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Madan P. Khanal: Nepal - Discourse Of Defeatism?

Nepal: Discourse Of Defeatism?

By Madan P. Khanal

Two Nepalese intellectuals were at the center of a sordid spectacle in Kathmandu the other day, citing a litany of statistics “proving” that 12 years of multiparty democracy were far beneficial to the kingdom than the previous three decades of palace-led partyless rule. Politicians, newspaper editorial writers and members of civil society are dwelling on the “revelation” ad nauseam.

Few would quibble with the facts and figures Dr. Dilli Raj Khanal and Bhim Prasad Neupane so diligently laid out. The issue is a philosophic one. People should not be going around comparing the record of democratic governance with that of an autocratic regime they took part in overthrowing. This would be akin to comparing apples with, shall we say, rotten apples.

There is a wider – and disturbing -- phenomenon in play. Is a sense of defeatism creeping into Nepal’s political mainstream? A gripping perception of sustained marginalization by the palace since October 2002, when King Gyanendra dismissed the last elected government for its failure to hold elections on schedule, may have prompted mainstream politicians to indulge in some creativity. This week, for instance, they regaled the country by holding a mock session of parliament, adopting a string of resolutions on vital issues of the day.

To be fair, there is much at stake here. The seven-party anti-palace alliance’s boycott of all elections scheduled by the current government could be seen as part of their resolve not to legitimize the royal regime. Their sudden fascination of with the Maoist agenda, too, could be accepted as belated acknowledgment of the need for radically overhauling the Nepalese state. However, when things get a little too far, a sense of cynicism becomes unavoidable.

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In the heat of the moment, Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala -- the leader of the democracy alliance -- might believe that a constitution granted by Maoist supremo Prachanda would be more acceptable than one granted by the king. However, Koirala really need look no further than pro-republic elements in his own party to test the validity of the statement. A better agenda would be to use the current bonhomie with the Maoists to encourage them to accept a constitution drawn up by the mainstream parties.

The political parties should focus on their intrinsic strengths. They always will be central to the political process through their unique ability to organize popular aspirations and commitments through common platforms. Several opinion surveys have shown that the Nepalese people overwhelmingly support multiparty democracy and constitutional monarchy. The problem really stems from the gap between how successive parties sought votes and how they behaved subsequently.

Irrespective of ideology, parties in power between 1990 and 2002 believed they enjoyed absolute sovereignty and worked to centralize powers. Implicit in their conduct was the belief that such powers were needed not only to express the will of the people but also to “save” democracy from the palace and the military.

The restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990 was sudden. True, the Nepalese people, inspired by the global democratic wave precipitated by the fall of the Berlin Wall, wanted a more open and inclusive system. But was the change brought about by the people’s aspirations alone? Did the liberal-hardline split in the panchayat system or the palace’s response to political pressures exerted by the Indian trade and transit embargo play a part? Future historians will probably be more honest in probing these and other factors.

The mainstream’s distorted version of events – that their singular embodiment of the popular will led to victory -- vitiated the political climate from the start. By their own admission, the new leaders were entirely unprepared for the task. Many, who spent decades fighting for democracy, were overwhelmed by on-the-job training.

Like their counterparts in other multi-ethnic and diverse societies grappling with democratization, Nepalese politicians could not resist the temptation to pander to particular segments of society and play up differences to mobilize votes. Corruption, another bane of the partyless system, became a more prominent part of a highly competitive political process.

These distortions, however, do not detract from the enduring value of democracy. Neither King Mahendra in 1960 nor King Gyanendra 45 years later faulted democracy per se in justifying their takeover. In the end, the politicians’ myopia came to haunt them. As they say, any party that claims credit for the rain should not be surprised if its opponents blame it for the drought.

In campaigning for the restoration of democracy, the mainstream parties need to focus on the real facts. The balance of power that existed in 1990 has changed, although it is still unclear in what precise way. The palace has become a more assertive political player under King Gyanendra and seems determined to maintain that role. The Maoist rebels have embarked on a campaign with a method most Nepalis find repulsive. Few ordinary Nepalis, however, would dispute their message of equity, justice and inclusiveness.

Although still the dominant political forces in the country, the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists cannot expect to monopolize national deliberations in the way they once did. Once this is acknowledged, the obverse becomes clearer: neither the Maoist rebels nor the monarchists can isolate the mainstream parties.

If the parties believe Nepal should remain a constitutional monarchy, then they must be willing to listen to a king who is palpably uncomfortable with the role conferred by the current constitution. Through a clear stand on the power and privileges of the monarchy, the parties could inject greater credibility in their engagement with the Maoists.

If the parties, on the other hand, believe the monarchy is the principal impediment to the democratic growth of Nepal, then they must be more explicit in endorsing the rebels’ republican agenda. With such clarity, they could then set out to define the structure and character of a future multiparty setup. Defeatism should find no place the mainstream’s discourse.


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