Posted: March 15, 2012 at 4:42 pm, Last Updated: September 7, 2012 at 1:54 am

Author: Nazia Hussain, PhD Candidate, George Mason University, School of Public Policy

The Maoists in Nepal began as a rag tag party of revolutionaries in February 1996. They had almost no weapons, a tiny organizational base and a strategy that was not new. Inspired by teachings of Marxism-Leninism- Maoism, the Maoists aimed to establish ‘new people’s democracy’.

The concept of  ‘new people’s democracy’ was not exclusive to the Maoists. In the early 1990s, all of Nepal’s communist factions shared the same aspiration, but disagreed on how to reach this goal. While the moderate Communist Party of Nepal advocated the use of multiparty people’s democracy, the Maoists believed that parliamentary democracy was another name for free competition among unequals that turned out in favor of powerful actors. Thus, the Maoists argued that without redistribution of property, there was no hope for change in make up of political institutions. The Maoists also presented nationalistic demands that aimed to curtail the influence of India in Nepal, but such demands had been raised repeatedly across the political spectrum.

Yet, in less than ten years, the Maoists achieved such success as a revolutionary movement that they could transform the social and political atmosphere of Nepal. By 2007, under the interim constitution, the Maoists had entered the political mainstream; they held about a quarter of Parliament’s 330 seats and formally joined the interim government. From being one of South Asia’s most potent rebel groups (second only to Sri Lanka’s Tamil tigers), to becoming powerful political players of the country, the Maoists of Nepal have come a long way.

So when corruption charges smear the ranks of Maoists, from buying a luxury mansion by the Maoist party chief, to accusations of using dozens of stolen SUVs and cars from thieves in neighboring India, giving protection by party leadership to criminals and corrupt elements, financial embezzlement to benefit Maoist militias, several questions arise about the ideological purity of such revolutionary movements.

First, could it be argued that the ideologically driven revolutionaries are no better than their less interesting contemporary but traditional politicians?

Second, could it be that the Nepali political system is so corrupt that it mires every one who dares to enter the muddy waters?

Third, is corruption a necessary collateral damage to be borne, as Nepal tries to deal with massive socio-political tectonic changes that the successful revolutionaries caused? The Maoist rebellion and the decade long civil war shook the political establishment enough so that no one political party was able to win a clear majority in post war elections. An inadvertent effect was creation of new social and political space for smaller groups, such as Nepal’s sexual minorities, who are working towards making Nepal the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage. Thus, the country is going through a transformative phase in time, as it grapples with various issues.

Whatever the answer, it is of interest for observers of the history of Nepali Maoists, who have laid down their weapons as part of the peace process, and are trying to enforce political change through peaceful means.

The Maoists began the ‘People’s War’ on February 13, 1996, with the aim of marching ahead on ‘the path of struggle towards establishing the people’s rule by wreaking the reactionary ruling system of state’. They were inspired by Mao Tse-Tung’s teachings as well as by Shining Path- the extremist left-wing guerilla movement of Peru. They wanted to establish a ‘new democracy’ that constituted a ‘historical revolt against feudalism, imperialism and so-called reformists’.  At heart a political movement, they developed a military arm but subordinated it to political control. Though they developed links to other communist revolutionary groups, their campaign was not a part of any global terrorism movement.

Since the general elections of April 2008, Maoists entered the political mainstream, becoming a part of the interim government, and their leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal assumed the office of Prime Minister (as the chief of the party with the largest votes). However, disputes over reintegration of Maoist rebels into the army, forced Dahal to resign in 2009 over the demand of civilian control of the army.

These events reflect Nepal’s precarious internal situation where political instability has been the defining feature since the last two decades. Since the introduction of democracy in 1990, Nepal has seen 20 governments. The country is struggling with the tensions created as former rebels are reintegrating into society and politics, and as traditional politicians bicker over drafting of a new constitution.

On top of the political turmoil, corruption is pervasive.   Nepal is the second most corrupt country in South Asia, according to the Corruption Perception Index 2011 released by Transparency International. Although corruption has plagued the country for years (for example, there have long been reports of police engaging in embezzlement and army involved in corruption regarding procurement of weapons and logistics.) Despite the massive political changes that swept Nepal in recent years due to the success of the Maoist revolutionaries, there is no discernible impact on the level of Nepali corruption.

In fact, the Maoist government itself came under focus due to financial discrepancies. For instance, misappropriations in development funds in some regions allegedly helped to pay for political rallies and upkeep of the paramilitary organization. Maoists were also accused of being involved in extortion and abductions, to finance their daily operations and intimidate political opponents. There were also reports of party leadership giving protection to corrupt and criminal elements.

As an International Crisis Group’s report noted,

‘The Maoists are undergoing a transformation, dramatically visible in divisive public spats between the leaders, as the party simultaneously acts as a revolutionary movement, a political party aggressively pushing the limits of democratic practice, and an expanding enterprise of financial interests and patronage. With the Maoists announcing, while in government, the creation of a new “volunteer” outfit, continuing extortion by the party’s various wings, monopoly over decision-making and intimidation in some districts, and ideological reiteration of “revolt”, they are a difficult partner to trust.’

It could be argued then that the ideologically driven revolutionaries are as susceptible to corruption as traditional Nepali politicians. However, it would be facile to not qualify this observation with the fact that Nepal is dealing with serious political problems of reintegration of former guerilla rebels, and drafting of a constitution. Although serious political problems themselves do not lead to corruption, they might leave less space to address ramifications of corrupt practices of available political leadership, when the immediate needs of the political system are survival and some form of stability. Lastly, a revolutionary political change at the top cannot guarantee elimination of the corruption culture that affects an entire political and related economic system.

Political change at the top must be accompanied by representative democracy, civil society development, free media and a governmental structure that includes checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.  There must also be a change in the economy where patronage and acquisition of control of state assets frequently go hand-in-hand.

Write to traccc at traccc@gmu.edu