Beyond just voiceA stronger civil society could provide constructive solutions to the country's political problems
For the past 20 years, Nepal has been encountering political problems one after another and it struggles to find solutions to them. The failure of the political leadership, unnecessary foreign intervention, proliferation of identity-based movements, negative empowerment of people through rights-based movements and the lack of good governance are responsible for the deteriorating political situation in the country. The absence of a strong and vibrant civil society, particularly after the election to the first Constituent Assembly (CA) in 2008, is another key factor responsible for complicating Nepali politics.
Failures of civil society
There are five particular reasons behind the inability of civil society to influence the dynamics and direction of Nepali politics. First, the current civil society has not been able to perform its role effectively. It has been led by the same people, agendas, political baggage and actions and strategies of intervention over the past 25 years. The country has just completed a complex constitution-making process, but Nepal’s civil society was only ritualistically involved in it and it failed to pressure the political parties into incorporating the people’s voices in the statute. Multilayered conflicts and violence have made the country weak and fragile, but civil society has has not played a proactive and grounded role besides issuing press statements and calling for dialogue. The older generation of civil society do not seem to understand that press statements are ineffective in resolving the current political crisis. The civil society should instead play a proactive facilitative role to initiate sincere and result-oriented talks between the government and agitating forces.
Second, the older generation of civil society members behave as a ‘group’ based on ideological orientation and party affiliation. Instead of coming together to discuss the political crisis and providing solutions, it is issuing public statements sympathising with a certain political force. An independent and impartial civil society of a democratic state cannot do so. Third, because the civil society leaders are deeply polarised and biased, their opinions are often supportive of the communities and political groups they belong to. As a result, they have gained the trust of their group but have lost credibility among other communities.
Four, a sluggish and withered civil society movement was the main reason behind its loss of influence in resolving conflicts and tensions over issues in the constitution-making process. Over the past few years, civil society groups representing women, youths, Dalits and the human rights community have launched a number of symbolic and street-based campaigns to pressure the political parties to write an inclusive and widely accepted constitution but without expressing their own clear position on the matter. Moreover, these civil society movements were only conducted when the political parties were close to reaching an agreement on the constitution.
Fifth, a new generation of civil society groups and leaders have been emerging at a slow pace, and they are yet to receive a wider recognition for their work, make their presence felt as effective watchdogs, and get established as an influential force. Their limitations are that they are small in number, do not yet have a genuine pro-public agenda, have limited exposure at the grassroots, and are more focused on achieving quick popularity.
The possible role
Given the high level of confrontation and lack of trust between the political parties, a stronger civil society could provide an authoritative voice to provide constructive solutions to political problems. The efforts of the parties and their leaders to solve political problems on their own may not be fruitful as they have a tendency to prioritise their personal and party interests. In such a situation, civil society could play an influential role in resolving the political crisis if it is attentive, creative, vibrant and influential. A strong civil society could come up with its own positions or alternative proposals as the political parties are dragging the country towards instability and violence because of their decisions.
Many movements are taking place in the country in the name of federalism, religion, citizenship and Dalit rights. In such an environment, a strong and credible civil society could act as a mediator between the government and the agitating groups, helping them to find the middle-ground. The current members of civil society are divided as they are either for or against the multiple movements in the country instead of being an impartial actor. A strong civil society could also create enough pressure on the disputing parties through lobbying, advocacy and other countrywide campaigns. Civil society leaders could even join party politics if they are strong, popular, and credible enough among the people. However, the older generation of civil society leaders do not have enough confidence to enter party politics, and the young generation have not gained enough public trust to be able to do so.
Citizen movements and civil society interventions that are directly targeted at key political leaders are vital to create pressure for a negotiated solution. The role of civil society organisations (CSOs) during the conflict and People’s Movement 2006 was highly appreciated by the political parties, Nepali people and the international community. Over the past eight years, CSOs have been actively involved in implementing donor-funded projects to raise people’s awareness, to guarantee their rights in the new constitution. But the CSOs have rarely collaborated to exert collective pressure on the political parties to write a people-centric constitution. So they need to work hard to regain the trust of the political parties, improve their public image and plan targeted interventions to persuade the parties to resolve the highly contested issues of the new constitution.
Finally, there is need for a fresh start and new thinking to resolve disputes in the constitution. Such thinking should begin with the launching of a nationwide community-based campaign to provide answers to various questions such as how a federal governance system can bring changes in the lives of the people; why a federal governance system is inevitable as opposed to the existing local governance system; and how the construction of federal states can ensure social inclusion and equal participation of all caste and ethnic groups.
Bhattarai holds a Phd in peace and conflict studies