Small Democ­racy, Big Im­pact

Nepal seems to have lost direc­tion. Demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions have taken a back seat while there are no lead­ers in sight to steer the coun­try out of the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic quag­mire.

Southasia - - Cover story - By Dr. Jan Sharma

Nepal has done ex­tremely well in in­tro­duc­ing democ­racy but has done quite poorly on build­ing and sus­tain­ing demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions.

The only coun­try in South Asia that was never a colony has a unique po­lit­i­cal his­tory with the first demo­cratic move­ment in 1951 restor­ing the world’s only Hindu monar­chy. As politi­cians be­gan fight­ing among them­selves, it turned into an ab­so­lute monar­chy. The sec­ond demo­cratic move­ment in 1990 turned into a fi­asco as it failed to build demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions. The third demo­cratic move­ment that came in 2006 is al­ready fal­ter­ing as politi­cians fight for loaves and fish.

In a sense, democ­racy has been the main vic­tim of the suc­cess of prodemoc­racy move­ments. Only regimes have changed. Ex­ter­nal fac­tors have al­ways been de­ci­sive, like the Chinese con­trol of Ti­bet in 1950, Nepal’s im­port of Chinese arms in 1988 which led to a trade dis­pute with In­dia fol­lowed by the 1990 move­ment. The 2006 change co­in­cided with the en­cir­clement of an in­creas­ingly as­sertive China, es­pe­cially af­ter the “strate­gic part­ner­ship” be­tween Wash­ing­ton and New Delhi. Nepalis de­cide no more as they float in global and re­gional cur­rents.

This is bad news for a coun­try that has democ­racy-build­ing at its very grass­roots: com­mu­nity forestry, farmer-man­aged ir­ri­ga­tion and com­mu­nity-man­aged power trans­mis­sion. How­ever, there are ba­si­cally four rea­sons for the demo­cratic deficit de­spite pop­u­lar as­pi­ra­tions and sup­port.

First, of course, is the fail­ure of the lead­er­ship to rec­og­nize the im­por­tance of build­ing strong po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions, pro­mote checks and bal­ances, tol­er­ate a loyal op­po­si­tion and have a will­ing­ness to com­pro­mise for shared pros­per­ity and well-be­ing. Once elected, the lead­ers want to dom­i­nate the po­lit­i­cal process and to re­ward loy­al­ists, friends and rel­a­tives. Con­spir­acy is deeply rooted in the Nepali po­lit­i­cal psy­che.

The sec­ond are the in­sti­tu­tional fail­ures. The Con­stituent Assem­bly, elected in 2008, dou­bles as par­lia­ment with man­date to write a con­sti­tu­tion. It failed to meet the man­date in the stip­u­lated two years, but ex­tended its term by a year to May 2010. How­ever, it has achieved very lit­tle on that count so far and con­tin­ues to be a rub­ber stamp of a co­terie of as­sorted politi­cians. Se­ri­ous is­sues are never de­bated in the Con­stituent Assem­bly while the Courts are so cor­rupt that crim­i­nals bribe Supreme Court judges to get a clean chit. Po­lit­i­cal par­ties in Nepal are fief­doms of lead­ers while the me­dia is pro­pa­ganda tool for politi­cians and busi­ness­men. The civil so­ci­ety is also dom­i­nated by strong con­tenders for diplo­matic as­sign­ments. As such, fail­ure to build po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions has ac­tu­ally done long-term dam­age to democ­racy.

Thirdly, there is no com­pact po­lit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion and eco­nomic pros­per­ity built on ef­fec­tive gov­ern­ment and efficient bu­reau­cracy. Such eco­nomic vi­sion is some­how miss­ing for strange rea­sons. Poverty is wide­spread with half the pop­u­la­tion strug­gling to merely sur­vive. The econ­omy has been able to grow by just 3%, and in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion is fall­ing due to the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing busi­ness cli­mate, with 14-hour power cuts on a daily ba­sis, poor in­fra­struc­ture and highly politi­cized la­bor re­la­tions. The In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund pro­vided $42.05 mil­lion credit last year to cope with the fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Only re­mit­tances sent by mi­grant work­ers from the Gulf and other coun­tries sus­tain the econ­omy.

In­ter­na­tional sup­port for democ­racy-build­ing has also been pe­riph­eral. The United States has al­ready out­sourced its Nepal pol­icy to In­dia, whose sup­port for both 1990 and 2006 move­ments had noth­ing to do with democ­racy. The fail­ure to in­sti­tu­tion­al­ize multi-party democ­racy un­der a con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy since 1990 and po­lit­i­cal sup­pres­sion by the Nepali Congress (NC) gov­ern­ment both dur­ing the 1994 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions and 1992 lo­cal elec­tions, fu­elled the Maoist in­sur­gency. A mem­oir by the for­mer mil­i­tary sec­re­tary to the king claims that the In­dian Army train­ing camps pro­vided train­ing to both the Maoists as well as the Nepali Army per­son­nel at dif­fer­ent times. New Delhi used the Maoists to top­ple the monar­chy un­der an un­pop­u­lar king.

But de­vel­op­ments in Nepal do not al­ways hap­pen the way In­dia wants. On the eve of the Con­stituent Assem­bly elec­tions in May 2008, New Delhi over­es­ti­mated the strength of both NC and the Com­mu­nist Party of NepalUni­fied Marx­ist Lenin­ist (CPN-UML) and un­der­es­ti­mated that of the Uni­fied Com­mu­nist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M), which emerged as the sin­gle largest party. Af­ter much de­lay, a UCPN-M-led gov­ern­ment was in­stalled that sur­vived only for nine months. The elec­tion of CPN-UML’s Jhal Nath Khanal as the new prime min­is­ter backed by UCPN-M shocked and dis­mayed New Delhi.

There is no other po­lit­i­cal party to match UCPN-M’s or­ga­ni­za­tional strength and grass­roots sup­port. It is also launch­ing a 500,000-strong “peo­ple’s vol­un­teers” to dis­ci­pline crit­ics and si­lence op­po­nents. Com­pare this with NC, the sec­ond largest party in par­lia­ment, brain-dead in terms of pol­icy and strat­egy and bereft of a leader that could unify quar­relling politi­cians. Most of its lead­ers are hid­ing in Kath­mandu and their po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties are con­fined to tea or liquor shops. The third largest party – CPN-UML – is ver­ti­cally split be­tween pro-Maoist and anti-Maoist fac­tions. Of course, there are prob­lems within UCPN-M with Vice Chair­men Babu­ram Bhat­tarai and Mo­han Vaidya chal­leng­ing Pushpa Kamal Da­hal’s lead­er­ship. Da­hal is ef­fec­tively un­der con­trol be­cause the mil­i­tary wing of the party is with him, mak­ing Bhat­tarai and Vaidya a storm in Da­hal’s tea cup. Da­hal’s own per­sonal pop­u­lar­ity is on the slide be­cause he speaks too much but does too lit­tle.

With power games and con­spir­acy so in­tense, build­ing demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions takes a back seat. It is a dif­fi­cult tran­si­tion in the ab­sence of a lead­er­ship or a states­man that could rise above petty in­ter­est to steer Nepal out of the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic quag­mire. The writer is a Re­search Fel­low at Sangam In­sti­tute in Kath­mandu and is au­thor of ‘Democ­racy With­out Roots.’

Nepal needs to strengthen its demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions.

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