Wednesday, 19 January, 2022

Nepal’s Search For Political Stability

Dev Raj Dahal

The notion of political stability largely rests on the resilience of polity to withstand political challenges, bring political parties to civic order and continuously foster the quality of life of citizens. Disorientation of leaders from the values and goals of the constitution atrophies the interface of the state with citizens and their institutions dogging the nation to eternal political instability and antinomies of law and politics. For more than three decades, Nepal has, however, witnessed as many as 28 governments of various hues and combinations. The oldest political party Nepali Congress (NC) remained in power nearly half of this period while Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist about seven years while Janata Samajbadi Party, Rastriya Prajatantra Party and others too shared power with them.
The only parliamentary party which willingly stayed out of the government is Nepal Workers and Peasants’ Party. Yet, it remained always vocal in attacking the flaws of governance. The state of frequent government changes has made political stability elusive and delayed the realisation of many development initiatives. It has several critical reasons: problems of governance, aversion of parties to stay in opposition and play constructive roles setting a countervailing strength against the arbitrary action of government, erosion of political ideologies prompting individual leaders to join any kind of coalition and mass migration of cadres and followers of one party to the next based on individual and group opportunities.

Discipline in tatters
The verdict of the Supreme Court barring parliamentary party whip to its legislators has tattered party discipline and control while allowing freedom to exercise their conscience. Twenty-two legislators from the Khanal-Nepal faction of CPN-UML defied the party whip and eased NC President Sher Bahadur Deuba’s success in the trust motion in the House of Representatives. Deuba garnered 165 votes in the 271-member Lower House and his rival UML chair and KP Sharma Oli 83 votes. One legislator abstained. It gives a semblance of stability if Prime Minister Deuba keeps sensible esprit de corps and the trust of various factions of coalition and a range of voices outside it in a sense of balance: UML’s Khanal-Nepal faction, Maoist-Centre, JSP and minor parties thus enabling them to act as bridge builders in mustering governmental and political stability.
Yet the socialisation of racial, regional, communal, radical and moderate elements within parties into a coalition culture of liberal norms is surely difficult, if not impossible. The House restoration twice and appointment of Deuba as new Prime Minister by the verdicts of Supreme Court clearly support the parliament to fulfil its full five-year term. The coalition government has to dedicate itself to resolve the problems concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, set the path of recovery of its moribund economy by improving investors’ trust in infrastructure build-up, entrepreneurship and alleviate poverty, joblessness and illiteracy. Nepalis’ race to the bottom continues unabated as many indicators of progress seem painfully downhill caused by the effects of pandemic. It has squeezed the prospect for democratic consolidation.
The government’s stellar and relentless pursuit of the common good is essential for the satisfaction of material needs of citizens and overcome their desperate impatience arising out of scarcity. It has to departisanise constitutional bodies and public institutions ensuring their impersonal performance which so far have been hamstrung owing to an ingrained culture of patronage and public integrity deficits. Other areas are to bring foreign policy in a balance, improve the quality of political culture and craft a common minimum programme even placating the angry opposition, led by Oli to its web so that his faction which is seeking to lever own way does not resort to offensive politics exposing the government to a swamp of contradictions.
The UML party separately led by Oli and Nepal factions and those in between them manoeuvring to reunify the party has yet to demonstrate their political potential to heal the causes of vicious politics. One hardly finds any sense of short-term sacrifice of leaders from either side for long term payoffs. Top leaders in each party of Nepal has alienated the other aspiring one, sought to reduce each other’s clout and indulged in self-absorbing ramblings thus opening the ground for the fragility of party system. Continuity of old political tricks has left them in a sprawling mess and posed the problems to governance. The coalition government has to optimise four tendencies in intellectual and political circles — atavistic  push, populist drive, modernity’s gleam and revolutionary ardour each portraying unfavourable human condition in the nation and socialising public into attention and action beyond an extremely delicate and pulpy middle path.
Michael Ignatieff says, “Democracy can only work if politics is conducted between adversaries.” Dislocation of the opposition kills the democratic vibration and its resilience in times of crisis. Keeping the house in order in the spirit of welfare state increases the ability of coalition government to exercise national self-determination, refurbish better image and efficacy of its leadership to deftly manage contesting geopolitical manoeuvres of great powers blowing hot and cold and hewing safely in international relations.
Prime Minister Deuba has called on all the political parties to join hands in coping with the problems the nation is facing. A search for common ground can build the confidence and blissfully free the government from stressful political climate. Nepali parties have to build a culture of accountability to the public and fortify the social base of democracy. Lack of accountability of senior party leaders to admit their failure to resolve factionalism through dialogue, manage committees at various layers, keep communication, deliberation and feedback and foster democracy in the inner life of parties has stifled intergenerational transformation of leadership. It is for Nepali leaders to fulfil their commitment to mandate, constitutional imperatives and public expectations so that they are not divorced from the political life and its due democratic stuff.
Nepal is executing Sustainable Development Goals whose central message is “no one is left behind.” This goal can be within reach if leaders are able to pull off the virtuous cycle of partnership of the state, business, civil society and international community. A just democratic order does not arise from the articles of constitution only but from its sincere execution which entails enough resources, institutional muscle and political will. The constitution has adopted contributory nature of social security. Yet it is deficient. Many financial elites are fervently against it and the nation’s vast informal sectors are outside its distributive outreach. The obligations of Nepali state arise from its promises to various humanitarian and constitutional provisions.
Nepalis have experienced many coalition governments in the past. None could survive its full tenure, enforce the social contract and keep the autonomy of public institutions and administration including those of civic ones for inclusive democratic transformation. In this context, a number of strategies are essential to evolve a culture of running a coalition government under the spirit of constitution. First, it is vital to thwart the extension of personality cult, clientalism and excessive partisan self-interest for the consolidation of political constituency aiming leadership perpetuation in power regardless of performance.
Second, stabilisation of values and procedures, preservation of institutional memory and norm of respective political parties are vital to evade the intensification of factionalism where one set of leaders is locked into horns with the other, stay impatient and even inflict the split of parties opportunistically. Democratic political parties are based on the compromise of interests at the intra- and inter-party relations rather than indulge in mutual accusation and struggle to outmanoeuvre each other in a pre-historical style perturbing political stability and their ability to address challenges faced by the nation.

Rule of law
Third, rational expression of judgment of civil society, media and court on each other leaders’ prejudicial action can stick political parties to their party laws, help protect citizens’ rights and spur the rational change of Nepali society. The government differs from organised groups in the sense that it is guardian of law and order, holds legitimacy and authority and turns its decisions binding to the entire nation. This, however, demands enthusiasm and habit to accept the Western notion of “rule of law, not men.” It keeps the sphere of public and private distinct thus allowing business, civil society and citizens pursue their rational interests in a system of legitimate regulation. Fourth, the coalition government needs to adapt to a culture of constitutionalism which limits its arbitrary power and those of interest groups often scrambling for power and wealth by illegitimate manoeuvre.
The spirit of constitutionalism aims to maximise the role of government in the promotion of public good in a spirit of social nature of humans, social inclusion, human rights and justice thus fairly balancing the public demands for services with declining fiscal basis of Nepali state. It helps to skirt the tendency of some disharmonious leaders to perpetually raise deep religious, caste, class and ethnic grievances of certain sections to cover up their own wrongs, organise paralysing protests and challenge national unity.  Political stability in Nepal also rests on the determination of leaders to bridge the chasm between citizens’ needs and rights and their own aspirations for power and provide right policy glimpse of a better future.

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