Democratisation in Nepal Attempts, hindrances and prospects

Unquestionably, the end of monarchy has paved the way for change in Nepal; yet it may or may not contribute to a more pluralistic society. Scrutinising the current phenomenon, the changes seem to have heralded neither a consolidated democracy, nor authoritarianism, but a dangling transition into an uncertain future. Understandably in transitional polities, where the levels of freedom are low despite continuing efforts to democratise, democracy is seen as a process rather than culmination of aspirations. But, if the rulers devote themselves to their own brand of political and economic reforms, the end can neither be constitutional liberalism and cultural pluralism nor be able to accomplish preferred political results.

Democratisation processes in Nepal cannot be properly understood without taking into account

the upheavals associated with social change, political rights and civil liberties, agenda for development and modernisation and intimate and informal links with civil society actors. However, the paramount task is to achieve both at once: the top-down administrative penetration in society and bottom-up political integration. At first glance, the roots of governance problem lie in the policy structure. These features include the existing politics of confrontation, weaknesses in the practice of parliamentary democracy, malfunctioning of political parties, rent-seeking collusion among political parties, secretive and paranoid leadership, weak and bloated bureaucracy and vested commercial interests that combine to undermine democratic governance and dampen prospects of democratic consolidation.

Efforts to improve the style of governance need to be directed to persuading political parties to benefit from the advantages of reform. The key concern is how unambiguous moves are made without taking for granted the linear developments of reconstruction and transition toward liberal democracy. Since 2006 Nepal has shifted to a republic through ‘non-violent resolution of conflict’ and dissemination of developmental gains relatively equitably. Yet there are hybrid forms of activity at times to wield power. As a result, the pseudo-democracy has lost resilience. The implications are not as straightforward as may seem at first glance, yet many indicators of political rights and civil liberties remain modest and exhibit potential dangers.

An interesting, albeit not unexpected, impact on political life under Maoist rule is that their oft-touted ‘people-oriented republic’, which must be viewed in the context of stepping up efforts to impose abstract principles, establish exclusivist ideology and policy of homogenising society, or refers to either illiberal democracy or liberal autocracy without respect for the autonomy of political processes. The architects and advocates of such policy should have been pretty earlier denounced as either opportunists or hurdles to liberal ideas, yet their political fantasy is less inclined to communicate with the outside world and more to produce a hybrid regime which may be termed semi-authoritarian proliferate or socialist patrimonialism.

All have a tradition and history that must be respected, but those relatively stronger and able to cope with the growing demands of political and cultural pluralism are more likely to be successful. Nepal’s democracy deficit is bequeathed to us by undemocratic regimes. As Rawls argues, representative democracy can emerge without liberal participatory actions and reflections and the state will surmount several huge obstacles, yet remain obscure and secluded. Since ours is not a case of middle-class-driven democratisation in which arguments are clarified and interest and values are elucidated en route to public opinion and rational understanding, the future scenario can only be described as problematic.

Maoists have inadvertently provided the sceptics an opportunity to question their long-term menu for institutional changes and ultimate delivery. If they intend to survive and thrive in democracy, they must rely on political institutions by broadening their scope and adhering to democratic norms. It was the inability of the Gorbachev regime to bring about socio-political transition and overcome the economic crisis that destroyed its legitimacy. What happened in Eastern Europe and Latin America in the 1980s involved redefining political objectives and prescribing novel perceptions. While authoritarian rulers are prone to glorifying their rule, the left-leaning government adopt xenophobic and exclusivist policies and ideological extremism that overshadow democracy and good governance. If politics is the end result of the interaction between the state and society resulting in a broad agreement on the nature of politics, it is time for Maoists to formulate their strategies on the basis of political accommodation by fervently avoiding conceptual confusion. Nevertheless, a radical change in this direction is not likely at present.

Thapa is professor of Politics, TU