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Madan Khanal: Democracy, Dissent And Demagoguery

Democracy, Dissent And Demagoguery

By Madan P. Khanal

The two largest mainstream parties in Nepal have vowed to bring real democracy to the country but do not seem able to promote it within.

The Nepali Congress has organized conventions in 74 of the kingdom’s 75 districts ahead of a national convention scheduled for next month. Serious disputes over policy and allegations of manipulation of district-wide poll results have surfaced. The convention in Kathmandu has been delayed because of serious objections expressed by the district committee over controversial names in the list of active members.

Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala, who is spearheading the seven-party alliance against what it calls King Gyanendra’s unconstitutional seizure of full executive powers, is violating his own party’s constitution by seeking a third successive term.

The Unified Marxist-Leninists, the main communist faction in the mainstream, have postponed by over a month their much-awaited central committee meeting. The meeting was to have been the first to be chaired by general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal after his release from house arrest in early May.

Officially, the meeting was postponed because of lack of proper preparations. Clearly, the real reason is the leadership’s inability to face criticism of its conduct. The main agenda of the postponed meeting was to discuss a report prepared on the party’s work in and out of government in the last 15 years. Leading members have vowed to push for a leadership overhaul, blaming the general secretary for weakening the party’s credibility.

The UML had abruptly pulled out of street protests against King Gyanendra to join a coalition government led by Nepali Congress (Democratic) president Sher Bahadur Deuba. After the royal takeover, senior UML members in the Deuba cabinet complained that the party general secretary forced them to endorse controversial cabinet decisions.

The Nepali Congress (Democratic), the third significant constituent of the anti-palace alliance, is stung by having been ousted from power twice by the king for alleged incompetence. With Deuba under detention on a corruption case, acting president Gopal Man Shrestha has taken his turn in the mandatory political pilgrimage to New Delhi.

The smaller constituents in the seven-party alliance – ranging from extreme left-wing groups to a moderate regional party -- are too small to make a difference on their own. Moreover, they have been voicing varying levels of commitment to the specific items on the agenda for change. So much for the restoration of democracy.

The press, much of it aligned with one political party or the other, is protesting against lack of freedoms under the royal regime. In news and editorial columns, however, readers relish unrestrained details on burning issues and ideas of the day. Are the Nepali press and the people even living in the same world? Now international media watchdogs have become careful while protesting arrests and harassments. Most journalists detained for violating prohibitory orders imposed in certain parts of the capital are long back home before the watchdogs can finalize the text of their news releases.

Criticism from non-resident Nepalis, too, is incredulous. Just consider those living in the United States. The harshest criticism of the royal move comes from two broad groups. The first are those who want to use their scathing attacks on both the royalists and Maoists to bolster their applications for political asylum.

The other group represents “Nepalis” who have become naturalized American citizens. For them, every Nepali politician, irrespective of ideology, is corrupt and depraved. Ask them for specific solutions to Nepal’s problems and you are likely to be greeted with stunned silence. And what riles many of these American passport holders the most about Nepal? The fact that they have to pay for a visa every time they want to visit family and friends. Worse, many assert their qualifications to become ministers, ambassadors and advisers. The narcissism is noxious.

The magnanimity (or ignorance) of successive Nepalese governments – which have not bothered to revoke their Nepali citizenship – has allowed many to own assets in their former homeland. Many former government officials in this category collect both their monthly U.S. welfare checks and Nepalese pensions. At least the political leaders and activists in Kathmandu are battling on the frontline for their beliefs.

There are authentic critics of the royal move among Nepalis in the United States, mostly college and university students. Many participate in local radio talk-show programs and Internet discussion groups. One doesn’t agree with their reading of events but is certainly impressed with the depth of their conviction. The range of their revulsion at the way Nepali politicians have been supplicating before Indian politicians in recent weeks has made nationalism a respectable word again. This group of Nepalis, which you can call the 10+2 generation and club together with their counterparts back home, makes one optimistic about the country’s future, regardless of how events play out.


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