Understanding Nepal’s transition Do we really want what we must?

Most scholars think that many of the new polyarchies are at best poorly institutionalized. However, when we place the transition and its crucial offshoots in social, economic and political performance in comparative perspective, the case of Nepal appears scandalous. It is true that institutions cannot be changed overnight, will remain fragile for a while and be afflicted with corruption and collusion at times even under the best circumstances, the (western, Greek) therapy of empowering people, called democracy, offers innumerable opportunities to prosper, albeit without time-bound guarantees. Nepal is at once facing two crises - political and economic - which are not connected, contrary to what many would like to believe.

It is quite likely that a nascent democracy would be restrained in some aspects, so would be its extent to maneuver social and economic changes. Daniel Levine has derived a useful lesson from the experiences of polyarchies that seem unconsolidated or remain uninstitutionalized: excessive popular mobilization and too much pressure from below can hamper the growth of democracy; conservative transitions would rather be dependable. Be that as it may, Nepal appears to have once again moved closer to democracy after a prolonged struggle. As such, an appropriate transformation is unlikely until there is peace with greater equity and distribution.

By the way, things are changing very rapidly with contextual effects on political behavior such as the collapse of state communism and the emergence of party competition in Eastern Europe, reunification of Germany, election of first black president in the United States, rapid economic convergence and shrinking inequality, and Asia’s catching up with the West and American hegemony. They seemed impossible before they occurred but natural in retrospect.

Although the difficulties in creating multicultural developmental democracy, including an equalitarian democratization of the economy, are numerous and interrelated, particularly so in transitional circumstances when social conditions do not clearly determine the nature of a political system, the problem with Nepal’s pluralist polyarchical model of government and politics is the instability as a result of the failure to transferring social structures, affecting the distribution of economic and intellectual power resources, establishing political institutions that make it possible to share power democratically among competing groups and devising effective political action strategies.

Sooner or later voters must decide which of the party leaders are pragmatist and realistically capable of forming a government that lifts the country out of the current morass and pushes it forward. Yet, people still have been routinely marginalized, impoverished, and victimized despite the unparallel opportunities after the end of repressive, idiosyncratic and ambitious monarchy. Even the elected CA could be a constructive place to conduct the business of a country; political leaders either lack vision of a new paradigm for political order or hound narrow economic or self-perpetuating interests.

New democracies often face such dilemma what Dahl aptly notes as ‘significant inequalities in power have been a universal feature; they exist today in all democratic system’. But the unfinished political and economic reforms foster the exchange of economic resources against political support, weaken the state capacity, and open the way to chaotic situation. Not only must the political society be able to aggregate the demand meticulously, but also the poorest of the poor should be able to articulate their demands uninhibitedly. However, when the existing order has difficulty in resolving a complexity, a sense of public empowerment and unity sometimes arises as the ultimate challenge to focus upon the fleeting moment, what O’Donnell and Schmitter call ‘popular upsurge’. It would be a folly on the part of the elite to take it for granted that Nepali politics will never be played with democratic rules. So we are left with no time to dilly-dally; the challenge is to correctly tune the arrangement we have made.

Whether an individual be allowed to express one’s capability for autonomous action to the utmost will best reflect radical individualism of neo-Kantians, most notably Jurgen Habermas who has illustrated how respect for human dignity plays a pivotal role in democratic theory and Dahl who takes a far more hard-nosed view of political power through unfettered exercise of individual freedom that provides self-determination to a ‘mass of citizens’ along with constitutionalism that safeguards personal liberties against the will of the state while determining the structure of a well ordered regime. Nepalese have deep-seated doubts in the attitudes and behavior of their representatives. Nonetheless, they want liberty and so they remain irrevocably committed to the idea of democracy even when they feel disgusted with ever appearing discourses and demagoguery. Undoubtedly so.

Thapa is Professor of Politics, TU