Nepali democracy: Creating a new political order

Not very long ago, Nepali democracy was the catchphrase of Nepali politicians and seasoned observers. Today, the same observers are not so sure and describe Nepal’s current experience with democratisation in terms of the struggle between (a) the monarchy attempting to retain power and often succeeding in the task, (b) insurgents who seek to reconstitute the state power through armed struggle, and (c) reformers committed to democratic rule.

What Nepali democracy did not stand for was the right of all citizens to be treated as equals in the decision-making process and the obligations of officials to be held accountable for those decisions. In Nepal where institutions have been brutal, distorted and corrupt, the marginalised have dissented and resorted to arms to achieve reform, arguing that conditions cannot be changed through democratisation. One point is clear: even in 1990, the monarchy was not a fully restructured democratic institution. Rather, it had decided to compromise because it believed that it was the best way to protect its institutional interests.

Serious concerns surround the stability of the party and its ability to unite around a common issue to the extent that will enable it to represent its constituency effectively. The skills, values and strategies of political leaders have been defined as essential elements in considering the formation of democracy. Leadership during popular movement — teh late 1940s and 1980s — has been instrumental in the turn toward a new political framework, the leaders now on the stage are testimony to the fact that they never exercised sufficient power to implement change. Serious concerns remain and one cannot expect these leaders to provide a new arena for contesting political power to achieve stability.

Increasing political pluralism is a trend that suggests a much less encouraging assessment of the prospects for liberal democracy. The most disturbing is the absence of a democratic content with King Gyanendra that emerged from the February 1 coup, although he continues to speak for democracy today. The circumstances under which it occurred only increased the people’s cynicism toward the democratic process. It is still unclear how the democratic forces and the rebels should resolve disagreements within and between their respective spheres. In fact, neither democracy can be preserved nor the republic can be established through the mobilisation of the military and encouraging the trend towards monarchisation. In a fragmented society like Nepal, securing a broad social and political consensus for constitutional reform is not easy, yet there can be no military solution to the Maoist conflict other than to find democratic alternatives.

Among scholars who have attempted to grapple with the challenges of managing protracted social conflicts, Zartman has emphasised the need in conflict settlement of what he calls ‘returning to normal politics’. Zartman’s insight of returning to normal politics argues that in the protracted conflicts like Nepal, which involve the question of state power and are based on issues of deprivation, discrimination and identity, normalisation of politics should mean not a return to the old order or the old state but creating a new political order, or put in different terms, reconstitutionalising the state or reworking the associational bases of the state. Nepal’s context suggests that the outcome must provide for the integration of the insurgency into a new body politic and for mechanisms that allow the conflict to shift from violence back to politics. A negotiated settlement to the insurgency is feasible; a sustainable settlement would require a framework of state that can put an end to monarchical excesses, and include socio-economic and political reforms.

An insurgency against the state is not a democratic discourse of political resistance. Liberation movements like Nepal give rise to political ideologies and practices of authoritarianism, not the emancipation. Therefore, at a time when a serious attempt is being made to find a political settlement, it is important to defend the idea of republicanism, notwithstanding the fact that monarchy is still an organised force of the state. It is time for a new movement that can gain the trust of the Nepalis by putting forward a full reform programme based on liberal democratic principles.

The military must understand that the security and safeguarding the Constitution will no longer be its constitutional responsibilities, except under exceptional circumstances and subject to recall by the legislature; its role will be limited to the protection of the nation’s sovereignty and frontiers. It is true that polls are necessary for democratic government, but if they were conducted under conditions of war and fear, they could not create political space to compete for power peacefully. Rather, they would help to produce cynicism and profound disillusionment with government institutions, and popular confidence in the democratic process would also be diminished.