Dialectics of dictatorshipPeoples’ real agenda for elections are overshadowed by the exchange of high-voltage allegations
If the UML-Maoist alliance secure a majority in adjacent parliamentary elections, the trepidation of Nepal turning into communist dictatorship might be realised.” This persistent campaign theme has been employed by Nepali Congress President and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba over the last two months, and it seems to have worked. How Deuba’s ‘impending dictatorship’ hypothesis has impacted voters will only be seen after all the votes are counted, hopefully by mid-December. But the verbal bullying was enough to make CPN-UML President KP Oli utterly defensive and compelled him, rather antithetically, to declare on-record that their alliance was “neither communist, nor leftist, but a democratic one”.
Nonetheless, the professions and intentions of the Oli brand of communists in regards to putting the term democracy into practice warrants that a fresh grammatology is now needed. It is a ‘brand’ because there is a large herd of ambitious politicians of this type the world over who were originally indoctrinated to capture the state by bullets, but now are forced to rely on the ballots to rise to power or to retain it. This particular generation that became sworn Marxists, Bolsheviks or Maoists before the fall of the Berlin Wall faces a grave identity crisis. Their political organisations apparently lack political meta-narratives. The dogma of a classless society and state control by the proletariats has been rendered completely obsolete, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And they are still finding it difficult to come to terms with private property rights, freedom of speech and competitive free market as practiced in the democratic world. They chanted an elegy to capitalism in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the anti-Wall Street protests. But that euphoria was very short-lived.
Hiding behind a facade
Therefore, for this group that perhaps constitutes the last generation of confused ‘comrades’, the elections are not a means to ensure wider democratic rights for the people but a democratic end in themselves. This democratic cloak has largely been helpful in harbouring or executing absolutely communist-like dictatorships. The excuse of periodic elections, though they may have been shams, sustained dictatorships like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe for 37 years, Russia’s Vladimir Putin for 18 years (and counting), Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez for 14 years (until death) and, in our own neighbourhood, Jyoti Basu, as chief minister of Bengal, for 23 years, just to name a few.
A specific pattern of statecraft seems to be emerging with these new operatives at the political centre-stage. Let’s call them neo-democrats. There is a reason for this. They claim that they have essentially abandoned the idea of ‘new democracy’ akin to Mao’s tight-fisted communist rule. However, they fail to unconditionally conform to the liberal, universally-practiced form of democracy. Whenever opportunities arise, their true intentions to jump to state-controlled socialism are manifested; then follow endless rounds of clarification in the ‘defence’ of democracy. Their role as new-born democrats has always bewildered their own selves, like Comrade Oli, who finds it difficult to ascertain whether he himself is actually a committed communist, a liberal leftist, or a devout democrat.
If democracy, as touted, was ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’, what are the people doing when these neo-democrats plan to convert regimes into total dictatorships? According to Western expectations, when countries like China become more prosperous and open to the world, the regimes in these countries are forced to become more democratic. But why then is this expectation not becoming a reality? Why is Putin not challenged in Russia? Or, how could our own Pushpa Kamal Dahal dare to contest in the election from the same constituency where his party detonated a public bus in 2005, killing at least 40 innocent civilians? And, surprisingly, there is no noticeable public resistance to it.
The bar is low
To propose a conclusive political theory to these universal shenanigans of neo-democrats definitely asks for an extensive academic exercise, but a largely heuristic prognosis is: people’s expectations of the level of freedom in these societies are relatively very low due to historical and socio-cultural factors.
First, in countries like post-communist Russia or post-colonial Zimbabwe, people were never fully aware about the possible extent of freedom. Even the slightest easing up of the state’s gaze meant a lot to them. By the time they realised that their freedom was not comparable to that of the freedom enjoyed by the rest of the democratic world, the neo-democrats had already become nearly invincible despots. Second, those rulers who delivered prosperity in a relatively short period, much like in the case of China, are treating this growth as a trade-off against the ‘futile’ anarchic freedom that is boasted by the West.
Besides, historically, introverted societies that enjoy their own culturally compatible internal economy sustained by demographic adequacy appear less restive, at least, if some form of private property rights are ensured. And third, for the societies shaken badly by violence, Nepal for example, the politics of anything less than summary killings seems acceptable. Apart from this, the politics of nationalism and national identity and pride, too, has provided many existing and potential neo-democrat dictators much aspired latitude to grab or to continue in power.
Dictatorship still a possibility
How plausible are the threats of a neo-democratic type dictatorship in Nepal? Realistically, Nepal veering into another bout of dictatorship could still be a distant possibility. But the intentions are there, as exhibited in Oli’s fumbling defence in the face of Deuba’s allegations. A well-charted course and tentative timelines to total communist regimes are also informally floated. The campaigners from Oli’s neo-democratic alliance are proposing an unambiguous prosperity route: for the next five years, their government would undertake massive development projects mainly supported, financed and executed by China. Therefore, in the next parliamentary elections, the people will elect communist parliamentarians to a two-thirds majority and enable them to completely alter the constitution to ‘give it a true socialistic orientation.’ But, the caveats are: first the CPN-UML (alone) should become the largest party to be summoned to form the government and, second, this alliance should survive that long.
There are efforts to create new, clumsy, political narratives: to be democratic is to be pro-India or to be pro-China is axiomatically proof of being a nationalist. Peoples’ real agenda for elections have been totally overshadowed by exchanges of these high-voltage allegations between the democratic and neo-democratic alliances.
Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst