March of politics: For a new democratic order

There are two types of terrorism in Nepal today. One being committed in the name of democracy by those who claim to represent the people, and the other being carried out under the direction of the present government. It would be correct to say that the state is plainly totalitarian and anarchic. Not only does it apply repressive measures in an unpredictable clandestine manner, anybody may be abducted, tortured and even murdered without anyone knowing the reason.

Ganguly and Shoup make a seemingly strong case that Nepalis find themselves ‘caught in an ugly struggle between two anti-democratic ideologies — royal absolutism and Maoism.’ While this is a typical description, one observation that can be drawn from Nepal’s experience with democratisation is that very similar patterns were found in Eastern Europe when a scholar commented in 1990 that the end of communism meant the return of history. But the hazard is that the return of history in Nepal would mean a chronicle of ethnic hatred, political repression by right-wing noble families, militarised monarchy, and ultimately a rogue state.

One of the most encouraging elements in Nepal is the process of popular mobilisation that has been going on in the context of fight for democracy. Yet Nepalis feel threatened by the monarchy, which does not act in good faith for swift progress toward democracy. Another important question concerns the radical monarchists. Although relatively small in number, they are clearly seen as a danger because they are involved in the intrigues of power to destroy democracy and are utterly anachronistic. Totalitarianism can be ended by conquest and occupation by a democratic polity, as in Germany and Japan after World War II. Yet, we are not quite sure that democracy can revive directly from anarchy as in the case of El Salvador and Mozambique because political theorists from Machiavelli to Huntington have warned against the possibility of a popular government arising from anarchism.

Drawing from the theories nurtured through experience, democracy is viewed as an organism whose health is the result of conscious struggle among the citizens even if their motivations are fundamentally passive or negative. Democratisation needs to be evaluated in terms of realisation of citizenship in full sense of the term, which entails not just political citizenship involving citizens’ participation in elections and government, but also their substantive social, cultural, and economic conditions.

It may be too early to address the question as to whether or not Nepal will be consolidated democratically. However, if one reviews the overall position of monarchy — especially King Gyanendra’s continued anti-political stance, the state apparatus, and the army on the one hand, and the historic unity among politically significant groups over the acceptability of basic framework for political contestation and the opinion of eminent scholars, politicised intellectuals, knowledgeable and ordinary citizens on the other hand — it would not be too early to say that monarchy is not all that important and it has, at the most, only secondary significance.

Yet again, the question that comes up is the matter of creating a model that will become an integral part of the eventual constitutional order or change values. If power is too diffused, if policy is tainted by vested interests, and if there is insufficient political will, neither democratic development nor other welfare objectives will be promoted. Acknowledging that the existing arrangements are ineffective, institutionally unprotected, democratically illegitimate, misleading and incomplete guide to the distribution of power in the system, a permanent political solution may be realised by adopting a new constitution to be framed by a freely elected legislature or constituent assembly and then submitting it to a referendum that can mobilise and catalyse mass energies. At the same time, while international pressure has not had much impact on the King, the calls for formidable democracy may sound attractive but rhetoric is insufficient to achieve an aim.

Undoubtedly, elections are crucial in the democratisation process; they are yet more important for the installation, legitimisation and empowerment of a new democratic regime. When we look at the functioning democracies, we realise that democracy cannot stand alone, either conceptually or practically, in the context of social and cultural conditions hostile to democratic citizenship. The attempt to create democratic rule by holding municipal elections, even if genuinely free and fair, cannot serve as a check on monarchy’s abuses of power and render it responsive and accountable nor can it make democracy sustainable. We should remember that in a properly functioning democratic order, its legitimacy is universalistic: it can be successfully invoked by anyone, irrespective of his or her position in society.

Thapa is professor of Politics, TU