The agenda settersho sets the agenda that encapsulates the principles and practices in contemporary democracy? Pondering over this subject, four principal agenda setters can be identified with objectivity.
ho sets the agenda that encapsulates the principles and practices in contemporary democracy? Pondering over this subject, four principal agenda setters can be identified with objectivity.
First comes the Nepali Congress (NC) whose birth took place with the multiparty system and all attending freedoms and the concept and practice of the rule of law. Since the party founders were inspired by Western liberal values, it is natural that the party has been able to adhere to its original principles and practices of liberal democracy.
The principles of democracy were laid following the 1951 anti-Rana armed movement that culminated in regime change.
The NC suffered its first setback with the end of the Rana-Congress coalition government in 1951 which led to the usurpation of power by king Tribhuvan in 1953.
The NC continued battling against the authoritarian monarchical rule but failed to prevent king Mahendra from promulgating the constitution in 1959 which made him the sovereign head armed with all draconian powers and authority.
Even then, the party joined the constitutional process. The ethos of traditional political culture helped Mahendra to work against the elected government, and the NC’s large majority in the first ever election didn’t help it when the king took the extreme step of terminating established democracy.
The NC’s protracted ordeal continued for 30 years until the regime that was tailored to royal rule ended in 1990.
The party’s agenda of constitutional monarchy, multiparty democracy and constituent assembly elections were highlighted time and again even during its hibernation in the 1960s.
However, some of its tactical moves went against its spirit. The NC, for example, gave up its agenda of constituent assemblies in 1968 while offering ‘loyal cooperation to the king’ for ‘further development of the constitution’.
Subsequently, its senior leaders BP Koirala and Ganesh Man Singh were released from prison.
Yet, the agenda of multiparty democracy continued to be attractive due to the waning legitimacy of the regime. Eventually, the king was forced to declare a national referendum in which 55 percent of the voters selected Panchayat and 45 percent chose multiparty system.
Launched with the single agenda of restoring the multiparty system, the movement encouraged political integration and even detractors of liberal democracy joined mainstream politics.
Though they swore by Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, these parties participated in the system which they had denounced.
Even the Maoists, who waged a 10-year armed insurgency, have now become just another party despite their name. Parties might have their own models, but such models are now confined to liberal democracy, and hence it is difficult to distinguish which party belongs to which type—communist or democratic.
It is indeed a grand convergence of diametrically opposite political ideologies.
Another agenda setter was Pushpa Lal Shrestha, founder of the Nepal Communist Party who participated in the 1959 parliamentary election and later became an avowed republican.
Pushpa Lal opposed the fantasy of Jhapa violence unleashed in the name of ‘liquidating class enemies’, a carbon copy of the Naxalite movement taking place across the border in India.
Moreover, Pushpa Lal advocated a joint movement against the royal regime which BP Koirala rejected because it would make the NC lose its identity as it believed in constitutional monarchy.
The party’s position underwent a dramatic turn after BP’s death. Ganesh Man became the supreme leader and decided to allow leftist forces to join the NC-led 1990 anti-regime movement.
Communist leader Man Mohan Adhikari joined the referendum in 1980, setting the agenda of multiparty liberal democracy which was then rejected by the Marxist-Leninist group.
Thus, multiparty people’s democracy, claimed to be Madan Bhandari’s brainchild, is nothing new.
His predecessors had already known the Nepali reality and adopted multiparty democracy or what is called multiparty people’s democracy.
Abolition of monarchy
The third agenda setter is the Maoist party that brought republicanism, secularism and the idea of inclusive democracy during and after the armed conflict.
The Maoists continued to pressure other forces to go for a republic following the second coup staged by king Gyanendra in 2002.
Consequently, even die-hard constitutional monarchists and extreme communist baiters, again guided by the existing Nepali political reality and compulsions, departed from the original party principle by agreeing to the abolition of the monarchy in 2008.
The monarchy itself was as much responsible for its demise as were the major political forces.
Similarly, Hindu lobbies represented by both monarchists and half-baked democrats could not prevent the agenda of secularism when all parties except the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal, headed by a palace protégé, decided to declare Nepal a secular republic.
However, it’s meaning has been distorted in the 2015 Constitution. Later developments have revealed that the pro-Hindu surge, noticed during the first Constituent Assembly election in 2008, has subsided as shown by preliminary results of the recent local elections.
Finally, the Madhes was able to set the agenda of federalism in 2007. The idea of federalism was first mooted by a Madhesi leader in the 1980s even though it had been vaguely raised in the late 1950s.
However, it attracted little attention of the Kathmandu-centric political elite until the Madhes revolt flared and became successful in forcing non-Madhesi leaders to accept the demand for federalisation.
The idea of ethnic-based division of autonomous regions was put forward by Maoist leaders during the conflict, but they hadn’t clearly spelled out federalism.
Similarly, the agenda of inclusive democracy with emphasis on balancing numbers and substance of marginalised and suppressed sections of society, originally a Maoist agenda, has now been accepted by all parties.
The constitution has underlined this agenda clearly despite several flaws in the provision.
Federalism, now, has been accepted as not only a delegation of power to lower units but also as a participatory political process through which deprived sections of society too can ensure their participation in all tiers of the polity.
Baral is a professor and former Nepali ambassador to India