Of several anomalies that undermine Nepal’s efforts to consolidate the democratic republic, gerontocracy has emerged as a stumbling block, triggering public resentment against the authoritarian tendency of political parties and their failure to fulfil electoral promise. Gerontocracy is a negative term that implies the rule of older people over the populace. The elders dominate the top political structures and have greater say over the decision-making process while the youths lack decisive role in the affairs of the state. But in the ancient time, gerontocracy was taken with a positive note. Plato said that ‘it is for the elder man to rule and for the younger to submit.’ Plato’s statement reflected an aristocratic society when the idea of democracy had not taken a firm root.
However, gerontocracy is not compatible with the concept of modern democracy and meritocracy. The parties are the agents of change but they require fresh faces and innovative ideas to deal with the complex societal dynamics. The old political parties, which had played their role in major political upheavals, are now suffering from democratic sclerosis. The youths have been deprived of the mantle of leadership. The old guards are ruling the roost and the intergenerational justice has been denied. This has not only stunted the growth of political parties but also caused systemic crisis.
Fair crack of the whip
In major political parties, the youths have rued that they are not given a fair crack of the whip. Their voice has always been lost in the wilderness as the old leaders tighten the grip on the party committees. The call for ensuring intergenerational justice is getting louder after the main opposition party CPN-UML removed the age limit of 70 years. In its inter-party circular, issued by chairman KP Sharma Oli on June 6, the age-ceiling of 70 years has been suspended through statute amendment. According to the party sources, it decided to revoke the age limit to accommodate Mukunda Neupane, who has recently joined the UML after quitting the CPN-Unified Socialist. The party’s law forbids a person above 70 to be a member of the committee. Neupane has already crossed 70.
However, the insiders claim that the new provision aims to facilitate incumbent chair Oli, 72, to hold the top post for another term from the 11th convention. If the upcoming statute convention approves it, this will provide a new political life to senior vice-chairman Ishwor Pokharel and vice-chairmen Yuva Raj Gyawali, Subash Nembang, Astalaxmi Shakya, Ram Bahadur Thapa and Mukunda Neupane, who are already in the twilight of their career. The move has angered the youth leaders but they are not showing their guts to protest it in public.
Oli’s leadership remains unchallenged after senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal split the party and formed CPN-Unified Socialist. The UML introduced the provision of 70-year age limit through its 8th, 9th and 10th conventions with the objective to reenergise the party from bottom to top. The age limit had forced senior leaders Modnath Prashrit, Siddhilal Singh and Bharat Mohan Adhikary to retire from the party while leader Amrit Bohara and Keshav Badal decided not to hold the party’s executive position.
Nonetheless, the removal of the age ceiling flies in the face of party’s decisions and objectives. In the very circular, the UML has admitted that there is an imbalance between mature age-group and young age-group workers, which calls for a new campaign to attract youths and increase their participation in the party. For this, the party will launch the youth-oriented drive to organise one-third members below 35 of lower committees through the means of convention and reorganisation. It has also rolled out the slogan – ‘deshaibhari chhorachhori’ (son-daughter throughout the country). To implement it, the party unveiled the programmes - ‘from ward to ward: future youth leaders’ and ‘at least 10 youths in each ward.’ Annulment of 70-year age bar is likely to dampen these initiatives, hindering the youths to climb up the leadership rung.
Following the vertical split, the UML’s organisational base continues to crumble. It lost significant number of seats in the federal and provincial elections last year. In February, it announced a ‘Mission Grassroots’ campaign to bolster the party organisationally and ideologically. Oli, who dissolved the House of Representatives (HoR) twice without any rhyme or reason, has faced an uphill task to repair the fractured party. And the decision to revoke the 70-year age limit is likely to backfire. “If the elders go on amending the statute to suit their interests, only the oldies will pile up in the leadership, forcing the youths to seek alternatives,” warns a UML politburo member.
The emergence of Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) in the November election showed the youths’ distaste towards the mainstream parties. It was their silent revolt against the inertia and lacklustre performance of the major parties run by the gerontocrats. The youths’ participation in the politics adds a new impetus to the party system and makes the federal system functional and dynamic. The UML’s move to let the old generation leaders hold the vital posts is like putting the cart before the horse. This will further discourage the youths from joining politics, fuelling the trend of brain drain and exodus of youths towards foreign nations.
(The author is Deputy Executive Editor of this daily.)