The idea of reform in politics backs the democratic advocacy of better improvement of an existing order by altering its unworkable policy contents, malfunctioning institutions, sterile leadership and political culture so that a need for its replacement by either radical reaction or revolution does not arise in the sphere of power. The adaptability of Nepali democracy pivots on the timely reforms of its governance as per the changing needs, demands, rights and aspirations of various social strata of people and their ability to peacefully live in a national community. The projection and representation of political power from society to the state through the medium of people’s institutions, public opinion, fair elections and communication ensures its longevity, legitimacy and resilience.
Aspiration for change
The reformist politics is rooted in the liberal belief that incremental, sublime changes mean that a society’s hierarchic social order, unequal economic exchange and domination-based political structures would be flattened in harmony with the Nepali constitutional vision of an egalitarian society. This belief grew out of an opposition to economic determinism and fatalism for the rational direction of politics affirming hope for a dignified life. Nepal’s electoral trends have often indicated people’s aspiration for change in leadership and, therefore, they have often cut the size of the ruling party. Yet the culture of social learning and anticipatory steps in leadership virtues are acutely messy.
The stability of the same political classes in the decision centre has dashed off any hope for reform to make the life of ordinary people better. The old democracy differs from the modern one: the former is elitist, instrumental and representative while the latter is mass participatory, purposive and adaptive to changing human condition spurred by education, consciousness and effortless liberty. Decadal regime change, more civic rights in the constitution and populist form of party manifestos have made Nepali politics desire-filled, not stability-driven. As a result, the federal, shared and local self-government have often faced overload and an imbalance between demand and supply of public goods.
The second reason for the crisis of reformist politics finds powerful resonance in the rise of the power bloc model of politics and parallel opposition habitually inclined to sharing power in constitutional bodies and repudiating self. It has made their political life interdependent, not competitive. Its amphibious voice and role have cut legitimate space for genuine dissent capable of offering alternatives in power, voice and public policies. The class compromise politics of mainstream parties such as Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist-Centre has produced ironies in their political bases as their cadres have not exonerated themselves from the old ideological lens when the parties were founded.
In the leadership hierarchy, they are uncritically loyal to their fractious leaders, not party goals thus deflating the flow of innovative ideas vital to reformist politics. This conformist lure has strengthened leaders but weakened the parties and fragmented the autonomy of political space incubating multiple inclinations. The neo-conservatives’ longing of the past, radicals harbouring redistributive regime, populists yearning of lower middle classes to change top leadership, regionalists struggling for groups rights and recognition of identities, independents aspiring for personal entitlements and literary circle, academics and journalists pushing for post-truth politics of honesty. They are exposing the lying of political leaders to keep the integrity of ethical public life.
In a time of post-truth politics, Nepali democracy cannot survive only on the basis of flashy promises and propaganda of progress when crisis is rolling across all spheres and underproduction of labour, capital and land compelled most youths to migrate abroad to earn for their living and enliven the national economy. Both independents and non-left populists’ flavour have a bit to offer generational representation, anti-corruption tirade and leadership change. Both are supporting the government on grounds of its action against illegal land grab, corruption, gold smuggling and human trafficking.
But they have not been able to educate leaders on the difference between national aspiration of people for better governance and rulers' imperative for the endurance of status quo. Ordinary people judge politics not in terms of the impulse and style of leaders but concrete evidence as they are fed up with their habit to put off, not solve problems. The third reason for the crisis in reformist politics springs from the grand illusion generated by top leaders. Their promise of social transformation in line with the constitution to create an egalitarian society affirming popular sovereignty is hamstrung by patrimonial political culture.
It has generated contradiction with constitutional right to social inclusion, gender equality, class-based social justice and intergenerational representation. Excessive push of the markets as a solution in a non-market society has bred special interest groups, free riders and patronage networks who are influencing, lobbying and dominating Nepali parties and blocking democratisation and reforms in their inner political life. Their explosion has adversely affected civic and political institutions which depend on the virtuous state to regulate but lack strong political will, organisation and technical capacity to do the job. The tremors of gold smuggling, corruption, human trafficking, money laundering, capital flight, etc. are heating up party politics.
Restoring the integrity of politics is central to changing the status quo mentality of top leaders and public organisations in control of public powers and purse. Only then can it shape civic culture enabling Nepali parties and their auxiliary groups to identify with the state, mediate social contract between society, social classes and the state and eschew any shameless privileges against the poor. The crisis in reformist politics chains the state from within by partisan recruitment in public institutions and party-minded and power-block politics from outside thus emptying any hope of social mobility of lower classes. Recovering the strength and sovereignty of Nepali state is vital to provide universal access for the poor to public goods.
The fourth reason for the crisis of reformist politics is personalisation of political parties and strife of factious leaders in the struggle for power. This defies the growth of political will for political and economic reforms to build a shared national identity, a coherent political strategy and the need to achieve sustainable development goals. The rule of governance is facilitated by a power bloc participated by a strategic minority of the several small political parties while reform aims to disperse power and authority to the people and subdue special interest groups to the rule of law. It has sterilised the majority's power to articulate and effect collective action.
In a situation of polarised power bloc politics, the government is compelled to pursue not economic and political reforms but share of spoils with politically significant groups by negotiation and political consensus. Constituency development fund is an example. It not only tramples the separation of power in the polity and fosters patronage politics but weakens the legislature’s law and policy making functions. As a result, discrepancy has occurred between traditional privilege of feudal power and civic equality and opportunity granted by democratic constitution. Nepali democracy thus appears weak to confront ecological, social, economic and political crises, claim parliamentary sovereignty over public policy, allocate public goods and resist the harsh aid conditions lingering dependency and justifying its rationality.
It is absurd to frame national progress on the caricature of other states deflating national experience and spirit of independence. What can be absorbed is the modern science and technology to boost production and remove injustice nurtured by syndicate politics. It is high time for Nepal to rear reformist leaders who can link the poor and middle class into party politics, integrate the legitimate demands of non-class based social movements -- women, peace, ecologists, professionals, poor, peasants and workers, etc. into their parties and make their financial transactions transparent, accountable and people-oriented.
Their inclusive democratic selection of leadership and democratisation of party committees can make them responsive and capable of addressing deep rooted causes of malaises and structural injustice. Some of these social movements contest the political parties’ hegemony over society as well as neo-liberal orthodoxy but share with them the common policy regime of not altering ownership of property patterns. The neo-liberal economy followed by Nepali governments of various hues, too, did not fit with the liberal Nepali constitution of socialism guided by the synergy of public, private and cooperative partnership. This has impeded the execution of the constitution.
The adoption of market’s primacy is not without political prejudice. It is an outcome of a technocratic coalition of a few party bureaucrats and consultants and strong centralisation imposed by the logic of the catch-all parties rather than the expression of party manifestos. The neo-liberal form of economic integration ruined agricultural surplus and the nature of privatisation of industries in the hunt for short-term economic profit degraded the economic foundation of Nepali state and society through restructuring while consolidating the power of symbolic economy, class monopoly and domination of money in all spheres of national life.
If a democratic regime abdicates its public role in favour of a powerless state and destroys the ground of its legitimacy it cannot save itself from mounting popular cynicism. Reformist measures are, therefore, valuable for Nepal to avoid the crises in reformist politics of the middle path and proceed with a moral and practical choice of avoiding disorder, lawlessness and rebellion Nepalis can all-afford. The fusion of intellectual reason and power-exiled rationality can restore democratic politics and set the primacy of ethical and spiritual growth in the nation now inflicted by crass materialism going too far and exhausting the soul of Nepali nation striving for fair and just society through reformist politics.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)