Contradictory Conduct Infests Party Politics

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The recent realisation and formulation of a strategy of mainstream political parties of Nepal to build direct contact with the community may incentivize the junior leaders and cadres to strengthen their electoral base and rejuvenate their interest aggregation and communication capacity. It renews their loyalties, mobilises commitment and coordinates their political activities. Law of self-preservation drives each Nepali party. But this is not the sole factor to hone their internal cohesion, stability and continuity.  Periodic circulation of each social class, gender and generation of leader in party structures as per the constitutional and party rules is necessary. It allows Nepali parties to persist, adapt and grow according to the changing knowledge, needs and demands of the people.

Civic engagements

Policy goals of each political party are to enable society to gain a better life, improve delivery of services and respond to the legitimate demands of the sub-systems for justice. It becomes an easy task for top Nepali leaders to tackle if they are able to shorten the distance of the polity from the people and spur governance efficiency. Building robust construction of local party committees to organize deliberation, listening culture and civic engagements is vital so that diverse layers of leaders often learn from popular feedback and address their livelihood needs. This increases their stake in party politics and improves their lot.

Individual party consolidation turns hard when top leaders are entangled in pre-election and post-election power bloc politics where party identity and distinction are largely hazy, their capacity to keep inner-party democracy is overwhelmed by external coalition building strategy for power sharing and the performance is marred by unruly coordination. One paradox pervades Nepali politics: rising grievances of people stoked by democratic aspirations and declining competence of party-government to respond owing to managerial deficiency. Ordinary Nepalis’ hopes from leaders are attached to their utopian promises which they cannot fulfil. 

In this context, the hard-hitting political critique of junior leaders to the power bloc model of politics has generated friction within the parties and emboldened new political forces and independent politicians in the sidelines that are waiting to ride over power through inflaming popular grievances, contradictions and resentment that helped their dawn, expansion and justification. The management of inner party democracy in Nepali Congress (NC), CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist Centre can help them to retain their political base and concert purposeful political action while drift to different political directions weaken them internally which may require external strategic alliances for gaining political leverage, clout and outreach.

One critical challenge of inner party democracy is the problem of leadership succession. This has gripped each of them in a dilemma: the feeble succession of leadership can increase long-term costs to them while the political culture of leadership-for-life hits the party's political dynamics. The more the leadership image is tarnished by malfunctioning, incubating vices, clientalism and cronyism the harder for them to coherently steam forward. Troubled coalition of fractious parties of Madhesh is not tension-free either. Critical mass of civil society questions their jerky conduct. The selection of defeated leaders in the parliament has underestimated the popular mandate. 

The sharp awareness of Nepalis about their rights, political knowledge and links to the media have increased their civic competence, capacity to keep due diligence on the operation of parties and judgmental ability. Rational resolution of the density and scale of national problems in Nepal requires broad-based cooperation among the political parties of various hues. It averts an atrophy of the polity and party system. Perseverance of the power bloc politics is the outgrowth of the doctrine of internal and external necessity of parties and system of electoral choice rather than just a matter of personal preference of leaders. No party willingly enters into power bloc politics without risking internal disorganisation, party de-alignment, factionalism and voters’ apathy that saps basic party functions. 

The role of party schools is important for both political socialisation and building trust within and across the political range. It is more than political indoctrination and a culture of conformity which democracy detests. But educating leaders and people about basic values of democracy, constitutions and critical analysis of the public and national issues are essential for their timely resolution. Politicisation of people increases their sense of volunteerism, active citizenship, lowers the cost of politics and excites their interests in public interest and public good. Growing alienation, apathy and cynicism of people with political flux, by contrast, weaken the foundation of party-propelled democracy.   

The current dilemma of NC is to choose between the left parties whose rhetoric and strategy of democratic centralism it derides and the non-left parties with whom it competes for the same political space. By joining with the left parties in both electoral politics and power sharing it has improved its muscle, diluted their class-based worldview and turned them into a catch-all brand.  But it failed to stop their avowed support to and participation in the chorus of struggle of shark loan victims, banks and cooperatives resembling class conflict and their flirtation with ethnic identity politics straining the evolution of civic culture.

 Youth leaders in NC feel that identity-crazy politics weakens the state and long-term base of NC though it cannot escape from the establishment for fear of the disruption of new political order and stem consistent assault from new parties such as Rastriya Swotantra Party (RSP) on libertarian side, Rastriya Prajatantra Party on conservative side and a host of small Maoist parties on radical plane.  The latter senses a fear of plunging into a swamp of parliamentary politics if they consort with the socialist unity. The benefits of joining coalition with the NC has enhanced international legitimacy of the leftist forces and gained a democratic façade, if not conduct as many of their organizational, publicity and leadership principles are based on Leninist tenets. 

The NC leadership for a long time had caught in a Hobson’s choice: those at the top know the discomfort of electoral adjustment of those voters socialized in their own party’s ideologies and identities while de-alignment may snub the party out of power. Top NC leaders’ purported hope in the coalition with the CPN-Maoist Centre was driven by a motive to save democracy, amend the constitution, maintain peace and fulfill overall national interest.  This hope, however, suffered a blow now. On March 4, 2024 Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ suddenly shifted its alliance to CPN-UML, Rastriya Swotantra Party and Janata Samajbadi Party, setting off chain reaction to the power balance even at provincial level as well. CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist Centre have agreed to share the prime minister’s post on a rotational basis. 

Bargaining of the parties for coveted ministerial posts is on afoot which might unravel their stand on critical national issues and ability to adapt to brutal facts of power politics. The NC interest to amend the constitution, rethink about Hindu state, mutual claim on the post of chairman of National Assembly, defection from coalition consensus in Koshi province to elect Maoist runner, opposition to the feat of Maoist people’s war, refusal to restructure the cabinet and doubt about the Maoists’ account of transitional justice are the critical reasons behind Prime Minister Prachanda’s power shift to a new left coalition government. The geopolitical implications of this powershift are yet to unfold. 

 One obvious implication is the postponement of the international summit conference, organized by the Lumbini Provincial government and managed by the American organization ‘Lariats and Leaders’ on March 11-12 for the welfare of children, development and peace. Mainstream parties’ general foreign policy orientation does not diverge much on other major issues.  The robust organizational base of the UML can add strength to the new coalition but not guarantee stable governance because it too is seething for inner-party democracy. The shift in coalition government has put CPN – Unified Socialist in the throes of a dilemma though the concept of socialist unity and request of Oli and Prachanda to stay in the government might inspire Madav Kumar Nepal and KP Sharma Oli to bury their bitterness and hew a new path to power-sharing.

Leaders-for-life mentality

Without the democratisation of the inner life of political parties, the party-system in Nepal cannot be suitably institutionalized. Leaders-for-life mentality only weakens the principles of constitutionalism, parliamentary practice, rule of law and civic culture.  One thing is obvious: the culture of collusion of odd parties cancels integrity, transparency, accountability and honesty of leadership to the electorates as popular distrust is mounting for the weak performance of mainstream parties which is being capitalized by anti-system forces, populists, social struggles and anomic groups thriving against the state of scandals, anomie, human trafficking, stealing state resources and criminals for whom national sovereignty is an enemy. 

The interpenetration of left and non-left parties into each other’s political domain is gradually drifting them to a hybrid political culture of plutocracy.  Now no longer any party holds its distinct image of either liberal democratic, social democratic or purely left ideological brand. Each has the temptation to catch-all style and willingness to adjust to any party for power-sharing deals. The erosion of ideologies has given birth to religious sentiment, populism and non-political activities of interest groups though unity among them remains only tantalizing, adding large scale impact on the dynamics of party politics.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)

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