Democratic practice : Will it be sustainable in Nepal?

Scholars studying the fragmentation of authoritarian regimes and their transition to democracy do not believe that political, social and economic institutions must be strengthened before the regime is strong enough to face future crises. Realists, however, note that transition to democracy is a more delicate issue than stabilisation in war-torn states, hence it is preferable to go about political accommodation slowly and steadily. Since the April Awakening, the problem of governance has acquired prominence. Indicators suggest that the support for democratic institutions is deteriorating due to the lack of reform and political transformation. The challenge of transition to democratic rule is hence formidable.

The issues of regime change are closely linked with the state as conceived in the Weberian term: No state, no democracy. In other words, the process of regime change that leads to state decay or state collapse reduces the prospect of democracy. Nepal’s is a case of systematic failure stemming from inequality, social exclusion, bureaucratic politics and ignorance. In fact, the pressure to democratise in 1990s has resulted in relative political party stability and the emergence of new political and social forces. But the failure to create a new reality has only increased inequality and created chaos. In Nepal’s context, neither the level of social trust nor the number of political parties is correlated with the level of democracy. Even if we consider Nepal a democracy in the aftermath of the royal autocracy, the overall response must come as a revolutionary change of the whole system, particularly by adopting political strategies to combat exclusion, racism, oppression and achieve recognition and legitimacy for the establishment of a free and democratic state. That requires an egalitarian society and large-scale public trust for democracy, political institutions, and system of governance.

Nepal’s is a clear example of what Princeton Professor Kohli describes as ‘two-track’ democracy, involving ‘realistic utopia’ in which common people are needed only at election time. Then they are expected to let the elite run the pro-business show, whether through autocratic or democratic means. Conflict lies at the heart of politics. It might be described in multiple ways like “privatisation of politics” and “new aristocracy” and its magnitude gauzed through the institutional dimensions of democracy, viz representation, participation, deliberation and inclusion. While many casual factors have to be taken into account to determine whether a state is sufficiently democratic, the prospects of democracy are enhanced when opposition demands are amenable to negotiated resolutions, even in “weak” or “failed states”.

All post-autocracy regimes focus on developing necessary conditions for successful transition to democracy, but the mainstream politics will still be subject to contestations. Almost all the ruling elites, the principal agents of democratisation, have become inherently non-democratic of late. The end of the Cold War heralded a tectonic shift in international politics and exposed the societies to the challenges arising from cultural diversity and pluralism. Nepal was no exception, with its state apparatus marked with authoritarian centralisation. When the fact that the stability of political system depends on whether or not the elites follow democratic norms is realised, the current deficit of political pluralism will stand exposed. In fact, all efforts to conceptualise democracy should explicitly acknowledge the multidimensional nature of the concept of democracy.

The sustainability of democracy depends on popular sovereignty, economic growth, social inclusion, freedom of expression and freedom from all forms of economic exploitation. When a country passes a threshold marked by deeper problems of citizens’ participation, economic growth, democratic values and education; connivance among political circles, mafia-like economic structures; and lacks serious commitment to address them, we reach a dead-end. Nepal has time and again suffered at the hands of the political leaders who develop vested interests. For example, PM Koirala presents himself as a political moderate, but he has an immoderate mindset, with all its ambiguities and contradictions.

There seems to be an unceasing quest for a political system that would bring about stability and peace, yet, according to Immanuel Kant, a republican order is the first condition for peace. Indeed, in a democracy, all social groups should have access to policymaking with the elites actively sharing power. The rise of communist forces – especially those who want Lenin and Mao’s ideology to be elevated to the status of state religion — unwittingly provide a basis for right-wing extremism or ‘crypto-fascist’ tendencies. Democracy entails representation of diverse interests. At present, populist leaders are posing as its major threats.

Thapa is professor of Politics, TU