Sociological short-sightedness of alternative politicsInstead of embracing social complexity, our alternative politics is steadily becoming an enterprise aimed at reducing it.
After the 2017 elections, in which the new political parties failed to make a major mark (the current ruling party being made up of two older, mainstream parties), many feared for the future of alternative politics in Nepal. Yet, thanks to the sustained efforts of new political competitors, notably Sajha Party and Bibeksheel Nepali Dal, the discourse of alternative continues to occupy our political imaginary. As public resentment against mainstream politics and politicians grows across both newer and established democracies, the notion of alternative politics has gained further traction. However, what alternative means, and how it stands to overcome the current political impasse has been a subject of little public deliberation. What is worrisome is that Nepal’s so-called alternative political leaders and political parties have, to a large extent, reduced the notion of an alternative to a mere political rhetoric. What does it mean to approach the notion of ‘alternative politics’ sociologically? This debate is long overdue.
That politics is a tool to transform society is well-known. Society, on the other hand, is made up of complex social relations, structures, values and norms, which shape politics, and is, in turn, shaped by politics. To view alternative politics sociologically, then, is to unpack these complex social realities that lie at the heart of such alternative imagination. It is important to reflect on the informal and unequal nature of Nepali society which is characteristically different from, and somewhat at odds with, more formal and professionalised societies of the West. However, much of what our alternative politicians tend to idealise and pursue are reflective of the formal, Western imaginaries, which are often removed from the way Nepali society is structured.
One doesn’t have to go too far to unpack this sociological myopia that plagues alternative politicians and parties. Take for instance the launch of the ‘13-point directive’ by Sajha Party on July 16, which claims to help safeguard Nepali politics from the rampant interference of diplomats and foreign intelligence agents. The political rationale for this was articulated by the party coordinator, Rabindra Mishra, a few days prior in an interview with Tika Ram Yatri. As the main face of alternative politics in Nepal, Mishra’s interview is worth unpacking. In the interview, he passionately, and quite rightfully, reiterated the demand for an alternative approach to diplomatic conduct that is resistant to undue foreign interference. In so doing, he did not fall short of boasting his personal resume of having successfully used different tactics to overcome everyday foreign interference. At its core, the interview was business as usual; demonstrate the old as dishonest and inept and establish the new as honest and competent. The directive, it turns out, is a mix of a systemic and punitive solution to what is framed as a chronic diplomatic problem of urgent political and economic significance.
A sociological diagnosis of this topic, however, would even question the way the issue is framed as a problem in the first place, let alone the professional and punitive logic that underpin the party’s recent directive. Rather, sociological understanding would mean locating such diplomatic conduct within the deeply informal and fluid nature of Nepali society, of which diplomatic conduct is a significant yet small part. An obvious question is when Nepali politicians agree to speak with, or are summoned by foreign diplomats outside of formal diplomatic protocol, might it be the reflection of the informality and fluidity that characterise Nepali society, rather than them succumbing to a foreign power? In other words, is it possible that such conduct is less politically motivated but socially structured? By Mishra’s own admission, this is the age of WikiLeaks and growing public scrutiny. Perhaps Mishra’s claims of past diplomatic incompetence and interference have also undergone changes in response to the changing nature of societal scrutiny? A number of other sociological questions can be posed about the way this issue is approached by Sajha Party as one requiring urgent intervention. Other alternative parties are no less questionable when put under the sociological microscope. For Bibeksheel, the name itself evokes sociological puzzlement. Is the political quest for Bibeksheel Nepali an answer to some form of Bibekheen past? If so, as a society, what does it mean to overcome Bibekheenta? A dearth of sociological imagination can also be traced in the conduct of old political players who are proclaiming to be new. The case in point is the recent unity of Upendra Yadav’s Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum Nepal and Baburam Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti Party Nepal under the banner of Samajbadi Party Nepal. In the absence of an honest reflection on what it means to embrace and promote ‘socialism’ within the changing nature of Nepali society, this unity seems no more than a desperate move to reclaim the two political leaders’ dwindling political clout.
The bigger point, however, is for Nepal’s political parties, there is little incentive to approach our politics sociologically, which is rooted in our social structures, norms and values. Instead, it is far more appealing to frame this as a technopolitical problem, resulting from incompetent and corrupt politicians. To the core political base of alternative politicians, who are used to finding respite in any political act that condemns the old or seeks to distinguish the new from the old, approaching politics sociologically is not appealing. True, envisioning and actualising a ‘political alternative’ demands challenging and, to a larger extent, dismantling old politics that is widely considered inept. But it goes without saying that pursuing alternative politics is not just about the politics of denunciation. Nor is it limited to creating a political distinction that essentially relies on the old political order.
To follow German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, the discourse of alternative politics in Nepal is reminiscent of the systemic approach to politics, to de-politicise society in favour of formal and technocratic alternatives, and to distinguish the new from the old. Instead of embracing social complexity, our alternative politics is steadily becoming an enterprise aimed at reducing it. When politics suffer from such short-sightedness, the fear is that whatever politicians imagine, see and pursue becomes a cheap political stunt. The urgent need, therefore, is for the alternative politicians to approach politics sociologically, and we, the citizens, to interrogate them more critically.
Dhungana is a postdoctoral Fellow based at the London School of Economics and Political Science.