Figment of third forceThe viability of an alternative force is contingent on its commitment to democracy.
Deputy Prime Minister Upendra Yadav and former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai created a new political outfit named Samajwadi Party-Nepal (Socialist Party Nepal) on May 7 after merging Federal Socialist Front-Nepal and Naya Shakti Party-Nepal which they headed respectively. To avoid a possible overlap in leadership authority, Bhattarai heads the federal council of Samajwadi Party-Nepal while Yadav chairs the central committee. Although Samajwadi Party-Nepal claimed to be an alternative to both the ‘capitalists’ led by the Nepali Congress and the ‘communists’ led by the Nepal Communist Party, this ostensibly is a bid to be a potentially viable third force on Nepal’s political stage. The unified party’s tagline is ‘Prosperous federal socialism’.
Global political experience has it that, with a very few exceptions, all supposedly institutionalised democracies of the world seem inured to perennial two-party dominance in ‘national’ power politics. In the US, Britain, Australia, Germany and demographically huge and ethnically diverse India, the rise of a third force strong enough to hang on the fortified bipartisan political landscape has been flippant and extremely ephemeral, if any.
In Nepal’s short democratic history too, the fate of the third political force has not been much different from the experiences of two-party dominated democracies of the world. In the first parliamentary elections after the restoration of democracy in 1990, a radical communist (parliamentary) front headed by none other than Bhattarai himself emerged as the third force that believed only in ‘strategically utilising’ the parliamentary system to achieve their professed goal of ‘people’s republic’. In the 1995 mid-term elections, the party of former panchas or royalists became the third force in a hung Parliament. In post-conflict politics, Tarai-Madhes-based forces made a significant gain to claim this place in the first Constituent Assembly election in 2008. The trend, tough with much reduced strength, continues through another two polls: the second Constituent Assembly election in 2013 and the general election in 2017 held under a new federal constitution.
It is important that a number of political experimenters tried to establish themselves as ‘an alternative’ (third?) force in the two-year window between the promulgation of the constitution in September 2015 and the general election in December 2017. Among others, former BBC journalist Rabindra Mishra announced the formation of the Sajha Party, Bhattarai himself broke away from the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) to form Naya Shakti-Nepal and Ujjwal Thapa established the Bibeksheel Party. Thapa and Mishra united their parties to break up only a couple of months ago. A common fate of all of them was that they performed miserably in the latest parliamentary, provincial and local level elections, and thus failed to obtain national party status for their failure to touch the 3 percent threshold of total valid votes.
Even global experience shows that both the political space and scope available for the third force, more often than not, is very limited. Ideologically, the two competing forces—moderate centre-of-left and centre-of-right—are seen occupying almost the entire political space, leaving room for aspiring third forces either in the extreme right or the extreme left, which the median voter will have little incentive to choose.
One area that third forces have enjoyed some success is in issue-based politics like the ‘greens’ in some European countries and the Aam Aadmi Party in India that emerged out of an anti-corruption movement. But these forces appear too weak to disrupt the routine capture of power by either of the two established ideological poles, often in turn. In India, regional and ethnic parties have effectively intervened in regional politics. But their capacity to wield national politics also has invariably remained dismal. The question of sustainability looms large even in some recent instances of success of third forces like that of Imran Khan in Pakistan and Emmanuel Macron in France who could create a niche to rise to the top, wading through the historical two-party hegemony.
Viewed through these prisms, Nepal’s case is also not much different so far, and possibly will not be fundamentally different in the foreseeable future either. Regional forces like Tarai-Madhes-based parties may continue to exist, albeit with fluctuating strength. The far right or far left are less likely to be mainstream forces anytime soon. A Nepali ideologue propounding a new political ideology is not even a distant possibility. Nevertheless, Bhattarai preposterously declared at the inaugural of the united party that Samajwadi Party-Nepal presented an alternative since the political meta narratives of both capitalism and communism were ‘on the verge of collapse globally’. But he failed equally miserably to establish what that ‘alternative’ narrative exactly constituted which might even faintly be fit to be a new ‘ideology’. The future of Samajwadi Party-Nepal, therefore, is destined to hinge somewhere in the realms of reactive tantrums of the already valetudinarian Nepali politics.
Early indications to this end are rife. The unified party’s proposal to campaign for a directly-elected executive president and fully proportional representation in Parliament and create 11 provinces in place of the current seven may stir the already muddled political waters. But these unimaginative slogans alone are unlikely to bring Nepal out of the entrenched socioeconomic and geopolitical mess.
No doubt, there is a need for an alternative force in Nepali politics, but its viability, without any ifs and buts, is contingent only on its credible commitment to democracy. This is exactly where Samajwadi Party-Nepal again seems to have fumbled. A fatal obsession with ‘socialism’ even without caring to define what it means (or more importantly what it does not mean in terms of the state’s intervention in the market and the economy) seems to have no relevance in the epoch of global economic interdependence and ubiquitously ensured private property rights.
Still, Bhattarai, personally, is one of the most keenly observed leaders in Nepali political parlance. Yadav too is among only a very few Madhesi leaders who enjoy far wider acceptance among his Madhesi peers across the hills and mountains. Despite these strengths, Samajwadi Party-Nepal as a united party barely enthused the masses largely due to their inability to undertake a convincing departure towards democracy. The public appears ready to exonerate Bhattarai only if he unconditionally apologises for the inhuman atrocities committed during the Maoist violence under his leadership and presents a plausible ideological basis for the country’s future political course. But he has so far adamantly defended the violence that killed at least 17,000 innocent Nepalis, mostly those who had nothing to do with politics. And he has made self-righteousness such a signature personal trait that it has dwarfed him short of touching the democratic high ideals of ‘agreeing to disagree’ and respecting and listening to alternative points of view.
The Nepali elite and common people alike have constantly raised apprehensions about him being an instrument of geopolitical machinations which he has failed to convincingly deflect. As Samajwadi Party-Nepal proposes to reopen a hornet’s nest of gerrymandering into 11 provinces, which now seems to a largely settled issue, it only emboldens that apprehension. Any politics of instability is not the direction new Nepal is willing to look into, once again. It will only nip the rationale of a third force in the bud.
Wagle tweets at @DrAchyutWagle.