Politics is an area of promise. Ordinary people hope that their life will shift from adversity to prosperity after the turn of each election and formation of a new government with fresh mandate. Political parties are expected to supply worthwhile initiatives congruent with the legitimate hope of people and foster a civic culture of democracy rooted in the vibrant public sphere. It enables them to participate in the richness of contextual ideas and shape public policies beyond the idiom of each leader enthralling its rival with pledges and promises but cynically betraying in the end. The vitality of democracy can flourish with the vigour of the norm-governed order and national economy, the lifeblood of politics.
It, therefore, demands a creative fix in Nepal because economic strength shapes the contours and capacity of the government for self-responsibility to meet its promises and constitutional and international duties for justice. Nepal’s sedative progress so far can be attributed to the growing chasm between the lofty ends and futile means of execution, non-investment of economic surplus in the nation’s productive sectors and political and administrative inertia to deliver public goods to people at minimum cost.
The constitution promises a welfare state but the moribund economy, declining job prospects and distorted opportunity at home exhaust its substance. Delayed development may engulf the nation into a labyrinth if the only nauseating option of mass migration to the international labour market acting as a safety valve is packed full. It can easily suck the nation into another downward spiral of political flux. In Nepal, electoral promises hardly mean egalitarian rules of the game where political parties of various hues find level playing field to compete on policy alternatives, produce even outcome and corresponding stake of people in the polity.
The social base of political parties is seen fragmenting owing to migration of people, personalised factionalism in each party, creation of elite caucus for privilege, special interest groups’ boom, formation of new political groups and a number of identity-crazy organisations devoid of secular form of solidarity and rational political will for national collective action. As a result, the persistence of hierarchy in society, development gap, callous economic determinism and heartless fatalism have endlessly created an egalitarian illusion, not the ideal animation of constitutional vision. Power elites often seek to indulge in law-free privileges and use media, cadres and party intellectuals to anesthetise the ordinary public to be awakened only with a renewed ferment of hope in the next election or blinking stir.
In this context, the election of President on March 9 has preoccupied the attention of Nepali leaders and the attentive public. The Electoral College consisting of 884 members — National Assembly 58, House of Representatives 275 and Provincial Assemblies 550- elect the President. The evolving political milieu reveals the harsh distrust within the coalition of five parties led by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’. National politics is beset by mutual exchange of indictment and scathing criticism of leaders. CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli wants to retain the post of President for his party as per verbal agreement with Prime Minister Prachanda. It has, however, stoked fear in the minds of Maoist Centre and Nepali Congress (NC) leaders and reminds them of his justification of dissolution of parliament twice.
NC’s support to vote of confidence motion for Prime Minister ‘Prachanda’ in the parliament and latter’s interest to form a national consensus government prompted him to read the change of national political context. He is, therefore, exploring new possibilities for a prudent and eminent President who can act impersonally above the partisan interests. NC leaders are seeking support from the Prime Minister in favour of its Presidential candidate for the reason of power balance in the polity and a check on the democracy reversal by excessive monopoly of lucrative portfolios by UML in the future. It has stirred reaction from Oli prompting him to argue that NC can claim the status of opposition if it withdraws its support from the government.
The schizophrenic attitude of NC — unspoken passion for government and verbal commitment to stay in opposition constitute an antinomy of politics, an animus to the loss of hope in democratic dynamics. The imperative for a national consensus government, according to Prime Minister, lies in resolving the long and varied catalogue of problems of Nepali society especially economy and steer the delayed development forward, set up conditions for political stability, ease delivery of public goods, foster good governance and keep foreign policy proportional to national interests. Undue UML’s pressure on Prime Minister Prachanda may pull him close to NC. This political spin-off may assure him a full five-year’s tenure as Prime Minister and shake the fragile edifice of left unity swinging coalition politics to a new bend.
To avert this eventuality, Oli is prompted to deride the NC leadership, amplify parleys with Prachanda and insist on giving the Home Minister portfolio to Ravi Lamichhane, the President of Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) who had been stripped of Member of Parliament and Home Minister by Supreme Court verdict for his citizenship imbroglio which was settled later. In the latter case, Prime Minister Prachanda, however, clearly stated that he would not appoint the Home Minister now unless he received the full text of the Supreme Court verdict. His party leaders suggest that since Lamichhane is stripped of a Member of Parliament giving him ministry may prompt other non-member of parliament to claim for ministerial position.
Maoist Centre’s leaders, therefore, demonstrated stoical defiance to Lamichhane’s desperation and retained the Home Ministry in its fold. It has prompted the RSP to threaten to withdraw from the government which Prime Minister Prachanda does not feel comfortable with. Prachanda is also facing problems from the alienated parties for their partisan inclinations rather than sticking to a common minimum program. Janamat Party is demanding one more ministry and Janata Samajbadi Party and CPN Unified Socialist did not join the government. It may provide NC a leverage to clip them and other left out parties and bargain with the government for power-sharing.
The nation now witnesses a struggle among various political spectrum — democratic centralism of left forces, pragmatism of RSP wheeling for power, spiritualising atavism of Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) with a sense of appropriation of historical values and institutions, guarded attempt of NC to stage back to power as a largest party in the parliament and the hope of ordinary public from the government to shore up the burden of their existence by means of jobs, liberty, political stability and good governance.
In a word, they are expecting protection from the fear of mutual injury spurred by instrumental politics and convulsion of life drawn by soaring inflation and the nation’s economic slump. Each political party suffocated from the institutional memory of betrayal of the other senses a threat to democratic sensibility. The Madhesh-based parties are struggling to find a clue as to how to become relevant, find a visible space in the institutions of government and raise demand for proportional representation. Democracy’s future viability and authority of leadership can only prevent politics turning into a game of manipulation, ego-projection or power-monopoly vocation and promote national self-determination.
Nepali political parties of various hues stand more on political brand of leadership, a self-referential world of politics, less on the functional sites for the people to debate about the quality of public policies and services to them in an accountable and transparent manner so that their leaders can coexist without reciprocal suspicion of each other’s intention and action. How to bind the future generation of Nepalis into an exit strategy of entangled politics excessively burdened by scarcity, existential risk and dependency is a major political challenge now. Political stability requires Nepali state’s legitimate monopoly on power, institutionalisation of constitution, laws, policies and procedures and regulation of behaviour of leaders and people.
Yet, Nepali leaders are fundamentally interested in the government, not improving the quality of polity and capacitating the state, the latter is enmeshed in cross-cutting geopolitical pressure requiring the wisdom of statesman to manage. The provision of human rights is expected to abolish the state of nature and the reasons of state can create a buffer between leaders and anarchy, a buffer that can prevent the state sinking into a stasis, a condition in which there is neither action nor progress, often resulting from opposing geopolitical forces balancing each other. But it is not enough unless the slumbering passion of Nepalis is awakened to the conditions of living, they build civic competence to exercise sovereignty embedded in them and arrest the drift of labour and capital’s unfettered mobility to the global market.
The defective monopoly of power of the state is a sign of the fading writ of democracy and domination of political parties in every spheres of national life. Nepali political parties are facing a fluid state of social and political movements of various cause groups, growth of new parties, penetration of interest groups and even permeation of geopolitical interests in political, legal and policy regimes. They are stripping off the ability of Nepali state to perform basic state functions. The inept self-vaunting of leaders is not a mark of their greatness and maturity. The nation requires cultured leadership reared by vision, education, experience and public spiritedness. They create values to foster conscience and duty to the nation and people.
Ordinary Nepalis are waiting for long for the promises of leaders to be animated in their lifetime while the attentive public is turning reflexive, aiming to improve politics beyond Cartesian bipolarity. Political stability requires each political party not chase exclusive self-interest but act in harmony with the shared constitutional goals and seek national identity based on citizenship, not postmodern spin that creates enemies within the nation and spurs divisive trends and desperation. To sustain the hope of people in governance, leadership must act according to the dictates of the constitution and needs of people and safely adapt to changing geopolitical imperatives by building national consensus on issues of vital national interests.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)