A critical civil societyIdentity-based politics will continue to intensify and inclusiveness will often be professed but rarely implemented
On the surface, Nepal’s recent political developments appear to mark a tectonic shift in its political course. However, a closer look at the reasons behind KP Oli’s ouster indicates that Nepal’s politics will continue to face challenges, although we have reset our diplomatic equilibrium and the way we view the Madhes.
During the drafting of the new constitution, Oli was a symbol of a political course: the unwillingness to compromise on issues revolving around federalism and allow the Madhes to weaken a centralised governance system. This course was shaped by a devout partnership between the Nepali Congress (NC) and the CPN-UML. The Maoists also supported this political course, making it possible for the promulgation of the new constitution.
As soon as the constitution was promulgated, the NC made a U-turn, refusing to hand over power to the UML. A majority of the NC constituency still believe that the ideological grounds for the partnership with the UML to promulgate the constitution are still valid. It is the same case with the Maoists. So why did they ditch KP Oli?
Trouble at home The NC and the Maoists conveniently turned KP Oli into a scapegoat, not for their political principles, but for much more sinister reasons.
This can be viewed from another angle. Oli’s ouster has achieved several things. It has helped appease India. It has provided an excuse for the Madhesi parties to come to the dialogue table. It has allowed the NC to control the fate of big projects like Budhi Gandaki, the Fast Track road, and post-quake reconstruction. It has provided security to Prachanda and allowed him to influence the course of transitional justice. It has appeased a faction in the UML peeved by the (mis)appropriation of resources and power by Oli’s clique.
Nepal’s course correction in diplomacy is one positive outcome. India and China have the will and the resources to jumpstart Nepal’s economic development. If Nepal can improve its diplomatic skills and maintain cordial relations with its neighbours, we might be able to harness their resources for our development.
But will it really help us achieve political stability, implement the new constitution and address the political issues that matter the most?
Although the NC seems to be propping up Bimalendra Nidhi as an ideologue, his political philosophy is still a minority view in the party. It is therefore likely that when the time comes for real negotiations with the Madhes, the NC will dig its heels and adopt a line that is not much different from KP Oli’s. Progress will not be possible without much compromise on the Madhes issue.
Knot of emotions
The Madhesh movement will continue to generate political conflict in one form or another. The most powerful idea behind the recent Madhes movement was political agreement in “cash, not credit”. The Madhesi people are tired of agreements that are never implemented. Unfortunately, the same thing has happened again. But this time, India is the supposed guarantor of the implementation of the agreements.
This raises another problem. If India insists on fulfilling the demands of the Madhesis, then the NC and the Maoists will lose their legitimacy and constituency. On the other hand, if India cannot force the NC and the Maoists, then both the Madhes-based parties and India will lose their support in the Madhes region. In this scenario, the Madhes movement will continue to simmer below the surface.
Even if the NC and the Maoists are intent on amending the constitution and acceding to the demands of the Madhes movement, they will face considerable resistance from an alliance of the UML and conservative leftist and rightist forces. In such a scenario, it will be very difficult for the current regime to gain a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
The only way out would be to weaken and divide the UML. Given the intense political competition within the party, this does not seem unlikely. As it is, even leaders like Madhav Kumar Nepal have begun to oppose KP Oli. This is ironic, because although all UML people, including Nepal, share the same political preferences, only Oli has been able to voice these preferences that have antagonised India.
The move by the NC and Maoists to oust Oli was not motivated by a long-term political vision for the country, but by short-term political calculations. Similarly, cliques operating within political parties are not guided by political philosophy or policy ideals, they are guided by the desire for power and (mis)appropriation of public resources.
The focus should now be on resolving the key demands of the Madhes, including demarcation of provinces, population-based delimitation of constituencies, inclusion, and local elections.
The fruits of the Madhes movement may be negotiated by the Madhesi parties, but the parties are no longer the determining factor of the movement. Any future negotiation, therefore, must take the shape of social and civic dialogue.
This new dialogue must seek to address feelings. Emotions are at the heart of politics and political decision-making at the grassroots level. Nepal’s peace process, if it is to be effective, must untangle the complex knot of emotions and collectively shared biases.
Role of civil society
The rise of informal and social media has helped spread the emotional contagion. Emotional contagion conceals the personal and collective biases that are shared among members of an ethnic group or a collective identity.
Ethnocentrism constitutes a primal drive and determines the nature of any political organisation. Even when differences are not intrinsic, people will continue to create markers of social difference; the division between in-group and out-group members will continue. Therefore, identity-based politics will continue to intensify in the future. Inclusiveness will remain a value that is often professed but rarely implemented. These changes signify a great role for the civil society, which needs to be critical, in at least three ways.
The civil society must be critical of the self-serving political forces and cliques that promote impunity and undermine public interest for the sake of access to power and public resources. It must be critical of the biases and false assumptions collectively shared by members of different identity groups. While politics of identity will continue to persist, these political practices must be shorn off their false assumptions and biases. Those who argue against identity-based politics, despite their professed goodwill, are helping strengthen another form of identity-based politics where racism and ethnocentrism remain hidden and invisible under the guise of nationalism or national interest.
Finally, the civil society must be critically aware of its own hidden assumptions and biases. It must be critical enough to guide media and communication practices.