A case of political déjà vuUnfortunately, for the people of Nepal, we are entrapped in a maze of instability.
The last few months have been tumultuous for the nation, with the country experiencing widespread deaths due to Covid-19 coupled with political impasses. Since early 2020 former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli had been a target of the neo-elites of Kathmandu, be it Twitter or print and digital media. One of the significant reasons was his mannerism at the helm of affairs. Oli was alleged to have not been consultative and democratic within the party. He was accused of making parliament inconsequential, and he has been attributed the blame for destroying the institutions of the state like the concentrating powers with the prime minister’s office, resisting devolution of powers to the provinces etc.
The reasons, as mentioned earlier, combined with the rising dissatisfaction among the ruling elites of the nation and a few catalysts, proved to be the final nail in the coffin. With the ouster of Oli, there was a general hope that the state of affairs would stabilise if not improve. But, rather than progressing from the perils of Oli rule, the present government seems to be trapped in the vicious circle of derailing democratic institutions. Hence the déjà vu.
Although this vicious circle is not something new to Nepal, the nation has been a victim to an extraction-oriented ruling class since the inception of the nation-state. The Ranas and the Shahs being the torchbearers of this extractive regime. Rather than building inclusive institutions that would promote the interests of the people, regimes were interested in extracting maximum resources for themselves and their kith and kin. This extractive tendency is antithetical to inclusive institutions, which strengthen democracy and pluralism. The vicious circle, although not inevitable, once in place is challenging to break.
History has numerous anecdotes of the operation of this circle, but at present, the current scenario provides us with a clear path to the nation's future. Unfortunately, for the people of Nepal, we are entrapped in a maze of instability. One of the most contentious issues of the past two years was the amendment to the party division provision in the Political Parties Act (PPA). There were two primary reasons: first, the political parties act was intended to safeguard the institutions of democracy and watering down the provision might erode democratic principles. Second, an amendment to such a provision will have a long term impact on the nation’s polity, and hence it would be done through the legislature and not through an ordinance. But the current government has diminished the provision bringing down the threshold to 20 percent of either the parliamentary party or central committee. The legislative intent behind the said provision of the PPA came at the backdrop of unstable governments of the past. It is interesting to note that all of the five major parties have split at one point or the other. It was also against the neo-Nepali culture of horse-trading and opportunism. But as always, realpolitik has taken precedence over all other factors.
The other allegation against Oli was making the legislature business-less, and indeed so. Oli had issued 25 ordinances in a year, out of which seven were promulgated twice. This was his ace in the hole for circumventing the legislature. When all this was being done, there were fierce debates on television, newspapers and streets regarding the derailment of institutions by the communist regime. There was a ray of hope that the new government change would put a check to such perversions. But here we are; after just a month into the government, the Prime Minister has recommended that the President prorogue the parliament session and promulgate an ordinance hostile to parliamentary democracy exactly like Oli. The Prime Minister has been busy with public relations campaigns at the cost of strengthening democracy. He has been unable to expand his cabinet for the past month due to a lack of consensus in the power brokerage syndicate led by his coalition partners. At this point, we must ask ourselves whether this is the change that we desire.
In my opinion, a change at the helm is immaterial to the nation at this point. In the life of a country, there are only a few opportunities that it gets to break through the vicious circle. These opportunities can be seen as being at a crossroads in the life of a nation, one towards a virtuous circle where inclusive democratic institutions are working for the equitable distribution of resources. Then there is the vicious circle, where although a usurper brings about a change at the helm with no overriding change to policies to facilitate the smooth functioning of governmental apparatus. Nepal has had numerous trysts with critical junctures. But instead of learning from past mistakes and moving towards building and strengthening institutions, the medieval extractive and exclusive methods continue to dominate politics. The English learnt their lessons from the Glorious Revolution, and the French pulled up their socks after the French revolution; the Japanese mended their ways after the Honourable restoration, these, were the critical junctures in their journey, after which they set on a path to create inclusive political institutions which prevented usurpation of power. They developed inclusive economic institutions, strengthening the continuation of inclusive political institutions. It looks like the Democratic Movement of 1950, the People's Movement of 1990 and People's Movement II of 2006 could not take up the mantle of a critical juncture. In that case, are we awaiting the “divine struggle”?
In his essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, Karl Marx has stated that historical entities appear twice, “the first as tragedy, then as farce”. Let us hope that this action of the government is just a farce and not a tragedy. Whatever it might be, it's a textbook case of déjà vu for the people of Nepal.