Nepal’s republic is anaemicDemocracy failed to take root because society is poisoned with the toxicity of ethnonationalism
One of the surest signs of ageing is when the past begins to look exciting, the present seems dreary and the future appears bleak. Optimism reigned supreme when the first Constituent Assembly decided to abolish the 240-year-old Shah Monarchy and declared Nepal to be a Federal Democratic Republic on May 28, 2008.
Admittedly, children born in the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal are still kids. Direct or indirect beneficiaries of the remittance economy, they are probably having a better childhood on an average than almost all preceding generations. The fiction that the kingdom under the Shahs or Ranas was heaven on earth is just that: A figment of the imagination of revisionist hagiographers.
However, when these adolescent children of Federal Nepal grow up, will they still be required to follow in the footsteps of their parents and end up in labour camps of East, South East and West Asia and toil in inhospitable climes in slave-like conditions? The political economy of the country doesn’t offer reassuring answers.
Ganesh Man Singh is one of the very few political personalities of Nepal that doesn’t require an adjective of adulation. For generations of Nepali born between 1930 and 1970, his name itself is a marker of reverence. Once the parliamentary system was restored in the country after a long struggle in 1990, Ganesh Man called upon its chief keepers—the King and the Nepali Congress—to nurture what he dubbed the ‘Baby Democracy’. They refused to pay heed to his wise counsel and the parliamentary system of governance remained malnourished throughout its decade-long (1990-2001) active life.
Mysteries behind the macabre Narayanhiti Massacre of June 1, 2001, will probably remain unsolved forever. It was the cataclysmic event that signalled that the ‘mandate of heaven’ had been withdrawn from the Shah dynasty. An accidental monarch, King Gyanendra did try to claim the legitimacy of delivery by disciplining Maoists with a big stick, but the security forces were in no mood to carry the burden of the serpent throne any longer.
Once the creeping coup began to unfold from October 4, 2002, it was clear that the final roadblock on the highway to republicanism had been removed. Without a parliament to endorse its existence, the constitutional monarchy had no way to reclaim acceptability. It took some time and a lot of innocent lives, but the day the Interim Parliament decided in the winter of 2007 that Nepal was set to be a federal democratic republic to be institutionalised through the approval of the Constituent Assembly, the fate of the Shah monarchy was sealed.
Nepalis of the ‘referendum generation’ (born between the 1970s and 1980s) and the ‘individualistic generation’ (born between the 1990s and 2000s) may have ignored the fact, but the country has such a warped history of democratic innovations that the decay started right in the beginning. The mechanics of democracy were initiated in 1959, but it was fine-tuned to serve the wishes of the master after the royal-military coup of 1960 and the indirect elections for the National Panchayat three years later.
When king Mahendra began to rule in the name of the people, he needed elected officials to validate excesses of the illegitimate regime. That’s how the tradition of gerrymandering districts, pre-poll fixing of elections, and centralisation of all authority in the person of the ‘supremo’ began. The very foundational ideology of democracy in the country is thus flawed where elections are considered to be the be-all and end-all of the system.
The centralisation of all authority in the person of the king is yet another legacy that has made the dysfunction of democracy appear natural. When Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli roars that the state and local governments envisaged in the constitution are mere units of the federal government, he is merely repeating convictions of all authoritarian regimes.
No one has offered a better apologia for the concentration of all powers in one person than the unrepentant royalist Tulsi Giri, saying that ‘sovereignty is indivisible and it lies in the body of the king’. The perception that he, along with fellow nonagenarian Kirti Nidhi Bishta, died in peace after completing their life’s work by the institutionalisation of cultural nationalism through the 16-point conspiracy isn’t without basis.
Whether traditional or elected, the primacy of the chieftain is the main characteristic of cultural nationalism. The idea of democracy failed to take root in the soil of Nepal because its dominant society is poisoned with the toxicity of ethnonationalism.
Political parties are supposed to be agents of change. Due to its history of thirty years in the wilderness as ‘anti-national elements’, the Nepali Congress has degenerated into being a family enterprise. Their ‘nationalist’ credentials helped Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist and Maoist parties develop a patronage network with the help of the permanent establishment that needed a political instrument to demonise and neutralise advocates of the multiparty system. The result: Nepotism is intrinsic to NC while cronyism rules the roost in the Stalinist-Maoist conglomerate that now goes by the name of Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
The role of the media in maintaining the vibrancy of democracy is second only to that of political parties. After the Rhododendron Revolution in 2006, chest-thumping became the characteristic feature of media activism for quite a while. All that ended when they saw the rainbow formation in the Constituent Assembly. The media soon became the megaphone of the ‘white shirts’—a youthful cohort of the urban bourgeoisie—that wanted only a formal democracy to safeguard its ethnic supremacy and promote economic interests.
Shameless lament of the palanquin press that aided, abetted and celebrated the rise of Supremo Sharma Oli for his supposedly nationalist streak after the 16-point conspiracy is ironic at the very least. Gentlemen—yes, the club is religion, ethnicity, caste and gender exclusive—you wanted an ethnonationalist chieftain, which is often only a shade lighter than a fascist, and now that you have got one; why all this breast-beating over a mere Media Council Bill? Keep carrying the litter of the Supremo; after all, he is one of your own.
Restraining institutions are expected to control majoritarian impulses of a democratic order. Unfortunately, the weaknesses of the institutional regime in Nepal begin at the very top.
The USA has a presidential democracy. The British practice parliamentary democracy. Both assume a largely homogeneous population. Indian democracy is an experiment in accommodating diversity without sacrificing the idea of a union with civic nationalism.
The hybrid statute of Nepal is—as king Mahendra infamously said about the Panchayat Democracy—uniquely suited to its ‘soil, water and air’, which aims to maintain the so-called Khas-Arya ethnonational hegemony. It has implicitly recognised two clear categories of the population: the ‘people-like-us’ and the ‘rest-of-them’.
The Supreme Court is supposed to be the custodian of constitutional order. Some countries boast of having courts of justice that make progressive interpretations of existing laws. Courts of law, on the other hand, adhere more to the letter than the spirit of the law. Nepal has neither. Somewhat like Pakistan perhaps, presiding deities of the judicial system in Nepal hold court with sycophants and the like to behave as courtiers of the permanent establishment.
Active citizenry is what differentiates a republic from any other form of government. Hidebound in the hegemony of monoethnic identity, even thought-leaders of Nepal create obstacles for the emergence of civic nationalism.
Where there was hope in the air in 2008, now there is only despair. The fear is even more compelling: The situation may get much worse before it gets any better. On that sobering note—long live the republic!
Lal is a columnist and a commentator.