Saturday, 4 December, 2021

Polarised Politics Jeopardises Democracy

Dev Raj Dahal


Nepal’s democracy at the moment has entered into a vicious cycle. The bitter polarisation within ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) is more ferocious than that between the government and the opposition - Nepali Congress (NC).  The underlying causes of polarisation with conflicting narratives between two opposing poles of NCP, led by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and Prachanda-Nepal faction respectively, are well exposed to the public. This has turned the NC a pivot of attraction to both to spike their leverage in the political game. This vertical polarisation is cast in terms of accusation of constitutional overstep of the government by the later versus democratic consolidation through the new election of House of Representatives by the former.

Fresh mandate
Prime Minister Oli is seeking fresh mandate on the ground that he was restricted in performing governing roles by his rival faction of the party. The polarising messages, conflicting interpretation of constitution and competition to demonstrate crowd power are eroding the delicacy of democratic polity. Democracy acquires stability only in a system of reasonable compromise of legitimate interests, tolerance to dissenting voice and release of enough light by the institutions of legitimacy -- Supreme Court and the Election Commission. The current spark of heat can only cut the institutions of legitimacy to resolve political and constitutional crises, not spread the virtues of enlightenment in society. Partisan media are indulged in taking sides than seeing politics as a public domain and focusing more on the style of leaders than the rationality of constitutional process.
Those at the centre of this polarisation are feeling politically weak to bring them back together for any bumpy choice: restoration of dissolved House of Representatives or the validation of election drive. The Election Commission has not accepted the party’s legal split and asked both sides to furnish details to determine which pole will get election symbol, flag, stamp and party statute while the Supreme Court is deliberating on the constitutionality of many steps of the government. Alternatively, the delay in judgment has offered an opportunity for both sides to reassess their extremist positions and build workable formula to reconcile which is necessary to rebound to a normal political condition in the nation hobbled by eternal political instability and crisis of governance.
It, however, requires both sides to change their tones, idioms and contents of political play, control the spoilers of unity and one-sided indoctrination that divides the political space between “we” and “they” instrumentalising each pole’s adherents against the other and depleting social capital for future cooperation. Obviously, this polarisation has inflicted festering sores on other parties, civil society and admin as well. The main opposition NC and Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) are split between those who prefer mass protest for the restoration of parliament and those who prefer fresh electoral mandate thus turning the coexistence of both sides in one party taxing.
Weary of wasteful strikes and muscular display of strength, ordinary Nepalis find national politics a strange match in which its ground rules are being continuously perverted and challenged. The passion and polemics of various forms of opposition — extra-constitutional and extra-systemic add fuel to the on-going political dynamics but they orbit around this polarisation which in no way is ideological. Nor is the struggle about the nature of political system or development alternatives. It is driven by personality differences of top leaders. The style of thinking in each party is determined by personality cult, not reason-based institutional choice which puts the ordinary Nepalis at the centre and furnishes policy option for progress and collective action aiming to resolve the nation’s pressing problems.
Dearth of principled leaders in Nepal marks the primacy of ego-inflating tactician driven by utilitarian power instinct and a clientalistic network where each group seeks to narrow the scope of politics for its rival, undermines the shared social contract and blames the responsibility of its choice and action to others. To transform vicious politics into a virtuous one Nepal needs more stellar leadership imbued with moral frame of mind and capable of steering towards the right course. The leaning of government to history, nationalism, tradition and religion might lure the forces of stability -- conservative forces, Hindus, anti-federal elements and radical groups like Biplav and Maoist ex-combatants who were alienated in the past from the mainstream politics of negation of the other.
The formulation of integrated security is important for the creation of conducive political environment but the trust among political parties for the success of any new initiative is equally significant. The management of unbound liberal aspiration of agitational poles and their divided media, civil society and subsidiary identity crazy zealots in their march past in the street is equally significant to create a façade of democratic legitimacy. Now one pole is indulged in anti-establishment furore inaugurating what it calls “third mass movement” and demanding the rollback of the Prime Minister’s House dissolution and appointment of 32- office bearers of constitutional bodies without parliamentary hearing and verdict of the court. The other pole has staged powerful counter political mobilisation to gear up its collective strength.
Still the other demands the restoration of the Hindu kingdom. This is exactly the fear harboured by Prachanda-Nepal pole, Sitaula-Ram Chandra Poudel faction of NC and their client civil society, a fear of regression of the achievement of inclusive, secular, federal democratic republic. Tacit coalition across political parties and migration of opportunistic flip-floppers from one pole to the next exploring green pastures and personal career prospect continue to unglue partisan identities and melt the institutional base of Nepali politics. At the core is struggle for power sharing. Therefore, switching sides will further intensify with the outcome of the Supreme Court verdict. One can ponder over the following points as a palliative measure:
The first is as Nepalis perceive democracy a system of resolving their everyday problems and conflicts through communication and dialogue, strengthening constitutional bodies with their effective and impersonal leadership, adequate resources and accountability build their trust across various levels of governance. Supporting vibrant civil society and the role of media can constitute a robust public sphere to generate ideas for this and inform policy makers about the direction they should take. Their countervailing power to monitor and spotlight the activities of opportunistic leadership is a vital step for changing the ubiquity of corrupt behaviour, rent-seeking and impunity that have crippled the performance of governance in the past and now.
The second is the subverting power of fixed mind-set of Nepali leaders which prevents them to enter into dialogue and compromise of interests. The blame game of both sides does nothing to improve the state of deteriorating political climate but only hardens each other’s position and adds energy to on-going dynamics and downward spiral of trust.  Breaking deadlock requires direct communication rather than through intermediaries having their own interests in the polarisation. It is important to get the situation better so that significant improvements can be made across political spectrum and overcome each other’s legacies of socialisation, organisation, political culture and partial action. The pluralist democracy like Nepal can thrive only when inclusive dialogue and interest reconciliation become the norm.
The third is the tendency of Nepali leader to contradict and counter the rivals, not make self-criticism of how this situation of ugly confrontation has unfolded thus opening space for the rival to communicate. Adversarial collaboration can be possible in a condition of good faith and give and take approach among the rival sides. But when there is zero interest in such collaboration the possibility of win-win outcome becomes remote and confrontational course can consume inner-party democracy and long-term coalition with other parties and other political outreach constituencies. In such a case public expectation to improve their living standards under democracy and transformational change loses its steam. Cooperation is possible only among rational egoists, not those who are socialised in the politics of negation and matching collective action to weaken the rivals and Nepal’s plural life-world. 
The fourth is inability of Nepali leaders to balance inside and outside perspectives of politics and cope with the evolving political pressures including disarrayed geopolitical currents. Polarisation has become endemic in all the parties of Nepal because moderate forces are weak, hawks are strong and middle ground is invisible. Extreme political polarisation in Nepal has thus weakened the institutions of democracy donned by civil society and historical sacrifice of citizens. The total erosion of authority of state institutions, their capacity to create legitimate public order for the security of their life, liberty and entrepreneurship are marred by procrastination of sustainable conflict resolution. The lingering problems of poverty, disparity, political instability, transitional justice, etc. are the fatal sign of democracy without its robust preconditions.  

Contextual awareness
The fifth is poor contextual unawareness of Nepali leaders about political dynamics and ground reality citizens are expecting such as peace, democratic and development dividends. In this context finding the common ground among the adversaries holding different views, interests and identities should be the preference and persuasion of moderates. This helps to overcome the entrenched status quo serving significant political reforms for a synergy in the way of promotion of civic culture based on the compromise of the interests of winners and losers of political game. History has proved that costs of confrontation among the political parties of the nation are higher for Nepalis and their democratic polity to bear than cooperation.

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