Democratic deficitNepal’s politics is rendered precariously fluid by petty interests of a handful of influential party leaders
Democracy is a ‘system’ only because its functionality is facilitated and disciplined by active cooperation, complementarities and communication amongst different nodes that exercise state-power. The people, political parties and leaders, democratic institutions with law-defined processes, and civil society and media all jointly constitute a multi-directional ‘power-transmission’ architecture to enliven the system with tautological checks and balances. No sooner are these channels broken, the entire edifice of democracy turns to shambles. In bringing some of the spectacles of the elections for Nepal’s provincial and federal legislative due November 26 and December 7, 2017 into context, the disjunctive features of Nepal’s democratic nodes worrisomely come to the fore.
One of the most widely reported news last week was: the international community didn’t show any interest in observing upcoming elections. Only a very few observers representing international organisations showed interests. The Kathmandu-based diplomatic missions of putatively ‘democratic nations’ didn’t even apply to the Election Commission for the same. In retrospect, in view of the series of bomb blasts that are rocking the country, one would easily argue that they were apprehensive about the security arrangements. But such imperviousness certainly has deeper reasons and far greater implications for the sustenance and functionality of Nepali democracy, let alone its institutionalisation.
Most of the Kathmandu-based diplomats informally share that Nepali elections have remained bare rituals, and so are less likely to contribute to stabilising Nepal’s politics, rendered precariously fluid by the petty interests of a handful of influential leaders of the so called major political parties. Even the topmost leadership in all parties has shamelessly indulged in rampant rent-seeking and policy corruption. All major international players have ceased to expect that their observations, including those of the elections, would be enough to correct the aberrations that the Nepali political class has deliberately indulged in.
Different subsets of international players have leaned on some pretext or another to maintain a distance from Nepal’s political developments. Unlike in the past, they are refraining themselves even from constructive ‘interventions’. The largest group has decided to support whatever initiative India takes and follow her prognosis. This group finds the political inclusion agenda congruent to the Indian position regarding the recognition and representation of Madhesi issues in national politics. Many others who for long stood against the Maoist violence have now preferred to limit themselves to support humanitarian and entrepreneurial endeavours, away from political tractions.
Yet another group has chosen to remain visible only to the extent required to be present in Kathmandu in the longer run so as not to miss the opportunity of being a first-hand observer of the geopolitical spectacle that is likely to unfold with China’s desire to advance into the South Asian subcontinent and India’s potentially exhaustive bids to foil it. Nepal’s geographical position puts her in the vortex of this impending battle of influence. Apparently, her institutional ability to extract benefits from this location-advantage still remains a distant cry.
Almost all candidates in the current fray, barring a few dozen in urban constituencies, are least bothered by what the so-called national media says about them because their voters are largely unlikely to be influenced by any publicity regardless of its content and tone. This is creating an appalling disconnect between the media and the politicians which, in turn, is making politics more irresponsible. It is also a vindication of the fact that the media’s role to enhance the public awareness for critical decision-making remains a mere myth in Nepal. Civil society in the realest sense of the term never existed here. But sometimes it makes a dramatic ghostly appearance in the interest of some influential politician and is clearly detrimental to public concern. A recent example is the statement issued by a group of ‘celebrated’ left intellectuals to revile Baburam Bhattarai as an opportunist and implicitly deify his political rival Narayan Kaji Shrestha.
A few powerful political leaders in every party have hijacked the democratic authority of their organisations and subjected their cadres to personal loyalty and feudal subservience. The relation between ideology and political organisation no longer exists. The name of the political party, what it preaches and what its leaders actually deliver are truly heretical. There is a similar disjunction between the electorates and the candidates. People do not trust the platitudes of the politicians and, thus, elections are increasingly becoming an enterprise to buy and sell votes. Laws are defunct. The election code of conduct has proven to be a big farce.
In some instances, a number of state power nodes are ‘transmitting’ faulty signals which are even more ominous. The Election Commission that shoulders the responsibility of regulating elections by strict implementation of the rules has not only become a toothless witness to their violations, but more often than not, has functioned as a bigotry instrument for the powerful politicians, ruling and opposition alike. The judiciary itself is waiting for a powerful jolt to re-establish its independence and credibility, if at all such moment arises in the foreseeable future.
Needless to say, without recommencing the indispensable ‘transmission’ among these nodes of the state, Nepal’s democracy is unlikely to be revived and sustained. There are two clear challenges to it—public apathy and reignited violence. People’s apparent disinterest in politics, and in the upcoming elections in particular, only increases the chance of a wrong candidate to be elected to the legislature. And, this is giving more space to the leaders to harbour dictatorial ambitions as they see that nobody is actually questioning their manoeuvres, misdeeds and misadventures.
In the run-up to this election, violence has soared to an unexpected extent. No forces took responsibility for the series of bomb blasts during the last two weeks. But, unfortunately, the contesting parties are trading allegations and blaming one another for such acts, ruling out the possibility of the role of some underground outfits. This is in fact an indirect confession that such violence has also become a part of the strategy to deter potential rivals in the polls. This is an unwanted dimension that Nepal’s politics is running the risk of entering into. As such we shall neither have democratic socialism nor communism, but dysfunctionalism instead.
- Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst