Ritualistic conduct of electionsUnless street protests erupt once again, Nepal is doomed to endure more of the same.
The last parliamentary election was the first after the promulgation of the controversial constitution. Held simultaneously for the lower house of the federal Parliament as well as all seven state assemblies, it had to be conducted in two phases towards the end of 2017 for logistic reasons. Despite widespread fears of disruptions, the process of the polls was completed in a relatively peaceful manner. The Election Commission has planned to conduct the second general elections for all legislatures of the federal republic at one go on November 20, 2022. The ball of the poll has begun to roll with the political parties desirous of contesting the elections rushing to register themselves with the Election Commission before the August 16 deadline.
The election symbols of at least four to five dozen parties and several independent candidates will be jostling for space on the unwieldy ballot papers that will have to be printed separately for the first-past-the-post (FPTP) seats of the federal Parliament and state assemblies. The ballot papers for proportional representation will also have to accommodate all the registered parties irrespective of their age, size or performance prospects. Unless there is a perceptible buzz in favour of a newcomer in the fray, familiarity with the long-established election symbols is often an advantage when bewildered voters have to choose between signs that look so much alike. It is too early to detect an electoral wave, but there is little sign of expectant activity for the forthcoming elections.
The level of excitement among the electorate for the sacred ritual of democracy is muted at best. The hustings have begun, but the public response to the call of the campaigners is lukewarm. It isn't just post Covid-19 fatigue or the anxiety over the outcome of war in Ukraine that is behind the public apathy towards the polls. It seems there isn't much at stake for the electorate in the forthcoming elections. Enthusiasm for any process springs from intensity of emotions. Had there been hope that the outcome of the election would bring about positive changes, there would have been fervour in the air for the upcoming polls. Fear can also cause a strong desire for preventive measures. However, nearly all parties likely to be in the fray are almost identical with little to differentiate one lot from another except the dull and exhausted faces of their leading politicos.
The primary purpose of the general elections in a parliamentary system is to form what United States President Abraham Lincoln glowingly described as a "government of the people, by the people, for the people". The definition of the people, however, varies according to the ideological position of the political party.
For communist parties of Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist and Maoist varieties (including their Pol Pot, Kim Il-sung or even Fidel Castro variants) espousing emancipation, class solidarity is the process of constituting the masses that must ultimately revolt to unseat the ruling elite and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. Such formations are inherently populist and function on the basis of machinations of their cunning and charismatic leadership. No revolutionary party exists in contemporary Nepal with the possible exception of Narayan Man Bijukchhe's Nepal Workers' and Peasants' Party championing Juche ideology. Bijukchhe's outfit, however, has little influence outside Bhaktapur Municipality in Kathmandu Valley.
Ethnonational unity is the primary basis of founding right-wing parties of nationalist, reactionary and conservative persuasions. Most of such right wing parties talk about the importance of majoritarian identity for natural affinity, the role of the family in keeping the faith and flying the flag high, the necessity of adopting neoliberal economic policies for development, and promoting crony capitalism for growth. The centrality of national honour, glories of an imagined past and resistance to change are common features of all regressive parties. Almost all mainstream parties of Nepal fall in this category. If left wing parties resort to anti-elite populism during the elections, "anti-other" demagoguery is the defining feature of right-wing parties.
Combining the essential elements from the progressivism of the US, the revolutionary socialism in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the democratic socialism of Europe, independent India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came up with an eclectic mix that came to be called the political economy of Nehruvian Socialism. The ideology of Nehruvian Socialism was an anti-establishment platform that talked about secularity, social harmony, democracy and social justice. Ensuring the basic necessities of the people such as food, clothing, shelter, education and health through distributive measures of a mixed economy where the profit and the welfare sectors worked in tandem under the guidance of the government was the central feature of the proposition.
Indians began to dismantle the post-independence order with the partial opening of its economy in the early 1980s, and completely abandoned the ideology in the mid-1990s after formally adopting the principles of free market fundamentalism. Most mainstream parties in Nepal like to claim that they are political democrats and economic socialists pursuing Nehruvian prescriptions with the addition of climate change concerns. The globalisation and the altered geopolitical context after the implosion of the USSR have made the socialistic task of controlling the commanding heights of the economy almost impossible. Despite logical arguments of left wing scholars, the existence of a free market has come to be defined as an inalienable component of the freedom and democracy package.
A combination of ethnonational impulse, socialist aspirations, democratic pretensions and majoritarian compulsions has transformed almost all mainstream parties into identical entities. Unlike the first parliamentary elections of 2017 when the spectre of the Beijing Consensus loomed large, there are no ideological stakes involved in the forthcoming elections.
When mainstream parties all look alike, it is natural to assume that the electability of the candidate in different constituencies would become the determining factor. It is argued that the ideological confusion, organisational disarray and uninspiring leadership fail to draw or keep lay voters into the competing camps of their favourite political parties. The ground realities, however, aren't always so clear. Even in the local elections, Balendra Shah of Kathmandu Metropolitan City and Harka Raj Sampang Rai of Dharan Sub-Metropolis were exceptions of the mayoral contests where most results went in favour of the mainstream parties or rebels backed by their factional leaders. In a response called the paradox of voters, a person may disagree with every policy of a political party but will vote for its candidate on polling day regardless of their reservations.
New entrants into the fray with newly constituted parties seldom make a perceptible difference to the outcome as powerful personalities with a huge fan following such as Devendra Raj Pandey, Baburam Bhattarai and Ravindra Mishra discovered to their dismay. Only a mass movement succeeds in levelling the ground for fresh contestants as happened in the aftermath of the Madhesh Uprisings, which has lost steam by now.
When the choice is to pick someone from the same old outfits, indifference of the voter towards the call of the elections is quite understandable. Little wonder that reactionary nationalists of the CPN-UML are looking for an alliance with regressive monarchists of the RPP, and disparate components of the ruling coalition are trying to keep their artificial union intact. Unless street protests erupt once again, Nepal is doomed to endure more of the same lot for quite a while.