The BJP and Indian Democracy: Elections, Bombs and Beyond,” a book chapter in Ramashray Roy and Paul Wallace ed. Indian Politics And the 1998 Election. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1999, pp. 340-364. 

“Transition from Authoritarianism in South Asia: Pakistan’s Renewed Hope for Democracy,” a book chapter in John P. Lovell and David E. Albright, Ed, To Sheathe the

Sword: Civil-Military Relations in the Quest for Democracy.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 98-115.  

“BJP Politics: Looking Beyond the Impasse,” Economic and Political Weekly, November 29, 1997, vol. 32, no. 48, pp. 3090-3100. 

Papers and Presentations: (brief listing)  

“Maoist Violence and Political Stalemate in Nepal: Looming Uncertainties,” a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Palmer House, Chicago, April 2005 

“Political Competition and the Transforming Role of Judiciary in South Asia,” A paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association in Philadelphia, August 2003


Entry filed under: Articles.

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