Path to de-democratisationEnlarging constituencies without reforms in parties is likely to weaken political representation of marginalised groups
The gap between the ordinary people and the state is increasing and can only be filled by the local body. This is common knowledge. What is not common knowledge is the urgency of this situation. Without the local bodies, the people are lost and, in the absence of responsive political parties, do not know where to turn. For people living in large cities, this may not matter much.
But for people living in villages and small towns, the crisis of representation is leading to a crisis of livelihood.
The solution being proposed by the largest political parties—to reduce the number of Village Development Committees (VDCs) to less than 927 and incorporate villages close to urban centres in the municipalities—could create more challenges, especially for people living in rural areas and for the marginalised communities. It could intensify the crisis of representation and fail to control the bureaucracy, which is becoming more corrupt and unrestrained.
The new constitution is doing away with the existing VDCs and considering Ilakas (area clusters) as the unit for the village assembly. This generates two clear issues. While service delivery to the villages will continue at the current VDC level, what the policy makers cannot envisage—or are deliberately ignoring—is the fact that it will take away people’s representation and weaken the already marginalised communities.
In the absence of political party reforms, enlargement of constituencies can exacerbate categorical inequalities between the rich and poor, the urban and the rural, and the dominant and the marginalised identity groups.
Not much debate
Since the Panchayat era, two things are sustaining democracy at the local level. One is the customary relations between people and communities at the local level, which has maintained some sense of accountability and representation. Another is the local government units that have now dwindled to about 3,175 VDCs. Municipalities, on the other hand, are increasing, with small towns gobbling up unfortunate villages nearby to qualify.
Since July 2002, when local bodies became defunct, remnants of customary and indigenous traditions bore the burden of democracy at the local level. Among the Tharus, the badghar tradition of electing village councilman persisted, while in many villages, the customary relations between the Dalits and the so-called upper castes upheld a semblance of social cooperation and understanding. The Panchayat design of local units closely replicated this social space and became a successful model of allowing political representation.
Now, the new constitution has paved the way for “modernisation” of Nepal’s political organisation at the grassroots level. We are virtually eliminating the customary relations and indigenous forms of political organisation and replacing them with
large units that require functional democracy within political parties and a sound bureaucracy to succeed. However, the fact that we are basing such a momentous decision on such flimsy foundations has not been debated enough.
The case of Durgauli and Patharaiya villages— several kilometres north of Tikapur in Kailali—highlights the way in which enlargement of local body constituency can reorganise social power, affect political representation of marginalised communities and impact the livelihood of ordinary people.
A dirt track used to connect the Pathraiya village to the Mahendra Highway and Tikapur through Durgauli. Although connected by a single track in dire need of an upgrade, the two villages could not be more apart. Durgauli is dominated by Tharus aligned with the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic (MJF-D), while Pathraiya is dominated by the CPN-UML supporters, mostly people who have migrated from the hills. When the time came to upgrade the track, there was a tussle between the two communities, and the two parties, over the formation of a user’s group committee. Although the greater check and balance resulted in a higher quality of road, political differences along ethnic lines could not be more stark.
The example of the two communities shows that when local constituencies become bigger and subsume multiple communities, the greater mix will make it more likely for parties like UML to win. Kailali, with six municipalities and 28 VDCs, will now have about 10 local units. With an estimated population of at least 1 million, each unit, on average, will have about 100,000 people. As a result, the political representation of marginalised groups like those in Durgauli will become weaker and their ability to exact accountability from political parties will be undermined.
Clever use of power
The UML refuses to recognise the need for political organisation of the Janajatis, but curiously this does not mean a rejection of identity politics. On the surface, it seems as if the UML is against identity politics, but at the grassroots level, the party is politicising identity to a different level. What the UML leaders are doing is nullifying the force of others’ identity and disguising their own identity as neutral and universal. The effect of this process, however, is not hidden from the eyes of those who suffer the effects of such clever use of power.
In villages like Durgauli, belonging to an identity group is the only way in which people can ensure their political representation. Once this effect is nullified—only for a particular set of people, however—many marginalised communities will lose their voice and agency.
The proposed local government structures will take communities further away from the state for a couple of additional reasons. First, a clear effect of this “enlargement” is that the local bodies will increasingly tend to replicate the power structure and composition of the big political parties. And second, the current Nepali bureaucracy is set up in such a way that any political party, other than the Nepali Congress and the UML, cannot extract services from it. In order to get services from the bureaucracy, one has to be a member of the NC or the UML.