Way out of the quagmireIt is time for young reformists to join either of the two parties, depending on their ideologies, en masse and push for change from within.
Since the overthrow of the Rana oligarchy in 1950, Nepal has experimented with several governance models: multi-party democracy under an active monarchy (1950-1960); the Panchayat System aka dictatorial monarchy (1960 -1990); multi-party democracy with constitutional monarchy (1990-2008) and democratic republic (since 2008). The goal of these experiments was to change Nepali society from heretofore poor, unequal, and exploitative to prosperous, democratic, equal and socially just. A new model followed when the preceding model failed to usher in the change.
Contemporary Nepal is one of the least developed countries in the world and is the least developed in South Asia. Here, the disparity in the wealth between the rich and poor is one of the highest in the world. In the last 70 years, some physical development has happened, but it is relatively insignificant compared to what our neighbours have accomplished in the same period. And is certainly minuscule compared to the country’s potential.
During the period of the monarchy, our politicians blamed the king for all failures. After the king was gone, they blamed instability of successive coalition governments that preceded the election of 2017. The instability argument was a ruse. The coalition partners backstabbing each other for a larger share in the government created the instability; there is nothing inherently wrong with a coalition in a democratic society. In any case, the election of 2017 settled the matter. The Nepal Communist Party (NCP) formed the government with an overwhelming majority in Parliament.
KP Oli, one of the co-chairs of the NCP, became prime minister—his second time as the head of the government—with unprecedented public support. People were excited with Oli’s agenda, and expected transformational leadership from him.
In two and a half years, Oli’s popularity has hit rock bottom. His government has functioned not any different from past failed governments; only worse. The politicisation of public institutions and corruption has reached unprecedented levels. Public trust in the government has never been so low. Recently, even the purchase of personal protective equipment to fight Covid-19 has been suspected of graft, in which, allegedly, people close to the prime minister were involved.
In retrospect, none of the above should be surprising. Perhaps the people were too naive to believe Oli will be different from what he has always been—an opportunistic politician. Would anything have been different if one of the other senior leaders in NCP or for that matter, if the Nepali Congress had won the election and Sher Bahadur Deuba had been the Prime Minister?
A different prime minister
At the core of Nepal’s woes are the political leadership bereft of any new ideas, of ethical and moral compass, and pervasive corruption perpetrated by the political-business nexus.
All of the potential candidates for the prime ministership in the Nepal Communist Party, the so-called senior leaders, are older than 65 years. They have all been tested in high government positions—the majority of them have become prime ministers—with little to show for it. But their brand of politics has paid them well. Despite the fact that they have never worked for a living, they are all among the wealthiest of Nepalis. They have no new ideas, no will to change and no intention to retire. Their only interest is in grabbing the largest share of the pie.
The recent power struggle within the ruling party at the time of crisis created by Covid-19 and monsoon floods proves it. The crisis was no more than a distraction to them. It did not even make their agenda for discussion in their committees.
But would it really have been any different if Congress leader Deuba was at the helm?
Deuba is 74 years old. He, too, has become rich and ‘successful’, without ever working for a living. His entire politics, after he rose to the national level, has been playing one against the other within his own party. Sectionalism is his forte. For someone who has become Prime Minister three times, there is not much to show for in terms of governance improvements and equitable development. His lacklustre performance in the current Parliament, particularly in censuring the government in numerous major corruption scandals, is telling. It is attributed to his fear of exposure to a backlash from his past maleficence.
The other Nepali Congress leaders, though not as tainted as Deuba, are also nearing 70 and have been tried and tested. Not much can be expected of them either. They have all outlived their usefulness.
The incumbent old leaders have worked to bog the country down. What is needed to move ahead is a change in leadership in both main parties and the strengthening of our democracy.
Break the barriers of change
The current leadership in both parties have created a number of barriers to stop the younger, reformist generation from reaching the top. The younger generation in both main parties feel betrayed by their leaders. They do not like the way their voices are muzzled and that they are treated as pawns. They believe in value-based politics, integrity and public service. They hold fresh ideas and are agitating for a change in the leadership. But their numbers are less than the critical mass required to challenge the incumbents.
The most efficient way out of the quagmire and to strengthen our democracy, clean the mainstream parties and fight corruption is, depending on their ideological leaning, for the smaller parties to join one of the two mainstream parties en masse before the coming general assemblies of the mainstream parties. This will bolster the voice of the young reformists in both parties and add to the critical mass required to wrest power from the incumbent antiquated leadership.
The reformists’ first agenda should be to elect the leader on a ‘one member, one vote’ basis and review the performance of the leader at a minimum of every two years. This idea, or its equivalent, is how leaders are selected in strong democracies. Leaders who do not perform get booted out.