In Nepal, democracy is a shamNo independent and impactful movement exists at present which could challenge the government against its increasingly undemocratic demeanour.
Regardless of the gravity and urgency of the motion currently being debated, a large number of seats in the parliament hall remain invariably empty. The scene in recent days has not been different, even though the federal parliament is debating on the all-important finance bill for the next fiscal year. One may blame our Constitution for abetting our immanently indolent lawmakers to remain routinely absent from House business. Article 94 of the constitution has set the quorum at 'one-fourth of the total number of its members' to be present to conduct the business in both Houses of the federal Parliament (Article 185 has the same provision for the provincial assemblies). There are dozens of instances when House meetings have been cancelled for lack of this meagre quorum. The absenteeism is, interestingly, a uniform norm across the political parties of all ideological hues.
These days, a section of the intelligentsia is often heard labelling this behaviour of the members of the legislature as a sheer lack of the sense of responsibility in them. But the problem is much deeper than that. The fact is that the increasingly disintegrating democratic fabric has ceased to assign any meaningful responsibility to these lawmakers, except for ‘generously’ helping the House speaker(s) to run the House—ensuring the magic quorum. The ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has left no room for its lawmakers to use conscience. Therefore, they have no incentive, except the routine pecuniary allowance, to be present in the House and repeat the same monotonous eulogy to the rulers, generally scripted by the people in power themselves.
The main opposition and other smaller parties should have, ideally, been different; but, effectively, are the same. First, the presence of the opposition is numerically so small that they, more often than not, have resigned approach since their presence and viewpoint would barely alter anything. Second, such dereliction of duty of the lawmakers of all political parties alike is the consequence of chronic intra-party democratic deficiency. Instead of democratic culture and practice, they have cultivated subservience and servitude. More than anybody else, the incumbent Prime Minister KP Oli has successfully exploited this perversion using his absolute control both in the party and parliament.
The legislature, therefore, remains merely as a dysfunctional minion to the powerful government. The draconian shadow of the powerful government with an almost two-thirds majority in Parliament extends well beyond the judiciary, into all other constitutional bodies. As such, the concept of separation, and balance, of power among three major branches of the state—legislature, judiciary and executive—considered to be the very foundation to any functional democracy, has been effectively thwarted. The global political history is a testimony to the fact that power balance so heavily skewed only towards the executive branch inherently breeds perils to democracy, sooner than later. Nepal now is on the edge of that cliff.
When a juggernaut government rules the roost, the counterbalance to leverage democratic politics should come from the society at large and through meaningful civic engagement in particular—if democracy is to survive. The influence of all three major channels of civic engagement, namely independent media, civil society and academia in the country's affairs of the state, has historically remained very limited. In addition, the current government is very systematically tightening the noose on civic organisations by introducing new laws and blatantly engaging in fear-mongering.
Despite the seemingly mushrooming growth of print, online and audio-visual media in Kathmandu, their readership and viewership across the nation are extremely limited. The cumulative circulation of the so-called national broadsheet dailies barely crosses a million copies an edition to cater to the almost 30 million population. For example, Surkhet, the provincial capital of Karnali, gets a few copies of the regional edition of 'national' newspapers only on the day after publication. Despite substantially increased access to the internet, radio and television in the rural hinterland, their one-off nature of news and information dissemination, however, appears less effective in being able to contribute to sustained and critical democratic debate.
Civil society was never independent of political influence in Nepal. Here, civil society organisations (CSO) are analogously understood as the 'dollar farming' nongovernmental organisations (NGO) that survive on handouts of the international community, and thus lack an independent voice and a credible reputation. Most of these NGO operatives, who once posed as the frontline civic leaders, are found to have used the so-called civic movement as a springboard to attractive government appointments. To the government’s comfort, no independent and impactful civic movement exists at present which could challenge the government against its increasingly undemocratic demeanour.
Similarly, the independent academic voice in defence of democracy is generally absent. The government's move to concentrate all powers in the Prime Minister’s Office—to hire and fire key university executives like vice-chancellors and deans by enacting an umbrella act—could be seen as another hook to contain the contrarian views that may arise from independent academic research and analysis.
There is another risk of Nepal's already stifling democracy to be viewed through the lens of withering tenets of global democracy. Apparently, the post-Soviet era euphoria of democracy as the universally inevitable, invincible or ubiquitous form of governance has now been largely dissipated. Obviously, it is not so due to inherent demerits in democracy itself but leviathan political forces, conventional and newfound, determined to trample on the core principles of it. The rise of hard economic nationalism, against the global liberal order, as personified by Donald Trump and Xi Jinping alike, religious nationalism consolidated by Narendra Modi and sovereignist isolationism that created the Brexit vortex certainly put a gigantic question mark on the very ability of the sine qua non of democracy—universal suffrage—to deliver virtuous leadership to states. On the other extreme, in many young democracies, popular voting remains a mere decoy for essentially undemocratic politicians to extract popular sanctions to produce or perpetuate elected dictatorships.
But what must be unequivocally recognised is: apart from similar vulnerabilities faced by young democracies in the developing world, Nepal's democracy now encounters challenges that are both unique and severe. Unique in the sense that entire dispensation is now at the mercy of the ideologically confused communist modus operandi, and severe because the government itself is putting concerted efforts to first haggle all democratic institutions and then to reorganise them in a fashion to capture the state under the sham of democracy.
Wagle is a professor (adjunct) at Kathmandu University School of Management. He tweets at @DrAchyutWagle.