The history of democracy has a steady advance from a natural order to an order of reason. Its cord in several countries by waves of political movements has, however, limited success. Many of the nations either receded into hybrid regime, or rolled back to mere liberalisation, lingered in protracted transition or degenerated into strongman authoritarianism. Several factors have vitiated these tendencies: democratic leaders choose to become father-figures and failed to facilitate the smooth power transfer across various social classes and generations through electoral process, institutional preconditions were not sufficiently robust to sustain democratic values, attitude and political culture, popular stake on democracy was subverted by several economic adjustment policies and not giving people a democratic choice on policy issues.
Likewise, the top political leaders did not institutionalise the basic functioning of parties instead collaborated with parties of all sorts even non-democratic ones for their personal survival in power and the restlessness of the infrastructures of democracy such as independent judiciary, civil society, media and business too could not harvest constitutional perfection. It is important to democratise the family structures and schools to make the voters reflective, mature and conscientious. Likewise, organisational and leadership structures of political parties, their ancillary bodies and various forms of authority need to be opened up for reasoned debate and contestation. It can move politics from pre-political clutch, undue party-mindedness and adversarial, zero-sum model to post-traditional, moral and civic virtues of collective action in matters of mutual public and national interests.
In Nepal, democratic leaders seemed weak to lift the burden of life of ordinary people. They could not exorcise systemic evils that grew unduly thus reducing democracy to a mere selection of elites for rule rather than improving its input and output performance legitimacy for the wellbeing of people. The aspiration of the middle class for social mobility created by their political awakening during the ancien regime of Ranas had generated a constant struggle with the aristocracy for liberation, entitlements and opportunity for participation in the governance. The success of the first wave of democracy in the 1950s created scope for the legitimisation of parties, institutional innovations oriented to common good, constitutional tradition of politics, etc. that sought to liberalise the regime through radical reforms to improve commonweal.
But the democratic elites failed to abide by the discipline and constitutional rules of democracy, weakening checks and balances of power and spirit of constitutionalism. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the reasons for the state claimed its supremacy over the freedom of people, media, civil society and opposition and the birth of the Panchayat regime ruling the roost for 30 years. Democracy becomes stable where its vision becomes single synoptic, the scope of representation becomes broad-based and political aspiration of people matches with the institutional robustness for their orderly conduct.
The political order created by the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal, 1990 under the spell of the second wave of democracy and its leadership had also to encounter external aid conditionalities pertaining to structural adjustment, not suitable for strengthening their democratic authority on the national economy and choice of policies apt to the nation’s framework conditions. It had eroded the existential condition of people in both rural and urban areas thus making outbound migration a compulsive decision. Many times the Supreme Court had to annul the decisions of the executive and legislative branches. Many other democratic nations like India, Singapore and Malaysia sought democracy as a manifestation of its own civilisation defined by Asian values.
Nepali leaders, however, found themselves alienated from native roots of wisdom. The second wave of Nepali democracy was thus confined to holding elections, not creating robust authority in society so that no extra-constitutional force could challenge its legitimacy. The overdrive of the market had cut the relevance of parties and the parliament in formulating public policy, and its expansion in the entire non-market Nepali society marked the downsizing of public admin and retreat of democracy. The denouement is: Maoists’ revolt and creation of a democracy-free zone. Intense inter- and intra-party squabbles became the source of government instability and reduced the capacity of public institutions.
Nepali regime thus faced various unconventional forms of opposition - extra-parliamentary, extra-systemic, anti-systemic and revolutionary. The leadership fragility to bring all of them into democratic competition for policy alternatives lingered the process of democratisation of public life. The third wave of democracy following peace accord and promulgation of constitution in 2015 premised on inclusive, secular federal democratic republic and many seductive promises. So far this phase of democracy detonated only an idealistic salvo, masking the role of power in statecraft and, as a result, lingered the transition processes. Still, the new constitution has expanded the domain of rights but reduced corresponding duties for citizens.
This helped Nepalis to demand for popular sovereignty, self-determination, self-and shared rule rooted in social justice and the resolution of conflict residues. But the monopoly of power by the winners of elections has lost its lustre to the losers, minorities and small parties. Neither the mass enthusiasm for democracy nor the causes of democratic deficits in the 1950s, 1990s and 2006 onward were dissimilar from each other — personalisation of power and de-institutionalisation of the party system. Nepali leaders have proven their ability to overthrow the Rana regime, monocratic Panchayat regime and constitutional monarchical regime but appeared weak to create functioning democratic system that can fulfil subjective and objective needs of Nepalis, realise their rights, create opportunities and make national identity healthy so that they feel a stake in its survival and resilience.
Ironically, the use of the market has failed to moderate the leadership hierarchies, restrict the power of executive and promote independent and fair judiciary. As a result, the political movements of human rights groups, civil society, peace activists, women, ecologists and minorities are seething with unfinished democratic projects. Anti-incumbent stir of Nepalis and formation of new political parties have asserted the need for participatory democracy, perhaps the onset of fourth wave. Social inclusion has eased broad-based representation. The shift of balance of power to disjointed new forces has proven democratic credentials, not its adversary. The transformation of electoral democracies into participatory ones has been eased by new media and civil society as they clinch connectivity of Nepalis forging a sense of community.
The complex set of political and cultural forces is at work in different political parties of Nepal and leaders interpret democracy in their own ways. As a result, the caricature of institutions and values from the West and Third World nations simply did not take its roots in Nepal though the nation upheld the values of social pluralism, fused caste and class system, eased the boom of urban-based civil society, created many fronts to prevent the relapse of third wave of democracy. But it appeared weak to foster the rule of law, representative bodies and strike a balance between individual, group-based and universal human rights. Unwarranted fixation with group-based rights has spurred mini identity politics and cut the meta-identity of citizenship.
Democracy cannot be retained for long when non-democrats use it as a tool for personal advancement, not a way of life and exercise a policy of divide and domination, not democratisation. Democracy can grow in Nepal if all political parties have an ideological predisposition for the internalisation of its values, principles and political culture in their organisational life. In a nation of social, economic and cultural diversity, political parties must have the ability for social integration potential for nation-building. But, democracy becomes stable here only when democrats enjoy a decisive power advantage over non-democrats in governance. At the same time, the opposition parties of various hues should play a constructive role in checking the abuse of government power rather than often remain desperate to join the government without popular mandate.
If the state has a defective monopoly on power and the government often seeks external patronage for regime survival, national issues often become poignant and it is difficult to balance patriotism with democratisation. One irony of Nepali politics is that no government has been able to fulfil its full tenure owing to internal and geopolitical manoeuvrings. And external support for the regime is growing while for democracy it is waning. It is not working properly providing disincentives for the aid regime to beef up its traction. Corruption, impunity, poverty, inequality, injustice, debt and dependency only indicate the maze of vision and institutions corroding trust on the polity. Nepali constitution has provided property rights to the Nepalis but nearly 15 per cent of the population is below poverty line.
Democracy does not thrive if the wealth and power gaps widen giving opportunity to the revolutionary force from below, the hard-liners from within the parties and those independent citizens excluded from any opportunity for their lack of party affiliation. Democratisation becomes stable if power is well institutionalised, distribution of power is equal and politics is often geared toward achieving negotiations, compromise and agreements, not imposition. Otherwise, politics is marked by high fluctuation in public policy, public opinion and coalition formation. If democratisation is a culturally bounded phenomenon, Nepal’s cultural mosaic is fit for it. Neither its popular culture nor its spiritual roots are averse to democratisation. It is the elite culture of entitlement and monopoly that dashes its hope.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)