Nepali dilemma : A vibrant democracy or destructive politics?

New democracies tend to have boisterous and obstreperous affairs. However, the question is whether the oscillation is also influenced by kinship-based patronage that has developed in Nepal as idiosyncratic political order manifested with poor governance, corrupt leadership and little rule of law, pauperization, frustrated hopes, interest-mongering, and mindless enterprises, discrepancies between legal and institutional frameworks and effective operation both on socioeconomic and political levels, as well as the increasing gap between aspirations and the ability to satisfy them as a case of stalemated participatory democracy, or in Dan Rustow’s ‘preparatory phase’, that denies equal and inviolable human dignity to all characterizing the transition from a nondemocratic regime to democratic polity.

The theme constituting political transition, democratization, and the movement from armed conflict to political discourse has often been a topic of passionate discourse presuming that democracy requires politically sophisticated and involved citizens, monogamously married to ward off the state from squandering its power. Conflicts occur incessantly, irrespective of their nature and substance or the stakes, parties and processes involved. Civil society ability to create a political sphere where people can interact with different but valid logic may also serve as a heuristic device. But, when the dullards constituting political leadership are silly enough to remain stuck with the forms of state power, without engaging in the strategic process of building a roadmap to multicultural humane democracy, their drama is doomed to be a failure or a fraud.

Trusting politicians is dangerous. But what we hear about leaders, especially from political commentators, are that Koirala is an opportunist, Prachand a wimpy and Nepal a pimp for reflecting partisan motivations and to try to make the only plan, making Nepali society a potential field for political infighting- namely working together. Unfortunately, the country is being maneuvered by those with no accountability. Differences are likely to surface between cultures, values and aspirations as Huntington’s “clash of civilizations”. The troubling paradox is that in spite of the successful struggle for a republic and numerous valid demands for systemic reforms, politicians have indulged in grabbing power and privileges rather than pursuing national interest or public welfare. While democratization is not unlikely, most politicians in Nepal behave like Jell-O; it moves and wiggles a lot when we shake the bowl, only to return to its original shape.

The good news is that a window of opportunity for vibrant institutions with sustained economic growth is there. However, due largely to the ruling elite’s de facto monopoly over the entire country and their crypto-fascist tendency, Nepal has to undergo a political liberalization blemished with incidents of violence and conflicts where even small groups have important roles to play. Their aim is to widen their power base against the regime or to control the society indirectly. Nepal’s nagging problem is that without resolving the sultanist malpractices and effectively having what the pluralists call “a new set of rules for the political game” a porous country cannot be put together as a nation to be proud of.

Scholars often remind that building state institutions requires conformity on multiple issues. But, intellectuals are bigoted or sidelined and the government is insensitive or ruefully lame duck. People are not yet a citizenry; they do not in fact govern themselves. So, thugs rush in, glorifying themselves. Legitimate authority cannot be established by mere agreement among rational individuals motivated by lust for power and resources. They need to be prudent and rational to build what Benjamin R Barber likened to a “strong democracy”.

The transformation process is prone to generate clashes on methods, strategies, and forms to be adopted. One is tempted to assume that there exists a “model” for democracy that could be applied with due touches from the ideals of Rousseau’s social contract or Paine’s common sense, or benchmarks of Diamond et al, every path toward democracy has its own twists and turns without a guarantee of success. Besides, the prospects for democratization are delicate due to relative lack of democratic practices and existence of influential conservative forces. Another reason of profound significance is the fact that the government has — just about — no credibility at all.

Democracy by itself cannot put an end to injustices and do miracles. After all, it is a “mode of decision-making about collectively binding rules and policies over which the people exercise control and civility of discourse”. The great riddle is whether political elites have the guts to maintain a viable country for its peaceful people, a country in control of its own destiny. Can we have what resembles Weber’s state personified as “a human commodity that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”?

(Thapa is Professor of Politics, TU)