Nepal’s Elusive Democracy
Last week, Nepal observed the 67th Democracy day amid fanfare. Following the tradition of forming an organising committee to mark this historic day with great fervor and enthusiasm, the government of Nepal this year also entrusted the responsibility of hosting this function to the Democracy Day Celebration Main Organising Committee. Reminiscing the day as the popular event in Nepal’s political history that toppled the autocratic Rana oligarchy, tall promises of the need of a deliberative democracy were made even this year by the major political leaders of this country during the democracy day celebrations. Having said that, it has become a matter of grave concern in Nepali polity whether democracy is really functioning at present.
Norms and Values
Democratic norms and values encompass human rights, fundamental freedom, social inclusion and justice, adult franchise, equity and empowerment including rule of law. In spite of the fact that democracy in Nepal now spans a period of almost seven decades, democratic norms and values haven’t reflected in the behavior and working style of Nepali politicians and the society. An autocratic mindset still reigns supreme in the absence of a robust democratic culture.
Theoretically speaking, as the famous former U.S. president Lincoln puts it, ‘Democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people’. Public aspiration is at the core of this concept which calls for an accountable and transparent political authority that is answerable to the general people. If we closely observe the state of the Lincoln’s democracy in Nepal, we find an awful picture. Except sticking to the technicalities of the democratic notion i.e. allowing people to cast their votes to elect the leaders of their choice, other significant elements of democracy haven’t been adequately practised by our politics and governance system. This is to say that the voices and grievances of the public aren’t adequately addressed while making key decisions affecting their lives. In other words, the ‘politics of democracy’ has been witnessed whereby leaders sell the fake promises of mainstreaming the concerns of the voiceless and oppressed people in the larger state and administrative system.
At this juncture, a pertinent question arises: Whose democracy is operating in Nepal and for whom? It is interesting to note that whatever activities are happening in Nepal, all of them are in the name of democracy. Whether it’s an issue of calling general strikes and launching violent protests or the rights to manipulate the prices of goods and services, it is being justified on the grounds of democracy. Fundamental rights are being misused to destabilise the nation and promote individual’s self interest. Consequently, impunity is growing in Nepal.
As discussed by David Gellner in his article ‘Democracy in Nepal: Four models, several variants of democratic ideology have been practised in Nepal in the past seventy years. First was the King led democracy in which the monarch concentrated all the civil and military powers in his hand but kept reiterating the promise of consolidating democracy by making people’s lives prosperous. The Panchayat era in Nepal (1960-1990) is a glaring example of this model.
Second was the Congress led liberal democracy which focused on promoting civil liberties, ensuring fundamental rights and freedoms of people, empowerment and promoting private sector participation in a liberal economy. After the restoration of multi-party democracy in Nepal, this model was functional for certain years but was quickly thwarted by the rising Maoist insurgency.
Gellner discusses the Communist led democracy as the third variant in which uprooting the feudal structure from the society and eradicating poverty and ensuring social justice to the marginalised people was the major concern. Nevertheless, deviation in the original communist ideology has become evident throughout Nepal’s political history where the communist leaders have converted into the aristocratic feudal lords by amassing huge amount of wealth and property.
Finally, a multi-cultural democracy is evolving whereby various caste and ethnic groups living in Nepal are demanding the recognition of their traditional identity and acknowledgement of their contribution towards the formation of the Nepali state. This model has become profound particularly after the second April uprising of 2006 followed by the Madhesh uprising in 2007.
Nepalese democracy is uniquely characterised by the political protection of crime and corruption. We are living in such a democratic system where people from every walk of life enjoy getting engaged in ethical malpractices and other notorious behaviour under the cover of democracy. Every sector of Nepalese society-education, health, business among others has heaps of demands which are all just in their opinion. For instance, it is a democratic authority of a private hospital to charge exorbitant fees to its customers. Likewise, businessmen think it’s very wise to hike prices of goods and services as it guarantees their profit. Talking about the educational institutions, there is no harm according to them to impose heavy tuition fees for students. Citing the market based rationale of profit, all actions are considered wise and just in the name of democracy.
It has thus become a habit to use democracy as a tool to propogate own’s interest or the interest of his community. Disregarding the possible repercussions of any such decisions in the lives of others has become the hallmark of the democratic practice. It is high time that the democracy be strengthened by ensuring equal opportunities by incorporating the voices of all people rather than the voice of a particular section of the society.