Bad days aheadGovt has the mandate to rule for five years. But chances of it squandering them are pretty high
Democratic rule is always an elusive practice. Yet, its attraction is eternal as no other form of government has been successful to conflate popular participation and accountability with effective governance. Democratic systems are generally under threat because of human nature which is basically selfish and egotistic. If institutions are weak and ambitious politicians with authoritarian instinct are strong, then democracy becomes a distant reality.
Today, threats to democracy have increased across the world. Not only in countries with strong democratic track records, but also other countries that are trying to experiment with democratic system are reeled under the spectacular developments propelled by political upstarts and demagogues who manage to gain electoral victory by sheer force of populism and unscrupulous means. Persons with no democratic backgrounds and commitments come to power by beguiling people with tall promises and sentiments of xenophobia and hate campaigns. Ordinary people who are tired of conventional rhetoric and unfulfilled promises are driven to cast their votes with the hope that their fortunes would be changed if such demagogues become role incumbents.
Democratic regimes are threatened by multiple factors but some of them are specific to each country. Nepal, for example, cannot be compared with any other country because of its own settings as well as efforts of practicing democratic governance. Nepal’s landlocked position, strategic significance due to its proximity to Tibet (China) and India’s and Western powers’ concerns and perceptions about possible Chinese influence in south of the Himalayas have impacts on Nepal’s domestic context.
Democracy in Nepal is a Western import that first came through India and now through direct exposures to liberal democratic values. So all parties are invariably oriented in liberal values and practices, thus contrasting with their original incarnations as Marxists, Leninists and Maoists. Such transformation from orthodox communists to liberal democrats, and coming to power with the electoral mandate are all salient features of Nepal’s democratic development.
Today Nepal is under parliamentary communist rule with two-thirds electoral mandate for five years. The “Grand Old Party”—the Nepali Congress—a liberal democratic party from its birth, has been relegated to second position by a huge margin. The people seemed to have been influenced by the unity of two major communist parties that promised to transform Nepal into a “developed and cheerful” nation within their tenure. However, given the nature, style and dysfunctional trends shown by the new regime, such promises are not likely to be translated into action. People are now being disillusioned with the government as no indications worth mentioning are shown.
On the contrary, democratic governance is gradually falling under the shadow of authoritarianism with Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli showing his penchant for centralisation of powers and for sidelining political detractors within his party and outside. Thus, the specter of authoritarianism, if not totalitarianism, has haunted the opposition and civil society leaders, intellectuals and others. However, it must be admitted that such authoritarian trends are now common in all democratic systems around the world. Tendency to personalise regime and concentrate power are
universal trends prompting scholars and thinkers to believe that democracy’s chances of survival are slim.
South Asia is no exception. First, the region is increasingly doused in religious fundamentalism (Islam or Hindutwa)and bigotry making it conflict-torn and divisive. Second, demagoguery and populism have failed to deliver as promised during elections making the people to lose faith in leaders of the same breed. Third, corruption and system’s distributive capacity is almost nonexistent. Finally, the huge mandate received by the parties has failed to lay the institutional foundation of democracy. Nepal, for example, is a case in point, given the nature of the popular mandate. But as of today, the Oli government too is not substantively different from the previous governments.
One of the instant supporting factors for the present Oli government seems to be increased engagement with China. Following this, India was forced by circumstances to be comfortable with the Oli government leaving behind the past ‘hostility’ between New Delhi and Kathmandu. But it must be said that post elections, Oli too was keen on normalising bilateral relations.
Prime minister Narendra Modi also took the initiative to correct India’s Nepal policy as it had unnecessarily allowed its rival power, China to set a strong foot in its immediate neighbourhood. Since Modi is going to face election in 2019, relations with its close neighbour like Nepal needed to be improved. Thus, the interests of both—Oli and Modi converged.
Ironically, however, sometimes, lack of perceived and real threats generated by the politicians, and absence of hostility that used to provide an opportunity to politicians to be deliberately anti-Indian also makes domestic situation unfavourable, because it denies the ruler(s) to point out fingers at outside powers. Following the “unofficial blockade” relations between India and Nepal had reached a new low. There was a rise in the anti-India sentiment among the public. Oli capitalised on this and successfully projected himself as a nationalist leader who put the country’s national interest above everything else. But that image of Oli will no longer serve him as bilateral relations between India and Nepal have improved. Disarmed with such conventional weapon of anti-Indianism and the dismal failure in governance have accelerated the trends of decline of PM Oli. Above all, for rulers to survive, the domestic context is more crucial than an external factor. That is particularly so in the present Nepali context.
Such decline portends a few trends that are not likely to support the Oli government despite it enjoying a sizeable majority. Since the role of leadership is a crucial variable for democratic sustenance and institution building, commitment of leaders to the core democratic values and effective governance with vision and determination contribute to institutionalisation.
Indian liberal democracy would have not survived bout of crises if the nationalist leaders like Nehru, Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Pant and others had become overambitious and has tried to usurp power for personal aggrandisement and egotism. Despite failures on various fronts, India has shown the world that national unity in diversity can be possible only in a secular and tolerant society.
Today, democratic values are vulnerable to the rising trends of religious fundamentalism and multiple crises of governance. Still, democracy is passing through bad days all over the world as the disorderly world and the trends of inward looking or of too many nationalistic orientations of new leaders have given rise to newer tensions. It seems that the good days of regional and international support for democracy are over prompting each country to pursue sound domestic policy to survive. The present Nepali government has the mandate to rule for five years. But as the style of governance has demonstrated over the years, the chances of squandering them are pretty high.
Baral is a professor of political science and the former ambassador of Nepal to India