Angling for the sympathy of conservativesRabindra Mishra’s ‘alternative’ thoughts seem to have been fossilised in the bygone decades of the Panchayat era.
When Rabindra Mishra, head of the purported alternative political force, the Bibeksheel Sajha Party, recently put out his somewhat infamous thesis calling for, among other things, disbanding federalism and holding a plebiscite on secularism, it was received with mixed emotions. As anywhere else in the world, there is a powerful conservative strand among Nepalis, and Mishra must have angling for sympathy from this group (and their votes when the time comes). That his personal proclivities tended along those very lines was probably an added bonus.
There were also very strong reactions to Mishra’s propositions on how we should move forward as a nation. An insightful takedown by Pranaya Rana in The Record is worth a read. There were numerous other articles highly critical of Mishra’s rather simplistic arguments, the kind that would sit well with an audience for a Mr Know-All holding forth during the all-male, morning tea street-side congregations. But certainly, not for someone whose claim to fame has been his supposed worldliness, mainly from having worked for the BBC in London for many years.
Perhaps most unexpected for Mishra was how his views did not sit well with others in his own party. Within days, four in the leadership team, including the co-chair, came up with a forceful rebuttal, stating: “[I]n a multi-religious and multicultural country like ours, federalism, secularism and inclusive proportional representation are beautiful manifestations of democracy. That is the basis of social harmony [and] unity…."
Federalism and inclusion
Mishra’s main grouse with federalism is seemingly the prominence sub-national identities have received since the 2006 political change. Like many other extremists on either side of the political aisle, he has convinced himself that the end result will be the disintegration of the country. Unlike his hunch, however, there is plenty of empirical evidence to show the opposite to be true.
One prominent instance comes from India, as political scientists Alfred Stepan, Juan Linz and Yogendra Yadav have demonstrated in their book, Crafting State-Nations: India and Other Multinational Democracies. They present the results of a national survey which showed that among Tamils (who had actually led a movement for secession before being granted statehood in the 1950s), there is indeed a comparatively stronger feeling of regionalism than in the rest of India. At the same time, though, Tamils also expressed much higher levels of trust in the central government and the Indian army. Stepan et al write: “[I]t is likely that citizens in the multinational society would strongly identify with, and remain loyal to, both their culturally powerful ethnofederal unit and the polity-wide center. Most citizens would have such complementary identities because the center has recognized and defended many of their cultural demands and, in addition, helped structure and protect their full participation in the overall politics of the polity.”
That statement neatly encapsulates our own journey, one that has only just begun and too soon to be summarily dismissed as Mishra has tried to do. The source of his disenchantment with federalism has also been identified by the document brought out by his party comrades. They write: “In the initial debate on federalism, there were sharp but ideological disagreements for and against it. On the question of the kind of federalism, there were debates drives by various biases. At that time, some had interpreted the right of the states to self-determination as being the right to secede. There were some who had advocated for ethnic states. These were all issues for debate. The federalism we have today is not of a divisive character but one based on coordination and partnership. There is no need to remember those early debates on federalism or be frightened by them. To try and overturn federalism by harking back on those demands is to fail to understand the relevance and importance of federalism.”
The Bibeksheel Sajha leadership quartet certainly hit the nail on the head by identifying the false, albeit still strongly believed, conflation of the demand (by a handful) for ethnic federalism with the issue of inclusion (for all the marginalised). What comes through in this perhaps much-needed tussle of ideas is the growing acceptance of the need to further strengthen the inclusive state that came into existence 15 years ago and which was ratified to a large extent by the 2015 Constitution.
The mood has definitely changed from two decades ago when political-social activist Govinda Neupane injected a new dimension into the debate on exclusion with his book, The Nationalities’ Question in Nepal: Social Texture and Possibilities of Partnership (my literal translation of the original Nepali title). Given his own ethnic background, so novel were his ideas at the time that the political scientist Mahendra Lawoti wrote: “In a society where Khas intellectuals either denounce multiculturalism or at the most accept the inequalities but do nothing, it is enlightened people like Govinda Neupane who will contribute towards producing a more just and equitable society.”
As shown by Brihat Nagarik Andolan, the nascent social movement comprising a diverse group of intellectuals but led mainly by those who are Khas-Arya, to use Lawoti’s formulation, enlightenment on the need for a just and equitable society has become much more widespread now. Part of that surely springs from the advocacy of the cause of inclusion being unshackled after 2015 from the spectre of ethnofederalism. But there is no doubt that the understanding that progress is not possible without deeper structural issues being tackled has struck deeper roots. Take the example of Umesh Prasad Mainali, former chairperson of the Public Service Commission, who was sometimes reviled for taking policy decisions against the spirit of inclusion. In a recent article, Mainali discusses the importance of inclusion and how the states inclusive policies have fared so far and ends with the categorical suggestion: “Mend it but do not end it.”
Such sentiments from members of the dominant minority were in short supply just a few years ago. We also saw strong exceptions to a recent Supreme Court ruling on the constitutional provisions on reservations. Using the hoary but discredited ‘creamy layer’ argument, the learned judges appear to have constricted the scope of the country’s affirmative action policies. It was the reactions that came as a pleasant surprise, including in an editorial of the influential Kantipur. “Reservation is a measure to bring the discriminated and backward castes/ethnicities, communities, classes on par with the community dominating the mainstream,” it argued. “If it is attacked from without having achieved its target, it will hinder the prosperity of the country, and it will not be possible to achieve lasting peace.”
Enough said, but that is also why Mishra’s unnecessary provocation struck many by its dissonance with present realities. Despite claims to bringing a fresh perspective to politics, his thoughts seem to have been fossilised in the bygone decades of the Panchayat era. For all his personable characteristics, and he has many as anyone who has met would have to admit, one cannot but agree with what an opinion writer called him to do: Retire from politics.