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After 12 years, Nepal seeks more democracy

Kathmandu, May 3: Their political leaders may be fractious and their democratic polity unstable, but there seems to be a consensus among the Nepalese that their country needs more of democracy and not less. The mere suggestion that parliamentary democracy itself might have failed in Nepal has them all agitated and angry.

Nepalese intellectuals are busy analysing what has gone wrong with their society and why. Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of Himal, argued: “Parliamentary democracy has not failed. No doubt there were hiccups along the way but our politicians were learning to rule and our civil society was trying to be a watch-dog of democracy.

“A real foundation for democracy was being laid through decentralisation and local government bodies but then democracy was disrupted.”

Dixit blamed Nepal’s weak institutional structure for hampering democracy. “Our media was weak, our business community had not been properly socialised, our civil society was donor-dependent and the judiciary was not strong. So one cannot criticise the political parties and say that they have failed when the institutional backing for democracy was weak. We were in the process of strengthening it in the 1990s when distortions crept in — ranging from the Maoist insurgency to the Royal Palace massacre. We need to get back on track quickly,” he felt.

Many in Nepal recognise the shortcomings of the 12 years of democratic rule. Hari Sharma, fellow of the Nepal Centre for Contemporary Studies, felt that the political parties had failed “in articulating the diverse views emerging at the local, regional and national level and mediating a common position between them”.

“There should have been a greater incorporation and mediation of local demands,” he said. However, he claimed that “micro-politics” was already impacting party programmes through the experience of governance in local bodies and in the water and forest user groups.

Bharat Mohan Adhikari of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) has another sort of criticism to make of the last 12 years: “We failed on three fronts — one, we could not make our Parliamentary democracy truly a Nepalese democracy. We left out the landless and the Dalits from the ambit of our democracy; two, women who form 51 per cent of our population have been denied economic rights and adequate political representation; and three, we did not address the right of the tribal communities of maintaining and developing their own ethnic and linguistic identities without making them any less Nepali than others.”

The landless and the Dalits, the rural women and the tribals together comprise nearly 85 per cent of Nepal’s population. “Since 1990 we have had 12 budgets and billions of rupees have been spent but what has this parliamentary democracy done for the Dalits, the women and the tribals' Why should these people be proud of our democracy'” asked Adhikari.

The Maoists, Leelamani Pokhrel of the Samyukta Jan Morcha argued, expanded their support base because of the bad performance of the parties in power.

“The problems of lack of development, ethnicity, cultural and linguistic identity all came together. The dissatisfaction of the people on these counts became the fertile soil for Maoist politics,” he explained.

Although the king pulled a rabbit out of his hat when he announced a ceasefire with the Maoists and started a dialogue with them, this has not prevented people from targeting the monarchy. They blame the palace for curtailing the democratic process.

Lakshman Basnet, president of the Nepal Trade Union Congress, felt that the political situation in Nepal was moving towards “a final resolution”. Basnet claimed: “The situation may seem confusing to outsiders. They may not like the uncertain phase that this society is passing through. But the upheaval that is going on in peoples’ mind is much more radical than what you see in the streets. They are readying for a final battle — between the people and the palace.”

Nepalese across the board point the finger at King Gyanendra for precipitating the situation to his advantage.

Leelamani Pokhrel claimed: “The late King Birendra was essentially a liberal who compromised with the democratic movement in 1990 and facilitated the induction of multi-party democracy. But King Gyanendra is politically ambitious. He has not reconciled to parliamentary democracy and wants to keep sovereign and military power with himself. He wants a controlled democracy.”

Madhav Kumar Nepal, former deputy Prime Minister and general secretary of the CPN (UML) shared this view. He argued: “Our problem is that the retrogressive forces which had not reconciled to the ushering in of democracy in 1990 were constantly plotting against it. They were conspiring to create political uncertainty and to tarnish the image of democratic leaders. The mistakes committed by the political parties while in power and the Maoist insurgency provided the opportunity for these retrogressive forces to strike against democracy.”

Hari Sharma, however, argued that the situation was not irretrievable. “In fact, the current situation is an aberration that underlines the role of the political parties in this country even more. There is greater need today to sustain peaceful politics in the context of the identity-based politics practised by the Maoists and the authoritarian nostalgia of those who glorify the monarchy,” he claimed.

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