Nepal A Fading Future
Some years back, Nepal was a bright star on the horizon of democracy. While the monarchy has gone, the masses still grope in the darkness of the ensuing political turmoil.
Far away from the mountain tops that are its claim to fame, there is a storm raging in Nepal. For the last ten years, the country has been trying to convert itself from a kingdom to a full-fledged democracy where representation for all will be a key factor in political and social progress.
It has been a long and bumpy road so far. The country was ruled by kings of varying ability and power for centuries before getting submerged in political turmoil in the 80s and 90s. A Maoist-led uprising resulted in chaos and deaths across Nepal. Along with a
weakening support for the monarchy, this uprising caused a pressure buildup for democracy to finally gain sway. The monarchy was eventually dissolved in 2007 and Nepal became a republic. Some sort of a compromise was agreed upon by all sides leading to the Maoists joining the government. The year 2011 was set as a deadline for the formulation of a new constitution.
Unfortunately, democracy has rarely followed a simple path in Nepal. No single party has gained enough sway to be able to form a majority government and the coalitions formed are not able to set aside their own vested interests in favour of the greater good.
Nepal is a country divided along ethnic, religious and geographical lines. Several different languages and dialects are spoken in the country. Nepal is a poor country despite its flourishing tourist trade. Most of its poverty lies in the plains where the minority ethnic and religious groups reside. There has been years of systematic economic and political exclusion for some of these ethnic group such as the Madhesi. Resentment over the wrongs rendered to them was part of the support for the bloody Maoist insurgency and it still affects the key decisions that have to be made regarding Nepal’s political future.
The question of provincial divisions is the main sticking point that has yet again put the process in deadlock. The minority groups and the Maoist party want provincial divisions to follow the ethnic divisions in the country so that each group may finally get its own voice on the national platform. The rationale has gained considerable popularity but it leaves the question of economic inequality unanswered. It is possible that the poorer ethnic groups will continue to be marginalized if they are placed in administrative zones that are separate from the more affluent Nepalese.
The question of representation extends to the electoral system. Whether it should be based on an open voting mechanism where whoever gets the most votes comes to power i.e. first past the post, or it should be based on proportional seats to represent the various marginalized communities.
Nepal’s religious diversity means that declaring the state as ‘Hindu’ would leave out about 20% of the population and cause more resentment amongst those excluded. To declare the state as being secular could also cause problems as the concept of a Hindu state has recently gained support.
Amidst all these issues, those watching the situation believe that the real problems are not those of principle but rather lack of political will. It is felt that the flames of discord are being used by opportunistic leaders to further their own agendas. Perhaps not altogether a wrong assumption since no single party in Nepal has managed to achieve a majority status and all of them are seeking to strengthen their presence in the fledgling democracy.
The influence of Nepal’s neighbours is also being felt in the political turmoil. Nepal is highly reliant on aid and trade with India. There is little doubt that this reliance forces the country to make policies which will keep its big neighbor happy and willing to provide continued goodwill and support.
In the beginning of 2015, talks regarding the constitution stalled again when the parliament failed to reach consensus on key issues and a selfimposed deadline was yet again not met. The situation turned into a fullblown crisis when the Maoists walked away from the talks and led mass protests against the government’s plan to pass the key decisions through a two thirds majority. A thirty party-strong coalition led thousands of people into the streets of Khatmandu to protest against a parliament which they said was not representative of the people or their will. For the Maoist party, the leadership of this coalition with ethnic representation as the core of its antigovernment argument was a very good opportunity to garner support amongst the Nepalese people.
There were plans to further disrupt the political protests with phase two of the protests that would result in a general strike. However, for now, the political process is again underway, thanks to the efforts of civil society leaders but still under the threat of further protests in case the talks fail to yield results desired by the opposition party and its allied parties, many of which do not have representation in the parliament.
All this political grandstanding in the name of ideological differences is not sitting well with the ordinary Nepalese and rightly so. The country went through a very violent insurgent movement and the march towards democracy was supposed to bring it out of international isolation and improve the lives of its citizens. However, Nepal is facing the same problems as many other young democracies. Its leaders have petty problems of their own and they are not able to rise above them to look at the bigger picture.
In every major political party of Nepal, there is an internal conflict going on regarding positions of power. The current stalemate over the constitution has allowed every politician working on his image building plan to take a specific ideological position and come out as a viable representative. Political point scoring hasn’t just been done against those each side is opposing. Internally the leadership within each party is fractured with many playing the long game towards achieving their political ambitions.
Nepal meanwhile is suffering. Instead of being on a path of prosperity, the country is still stuck in economic doldrums. Its working class individuals are forced to seek labour abroad. The dreams of a strong democratic will and of representation for all, are still in the pipeline.
If Nepal’s political parties do not get their act together soon, the trust that its people have in them will be eroded. What little unity has been won in the past few years will be lost amidst this strife. Subsequent governments have failed to come up a viable constitution and the current situation does not look like it will be resolved positively. There is just too wide a gap between the ideologies and political positions of the two sides battling it out on the political stage.
Using ethnic divides as a means to divide the country into provinces is a dangerous idea because it could widen the gap between various communities rather than bringing them closer. It is understandable that the marginalized groups in Nepal wish for their voices to be heard. But they must try to achieve this from a position of compromise if the process of democracy is to be kept from collapsing.
If Nepal’s political parties do not get their act together soon, the trust that its people have in them will be eroded.