Democracy: Roots or Fruits?
In our very own context the question may very well be a riddle. There can be arguments – cool and hot, depending on who takes part in the discussion - for or/and against it. However, there has been no or very little as to what could be the generally accepted norm – should our democracy go deeper in the mind and hearts of the people and stay stable as a rock so the other features grow gradually on its strength? Or, considering the growing impatience cherished by the people, should the actors deliver the fruit before it is too late? In terms of the valuable time spent in stabilising the forces of democracy against all possible odds, the present system has spent almost the same length of time taken by the ‘Partyless Panchayat’ despised by the democratic forces from day one of its inception.
Series of struggles
Nepalis have waged series of struggles against autocracy and for democracy. Possibly, how many times would you wage such struggles in history? The longest road to democracy was the one NC-led forces had to walk often weapons in hand, often with reconciliatory efforts. It took nearly three decades to bid the Panchayat good-bye and welcome the multiparty democracy after three decades of uninterrupted struggle.
King Mahendra called it ‘Panchayati Democracy’ and put forward his points through some popular programmes such as the abolition of caste through the new Civil Code, 2020 (1964), commencement of the East-West Highway (1962), and Land Reform Act (2021/1965) which limited the size of land holding per family. A little later, he announced ‘Back to Village National Campaign’. These were considered the major pillars to support the political superstructure. Time has shown these steps, whatever their latent motives, proved to be popular and served as agents of change.
Yet, time came when the strong and popular Mahendra Pillars were not sufficient to bear the load of intense desire of the people to bring and experience qualitative change in their life. Nepalis wanted a free, open and conducive environment for sustainable development. Critics of the Panchayat say people wanted freedom of speech, universal participation in the governing system through adult franchise and declaration of universally accepted fundamental rights. Only democracy could address people’ aspiration in this regard. People were also aware of the pro-democracy and anti-autocratic waves of change throughout Asia and Africa.
Finally, the long-awaited and much cherished moment came. This time with not much blood shed but with the strong determination of the people to go to any limit in terms of time and persistence. The world saw it come with less violence and stronger middle class and intellectuals-led movement giving a final ‘putsch’ to the three decade long practice in party-less system with monarchy as the guiding force. The new democratic structure saw several development phases – with the absolute monarchy, a sober constitutional king, without the king but with stronger political parties, and finally with a republican set-up on a par with several nations in the sub-continent.
The new Constitution of Nepal outlines the basic and salient features of the current political system. Fundamental rights such as the rights to speak, assemble, education, culture, social justice and property, among others, are well delineated rights along with duties to the nation. Nepal’s constitution is regarded by the critics as the document with prospects for the growth of an exploitation-free, just and balanced society. The common wisdom says the Constitution alone cannot make Nepal prosperous and Nepalis happy. There are host of concerted and planned actions required to see that the people at the lowest rung of social-cultural-economic ladder fare better than they were during the Panchayat regime. People’s access to quality education, health, and other benefits allowing them to lead dignified life is essential in any democracy. In fact, one could expect qualitative change in life now as common people have suffered much during the old regime.
Today, three decades later, our public education system is in a shambles to say the least. The government has created an environment where private system is flourishing by day and public system is near the death bed. The expensive private education – from early childhood to the university – is beyond the access of the common people. This is creating not only a gap but a special class of citizenry where the low will always be the sufferer. If education creates classes, what will happen to our democracy? Who will grab the state power in tomorrow’s Nepal? The answer is obvious.
Privatisation to the maximum is the condition of our health status, too. There is competition in opening expensive medical colleges every year. One doctor almost gave his life for the cause of a state-controlled and calculated license system for such colleges. He had to give up and forgo the stance for the sake of his own life. His stance is: Too many colleges will only create expensive but hopeless health services in the country. Regional distribution of such colleges and universities is the need of time but the government has yet to frame policies in this regard.
What ails our democracy now? It is not the lack of public participation in the restructuring and other processes going on now. It is the lack of moral strength in the government machinery at a time when there is absolute majority in the parliament. The federal government is facing complaint that not enough responsibility is going down to Pradesh and Palikas as mentioned in the constitution. If this dilemma remains without proper handling of the issues, it will take extra-long time for democracy to take root and bear fruits.
Finally, in our case, democracy and development are at odds with each other. From the president to the former king, the intellectuals and the common man on the street or the farm, corruption has been the main culprit in the process of a stable government with vision, credibility and trust. The opposition, too, is in the middle of its own in-party feud and doesn’t pose a challenge as an alternative democratic force. In fact, all major parties have been tested by the people over and over again. Corruption cases make very loud entry in the beginning and gradually subside to be forgotten. Some people hide their anger while others invite the King to ‘save’ Nepal. Still others reconcile, saying, ‘After all, we live in Nepal,’ or, may even joke in desperate mood – ‘Lord Pashupati save Nepal.’ But they know in a secular country, the Lord Himself is much downsized and helpless, too! Hence, the ‘Root or Fruit’ dilemma remains.
(Former Dean of Humanities & Social Sciences, TU and Fulbright scholar from University of California, Khatry writes on cultural issues)