Wednesday, 19 January, 2022

Divisive Politics Breeds Instability

Dev Raj Dahal   

Political parties basically reflect diverse societal features. Nepali political parties are encountering new phase of adaptation. Emerged from political movements, fragmentation of central committees and parliamentary parties and inflated ego of aspiring leaders for power, they are facing severe tensions to keep organisational cohesion and adapt to Nepali electorates. The latest episode is the registration of Nepal Communist Party (Unified Socialist) of Madhav Kumar Nepal splintered from CPN-UML and Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) of Mahantha Thakur fragmented from Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) in the Election Commission (EC) for being removed from their mother parties.

The government is now trying to deactivate the ordinance that facilitated the amendment of the Political Parties Act, 2017 and the virtual split of UML and JSP with 20 per cent of the members of either the central committee or Parliamentary Party. The earlier provision for party split required 40 per cent members. The interest in the deactivation of ordinance lies in preventing additional fragmentation of parties vertically at federal, province and local levels while providing the cabinet a possibility to take a full shape representing all coalition partners, including newly emerged parties.

The Supreme Court is debating on the validity of writ filed against the ordinance which it had nullified in its previous verdict. The validation of ordinance rests on court’s verdict, endorsement by the joint session of parliament within 60 days and the President’s discretion. The third force within the UML comprising Bhim Rawal, Ghanshyam Bhusal, Surendra Pandey, etc. were restless to get approval to earlier 10-point consensus in the party from UML chair KP Sharma Oli and senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal so that the party can get reunited under the common legacy of Madan Bhandari’s People’s Multiparty Democracy. This ideological conformity holds a faint glimmer of hope for working together on practical issues if they eschew from exchanging nasty notes.

Lack of audacity
Yet, they continue to hurl acerbic charges against each other nonstop for drifting to right-wing opportunism and ousting each other from their respective parties in a mode of self-justification thus offering no learning opportunity and creativity. Instead, they unveiled multiple causes for velvet divorce from the experience of working together over three decades. The third force, largely melted in the party status quo, sparks no grit but only detonates the disaster consequences of this split in the forthcoming elections and prospective role in governance. Its lack of  audacity to insist on alternative leadership or leadership transfer to younger generation in no way opens a moment of  epiphany so that party can be made stronger and better on the basis of institutional strength, not personality cult.
Its appeal for moderation goes against the rival leaders’ self-serving astringent words and actions which demands and defends the status quo ante  and cancellation of unilateral decisions of both sides, withdrawal of action against 14 legislators and non-registration of new party. Nepal has categorically said that it was possible to reunify the party if Oli regretted his faults. He also flipped over consolidating his party’s strength and deliberating the forward course, ideology, interim statute, policy, organisational and programmatic strategy.    

Many of Nepali political parties, cut off from their ideological goals of their founding and cynically indulged in the travesty of their magical plays, only move back and forth at all levels among basic values, discipline, organisational growth, party committees, leadership succession, deliberation on policy issues and public service. The disjuncture between their conquering of power and unfinished struggle of Nepali electorates for social justice prompted the later to organise multi-versal social movements thus setting the social dynamics alert and alive. So long as the leaders and counter leaders treat each other betrayer of citizens’ mandate and act against the constitutional tradition of politics, the ordinary citizens increasingly view them relaxed in complying with the party statute, process, rules, principles and leadership duty and efficacy to resolve problems encountered by them and the nation.
Inner-party democracy, meaningful dialogues and constructive communication in the interest of party agility and stability can settle some critical issues. Personalised nature of leadership conflict prevents animated dialogue, negotiation of rational interests and fulfilment of each other’s legitimate space and needs.

The venting of grievances has only hardened, not soothed their positional stand thus turning compromise an uphill task.  Obviously, the style and language of politics in Nepal have gone significant change but not the “swing door” bent of leaders attached to legislation, business, cronyism and client interests, thus condensing of their hard-core passion for profit and power and creating a wedge for rational solution national problems relevant to the promotion of public good and national interests. This is troubling the predictable input functions of Nepali political parties.   

The varied set of many left parties of Nepal does not mean a kind of common worldview and ideology glued by values, affection, solidarity and conduct for the liberation of the oppressed. They collaborate only for common aspiration for state power. This equally applies to non-left parties as well. As leadership vie for supremacy and common endeavour declined they suffered decomposition from the top and consequently crippled their power base vertically that gave them legitimacy to govern Nepali society and responsibility to deliver public good. Each political party of Nepal struggles for socialism or social justice that defined their common constitutional vision but the dearth of nation’s resource and an imperative to adjust to global policy goals have made them practical and face intractable contradictions. Nepali parties have thus failed to transform diverse partisan groups into common citizens with equal attention and offer political stability and national cohesion. 

The nullification of unity between UML and Maoist Centre by the Supreme Court has marked a ground-shifting impact. The unravelling of leaders-engineered merger had drained synergy of left forces and exonerated Nepali politics from one-party dominance of election outcome, political process and rule, its ability to spread patronage and deterioration of public institutions. This shift has freed the space for multi-party competition. The restoration of unconstitutionally dissolved parliament twice by the Supreme Court and split of UML has opened another window of opportunity for Nepali Congress, Maoist Centre, newly emerged and other parties to catapult into power, expand their electoral base and improve performance legitimacy.

So long as Maoist Centre fails to overcome three trends within its top leaders - alienation, defection and co-optation, its appeal to unify all left forces splintered from it in the past proves only a damp squib. It still stands as a party of seething cauldron of grumbling of politicians for positions clearly revealed by its top leader Prachanda. Another top leader of the party Narayan Kaji Shrestha has openly articulated the need for a new polarisation, contestation, transformation and new stratification.

The NC’s success rests on the management of its various factions, internal power equation, morale of cadres, fair resolution of remaining active membership rows unsettled in some districts, fairly organising party’s 14th general convention on November 25-29 this year and reconnection with ordinary voters dissatisfied by its governance performance. Will Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba be able to stitch all coalition partners in hold when many of their top leaders are aspiring for ministerial position and important portfolios? As dissident leaders hang like an albatross around the neck of top leaders, Nepali politics will only drift towards uneasy standoff and deepen the level of contradiction between leadership, cadres and society.

Nepali parties with the credential of modern institutions also clash with indigenous knowledge, culture and values that shaped Nepali society and the state and the changing aspirations of citizens for development dividends. Their clientalist networks and styles of conformational politics hamper both governmental stability in a society of vast diversity and complexity of population. In a situation of fluid geopolitical dynamics, Nepali parties are finding to spur policy innovation in consistent with constitutional and institutional arrangements.

In Nepal, the advantage of incumbency in resource accumulation leaves no incentive for opposition to stick to its mandate while personalized clientalism has fostered a chain of transactional ties abjuring the project of transformational politics towards the constitutional vision of equality. Nepali political parties have yet to evolve a culture of oppositional politics having policy alternatives and demand points to rectify the governance pitfalls so that special interest groups, power-brokers, free-riders and middle men do not hijack the public space for policy discourse and government does not attempt to fragment opposition for being disloyal to it while both engage in nation-building.
Nepali parties of all persuasions are shaped from above and, therefore, seem feeble to evolve participant civic culture affirming the sovereignty of citizens, learning from the quality of experience of citizens and harnessing the power of national unity, adaptability and social resilience. The formulation of non-justiciable and non-actionable Directive Principles and Policies of the State, institutionalisation of identity politics, social inclusion and provisions of disproportional rights to duties and welfare state will turn Nepali politics aspirational, not pragmatic and serve as litmus test for the success or failure of Nepali parties.

Broad-based dialogue
A broad-based dialogue is essential to address the grievances of disaffected leaders of old order, radical elements expecting to transform the current establishment, critical mass of civil society demanding reforms, state-bearing institutions articulating the need for the improvement of security and order and the attentive public seeking social justice at various scales to build a new consensus on governance and improve the trajectory of party-based democracy in Nepal  guided by bottom up learning.

Leaders enlightened by experience and institutional memory of political life can help reconcile malleability of personal ego of current generation of politicians, shape collective interest of party and the nation and move towards constitutional and political stability. The attainment of politically optimal results demands leaders getting democratic habituation along common vision and resolve national issues, control the spread of pandemic, renew business confidence and set upward step in economic progress so that they can assume responsibility for the poor and alleviate their enduring pain. It improves the legitimacy of parties and builds public trust in their leadership, promises and activities.  

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