--By Achyut Wagle
Throughout Nepal's seven decade long modern political history, the biggest problem to institutionalize democracy has been sheer absence of democratic essence among the political actors - political parties and politicians, both. It has been true for all twists and turns in the history. Experience has it, those countries that could stabilize the democratic polity in relatively short period of political transition, say in two or three decades, enjoyed two common features. One, there was only two way fight between the democratic and autocratic forces, or colonizers and freedom fighters. Once the democrats outweighed the autocrats, the system got functionally stabilized. Second, at least for the initial transition, some charismatic and learned leader spearheaded those processes into an irrevocably functionalized and largely institutionalized form of democracy, before it could derail and eventually degenerate to anarchy or mayhem.
But Nepal's democracy has persistently been victim of a triangular instead of bipolar traction among the ultra-rights led by the palace, ultra-lefts led by Maoists or Leninists, and democrats. In fact, democracy has been invariably sandwiched between other two forces. To recall the history of common knowledge, for this very reason none of political changes in 1951, 1961, 1981, 1991 or 2006 could institutionalize Nepal's democracy. The country has been a constant victim of political uncertainty and hopelessness, which has taken toll not only on economy and development but has also teetered the age-old social cohesion and coexistence. Thanks again primarily to the three-way pulls.
The recent turn of events also does not present any different picture. The political rhapsody of UCPN Maoist Chairman Puspa Kamal Dahal certainly reflects his desperation in a bid to save his political existence in the light of rapidly eroding political clout of his party, but it is hardly limited only to that. As a person brought up as the Maoist, he is fundamentally against this country writing a democratic constitution. And, this is not a secret, but his commitment, vowed umpteen times in public. He still harbours dreams that one day this country could still be ruled by a communist dictator, perhaps himself at the helm, like North Korea and Cuba. He wants the new constitution to be written with those aims in mind. But he too is clueless on the way outs that clear the nasty debris of the civil war, en-route to that unreachable summit.
At the other end, there are monarchists who want to resurrect the religious fundamentalism to the extreme of considering the King, again, as reincarnation of Lord Vishnu. The movement of Hindu fundamentalism is slowly gathering momentum as not-so-insignificant chunk in the ruling Nepali Congress has also found solace in taking refuge to this political perversion. There are other hybrid elements born out of marriage between the royalists and leftists who have dedicated their energies to defame and undermine the popularly elected parliament.
The most recent example is the blatant disobedience of several parliamentary committee summons by Lokman Singh Karki, chief of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA). It may be recalled that it was Puspa Kamal Dahal who engineered the appointment of Karki, an ardent royalist who served as chief secretary of the government during king Gyanendra's absolute rule, in CIAA position. The disgruntlement of some of the parliament members towards recalcitrant Karki was also meaningless as his appointment was formally approved by the chiefs of all major political parties – Sushil Koirala of Nepali Congress, Jhala Nath Khanal of CPN-UML, Dahal himself and other Terai-based forces while Khil Raj Regmi was heading the caretaker government a year ago. The career graph of Karki was a public knowledge but that surprisingly didn't bother these 'big' leaders and they awarded him the position he deeply craved for, for some unexplained reasons. After such a big blunder, it is but natural that the cries of 'small fries', like members of parliament, go unheard. To extend the argument, the discretionary abuse of the constitutional bodies like CIAA also constitute a great degree of test case on the impartiality of these institutions that are expected to function compatibly with the norms and values of the democratic dispensation. These are definitely some sure signals that even the 'structure' of democracy is being gravely in peril now, let alone essence.
Ideally, the alliance of Nepali Congress and UML should have been able to steer the process of constitution writing and institutionalizing democracy given the strength of popular mandate they have and their largely tested credentials to multiparty, ballot-based democracy. But, persistence of 'sickness' and performance dysfunction of the ruling alliance has indeed been a major impediment to any outcome that helps to the cause of democracy. The chiefs of both the parties, KP Oli of UML and Prime Minister Koirala, also the Congress chief, are sick in literal terms. And, deplorably ineffective role of Constituent Assembly (CA) Chairman Subash Nembang has rendered this supposedly most crucial institution in present day Nepal as good as dead.
The government has been oblivious to a number of its public commitments which, had they been executed, would have consolidated democracy at least by a step or prevent it from boiling down to vacuum of popular representation. One of such derelictions was government's imperviousness to hold the elections to the local bodies. On the contrary, the ruling political cartel has engaged heavily in appointing controversial names in many crucial positions, including the judiciary. Nevertheless, the joint stance taken lately by Koirala and Oli to take the constitution writing process ahead and promulgate the new constitution by January 2015is no doubt appreciable. But, given the fact that they have hardly been credible in the past and apparent challenges that need a great deal of political dexterity to surpass, hopes of smooth sail are still very grim, to say the least.
Another very alarming signal that democratic forces would be pushed to further relegation is: the influential members among ruling elites are blatantly engaged in the acts which are morally indefensible. The Nepali Congress Vice-president Ram Chandra Poudel's avarice to appoint his near and dear ones to lucrative public positions, Finance Minister Dr. Ram Saran Mahat's machinations to transfer a highly controversial civil servant into his ministry and above all K P Oli's design of giving ministerial berth to his henchmen defeated in recent elections give ground for both Left and Right forces to disregard the 'high talks' of democratic forces. There are several other such decisions that only undermine the transparency and accountability parameters, which are cornerstones of democracy.
As such, the CA has been rendered completely ineffective. There are public speeches made repeatedly, challenging to dishonour the arithmetic of CA; a crucial phenomenon as consensus is always elusive as is the case now. The political polarization has intensified. The political undercurrents are such that given the provision that the constitution needs to be ratified by two-thirds majority in the House, there could be some defectors from the ruling alliance who may dig holes in the ship.
No doubt, Dahal is ruining his political prospects due to his own activities outside of CA and repeated flimsy announcements like 'initiating another revolution', 'forming the government from outside of parliament', 'writing new constitution from the street,' etc. Worse, his irresponsible politics has provided much needed springboard to fringe parties, with some abstract agenda of identity and regionalism-based politics that were badly defeated in the last CA elections. They are particularly enthused by Dahal's patronship to these agenda.
Anything said and done, Nepal seems to be heading towards another constitutional crisis. The stage is being gradually set for that. There is not even a marginal possibility of promulgating a new constitution by 22nd of January, the deadline set by the political parties themselves. The ongoing unrest in the eastern part of country is perhaps deeper than it is generally perceived. Whatever federal structure one may propose, at least without any factual basis but by bare political imposition, is sure to be rejected by one section or another. Managing these discontents stemming in many forms and guises are likely to push the country to new phase of unrest and violence.
As of writing these lines, the drama of signature campaign 'to moot the proposal of ruling coalition' into the Constitutional Dialogue Committee headed by Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai suggests that the era of politics of consensus has been over. Democracy essentially is less about consensus but more about the rules of the game. But, here, rule breaking has been the first norm of politics. And, the politics of consensus generally endows better payoffs to weaker than the stronger. That is why Dahal and his 22-party opposition brigade is 'dying' for this ever elusive consensus in the constitution making process. But, on the other end, Nepal now is not in a situation where it can afford to relegate potentially destructive forces from the mainstream political process. The journey from completion of drafting to promulgating the new constitution, even if takes place at all in near future, is going to be treacherous. The thought over another crucial phase of actual federalization of the state is yet to begin. Setting up new bureaucracies, reallocation of resources and dividing powers and authorities amongst the different layers of administration are the task that are going to be far more difficult than writing one set of generic document called ‘constitution’.
Before any tall talk on any big issue, we have but no choice to begin from the basics -- putting the derailed democracy back on track. The point of departure for one and all is; to unconditionally express faith on the rule-based game of democracy, respect for the people's mandate and in essence adopt a forward looking approach, not in a sense as touted by communists but as per the best and time tested democratic practices adhered to by the world for several centuries now.
The writer is former editor of Aarthik Abhiyan National Daily.