The Iih movement and beyondExtra-party protests are likely to be popular if conventional parties’ roles become less credible.
Democracy without dissent is a sham. But the forms of dissent and protest vary from context to context. When formal opposition within Parliament and outside fails to play an effective and responsible role and it becomes insensitive to the sufferings of the people or when the political elite become too selfish and chair-centric, the political system itself becomes dysfunctional and corrupt. Thus, the theories and practices of modern democratic governance have undergone sea changes as leaders in government and the opposition come together when their personal interests converge. As a result, the very idea of democratic opposition has been diluted and downgraded, and that inevitably opens new grounds for other forms of protest for pressing the government to look into the grievances of the general people.
And the principal reasons for the failures of parties in Nepal in recent times, contrary to their vital role of transforming the regime from archaic monarchism to republicanism, can be attributed to ideological deviation, low leadership quality, the party as a syndicate of a few old and incapable leaders, rising frustration and anger among youth and lack of employment opportunities in the country. Thus, democracy continues to succumb to “self-inflicted” anarchy with administrative paralysis and lack of direction. Consequently, political organisations that have failed to serve the interests of the common people are being challenged by the emergence of new groups and individuals who have been projecting themselves as yet another harbinger of oppositional politics.
Disgusted and frustrated
Recently, a new form of protest movement has been initiated by some individuals and groups that have almost posed a challenge to the political parties which claim to be socialist and progressive. Such claims prove to be hollow as no parties have ever come to the fore to raise their voices for redressing the sufferings of the urban homeless and rural poor, especially the Dalits. The three major parties—Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and Maoist Centre—are being singled out for criticism for not being sensitive to the people’s sufferings. Thus, the much-touted oppositional role has now been hijacked by individuals and groups that capture public support and sympathy.
One of the new trends of protest has been set by “Iih” who wants to popularise it by identifying himself with the first letter of his name Iih, for Ishan. He threw down his gauntlet to another individual—Balen Shah, who was catapulted into the role of mayor of Kathmandu Metropolitan City by Kathmandu voters. Disgusted and frustrated with the party candidates who delivered little for the poor people despite their tall election promises, Balen was made their first choice to manage the municipality. But, contrary to the expectations of the people, he followed the same old methods of ejecting and harassing the vendors and footpath sellers whose livelihood is maintained by selling consumer goods on footpaths and unused places.
Stung by the inner conscience, Iih took a new form of protest against Balen’s high handedness, and stood on the footpath for more than 199 hours demanding justice in accordance with the letter and spirit of the constitution. As a consequence, to the credit of Balen Shah, he eventually honoured Iih and agreed to address some of the demands of the needy. The political parties that swear by the common people never showed a minimum gesture to the agitating people at Maitighar Mandala, a common place used for protest.
The Iih type of protest that came to be known recently had been started long ago when he went on a 23-day hunger strike during the Covid-19 period demanding fair treatment for the common people and also against the alleged corruption in the procurement of vaccines from different countries. Going by the short biography of Ishan Adhikari of Kathmandu (alias Iih), he left home at the age of 14 and became a wanderer like a saint in search of wisdom and karuna (love) which he has been practising for the amelioration of the sufferings inflicted on the poor people by the illiberal state and its functionaries. Nepali society is still steeped in social injustices and prejudices, particularly relating to Dalits. Committed to social justice as enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution of Nepal, Iih, as his interviews go, seems to have developed a kind of protest culture befitting some sort of Gandhian variant. And interestingly, fed up with the false promises of politicians to eradicate social disparities, people seem to look upon such new forms of protests that pose existential threats to the so-called established parties. Some new avenues of alternative political scenarios have been created by the stunning victories of individuals in the last local and federal elections.
It seems that extra-party protest movements are likely to be popular if conventional parties’ roles become less credible. Since the political parties continue to be dominated by tested and exhausted leaders, the scope of their transformation seems to be remote unless some kind of internal upheavals take place to change the old guard. It will take time to upset the existing patronage system that provides sustenance to political paralysis.
The democratic movement in Nepal has become a continuing phenomenon due to crises of governance and cracks in the parties that inflict damage to the smooth evolution of the process. More significant is the vanishing norm of democratic governance with politicians increasingly becoming irrelevant to the minimum standards of democratic process. And hence the lookout for some individuals or heroes who could even, for the short run, provide the role of a movement leader. The newborn Rastriya Swatantra Party, CK Raut-led Janamat Party and Resham Choudhary-led Nagarik Unmukti Party or some individuals who could trounce the candidates of the old parties in the last elections have been counted as alternative forces of change. Nevertheless, it is too early to present them as alternatives to the old parties. First, these new parties should not allow themselves to be attenuated in the gust of political uncertainties. Second, they should clearly define their commitment to the spirit of the republican order, making some scope for renewal and amendment in order to adapt to the changed context. Third, in no circumstances should the new parties and others allow any space for regressive forces bent on destroying the republic. Finally, the trends of religious polarisation and the possible damage they are likely to inflict on Nepali society and polity need to be thwarted by those who want to cherish democracy in the country.