The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Can Nepal’s Army Become a Threat to Its Democracy?

Nepal’s army has expanded its commercial interests while democratic governments have foundered on many fronts. That could be a problem for the country.

By Sushav Niraula for
Can Nepal’s Army Become a Threat to Its Democracy?

Nepalese Army Gurkhas Demonstrate Skill with the Kukri at Shanti Prayas Opening Ceremony

Credit: Flickr/U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

Since the overthrow of monarchy in Nepal in 2006, there has been a lot of twists and turns in the country’s politics. These twists and turns have constantly changed the fortunes of Nepal’s political parties. From the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, the party of former guerrillas, to their ideological opposite — the monarch supporting dyed-in-the-wool conservative Rastriya Prajatantra Party — all at some point have sat in power in Kathmandu. Like parties in clientelist democracies, when in power Nepali political parties have weakened state institutions with partisan appointments. This has not only decreased citizen trust in state institutions but also decreased trust in political parties. The 2017 survey by the Asia Foundation shows just 7 percent Nepalis “fully trust” political parties.

Amid decreasing trust in political parties and other state institutions, the Nepal Army has continuously guarded and expanded its sphere of influence while keeping public trust intact. The same survey reported 29 percent of Nepalis “fully trust” the army. This is more than the trust expressed for the judiciary, government, or the other two security agencies: Nepal Police and Armed Police Force. All this is remarkable given that this is the same army which was seen as being close to the former Shah monarchs.

The relationship between former monarchs and the army in Nepal goes a long way back. To this day, the army credits the first Shah monarch, Prithivi Narayan Shah, whose shrewd military tactics and innovations revolutionized the army. For a long time, it was only a certain group of upper-caste men close to the monarch who found their way up in the army hierarchy. The last Shah monarch, Gyanendra, used the military’s support twice, in 2002 and 2005, to overthrow the civilian government. After overthrowing the civilian government and dissolving the parliament in 2005, he had also sent the then-army chief to lobby for India’s support. Right until the end, the army stood as one of the loyal pillars supporting the monarchy.

Nepal’s transition to a republican system of governance was relatively peaceful and, as the veteran journalist Sudheer Sharma points out, credit must be given to the army for its role in making so. But rather than praising army’s democratic credentials, Sharma mentions that as the king was cornered from all sides, the army had no option but to give in to democratic demands. The pro-monarchy inclination was evident as after the abolition of the monarchy, then-Army Chief Rukmangad Katwal submitted a written request to the Constitutional Assembly suggesting that the decision over Nepal’s republican future should be resolved through a referendum.

Despite being seen as a force close to the palace, the army more than held its own in the post-monarchy set-up. When then-Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, well within his democratic mandate, dismissed Katwal, the decision was unconstitutionally revoked by then-President Ram Baran Yadav, leading Dahal to resign from office. Similarly, when the issue of integration of former Maoist combatants into the Nepali army came up, the army — which wanted limited integration — had their way: only 1,422 out of 32,250 registered combatants were selected for integration and just 70 found themselves in officer-level cadet posts. Similarly, the army was also able to lobby then Nepali government to not extend the tenure of the U.N. Mission in Nepal (UNMIN). As far as the army was concerned, the U.N. agency was a frequent eye-sore with its calls for democratization and restructuring of the army. To this day, the twin goal of democratization and restructuring is still pending as the army functions opaquely and remains one of the few state institutions that has not changed much post monarchy.

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Having established itself as one of the most powerful and independent state institutions, the army is expanding beyond its traditional military roles. It has invested in gas stations, medical colleges, emulsion plants, and water treatment plants. Perhaps not happy with the returns from these investments and citing lesser returns on these investments than what banks offer on deposits, the army has also requested the amendment of the Army Act, 2006. The Act forbids the army to invest as a “promoter” in more profitable sectors like banking and hydropower. If passed, the amendment will further empower the already disproportionately powerful army.

The army’s eagerness as well as the incumbent governments’ incompetence has, time and again, expanded the playing field of the army. Government incompetence was recently evident when the Prime Minister K.P. Oli-led government decided to let the army procure medical supplies for COVID-19 instead of the Health Ministry. The decision was made after a huge public outcry, which resulted from the discovery that the Health Ministry, without competitive bidding, awarded the contract to a Chinese firm at a substantial cost. Such mishandling from the executive branch is not new. In 2017, the government of then-Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal awarded a 122 billion Nepali rupee contract to the army for constructing the Kathmandu-Tarai expressway, after a deal with an Indian firm similarly turned controversial. The contract amount was 16 percent higher than the cost estimated by the Asian Development Bank in 2014.

As per Transparency International’s Defense and Security Program monitoring, Nepal ranks as one of the “high risk” countries when it comes to defense and security industry related corruption.  Despite this, there have been only few instances where the Nepali public have been aware of the army’s abuse of authority. Meanwhile, the other two security agencies — the Nepal Police and the Armed Police Force — with much smaller budgets than the army have found most of their chiefs implicated in corruption charges. Part of the reason why this is the case is that unlike the two security agencies, the army does not come under the purview of either the judiciary or the country’s anti-graft body — the Commission for the Investigation of the Abuse of Authority (CIAA) — but follows its own opaque martial law. It is not too far fetched to link the frequency of the lucrative contracts the army keeps bagging and its lack of public accountability.

As things stand now, the previous monarch is politically irrelevant, the army has become stronger with each opportunity, and political parties have repeatedly underperformed and remain deeply unpopular. Despite the monarch’s irrelevance, the institutional legacy left by centuries of monarchical rule — which depended on a strong army — has led to the current situation. There were efforts by UNMIN to democratize the army and make it more transparent. But it did not receive broader support, neither from the army nor from political parties besides the Maoists.

If the current trend of a strong and expanding army and weak political parties persists, the health of the fledgling Nepali democracy might be in danger. To the army’s credit, it has kept itself away from national politics. But given the way it has been expanding and engaging in ventures outside its mandate, there will be a time when the army’s interests will run counter to that of the executive’s. In that event, the executive will have no recourse other than hoping the army plays by democratic rules.

Sushav Niraula holds a Master’s degree in Politics and Public Policy from Sciences Po Paris. Currently, he works as an independent researcher. Within comparative politics, his research interest lies within the areas of conflict, state-building, political parties and clientelism with a focus on South Asian cases.