February 24, 2012
Opinion: The Kathmandu Post
It's been 20 years since the advent of liberal democracy and an open economy in Nepal.
India and China adopted an open economy around the same time, and today these two nations are emerging as world superpowers.
There is no political freedom in China, but its political leadership has successfully lifted out of poverty around 300 million people in the past two decades. In India, liberal democracy and an open economy helped catapult around 200 million of the population into the middle class.
The success stories of China and India, however, did not come to pass in Nepal. The Nepali population is still grappling with the problems of economic scarcity and social disparity. It's often said that widespread corruption and anarchy have turned Nepal into a failed state, and that the problem is rooted in the fact that our political parties and leaders do not have a political culture.
If that is the case, then what prompted all the political transformations of the past? What political force was at play when the 104-year-old Rana oligarchy was brought down? What was it that ended the 30-year-old Panchayat regime and uprooted the 240-year-old monarchy? We also cannot discount the fact that every major political transformation, and the period of transition in between, was handled peacefully and constitutionally in the face of political volatility. Similarly, our political parties never stopped engaging in dialogue with one another - no matter how much they squabbled.
It's true the political leaders were never up to the mark of the popular aspirations but the development of social infrastructure, the building of the foundation for an inclusive society, and ensuring rights to women were all made possible by a revolutionary culture adopted by the political parties. Set aside a few of these achievements, however, and we are left with manifold absurdities that the parties and leaders seem to thrive on.
Before the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (the Maoists) joined mainstream politics, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninists (CPN-UML) had the political objective of preventing one another from reaching power. In their quest, the leaders of these two parties went on to become ministers under former Panchayat leaders.
The culture picked up by the Panchayat leaders from the then royals caught on with the two parties. In the past 20 years, Nepal has had 19 prime ministers - 10 from the Nepal Congress (NC), three from the UML, four from the Rastriya Prajatantra Party and two from the Maoists. During these changeovers, 10 individuals ran the premier's office, with the late NC leader Girija Prasad Koirala holding the post a record five times. All the systems set, and the values taught by these 10 individuals during their premierships amount to the Nepali politics of today. That is our political culture.
The responsibility of developing a political culture hinges upon the person who is in charge of the system. Jawaharlal Nehru's ideals and moral strength shaped India's parliamentary system. Nelson Mandela established many norms and values during his single term as president of South Africa. There are many other examples corroborating the fact that the thoughts and actions of a leader can establish a political culture.
Former prime minister Bishweshwar Prasad "BP" Koirala could have been one such leader in Nepal. Around 30 years ago, a group of youth activists from the then Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist) called on NC founding leader, BP Koirala, and asked him to spearhead a revolution to establish republican order in Nepal. This was around the time of the Iranian revolution that overthrew its monarchy.
The visitors proposed a similar revolution in Nepal, but the NC leader did not agree. Instead, he suggested multi-party democracy. Referring to one of his favourite books, The Anatomy of Revolution, he gave examples of countries that underwent political transformation through extremism. He talked about the revolutions in France, Russia and China, and the terror that ensued in their wake. Replacing a regime of tyranny by authoritarianism is not the answer.
BP never realised his dream of establishing a political culture based on a constitutional parliamentary system in Nepal. When parliamentary practice was restored 20 years ago, the NC had undergone many changes by then. The party and its leaders were acting under pressure exerted by power-wielding activists. Factional wars were waged to achieve personal and political benefits. This continues and has become the culture.
It takes time to establish a culture, but the generation that led the NC after BP never realised that. The UML, which emerged as the largest communist party after the restoration of democracy, also shared a similar fate to the NC. Just like the NC, the first generation of the UML was more competent, morally strong and cultured than now. The UML too suffered from moral bankruptcy, just like the NC.
Leaders from both the NC and UML failed to set up the much-needed culture to run the party organisation. The political culture severely affected the independence of government bodies, which is the way to ensure a country's progressive and democratic growth. Under a political tug of war, it is impossible to develop a democratic culture.
The 104 years of Rana rule and the three decades of Panchayat regimes have had a profound influence on the political practice in modern Nepal. Dynastic politics and nepotism practiced by the Ranas run rife till this day. The rulers that ran the country for the past 20 years in the name of democracy enjoyed overseeing the state's affairs from within the four walls of the Singha Durbar, surrounded by their sycophants. And just like the Panchayat leaders who acted on the will of the then royals, politicians today have developed a mentality that nothing can be accomplished without India's support.
Idealism is shown by Nepal's political parties only during times of struggle. These imperative agents that ought to drive a political organisation start to fade away once the party assumes power. Our leaders have developed deep-seated insecurity about their posts in the party, wealth and social status. This insecurity has led them into believing that politics is more a money-spinning business than a selfless duty of nation building.
The political parties have consistently wasted opportunities to create a decent culture. However, today, the country stands at an important juncture. The parties have another shot at starting a new culture suitable for the set up of a federal republic. The people have spoken for equal recognition, rights and opportunities. The new political culture should be based on these demands.