What’s new about new politics?Whatever the final tally, two new emerging political forces, Bibeksheel Nepali and Sajha Party, have bulldozed their way into people’s consciousness.
Whatever the final tally, two new emerging political forces, Bibeksheel Nepali and Sajha Party, have bulldozed their way into people’s consciousness. It is too premature to predict the result with the early trend seen in Ward No 1 of Kathmandu, but this hasn’t stopped people from hoping that something new is taking place in Nepali politics.
Given the failures of existing political parties and their deviation from democratic norms, much of which was evident during this election, the rationale for new political parties is well established. However, there are many critics who continue to argue that the new political forces are destined for failure.
The proponents of this ‘foregone’ conclusion have put forward three major arguments, all of them directed against new and emerging parties like Bibeksheel and Sajha.
Three arguments against new parties
The first argument is that new political parties cannot succeed without being rooted in social movements. Proponents of this argument see the new political parties as dilettantes who don’t have a real commitment to social issues. A political party, in their view, needs to be organically connected to social or political movements. All the major political parties in Nepal, including the Nepali Congress (NC), the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre), started their political movement with armed rebellion against the rulers. Their organised rebellion sought to represent a class that was not recognised by the rulers.
The second argument is that the new political parties do not have a clear ideology. The people who make this argument, however, are not very clear about what they mean by political ideology, though they seem to view the Maoists, the UML and the NC as having ideologies. The argument is that the new political parties are feeding more on public discontent than on real ideological platforms.
The third argument is that the new parties have a more ‘technical’ rather than political approach to burning political issues like nationalism, identity, federalism and the Madhes. In a recent interview, Hari Sharma, a renowned public intellectual, said the parties are based on “technocratic romanticisation” and “non-political foundations.”
Two examples of new
All of these criticisms appear valid within their own discourse communities. However, new political parties, in order to be relevant and challenge older political parties, must come to terms with new and emerging social realities. Here, I would just like to give two examples of what it means to be new.
A new political party must take into account the changing nature of our society, which has completely transformed with modernisation. A key feature of a modern society is what is called indirect social relations, compared to the prevalence of direct social relations in small-scale societies.
This requires a fundamental shift in the discourse of politics and political representation as the conventional notions of politics and political movements are inadequate to make sense of emergent features of societies.
Let’s take the first argument, which assumes that political parties need to be based on social movements or political revolutions. In a sense, this approach is correct. However, the failure of social movements and political parties has shown that we need to make a distinction, as noted by British sociologist David Lockwood, about social conflict and system contradictions. While social movements and political revolutions usually succeed in transforming power relations between social groups or in direct social relations, they rarely succeed in transforming the systemic contradictions in a society.
The Maoist movement, for example, took the form of direct social conflict between two different social groups but failed to change endemic system contradictions and extractive mechanisms. A new political party, if it is to be successful in transforming our society and making it more democratic, must have the knowledge and expertise to understand and change the system. History has clearly shown that while the Marxian concept of class and ideology can explain politics and relations of productions, it is grossly inadequate to achieve what we want.
Key functions of a political party
The questions of ideology and political issues need to be recast in terms of the function of political parties and the enigma of reason. After all, these new political forces are here to change the whole discourse around political representation and how parties should look like.
As Zakaria explains, a political party has two key functions, representative and procedural. While the representative function seeks to represent the interests of people, the procedural function seeks to deliver the fruits of democracy to the people through governance.
The failure of old political parties in Nepal is a failure on both these counts. Instead of representing the interests of the ordinary people, the parties have begun to represent the interests of vested interest groups, contractors, business people and even foreign actors. Similarly, endemic corruption, incapability and extractive practices mean that the parties are no longer able to deliver the fruits of democracy to the people.
While ideology has lost its meaning in Nepali democracy, the question of identity has become more salient. Research about the enigma of reason in recent years indicates that political identity remains one of the most important factors in deciding with whom a person chooses to have cooperative relations, especially in politics. Thus, the success of a party depends more on its political identity and behaviour than on its stated policy goals and ideologies.
In order to succeed, the new political parties must earn the trust of different communities of interests, whether Madhesis or Janajatis.
The new political parties claim to be fair, rational and inclusive. They promise to use reason and democratic systems in decision-making. However, why would the different communities of interest trust a secular and heterogeneous group?
The success of new political claims depends on the extent to which communities of interest trust these new political forces and cooperate with them.
So many of the questions raised by critics remain unanswered, although it is too early to expect answers because the parties are still in the process of becoming. But the challenge remains. While new political forces claim to be new, they are yet to change the discourse of politics or show through their actions why different communities should choose to cooperate with them.