Monday, April 07, 2008

Revisiting The Spring of 1959

As Nepalis prepare to vote for national newness, the architects and abettors of change presage a proliferation of post-poll pockmarks. Maila Baje, for one, has been pushed into the depths of Nepal’s first elections. The following recap is intended for recreational as well as therapeutic purposes.
Eight years to the day democracy dawned on the country, on February 18, 1959, Nepalis began voting in elections to the House of Representatives. That wasn’t what the Delhi Compromise envisaged. The wait for elections to a constituent assembly seemed excruciatingly long. King Mahendra proposed gifting a constitution and the parties accepted.
Both figured out that electing a parliament wasn’t a bad idea. The palace seemed confident no organization would command a majority. The parties sounded even unsure of their prospects. Voting, staggered over 45 days, ended on April 3.
The Election Commission had recognized 11 national parties on condition that they would contest at least 20 percent of the total number of seats. Only nine actually took part: the Nepali Congress, Nepal Praja Parishad (Tanka Prasad Acharya Group), Nepal Praja Parishad (Bhadrakali Mishra Group), Nepal Rastrabadi Gorkha Parishad, Nepal Communist Party, United Democratic Party (UDP) of K.I. Singh, Nepali National Congress of Dilli Raman Regmi, Terai Congress of Vedananda Jha and Nepal Prajatantrik Mahasabha of Ranga Nath Sharma.
For a total electorate of 4,248,836, about half the national population, some 40,000 polling booths had been set up. Each of the 109 constituencies covered approximately 80,000 people. Eight hundred and sixty-five candidates were in the fray. Of these, 339 were independents.
The Nepali Congress contested every seat, while the UDP fielded 90 candidates. The Gorkha Parishad put up 85 candidates, the Prajatantrik Mahasabha 70, and the Communist Party 48. The Acharya and Mishra factions of the Praja Parishad fielded 45 and 40 respectively. The Nepali National Congress had 22 candidates, one more than the Terai Congress.
The council of ministers, comprising the Nepali Congress, Praja Parishad, Nepali National Congress, Gorkha Parishad as well as independents, had all the hallmarks of a national government. It mounted a vigorous publicity campaign. Radio Nepal played songs aimed at educating the voter. The major parties, barring the communists, participated in mock elections.
At first, the people of Mustang and Manang refused to register as voters, citing their historical detachment to the state. Limbus, too, had decided to boycott the elections in defense of their ancestral land-holding system. The three groups eventually participated. Some 17,000 government officials were mobilized for elections, but were barred from voting.
Polling throughout the country was peaceful. At many places, turnout of women was higher than that of males. Nearly 43 percent of the electoral cast their ballots, of whom about half were women. Not a single ballot box was found empty. “[D]espite its handicaps, Nepal ran smoother elections than many a more advanced nation,” TIME magazine pronounced.
An interesting feature was that results from certain constituencies were out before voters in others had cast their ballots. “First Nepal Returns Go Anti-Red,” The Washington Post chimed. That hardly amused some of the candidates. After three days of elections, K.I. Singh and Ranga Nath Sharma sent a joint memo to King Mahendra requesting him to dissolve the council of ministers for its failure to uphold the secrecy of the ballot. They reinforced their petition with a threat to pull out their parties from further elections. Tanka Prasad Acharya, too, demanded the dissolution of the cabinet alleging electoral malpractices. All three parties went along until the – traumatic, for them – end.
The Nepali Congress led the pack winning 74 seats, while the Gorkha Parishad emerged a distant second with 19 members. Tanka Prasad Acharya’s Praja Parishad saw two candidates triumph, one of whom later joined the Nepali Congress. Bhadrakali Mishra’s faction won one seat. The Communist Party, which opposed the constitution as “feudal” for leaving the king with massive discretionary powers, won four seats. The same number of independents were elected. The UDP won three seats.
Apart from B. P. Koirala, the chiefs of main political parties lost. Former premiers Tanka Prasad Acharya and K.I. Singh were defeated, the former forfeiting his deposit. All the ministers, except chairman Subarna Shamsher Rana, lost. The parties of Ranga Nath Sharma and Dilli Raman Regmi could not win a single seat.
Although some were pessimistic about the prospect of a stable party system, many sounded upbeat. The transition from a feudal order to a democratic one would perforce see the creation and re-creation of parties with no particular attachment to principles, it was argued. Internal crises, personality clashes, floor crossing were touted as common roadblocks on the path to newness. And, oh yes, all this was said amid fears of a communist takeover of Nepal.