Each faction of the Nepal Communist Party has declared a ‘third people’s movement’ aimed at taming the other. Members of the civil society have made the same declaration. The assertion of the ruling NCP faction under KP Oli is clearly a gimmick to undercut the sanctity of the protests against his unconstitutional House dissolution. But what about the anti-government protestors? Do their protests herald a third people’s movement in Nepal?
The second people’s movement in 2006 was a direct consequence of the 2001 royal massacre. The public considered King Gyanendra and his immediate family complicit in the murder of Birendra and his family. Even those who were ambivalent about the monarchy until that point suddenly developed a soft spot for the slain king—and antipathy for his younger brother. Moreover, King Birendra had accepted his constitutional status following the first people’s movement in 1990. Before that, he had agreed to a referendum on the Panchayat system. People remembered. Birendra and his family were also seen as more genial and liberal than Gyanendra (with his murky business dealings) or his son Paras (who, among his other villainous activities, had run over and killed a popular singer).
Forever carrying a cloud of suspicion over him, Gyanendra would have had a tough time even as a constitutional monarch. When he staged a coup and took over executive powers, besides the common folks, Gyanendra also ended up alienating the entire political class. He arrested Nepali intellectuals. Thus was a broad coalition against the unpopular monarch stitched together and the anti-monarchy revolution succeeded.
Of course, Gyanendra’s unpopularity wasn’t the only factor behind the success of the second people’s movement. The decade-long Maoist conflict also played a part, as did India’s reluctance to come to the rescue of a monarch who was seen as acting against its interests. Yet all successful revolutions feature a common figure of hatred. In 2006, it was King Gyanendra in Nepal. In 2011, it was Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. All these revolutions also had a strong common agenda that united the opposition.
Today, KP Oli presents a different case. Before the House dissolution, he was a popularly elected prime minister in the middle of his legitimate five-year term. And Oli still enjoys a level of public support, perhaps more than do Prachanda, Madhav Nepal or Sher Bahadur Deuba, his most likely replacements as prime minister. True, misguided moves like the arrest of Ram Kumari Jhakri for speaking against the country’s president will add to Oli’s unpopularity. As will the crackdown on some civil society activities before that.
But despite all that, Oli is not—and can never be—an autocrat with absolute powers. Nor can he ever inspire the level of hatred seen against King Gyanendra in 2006. This is why the events of 2006 or 2011 are unlikely to be repeated in Nepal soon. Plus, Oli right now does not have strong external enemies who are determined to see him fail.
Moreover, the various anti-government protestors are also divided on their agenda. Some want the parliament restored, others would settle for nothing less than a complete rewrite of the constitution. People find this motley clubbing of goals confusing.
Yet protests often have their own momentum. For one, they can succeed because of the mounting mistakes of the rulers—and Oli is pushing it. But, again, the various shades of anti-government protestors do not have a common agenda. Most people meanwhile appear happy to wait and watch from the sidelines.