Wednesday, 19 January, 2022

Nepal’s Endless Democratic Transition

Nepal’s Endless Democratic Transition

Chandra D. Bhatta

Managing political transition and strengthening democracy has become an uphill task in Nepal. In the last 70 plus years, the country witnessed a series of political upheavals (not necessarily movements as they are called) but none of them have produced stable governments, let alone the political system.

What certainly have they done, however, is the systematic eradication of the earlier political and social structures without erecting the new one. They have also replaced old elites with new ones, who mostly came from the political circles. Yet, it has been termed and conveyed to the people as the victory of democracy.

This process continues and people are still being fooled under democratic garb? The seven constitutions that were promulgated over the years are the classic example as how unstable political mind have we become. None of the elected Prime Ministers has completed their full-term in office.

If we just take these two factors into consideration, one can see, at least, three types of instability simultaneously occurring in Nepal: executive, legislative, and constitutional.

Intra-party conflict

The latest political instability was the offshoot of the conflict within the then ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). The intra-party conflict within the NCP was so severe that they were able to drag north, south, and western neighbours and friends into the debate under various pretexts.

While the entire world was fighting against COVID-19, the comrades in Kathmandu were fighting among themselves like cats and dogs, leading to the dissolution of the House of Representatives (HoR) twice. However, the Supreme Court reinstated the House to bring the constitution back on track.

As the SC nullified the NCP comprising the CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist Centre, there is no longer communist government with two-thirds majority. Currently, Nepali Congress (NC) is leading a coalition government of five political forces. It is not easy for the NC-led dispensation to sail through given the divergent nature of coalition partners, their strength, ideology and agenda.

A pertinent reason, in this regard, might be that while the coalition partners – most of them are from the political left – want to strengthen utopian communist movement to strengthen democracy. For NC, principally still a democratic party, the story should have been different though. Yet, it neither has necessary charisma nor numbers to put its views strongly before the people.

For many, NC, too, has fallen into a trap of communist parties over the years. This doesn’t mean that NC is immune from the internal crisis. As it has been a divided house for long, it can veer off the right direction. Likewise, the coalition partners’ worldviews, too, differ from each other significantly with regard to their relations with China, India and the West, mainly the US, at least in principle.

The UML, which now sits in the opposition, is divided but its chair and former prime minister KP Sharma Oli is smart enough to play on the differences of the coalition partners. It might invent new slogans to suit their interests and steal a political show in Kathmandu.

That said it appears to be a re-run of the political events which occurred during the 1990s, which bred ground for the rise of a decade-long Maoist insurgency in 1996.

There are also some constitutional issues which are emerging as potential factors and may eventually become problematic in the future. Many of the political leaders then said that the 2015 constitution was the best charter in the world but it is now already facing a crisis of legitimacy.

This happened partly because Nepali society and politics are moving towards diametrically opposite direction. Politics here does not carry the societal values, and the society, for its part, does not buy what politics is trying to sell.

One may argue that Nepali society has been vertically divided not only along partisan lines but also based on religion, caste, and region.

There is a conflict between sub-national and national identities as well to a great extent.

The political and social issues that came with 2006 political upheaval and later enshrined in the constitution, which were often referred as the factors that make it Nepali Magna Carta, are more responsible for bringing such a state of affairs. Not quite sure, whether Nepal needed the Magna Carta or apolitical Chanakya who can bail out the country from the multiple political crises.

Moreover, Nepal’s economic conditions are not satisfactory. There are no sufficient economic activities that can generate jobs within the country to implement the constitution which is largely the rights-based.

Interesting as it may be, the preamble of the constitution lays emphasis on having ‘socially oriented state’ in which democracy is missing and ethnicity and individual identities are more pronounced but sadly the ‘social’ component is largely applicable for the political leaders who get free overseas medical treatment from the state largesse but for others it is what Garrett Hardin has called ‘the tragedy of the commons’.

This further frustrates people. If every system only produces ‘tragedy’ for the common people – aamnagrik - perhaps, it would be difficult to move the democratisation process towards the right direction.

The external environment, too, is not favourable for Nepal. Both its two giant neighbours: China and India often have their own imagination of Nepali politics and great deal of confusion persists.

The Western powers did play an important role in the democratisation process but they, too, are blamed for floating the ethnic agendas which certainly are not good to keep the social fabric intact - if it at all is required for the democratisation process.

The recent geopolitical manoeuvring in the region has divided whole of South Asian states and its impacts can well be noticed in Nepal as well. Nepal is plagued by multiple problems.

Yet, again, solutions to Nepal’s political problems are better understood but executed less or on many occasions they simply cannot be executed because politics here is reluctant to challenge the status quo and interests’ groups both inside and outside the parties.

Druyodhana syndrome

Some of the political issues such as secularism and federalism have become too complicated and risky but no political party is willing to resolve them forever. While federalism will only become burden on the taxpayers if it is not truly decentralised, secularism for its part will have severe consequences – the way it has been implemented - for the society at large in the long-run.

Yet, there is neither learning, nor re-learning, or unlearning process at the political level.

The only business that exists here is repeating the same mistakes and putting the blame on others for the mess that we create.

Moreover, the politics of vengeance and negation has been deeply rooted in the country’s political psyche like Druyodhana syndrome of Mahabharata story, which does not allow bringing about positive changes in politics. 

(Bhatta writes on issues related to political economy.