Democracy in Nepal Current wave of pessimism

The process of political transformation in Nepal is still a struggle between the forces that favour democracy and those that prefer status quo. Critics contend that those who accede to power are unable to effectively challenge the power of traditional strongholds hostile to democracy. This, they say, further marginalises the millions and leads to a new bargain among elite political actors with no sensitivity for the masses. Realistically too, democracy is essentially a public affair involving the exercise of political power and control in a situation where everyone can live in peace. But deep socio-economic cleavages lead to political wrangling and emergence of new dimensions to the conflict. The problem is that the conflict is not ripe for solution. Instead, there is a danger of Nepal backsliding into chaos since political institutions are weak and dependent on personalities that get toppled in a flash.

Achieving democratic development and sustaining it requires a complex sequence of contingent and inter-dependent factors. Nepal’s recent history is a crucial test of the claim that the rightist monarchy has always sought to undo democratic progress, ironically with the pretext that democracy has been weakened by the democrats themselves. If any conclusion can be drawn from the past experience it is that the SPA leaders who won elections, assumed power, and then manipulated the mechanism of governance instead of bringing about demonstrative democracy with egalitarian economy and growth of individual talent. Democracy was gambled away by incompetent politicians, resulting in ‘uncivil democracy’. As for the Maoists, although they are outraged over their political exclusion and enforced poverty, their leadership nevertheless is made of counter elite who retain much of Maoist ideology.

With the toppling of King Gyanendra from active role, the brutal constraints that kept Nepalis silent have now been removed. Yet, the state is not at the service of the citizens. The institution of monarchy - a constant danger to politics - still stands. The present leadership exhibits intolerance and lacks creativity, all the more reason to be pessimistic. The leaders are in search of a space for feudal monarchy rather than convening of constituent assembly (CA) which would give the people an opportunity for self-governance. King Gyanendra was not the first king to have gained power by circumventing the new rules of the game and keeping a grip on the military. The late King Birendra had also maintained the status quo in the name of crude nationalism. In fact, the people neither had a chance to institutionalise monarchy nor were they able to directly endorse the multiparty system.

Democratic political culture is the basis for proper functioning of a democracy. But arguments based on political culture as an independent variable too often lead to a dead end. Democracies may have a high conflict-carrying capacity, but there is no finished model of democracy which can be transferred from the haves to the have-nots. The current pessimism about democracy is the result of some international actors holding sway over determining Nepal’s political course. They seek to isolate the Maoists by quietly supporting the monarchy. But this would be a mistake. The West, despite its dedication to democracy, supported dictatorships during the Cold War and continue to do so. While the Maoists needs to recognise the universal values of personal freedom, freedom of opinion, tolerance, rejection of violence, legality and democracy, as the embodiment of people’s will, we must remember that neither the Nepali Congress nor the CPN-UML have yet submitted the arms of their militias from the time when they were up in arms against feudal powers.

Nepal cannot enjoy true democracy unless issues related to women, indigenous people, and the Maoists are decided by the majority. One may say that the extension of democracy in Nepal is not only about political citizenship, constitutional reform, or changes in the form of government but also realisation of citizenship in the full sense of the term, which entails substantive social, cultural, and economic conditions.

The Maoists and their popularity may threaten democracy’s survival, but it is an axiom that in a democracy, the people’s choice must be respected. The Maoists are seen as the most powerful political force. Hence, the international community should engage the Maoists. Engagement might not work, but the consequences of isolating a powerful political group which can garner a commanding share of popular vote would probably be far worse. While the CA election consolidates participatory democracy, that alone cannot create rules essential for democratic consolidation. While modern democracy does not require uniform consensus, a well- functioning democratic system must rest on fundamental normative agreements about proper political procedure and legitimate government effectively controlled by the people.

Thapa is professor of Politics, TU