A political party is a collective expression of people having identical interests, values, principles and commitment to certain cause and mission. Greek philosopher Plato in ‘The Republic’ talks about factions and groups in politics of ancient Greece, which, in a way, can be termed as the early version of political parties. However, the history of modern political parties goes back to the early 19th century with the formation of the Conservative or Tory Party in the United Kingdom in 1823 followed by Democratic Party in the United States in 1828.
The birth, growth and development of the political parties went along with the development of democracy. In multi-party democracy, political parties and democracy are like Siamese twins. Political parties are the principal basis, without which democracy cannot survive, grow and prosper. Democratic polity, thus, is inconceivable in the absence of political parties. Politics is a public domain and its sole objective is public good of larger masses. Organisations or parties are necessary to better pursue public good and common cause of the masses. A group or organisation has more strength and louder voice than individual cry. In a democratic politics, organisation or political parties are necessary to have greater influence on the masses and attract attention of larger section of the society.
Vanguard of class According to Robert Michels, a party is more important for the working class than others because, in his words, “the weakest section of the society is often defenceless at the hands of those who are economically stronger”. It is only on the strength and power of organisation or party, individuals attain political dignity, maintain their identity and influence in decision-making process. John Stuart Mill calls political party as necessary elements of a healthy state of political life, whereas Vladimir Lenin says a party is the vanguard of a class, and its duty is to lead the masses and not merely to reflect the average political level of the masses.
When it comes to Nepal, the origin of political party goes back to second decade of the 20th century. In 1927, a group of politically enthusiast youths namely Umesh Bikram Shah, Khadga Man Singh, Ranga Nath Sharma and Maina Bahadur formed a political group called Prachanda Gorkha’ with the objective of establishing parliamentary democracy in Nepal, which is the first political party of Nepal. However, some historians call the Prachanda Gorkha as a mere clique of people and was not a political party. According to them, Praja Parishad, which was formed in 1936 with the clear mission of overthrowing the Rana family oligarchy and establishing democracy, is the first political party in Nepal.
Perhaps, Nepali Congress is the first political party that made a real impact on Nepali political ambience. It was Nepali Congress that spearheaded the popular movement sending the century old Rana oligarchy packing and ushering in a multi-party democracy. Then came the communist party followed by several others of different hues and colours. Now there are over five dozens political parties with only a half dozen functionally impacting Nepal’s national politics.
Political parties are essential instruments of the modern democratic polity. They have played crucial role in establishing democracy and nurturing it. But some tend to argue that our parties are the principal culprit in discrediting democracy. Nepali democracy is young and has a chequered and tumultuous history. However, democracy has come under assault in different intervals. In a less than a decade since Nepal had the first triumph and trial of democracy in 1951, multiparty system came under attack from the institution that had been restored on the strength of people and political parties. Kings had been reduced to a mere puppet of Ranas until 1951. Had the people and parties not backed the king, the monarchy would have been abolished right in 1951 as the king had already fled to India.
But the same institution crushed democracy putting leaders, who had fought for the authority of monarchy, behind bars and depriving the parties of their rights. The hijacked democracy and rights were reinstated only in 1990 through the joint struggle of the Nepali Congress and the United Left Front, comprising seven communist parties. The role of the parties has been central in bringing about political change in Nepal, whereas monarchy has always been a stumbling block. Another attempt was made by Gyanendra Shah, who by accident ascended to the throne in 2001 after the assassination of King Birendra and his entire family, but was soon scuttled by another popular movement jointly launched by an alliance of seven parliamentary parties and an insurgent Nepal Communist Party-Maoist.
Gyanendra Shah’s thoughtless move changed the country’s political contour as it paved the way for brining parliamentary parties and Maoists together and putting an end to 240-year old monarchy and declaring Nepal as world’s youngest republic. Had Gyanendra Shah not chosen to tread the suicidal political path, monarchy would not have ended so easily. In abolishing monarchy, Gyanendra Shah was primarily responsible. King Gyanendra failed to comprehend people’s pulse especially after King Birendra’s assassination as they had a little respect on the new king.
Public apathy Similar case is with political parties. People’s trust in political system and parties erodes because of self-centred, egoistic and eccentric behaviour of leaders, which turn parties into weeds on the flourishing political farm rather than inevitable element. This is not an isolated case of Nepal but global trend as political parties are facing existential crisis due mainly to dwindling faith of people in them both in the developed and developing democracies. As observed by Kenneth Wollack, citizens, globally, have grown frustrated with political parties and leaders and the society views political parties as “ineffective and corrupt”. Tyrants take advantage out of the growing public apathy towards parties, the evidence of which can be taken from our own country. King Mahendra’s coup in 1960 and Gyanendra’s misadventure in 2005 are the cases in point like what Tocqueville said ‘threat to democracy comes more from within than from outside’. The people neither supported the king’s regressive move, nor did they come out to the streets spontaneously against it. It took years for the Nepali people to realise that democratic anarchy is better than the tyranny of monarchy.