Making sense of Nepali politics

- Pranab Kharel, Gaurab KC | 2022-07-01

Scholars of political structures and processes in today’s Nepal struggle to find their feet.


hen one begins to evaluate scholarship on Nepali politics, its constantly unpredictable twists and turns are difficult to miss. If one only considers the period post-2015, the year the country’s new Constitution was promulgated, Nepal has seen, among other things: elections of newly designed local, provincial and federal governments; ascendance of a muscular post-republican nationalism; mergers and splits of major parties; multiple attempts to dissolve Parliament unconstitutionally; an unusual coalition between traditional liberals and communists; and most recently, electoral upsets where independent candidates beat entrenched party machineries in major cities.

It is worth noting how such issues have been documented in contemporary Nepal over the decades, which have largely occurred in two major mediums: popular media and academia. Among the two, the popular media has overwhelmingly dominated the balance of information and analyses. The former circulates both information and opinion on the ongoing political churnings, while the latter is expected to come out with larger analysis of the ‘why’s and the ‘how’s of the structures and processes behind political events. Yet there is a serious deficit of knowledge generation of the latter kind.

To be sure, scholars of Nepali politics have made various contributions in expanding our understanding of these interactions, including in the years after 1990, which is the period of our interest. Most of these writings have thus focused on either locating these elements in a very broad historical or cultural context or have directed their analysis towards actors such as individual leaders, institutions or political parties. What has been missing, however, is a robust tradition of political sociology that studies political changes and events alongside social organisation and tensions in the country – particularly that is empirically grounded and theoretically informed.

In fact, even when experts and scholars of politics – including political scientists, as well as political sociologists, historians and anthropologists – have offered opinions and analyses in the media in recent years, it has revolved around commentaries on key political personalities, or their personal instincts, psychologies or decisions. What then distinguishes a quickly composed opinion column from scholarly attention to nuances of how political actors, institutions, ideas and power interact?

Disciplinary diagnosis
Anyone following scholarship on Nepal for the last three decades will know that sociology and anthropology have had a curious monopoly over the analysis of Nepali society and politics. Literature produced in this period on Nepali state-society dynamics has shared a strong concern for culture, ethnicity, nationalism and ideologies of Nepali political life. Other accompanying themes include civil society, gender and citizenship. Notably, this scholarship has been largely led by anthropologists (and some sociologists) based in Europe and North America, where some of the most commonly cited works included Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom (edited by David N. Gellner, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and John Whelpton), Rise of Ethnic Politics in Nepal by Susan Hangen, and Revolution in Nepal by Marie Lecomte-Tilouine, among others. Nepal-based anthropologists and sociologists, albeit fewer in number, have shared similar concerns, particularly with regards to ethnicity. For instance, anthropologist Dilli Ram Dahal and sociologist Krishna Bahadur Bhattachan have made important contributions to the relationship between ethnicity, politics and development.

Sociologist Chaitanya Mishra’s scholarship, particularly his early work, has employed a world-systems approach to understand the change and continuity of Nepali politics and society. More recently, in analysing the republican transformations of 2006, he has argued that changes in livelihood – particularly the shift of newer generations to non-agricultural employment – created a new class that could not identify with monarchy, which weakened the base of the traditional institution.

Another intervention in understanding the 2006 movement has come from anthropologist Saubhagya Shah, who critically examined civil-society institutions like the media (both national and international) and the non-profit/NGO landscape, along with their interactions with international actors, to conclude that the transformation was thrust upon by these multiple actors on the Nepali body politic.

However, these social-scientific works have paid little attention to issues of political economy, contestations for resource mobilisation, the nature of political parties, and how these might be reflected in political choices made by citizens. How have political scientists, who might be expected to tackle these questions, then dealt with them?

Parties and personalities
When political scientists began studying Nepal, after the end of Rana family’s oligarchy, they were chiefly interested in the emergence of actors such as the Nepali Congress Party and other political groups during the 1950s under the new democratic dispensation. In this vein, Democratic Innovation in Nepal: A case study of political acculturation, now considered a pioneering study of Nepali politics, by the Berkeley-based Leo E Rose and the Nepali scholar Bhuwan Lal Joshi, provides a blow-by-blow account of the major political developments of the 1950s and 1960s. The duo, however, emphasised the role of individuals as the agents of political change. In fact, in dedicating the book to King Mahendra and Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala, the first elected prime minister of Nepal, they maintained that these two personalities were “in a real sense the two most important co-authors of Nepali political acculturation”.

Another important plank of their work, and others that followed in the Cold War decades, was a search for agents of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernisation’, with some assigning that role to the authoritarian, developmentalist monarch, while others found that in political parties, especially the Nepali Congress. Other political scientists who made important contributions during that period include Margaret W. Fisher, R S Chauhan, Rishikesh Shaha and Leelanateshvar Sharma (LS) Baral. Modernisation theory lost much of its power after the Cold War years, but this prime focus on the careers of political parties/organisations and individual leaders continued.

Literature produced by political scientists, particularly after the restoration of democracy in 1990, disproportionately focused on the two, and found them responsible for ushering in political changes. Political scientist Krishna Hachhethu, for example, in his initial works, studied the formation and expansion of party organisations that dominated parliamentary politics of the 1990s. In his succeeding works, he expanded on the role played by individual political actors and leaders, but paid scant attention to the social manifestations of party politics.

Hachhethu is not alone in carrying out such analyses; his PhD supervisor and political scientist Lok Raj Baral too fits that description. Baral, who has been actively writing on Nepali politics since the 1970s, has mainly concerned himself with the state-centric aspects of national politics. While his early writings focused on the oppositional politics against the authoritarian state during the partyless decades of the Panchayat rule, after 1990, Baral has worked on the questions of local leadership and governance in a new democratic state.

To be sure, the opening up of the Nepali polity in the post-1990 period offered political scientists other fresh avenues to explore, such as electoral violence, civil society, citizenship and gender relations, among others. Research on these questions also complemented the public discourse then and still makes an impact today. These themes also had some regional echoes. In India, Neera Chandhoke produced writings on civil society and its relations with state. Similarly, Christophe Jaffrelot and Steven Wilkinson studied political violence in the country. Likewise, Sri Lankan political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda and his Bangladeshi compatriot Imtiaz Ahmed made contributions to understanding ethnic violence and genocide in their respective contexts.

Political science and public discourse
In this context, in Nepal, Dhruba Kumar, who wrote during and after the Panchayat period, pursued research on areas that ranged from national security to electoral violence, examining the paradoxical case of growing political instability after the introduction of ballot-based politics. Dev Raj Dahal, a colleague of Kumar, looked at civil-society organisations (CSOs) and the rise of non-state actors to understand emerging state-society relationships, often employing sociological frameworks in his analyses. From a more critical perspective, Chandra Dev Bhatta examined the burgeoning of new elites following the advent of foreign aid, and argued that rights-based civil society after the 2006 changes has generated more problems than solved existing ones, and, in the process undermined the state. Another political scientist, Seira Tamang, has significantly contributed to our understanding of the gendered nature of Nepali state, where ‘family patriarchy’ was transformed to ‘state patriarchy’ through legislation along with a ‘Hindu’ template. Political churnings, particularly in the 1990s, have also been documented by non-political scientists such as T Louise Brown, Martin Hoftun, William Raeper and John Whelpton.

Despite these developments, scholars of Nepal have consistently missed one major area of scholarship: political sociology. Few scholars have attempted to examine the breakdown of various constituencies represented by political parties or leaders in the country, and how these might be reflected in political movements or electoral outcomes. This lack of empirically grounded work that links social structures, group behaviour and ideological divisions in Nepali society with what is happening in high politics has meant that popular writing as well as expert analyses of Nepali politics can often be superficial and limited to cliches. A possible exception is Chudamani Basnet, who has worked on the formation of middle-caste politics focusing on the Upendra Yadav-led party that emerged in the aftermath of 2006 political change.

Another hallmark of all the writings so far discussed is that they are written in English. Particularly for academic works produced during the decades before and after the 1990s, it is clear that the putative audience was either Western-educated Nepali elites or Western academic/political circles. Important Nepali-language scholarship on long-term political changes, mostly done by non-political-scientists, remains largely ignored by researchers working in the English language. This includes volumes by Rajesh Gautam – on the political changes since the 1950s with the role of Nepali Congress at its focus – which rank among some of the best-written works on that period published in Nepali language. Similarly, Grishma Bahadur Devkota’s two volumes Nepalko Rajnitik Darpan, published around 1960 and 1980 respectively, is an indispensable account of changes in that period. The ongoing language gap – between the predominant language of academia (English) and that of the popular media (Nepali) – also contributes to the absence of empirically informed public discourse.

Possible directions
So what direction might scholarship on Nepali politics take in coming years?

The answer is not very encouraging if one looks at past tendencies. For instance, content analysis of the Nepali Journal of Political Science done by Krishna Hachhethu, for the period between 1979 and 1983 shows that only three of the 29 articles published in the six volumes of the journal centred on domestic politics. As for the future, Nepali society and its politics are undergoing tumultuous changes, and so a clear answer to the question is therefore not easy. However, this does not mean that we cannot suggest a direction that keeps people (citizens) at the centre of analysis.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Nepali political life that scholars need to address is the informal nature of state-society dynamism. Most of the analyses of this relationship rely on the academic frameworks developed in the West. However, empirical conditions are often very different in different spaces. For example, the Western conceptions of formality and modernity, which have struggled to root themselves analytically in the Nepali context, constitute a problem true for the larger Southasian region as well. Ties such as kin networks and other associated forms of proximity form a core of Nepali society, which is also reflected in the political structure. However, academic writings have failed to adequately capture the kind of tensions generated following the widespread adoption of Western-style political formations, despite the continuation of such kinship structures in the country.

Consider another example: we can all agree that corruption is a big problem, and much has been written about the corrupt nature of the political establishment in the country. However, what is missed by analysts is the ‘reciprocal’ relation between the service provider and the seeker that often manifests as corruption, since, in the current power structure, one is connected to another through various informal means.

The same can be said of the everyday domain of relation between individuals, various structures of power and their political choices. While high politics occupies much of Nepali public sphere, the issues facing the common person that are often considered mundane are glossed over by big talks on ‘saving’ democracy or the Constitution. This is particularly notable at a time when some independent electoral candidates have gained popularity and mandate, defeating candidates from major parties in cities like the capital Kathmandu. More broadly, the push from ‘below’, as seen in social movements that have shaped contemporary discourse in the last three decades, needs to be studied alongside initiatives from ‘above’.

Even if we are to consider political parties as the major drivers of state-society relationships in Nepal for the last thirty years, there is enough room for more diverse analyses. It is worth also noting the relative lack of comprehensive studies on the social dynamics of Nepali politics by Nepal-based scholars, an area that remains numerically dominated by anthropologists and sociologists based in the West. This may surprise many, but one has to understand the academic landscape, especially the university-based one, to appreciate the problem. Recruitment of party cadres and loyalists as faculty members, who may find it difficult to critique their respective parties, compounded by a paucity of resources, has stymied the growth of serious research culture in Nepali universities. Towards that end, the disciplines of political science and political sociology are no exception. Unfortunately, Nepal’s various past and ongoing political experiments might have to wait a little longer for incisive examinations.

Pranab Kharel is a sociologist associated with Martin Chautari, a Kathmandu-based academic non-profit. He is the co-editor of Practices of Sociology in Nepal (2021). He tweets at @pranabkharel. Gaurab KC teaches sociology at Kathmandu School of Law. He is the co-editor of Practices of Sociology in Nepal (2021). He can be reached at

Published: Jul 01, 2022

About the Author

Pranab Kharel

समाजशास्त्री, काठमाडौँ स्कुल अफ ल

Gaurab KC Gaurab KC