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.
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.