Unraveling Nepal’s instability conundrum

Purna B Silwal, Major General (Retd) of Nepal Army, the author of "Nepal's Instability Conundrum: Navigating Political, Military, Economic and Diplomatic Landscape" says deep structural forces and foreign interference are the major causes of Nepal's instability.

The book makes some bold claims about the political situation and the state of the foreign interference. (Photo: Nimesh Jang Rai)

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 9 min.

Kathmandu: Instability, economic dependence and foreign interference are the recurring themes in public discourse on Nepali politics.  Of these three, political instability and foreign interference have been the intriguing subjects for me personally. So when Nepal’s Instability Conundrum: Navigating Political, Military, Economic and Diplomatic Landscape by Purna B Silwal, Major General (Retd) of Nepal Army, was published in July this year my first thought was: Has he dived deeper into these perennial problems?

The book makes some bold claims about the political situation and the state of the foreign interference. Silwal states what many of us have felt but have not expressed publicly. “Since the 1950s, there has been a stable instability in Nepal,” he writes in the preface and argues that instability is the main hurdle in advancing national interests of Nepal. “My generation of Nepalese people have experienced heightened political instability throughout the productive period of their lives. While the two big neighbors were embarking on economic miracles in the last three decades, Nepal was entangled in an intense internal feud. Nepal focused on serving the interests of external powers for long while its own stability was under challenge by domestic forces using foreign soil,” he goes on to write. 

Silwal writes that “vicious cycle of instability, insecurity, economic stagnation and foreign interference that rocked the country” drove him to write the book. “For the last 70 years, Nepal has been the most unstable, volatile and uncertain country in South Asia. In 66 years between 1951 and 2017, there have been 50 prime ministers including the king as a direct ruler,” he writes of the political reality of Nepal.

Silwal minces no words in describing India’s interference in Nepal: “India’s political interest in Nepal is to establish a pro-India government. Advancing this interest requires keeping Nepal under its continuous sphere of influence and preventing influence of other countries. India never wanted instability to go out of its control to achieve this interest in Nepal. Maintaining controlled chaos and imposing a solution amidst such a situation is part of the larger narrative.” The perspective, he writes, is that of “national interest standpoint.” As someone who deeply feels about the national interest myself I decided that I should meet the author in person to derive further insights. 

In the book you have mentioned a lot of aspects regarding instability in Nepal. But what are the major causes? 

One major factor I have identified is what I would like to call ‘deep structural force.’  This is about internal wrangling, in-fighting, tussles and even massacres between the members of the ruling class. You can trace this deep structural force far back to the Malla era, when princes fought with each other and ended up dividing the country into mini states for themselves.  We have the history of creation of 22 and 24 principalities as a result of conflicts among the rulers.

In modern history, we had the bloody kot massacre, killings of the kings by their own brothers, killings, even exile, of one Rana prime minister by his own brothers and nephews and so on. All this was the outcome of the mindset that one can and should go to any extent to rise to and remain in power. In the later eras, political parties have gone to any extent to topple the system or the government with a view to serving their factional or the party interests. This is one fundamental cause behind instability in Nepal.

“Even today political parties openly seek support from foreign powers to form governments and to stay relevant in politics. Nepali political actors tend to believe that they can stay in power only through the blessings of the foreign powers.”

The other reason, which should be studied together with the deep structural force, is foreign intervention—invited by Nepali ruling actors themselves or imposed by the foreigners to serve their interests.  This one too goes far back to the Malla era. King Jaya Prakash Malla wrote a letter to the East India Company to send troops to keep the Gorkhalis at bay.  It became more stark during the time of King Rana Bahadur Shah, who according to the historical records, is said to have sought the British support to reinstate him, who was in exile in Benares at the time, as the king of Nepal.  Thereafter, the trend of appeasing the British rulers to stay in power in Kathmandu almost became a norm. It must be only in the history of Nepal that the Prime Minister himself leads over 10,000 troops and goes to the foreign country to help the foreign rulers to quell the mutiny. Can you imagine this happening in any of the modern nation states? Nepal’s Prime Minister Junga Bahadur Rana, a shri teen and the supreme commander-in-chief, led the troops himself and went to India to support the British. One can take this as an example of how submissive Rana rulers could become to hold onto power. Other Rana rulers also followed the policy of appeasing foreigners to stay relevant in power. The tendency continues even to this day. Even today political parties openly seek support from foreign powers to form government and to stay relevant in politics. Nepali political actors tend to believe that they can stay in power only through the blessings of the foreign powers. This excessive dependence on foreigners has not only discredited our political actors but also made it easier for the foreign actors to take credit for the political revolutions which were homegrown. Think of the revolutions of 1950, 1990 and even 2006.  

Of foreign intervention and deep structural force, which is more pronounced in Nepal’s case? Which comes first? 

Mostly grievances start at home.  Then the grievances reach a boiling point and one of the internal actors stands to invite support from the external powers, which is equal to asking for intervention. The foreign intervention happens when the internal conflict reaches the peak point.  Take the case of the 1990’s political movement. The struggle was going on against the Panchayat system since the 1960s.   Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was sore with King Birendra for not being given an entry to his wife Sonia Gandhi in Pashupatinath temple. Then India picked an issue of trade and transit treaty with Nepal.  India pressured Nepal to integrate trade and transit under one single treaty.  India had already begun restricting supplies of goods to Nepal. Then when Nepal imported arms from China India tightened the blockade.  Back home, opposition to monarchy intensified and India threw its weight behind the political parties.  Rajiv Gandhi later disclosed that he applied coercive measures to overthrow the Panchayat system and restore multiparty democracy in Nepal.  Similar things happened in 2006 as well.   All this established a perception that no major political changes in Nepal are possible without external support or interference. Sometimes even sour civil-military relations complicated the internal security situation during the conflict.

How so?

Take Nepal Army in relation to the Maoist insurgency. When there is insurgency in the country or a threat to the state, the state needs to respond with the ‘whole of nation’ or ‘whole of the government’ approach. Which means, the government and the state institutions should stand united and support each other to combat the threat. At that time, the government, Nepal Army, Nepal Police and all the state forces should have taken the same approach toward dealing with the insurgency. But we were clearly divided.  The Royal Palace and Nepal Army had one way of looking at the insurgency. The government was dealing with it in its own way.  When Dharmapal Barsingh Thapa was the chief of Nepal Army, the talk about mobilizing the army had started. Nepal Army demanded about Rs 440 million from the government of Girija Prasad Koirala to purchase helicopters and other weapons.  Koirala agreed but he soon changed his mind. He thought that empowering the Army would pose a threat to his power.  He refused to allocate the budget for the Army and instead gave it to the Nepal Police to enhance the police operations. The government had a kind of political fear in mind that once the army is mobilized it would be difficult to return them to the barracks. The then Army Chief said the army could not be mobilized without all-party consensus.  This was the matter that could be decided by the government or by simple majority in the parliament. In a democratic setup, a government cannot effectively function, particularly during the internal conflict environment, if it has no control over its military.

“India’s coercive strategy has manifested in the form of the economic and military blockades. Blockade has been an effective coercive tool against Nepal.” 

The previous government brought CK Raut’s group into the mainstream and negotiated a peace agreement with the Biplav-led group. It would not have been possible if the executive prime minister had no powers in his hands. 

You were serving in the Nepal Army when the 2006 anti-monarchy movement was at its peak. What was the Army’s assessment at that time? 

Neither Nepal Army nor the palace had thought that monarchy would be abolished. Even the 12-point understanding had not envisaged that. The army hardly makes a political assessment. The army played its part by preventing the Maoist rebels from capturing state power through violence. 

You have written extensively about Indian interference on Nepali politics. How does this interference work? 

Intervention does not happen outright, overnight and in a glaringly visible way all the time. First, external actors establish a good deal of influence among the domestic actors through various ways.  Persuasion, inducement and coercion are the tools normally used in this endeavor. This influence is maintained by supporting the political parties or groups or individual political leaders monetarily and through other means. When there is influence in nearly all political parties and the important state institutions it is easier for external actor(s) to interfere or intervene in internal affairs. In the case of Nepal, India’s coercive strategy has manifested in the form of the economic and military blockades.  Since Nepal is vulnerable due to its landlocked and India-dependent situation, blockade has been an effective coercive tool against Nepal. India has exploited this when needed. 

You served in the Nepal Army for more than three decades. The security system of Nepal and your own experience while working in the Nepal Army could have been the subjects of the book. Why did you choose to write on political instability? 

As I was in service, I was watching this political infighting happening in Nepal with disappointment.  I really wanted to figure out why politics of Nepal has never been stable, what factors come into play to keep the country in the state of perennial instability. That was a major drive for me to research on this topic and write a book.  Besides, the issues of national security, instability, prosperity etc are deeply linked with internal and external factors. You do not understand instability without taking into consideration the relations of the political parties, the external factors and so on. You cannot have a holistic understanding without understanding of politics, our vulnerability, our economic dependence, external influence and inference. 

Finally, what are your solutions to Nepal’s instability conundrum? 

Because the main source of instability lies at home its solution should be sought internally.  Factionalism within the parties is a major source of instability and even a major cause of foreign interference.  So political parties should immediately come out of factionalism syndrome.  Look at how a factional feud within NCP became the cause of the fall of the K P Oli-led government.  In our political history, factionalism within the political parties has been the cause of parliament dissolution in 2002 and 2021.  No government has served its full term in Nepal basically because of the division inside the political parties.  Political factions should keep larger interests of the political parties above the interests of the faction. And political parties should keep national interests above petty political interests.  

“Political factions should keep larger interests of the political parties above the interests of the faction. Political parties should keep national interests above petty political interests.” 

We have examples of how the country as a whole gains confidence when political parties keep national interests above all else. Because the political parties cared about the national interests it was possible for Nepal to issue the new political and administrative map by including Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura in it.  This is a great example of national interests taking precedence over political interests.  When political parties stand united and have the same voice they can diversify the relations of the country, they can negotiate from the position of strength. Second solution is to seek economic interdependence with the neighbors and increase self-reliance. When we are forever dependent on external factors for our economic survival, we will forever be vulnerable to external influence, maneuvering and control. 

National unity is equally vital. 

Democracy has remained a core value of Nepali politics since the 1950s. We have fought to preserve this value in different stages of history. History has shown that any attack on democracy results in protests and political movements to restore democratic values. So these democratic values need to be well nurtured and protected. Without economic prosperity, the future of the nation always lies in risk. We need to make economic prosperity a main dream and goal. If we can do some of these, we probably won’t have to face instability and foreign interference in our internal affairs in the future.