Dev Raj Dahal
The coalition government of Nepal is feeling the heat. Sharp polemics in the coalition’s constituent units -- Nepali Congress, CPN-Maoist Centre, CPN-Unified Socialist and Janata Samajbadi Party-- over the calculated distribution of seats for the elections of the House of Representatives and Provincial Assemblies is bound to set a path of pitfalls. The alliance partners are also facing an uncomfortable choice over the selection of candidates on the proportional list and abide by the election code of conduct. Cooperation among the irrational egoists is hard to achieve unless their survival is at stake and they fear losing their perks and amenities once defeated in elections.
The public hope from the welfare Nepali state is rising while the contribution of tax to the national economy is inadequate to finance all rights of people as promised by political leaders and the constitution.
It is hard to say whether election offers freedom of choice for the Nepalis on policy matters or only re-legitimise leadership authority. Politics is not an end in itself. It is a means to finish off lingering pain of transitional justice and promote public good, peace and order in society. The popular sovereignty has made people reappear in the face of managerial positivism of bureaucracy, un-socialised partisan media seeking to indoctrinate people and careerism of elites of political parties and polity harming the reputation of the institutions of public and national interests.
In the absence of democratisation of the inner life of Nepali political parties, leaders’ private ambition has increased against the political institutionalisation while their ability to manage the tension between core and periphery elites sputtering. Social media and critical mass of Nepali intellectuals are spreading social intelligence and civic competence to people. It has scaled up electoral and political participation and the ability of people to exercise free democratic choice unbound by party organisation and glittering mass electoral campaigns without civic education potential. Now Nepali people ceased to be passive spectators. Exposed to critical social media messages, they articulate across local, national and multinational spheres and build solidarity for collective action.
Legitimacy of political stability springs not only from electoral rules but also from the integrity and performance of leaders and their practical art of responsive rule. In Nepal, however, ideological affinity, constitutional spirit and shared political interests are diluted, posing barriers to furthering popular will, securing political stability and fulfilling political and electoral promises as they are infected by the market which only split the bond between individual and society, depoliticise them and convert people into mobile consumers and workers. The atomisation of mass has eased Nepali leadership to build its circle of power around clientalistic groups of supporters or networked politics across the party lines.
The crisis in party politics is, therefore, destined to linger with their fractious agenda, not nation building as the vector of modern progress is framed in inclusive and sustainable terms. The outcome of local elections demonstrated that today’s voters, liberated from party constraints, loyalties and discipline, elected many independent candidates considering that elections did not change their living standards if they elected the same leaders repeatedly. The frailty of Nepali party system has entailed old parties of the left, centre and right to enter into the necessity of coalition politics, fill the void created by their past deeds and refurbish, reconnect and reform electoral base, if not the self- image, so that they rely on the wisdom of people to elect wise and capable representatives.
Obviously, these tendencies have inclined the politeness of leaders to people. But in no way it has built trust and moderated each other’s behaviour which has become fierce and unruly. As long as leaders are enthused with a sense of duty to people and feeling of common needs, politics in Nepal will continue to veer around the narrow confines of personalised power. Independent scholars speculate whether politics can serve the ordinary Nepalis and national interests under current dispensation. The unbroken continuity of old political culture can be attributed to this depressing state of affairs. The decline of constitutional tradition of politics and the dissolution of the rule of law into partisan manoeuvring have weakened the legislative power of parliament and adjudicating power of the courts acting independent of special interest groups of society.
The inability of Nepali leaders to measure the changing public opinion and turning politics as usual only open the scope for independent candidates which they are scared off. If leaders of mainstream parties do not learn from history and indulge in atavistic revival of authoritarian culture, they will be fated to face the unsatisfactory outcome like pathological leaders who are often dominated from the weight of the past and lack innovative ideas for social mobilisation and political change affirming the aspiration of electorate and their rights to popular sovereignty and human rights. Nepali voters have set an anti-incumbent trend in all the past elections despite their leaders’ artificial recitation of democratic rituals. The logic of power politics rooted in human nature, not laws and norms, marks the erosion of Nepal’s democratic utopia.
As a result, they have become the defenders of the status quo of the current establishment which has only served the power of special interest groups and politicians, not people and rule of law. The hostility of political elites, civil society, business and special interest groups against both popular sovereignty and state sovereignty and love for personal leaders indicate their tendency to keep the legacy of feudalism gripping all institutions of the state and affirming pre-liberal era of human history, not the modern rule of reason. Nepal’s political evolution is dotted in several extra-constitutional changes. Therefore, political leaders’ socialisation in extra-constitutional norms indicates that they are less susceptible to rational control in the model of democracy than their own habits and behaviour.
The continuous refeudalisation of political parties, bureaucrat rut of public administration, weakening of liberal rationality of democracy, technical rationalisation of economic enterprise and management indicate the consolidation of pre-rational politics with father-figures and patriarchs governing the political process. Leaders in perpetual-waiting are airing critical voices within the parties for reforms. This has not made them wrong just because they are on the side of the minority as they oppose the privatisation of public sphere of politics, public money and posts and keep a culture of impunity robust.
It has made civil servants and business easy to penetrate the political domain and cut its autonomy in both policy and law making but bear no accountability for policy failures. It has widened the gap between the identity of parties and the experience of people facing scarcity which is peculiar to all ideologies and political action. The quasi ideological character of political parties runs counter to public morality, if not the economy, health, education and nature. Ironically, neo-liberalism has unified Nepali parties, declaration of socialist-oriented economy entrenched in the constitution notwithstanding. Nepalis do not like the human condition they are now persisting to test their passion for tolerance. They aspire to change its course by changing the causes that led the nation sink into backwardness.
They, therefore, seek a change in the value-neutral, top-down style of politics into value-based. Modern Nepali politics thus risks being overwhelmed by the crisis of declining balance from within and without. Uneasy electoral coalition of the government and opposition without common values and principles hardly gives choice to the people on policy matters and ensures political stability of the nation. It is the repudiation of democratic politics, a politics of public purpose nourished by competitive policy choice for voters. So long as the legacy of feudalism merits suffocating party competition for power, politics in no way can serve the myriad of popular expectations and resolve the nation’s problems.
The parliamentary politics of Nepal is confined by its constitutional frame of adversarial mode, power collusion and patronage based political culture. The state of poverty, inequality, scarcity and awareness of marginalisation has made it highly combustible waiting for civil society and social movements to spark. Growing external dependency on aid, trade, investment, remittance and tourism has tightened the noose on public policy making and stripped the parliament of its policy sovereignty. As a result, neither legislators pursue policy matters nor law-making other than to engage in executive function of development projects. This flags separation and checks and balances of power designed to discipline the operation of dark human instinct. With the screwed up life’s prospects, poor Nepalis have to migrate abroad for job opportunities and face electoral disenfranchisement.
Democracy does not create space for structural violence and external interference while in Nepal the legitimacy of violence and impunity mark the existence of pre-liberal era of human history, not the modern rule of reason and constitution. The faltering nature of ideological character of Nepali parties of all hues thus runs countre to their own principles posing difficulty to organise political socialisation, uphold partisan attachment and prevent the tendency to split. Ending the ironies of politics requires a fresh vision, enduring passion and collaborating action on nourishing the basic purpose of politics.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)