‘When has Nepal’s media not been questioned? Our media has always been under scrutiny’‘Not only the marginalised people but the more privileged middle-class ones are also disenchanted with the democratic system.’
It would perhaps not be wrong to say that the traditional political parties in Nepal are now facing their biggest test on the face of their repeated failure to deliver and to deal with growing social, political and economic anomalies. Public frustration is mounting and populist forces are having a field day. In this climate of uncertainty, the country is soon electing a new President. Purushottam Poudel of the Post spoke to Hari Sharma, a public intellectual and political advisor of former President Ram Baran Yadav on these and a host of other issues.
Why do you think there is so much political interest in the country’s ceremonial President, so much so that the ruling coalition could fall apart over it?
Rather than ceremonial, the President of Republican Nepal is a constitutional post. By a constitutional post, I mean the President needs to perform a constitutional role. There are certain functions that the constitution has given the President. The state has three organs, legislative, executive and judiciary and our President not only complements these organs but also supplements their roles. When there is no Parliament, the government forwards the ordinance to the President to pass it. The institution also declares an emergency when required. Passing the ordinance or declaring an emergency is the legislative role of the President. Similarly, the head of the state can pardon the people in jail. This is the judicial role of the President. In a similar vein, the President has the role of appointing ambassadors, which is an executive role. Therefore, the President acts as a representative of all three organs of the state.
If, as you say, the President has a constitutional role rather than only being a ceremonial office, how different is the presidency from the erstwhile monarchy?
The constitutional monarch was a hereditary monarch, with succession circumscribed by considerations of caste and religion. Whereas in the presidential system, a person is elected in that position to perform a certain duty for a particular period. After a certain time of assuming power, the institution has a new person, which is what is going to happen on March 9. You have to distinguish between the state and the government. In a democracy, a government comes and goes whereas the function of the state remains intact. In order to give continuity to the state functions, we need a head of state who performs a certain role in the name of the state.
As you have yourself worked in the Office of the President, how has the role of the Presidency changed over the years?
When I was working for the republic’s first President Ram Baran Yadav in an advisory capacity, then the Office of the President had a different role. The restored parliament had declared Nepal a republic without waiting for a Constituent Assembly election. Girija Parasd Koirala, who was also the prime minister, had officiated in the role of the President. For instance, he received the credentials of the ambassadors of different countries. He also became the commander-in-chief of the Nepal Army. When the election of the Constituent Assembly happened, the assembly elected Ram Baran Yadav as the first President of Nepal.
The primary role of the President at that time was to safeguard the process of drafting the constitution. The interim constitution was drafted envisioning the future constitution embracing a republic, federal and secular spirit. Unlike the current President who was elected based on the constitution promulgated some seven years ago, the first President was elected based on the interim constitution. The job of the first President was to keep the peace process on track and help the political parties to promulgate the constitution, so the office had a different job. There was a fundamental difference in the jobs of the first and second Presidents.
Yet the fact remains that just like former monarchs, the Presidents continue to unduly intervene in national politics.
The work of the first President was more fluid and not under the broader principles of constitutionalism, and the role of the President was more dictated by the politics of the day. For example, when the current prime minister, who was also a prime minister back then, wanted to sack the chief of army staff for no good reason, the President intervened. The idea was that the peace process had not been completed, the arms and armaments used by the rebel side were with the “people's army”. The army was politically raised and politically used. They were an ideological army.
A prime minister who had the backing of this ideological army suddenly wanted to sack the army chief without going into the details of the security sector reforms. It was a big political issue. After the first Constituent Assembly election, the prime minister and his party had the mandate to rule the country, but his aim was to capture the state. But if we look at Pushpa Kamal Dahal now, he seems to have mellowed over the years. However, in 2008-09 he wanted to be victorious. In that sense, President Yadav needed to maintain institutional stability till the Constituent Assembly decided the fate of the Nepal Army. The role of President Yadav was to keep the country intact and focused on the constituent-drafting process.
When the constitution was promulgated, Bidya Devi Bhandari was appointed as the President. She then had the duty to institutionalise the practices of the first presidency. Talking about the office today, I think institutions need time to evolve and learn. The durability of the institution is important. Saying that we don’t need this institution and saying that the erstwhile king was better, that kind of argument will only undermine the continued learning and building of an institution. Multiple political transitions in a short time could create bigger instability.
Again, the ruling coalition could unravel because of the dispute over the new President. How do you see this development?
It is not the fault of the presidential institution but of the political parties. The parties must be clear about why they need the institution of the President. Why do they need the presidential institution to propagate their self-interest? A few years back, then Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli wanted to amend the Act on the Constitutional Council, which was an assault on the constitution. By altering the decision-making process of the Constitutional Council, one can control constitutional bodies like the Election Commission and the National Human Rights Commission. For example, to institutionalise democracy, we created a permanent Election Commission. The neutrality and credibility of this institution is important in order to realise the aspirations of the constitution.
So tampering with the functioning of the Constitutional Council was akin to trying to use the constitution for political goals. That is the departure point from where the erosion of the constitution started. The main opposition party leader Sher Bahadur Deuba neither challenged the move nor condemned it. In the end, what all political parties want is to control or capture state institutions.
The President being a constitutional position has a role to play in all these things. If not an active role, at least an advisory role. We have seen the President immediately sign one ordinance and halt another. Our political parties want to form the government if the numbers support them but if they don’t have the numbers in the Parliament, they try to play with the loopholes of the constitution, including in relation to the Office of the President. But that does not mean we do not need that institution. We are in a state of liberal ambivalence I would say.
Given all the disagreements and dissatisfaction around national politics, is the current political system at risk?
Whatever way we define the present political system, it is institutional democracy. For the failure of institutional democracy, we need more democracy. The question that often comes to my mind is: Who needs democracy? Not the people who can easily earn their keep. The people who are in lower economic strata need it more.
We need democracy so that this section has a voice. Who needs democracy and who sustains is an old discourse in political science literature. Modernisation theory talks about the middle class as essential for democracy. But when I reflect back on my own experience, the poor need democracy more. For me, democracy is the voice and the people who are subjugated need it more. Institutional derailment or slide has created lots of problems in poor people's lives.
The times we are living in encompass great irony. The system that ought to deliver is not delivering and there is a lot of disenchantment. Again the best system that can deliver is democracy, which allows people to demand or raise their voices. Of late, not only the marginalised people but middle-class privileged people are also disenchanted with the democratic system. I am reading a book by Pranab Bardhan A World of Insecurity. We always thought that inequality is a challenge for democracy, which is of course true, but of late people who have resources and are privileged middle class are also disenchanted with democracy. Therefore, various new socio-political formations like political parties with urban bases have emerged.
Why do you think more and more middle-class and upper-middle-class people are now taking part in political movements, which used to be largely powered by the economically lower classes?
There is a big theoretical debate on who participates in political movements. At present, people are afraid of losing the things they have. Because of economic and technological changes that are coming, people fear dispossession. This fear has become a global phenomenon. And that can be seen in Nepal too. From this point of view, the emergence of new political formations is supported by the people who are afraid of losing what they have.
The frustration of people towards traditional politics was visible during the November elections. Yet the new parties that emerged from the elections appear to be no different to the traditional ones in the kind of politics they practise. How do you see this?
Expectations can create positive things. Frustration needs a deeper analysis. The challenge is that people are not happy with the present political system so new parties are cashing in on the frustration of the larger society to give it a voice. It is easier to get angry than to work for happiness. This is a big challenge to mayor Balen Shah too. He too rode on the frustration of the youth. The new political formations that emerged from the elections do not congregate around class. The Rastriya Swatantra Party has both poor and rich strata of people. But what brings them together other than frustration?
Perhaps the larger-than-life persona of their leaders binds these parties, wouldn’t you say?
The charismatic personality of a leader might have brought certain people together. But has that charismatic personality got time and energy to think about what kind of future he has? For instance, in the case of Rabi Lamichhane, except for using the power of the media to embarrass certain people, what has he done?
He is creating a kind of smokescreen for the real issues in order to present himself as a victim. A person who is otherwise smart and articulate has not answered why he lied to Nepali people on his citizenship. He has also not come clean on his passport.
What is the answer that we get? ‘There are so many people who are doing the same,’ he says. This is a typical populist stand. When there is an erosion of democratic institutions, populist leaders rise. Lamichhane and his party might have talked about good governance but they have not articulated their roadmap to ensure the same.
How do you account for continued support of Lamichhane and his party despite the invalidation of his citizenship by the Supreme Court.
It takes time for a populist leader to tire. Discrediting the populist leader simply won’t work. People who believe in the liberal democratic order need to do something. The present condition is dangerous; a new political alternative is riding the tide of frustration and it will take time for this tide to die down and create a real positive agenda and turn frustration into a real and positive strength. Frustrated people have come together but they don’t exactly know how to channel this frustration, something that was also reflected in Lamichhanne’s recent press conference.
How did you view Lamichhane’s questioning of Nepali media during his February 5 press conference?
When has Nepal’s media not been questioned? Our media has always been under scrutiny. Media certainly has become powerful because of its contribution to the country’s revolution. The institutional space of media is also changing. However, condemning the media alone is not the solution because it is just a segment of the larger system. But this does not mean we don’t need media. Just because the media raised a question against you, you cannot turn back and challenge the same media. Media challenges many people, from the President to the prime minister. I can tell you that I, as a common citizen, felt threatened by the press conference of Rabi Lamichhane. The common man's voice is mostly articulated by the media. So who is going to raise the voice of common people if the media itself is challenged?
New forms of media have emerged and they are trying to take the place of traditional media. How do you see this phenomenon?
True, the form of media has emerged but whom do these new media outlets answer to? In new media, if I have a smart mobile phone, I become a news producer. But who is going to work as a gatekeeper of the news that I produce? There are thousands of new media. How are we going to regulate and monitor them? And what would be their credibility? Credibility comes with long years of institutionalisation.
We were very happy when the concept of citizen journalism started but citizen journalism is not professional journalism. Therefore, it is vital to continuously debate the changing landscape of the media sector.
Not only the media. Even the sanctity of the judiciary has come under question of late, often by some of the new forces.
I think we ourselves are to blame for this state of affairs. If we see conspiracy everywhere, it will take us nowhere. Conspiracy weakens a society. If we question why the court so hurriedly ruled against Lamichhane when there are many other pending cases, we can turn the question around as well. Why did not the Election Commission immediately investigate Lamichhane’s issue when there was a complaint against him?
Are you suggesting some kind of political pressure?
Those who are harping on the verdict of the Supreme Court against Lamichhane may be behind that. This is all a conspiracy and this will weaken society. A confident society operates based on a transparent, open and accountable information system.
In the end, what do you think accounts for the fragility of Nepali democracy?
Democracy is fragile everywhere. Two-century-old American democracy was threatened by Doland Trump, and 70 years of democracy in India is threatened by Narendra Modi. What is needed is a resilient and confident citizenry to fight for it. Precisely, at this juncture, in every part of the world including Nepal, I see great structural changes in technology, economy, and the concomitant institutional failure of some democracies. So we all are vulnerable. Everybody is trying to protect themselves.