Only organic development can resolve societal contradictionsNepal’s huge diversity arguably makes it difficult to govern well. The new constitution is supposed to accommodate the aspirations of its diverse communities.
Nepal’s huge diversity arguably makes it difficult to govern well. The new constitution is supposed to accommodate the aspirations of its diverse communities. But ever since the statute’s promulgation about two years ago, it has landed in controversy, raising doubts about whether it can be smoothly implemented. Shashwat Acharya spoke with Yug Pathak, a writer, most recently of Mangena: Nepal Manthan—a collection of essays on Nepal’s history and politics—about recent political developments, the new constitution, Nepali society’s divisions and development philosophy.
How have you assessed the way Nepali politics is unfolding, given the context of the recent local level elections?
I’m not very positive about how the new constitution has dealt with the issue of state restructuring that was raised by the Constituent Assembly (CA). The provinces have been carved up indiscriminately, without taking into consideration the recommendation of the first CA committee on state restructuring.
As far as the local polls go, we have a parliamentary system in which elections are fought on the basis of power and money. Especially in a country like ours, elections are hardly contested on the basis of pure ideology. With the increasing role of money in elections, I fear that in the next 10 years, right-wing tenets will be consolidated from the ground up.
When you say right wing, are you referring to any particular political party?
No. Any party that hinders society’s progress or is in favour of maintaining the status quo can represent right-wing ideals. Such ideals can infiltrate any party at any point. The risk increases if these ideas are consolidated at the local level.
Don’t we have progressive parties to counter right-wing ideas?
A recent example of a progressive party in Nepal is the Maoist party, which shook society to the core. After that, among the parties formed on the foundation of identity politics, the Madhes-centred parties became the most powerful. But both the Madhes-centred and Maoist parties have grown weaker of late. Their recent moves show that they are inclined to compromise and to assume the establishment’s characters.
Of course the possibility of Nepali parties being influenced by a widespread social and intellectual movement cannot be ruled out. But I don’t get the impression that the recently elected local representatives will support the process of laying such a movement’s foundations. They have spent a large sum of money to win elections, and they will have to recuperate the expenses. They will be more interested in entrenching their power. I don’t see anyone raising the issues of peasants and labourers.
But many Nepali parties that call themselves communist or socialist have progressive foundations. How do you explain their deviation towards the right?
Ideals like socialism and democracy aren’t bad. In fact, they are necessary for us. But they have their roots in Europe. Adapting them to Nepali conditions was an idea peddled by the Panchayat regime as well as by other parties. While the major parties continue paying lip service to the ideals of socialism and democracy, they have shown a tendency to be coopted by Nepal’s tradition of casteism, uniform nationalism, anti-Indiaism, etc. They don’t question the dominant discourse set by the regime.
Can’t the promulgation of a constitution by a CA and the recent local polls be interpreted in a more positive light, something that is paving the way for a progressively more democratic polity?
As political processes, these are positive steps. At least on paper, we are now a federal nation with strong local bodies and provisions for inclusion. But when the welfare of the peasants doesn’t find a place in the agenda of the three major parties that did well in the local elections, I become sceptical. When their development agenda reflects more the ideology of the World Bank or that of the Panchayat, when they blame labourers for destroying industry, when they do not seriously reflect on why the country has failed at capital formation, when their focus is more on winning elections than on reducing the diverse forms of inequality, I’m filled with doubt that the current political processes will lead to a positive transformation of the country in another 20 years.
What’s your assessment of the new constitution?
Its biggest flaw is that it did not internalise the spirit of federalism, which was supposed to be based on a combination of capability and identity. There were even recommendations that if a single-identity province wasn’t economically viable, a province could be combined to represent two identities. Addressing the identity issue would not only have had cultural benefits, but also economic ones. The seven provinces aren’t in accordance with the manifestos of any of the three major parties. The current federal model has discarded the earlier accepted principle of capability and identity, and has embraced a so-called development-oriented approach.
Still there are some progressive elements. Secularism is one. Devolution of power to the provincial and local levels is another. There are constitutional provisions for promoting national languages. But if the constitution fails to address societal contradictions, it will obstruct our progress. The statute’s ability to accommodate diverse communities has already been questioned. As a result, in the Madhes for example, the risk of identity politics falling into the hands of extremists has grown.
What major contradictions is our society facing in your view?
Caste is a major one, whose biggest victims are the Dalits. But even the so-called high castes suffer from it. Stratification is so high that it divides people mentally and socially. This hinders people’s creativity and their social relationships. Ethnicity is another contradiction. So is the division between the hills and the plains. Another big one is class. The state doesn’t treat farmers and labourers well. People might go abroad and make some money, but this is merely a cosmetic solution to our class problem. Then there is the contradiction between an organic, grassroots approach to development and the one imposed by international financial institutions. Our generation seems to have missed a good opportunity to take a definite direction towards quickly resolving all these societal contradictions.
Can’t development and prosperity chip away at these contradictions?
It’s true that economic development can lead to a quick resolution of caste- and ethnicity-based contradictions. But the problem is that our current development philosophy is expert oriented, not people oriented. I firmly believe that a new development philosophy that incorporates the traditional knowledge of our diverse communities will lead to the resolution of our other contradictions. One that’s imposed from the top down won’t.
It’s the era of globalisation, so some amount of foreign influence is inevitable. But we have become dependent even at the level of ideas. The only way to escape this quicksand is to rely on the people, who can generate capital organically from the ground up and, in a matter of a decade or two, can counter the threat of foreign capital.
Any example that Nepal can learn from?
Venezuela could have been a good model, but it has disintegrated in recent times. Cuba is another. They have at least used people’s power to generate capital locally and challenge the threat of big foreign capital. But these countries do not have the kind of social stratification that South Asia has. So we need our own unique philosophy. If we look for models elsewhere, it will be like pursuing the Swiss model of development. There has been talk about turning Nepal into Switzerland since the 1950s. It is still present. But nobody knows what exactly it means to be like Switzerland. If there is one thing Nepal can learn from Switzerland, it is its federal model that gives autonomy to its different linguistic groups.