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Krishna Singh Bam: When Reason Obeys Itself

When Reason Obeys Itself

By Krishna Singh Bam

The structures of democracy envisaged by monarchists, mainstream parties and Maoists in Nepal enjoy such colorful contrasts that they easily qualify to compete as ideologies during elections. But do they get us any closer to understanding what democracy really is?

Let's throw in some unconventional wisdom first. Democracy, someone once said, consists of choosing your dictators, after they have told you what you think it is you want to hear. It is a system that gives every voter a chance to do something stupid, another proffered.

Or is democracy the recurrent suspicion, as E.B. White suggested, that more than half of the people are right more than half the time? Or George Bernard Shaw's contention that it is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve?

At the operation level, to quote Shaw again, democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few. One party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule--and both commonly succeed, another sharp mind put it.

Maybe democracy is the process by which the people are free to choose the man who will get the blame. Or perhaps it is the name leaders give the people whenever they need them.

Flustered by these characterizations accumulated through centuries of practice and prejudice? Not to worry. Even the most ardent champions of democracy exhibit some ambivalence. Americans will cross the ocean to fight for democracy, it is often noted, but won't cross the street to vote in a national election. The average voter turnout in the world's hyperpower hovers around the lowest Nepal has recorded. If bad officials are elected, aren't the good citizens who do not vote responsible?

Josef Stalin, hardly an authoritative source on the subject, had a probing observation: "It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything." Could he have anticipated something like the Bush-Gore Florida dispute in 2000?

Time to get a little serious. As a process, under democracy, the people rule through elected representatives chosen in reasonably free, fair, and competitive elections, with universal adult suffrage and the underlying civil and political liberties required to ensure that no significant political tendencies are excluded from the process.

Erudite uncles who offer variations on the aforementioned paragraph probably will say the following too. As a condition, elected officials act in the interests of the people within full protection of human and civil rights and freedom of speech, press, and petition and assembly.

Between 1990 and 2002, Nepal probably fit the model of Fareed Zakaria's illiberal democracy. Leaders and lawmakers were elected by the people but did not adhere to constitutional limits that have usually evolved with popular election. Now the collective Nepali conscience is searching for answers. The non-performance of the leadership cannot detract from the intrinsic value of political parties. Organizing and channeling human aspirations and emotions, only they have the power and resilience to foster institutionalized democratic rule.

The royal takeover, which began in October 2002 with the dismissal of Nepal's last elected government and culminated in King Gyanendra's full assumption of powers on Feb. 1, is the equivalent of political shock therapy. The monarch has time and again stressed that his actions are aimed at reviving democracy. Accusing the royal regime of being undemocratic is, therefore, to needlessly repeat what the palace has already implicitly acknowledged.

Pondering the road ahead, academics argue that Nepal needs the development of both electoral processes and an educational and social infrastructure that supports a critical, lively, and free exchange of ideas are the basis for the beneficial consequences of a system of accountable decision-making. As a process, they go on, democracy should have the capacity to be common to the poor, oppressed and suppressed, be they ethnic, gender or minority groups. Separate the Maoists' message from their methods and the redeeming features of their aspirations become clearer.

So far, the basic values seem universal, but does democracy presuppose some contextualization? Why can Britain, which doesn't have a written constitution, fare so well when Nepal has already thrown out four and is in the process of discarding the fifth. Must each political change in a poverty-stricken nation spawn a new aristocracy, perpetuating permanent class conflicts?

Let's get real serious now. Maybe extreme partisanship is the great culprit. We seem so convinced that everything is set in black and white and that it is our duty as citizens to be on one or the other. Sometimes the gray areas stand out with the greatest clarity. Ah, don't bother with definitions. You'll recognize democracy when you see and feel it.


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