The last time a Nepali voter elected a local representative was in 1997 – 14 years ago. Since then, she has not had a chance to freely choose her own representative on a periodic basis at the village, district or city level. As a result, for the last 10 years, 3,915 VDCs and 58 small towns and big cities across Nepal have not had a fresh supply of competitively elected public officials, village chairpersons, mayors and so on.
Nothing is more damning about our Democracy (the one with a capital 'D', and the one that seems to be synonymous with the heads of major political parties in Kathmandu) than the fact that it has completely smothered democracy (the one with a lowercase 'd', and the one that is about how ordinary people in all corners of Nepal choose local representatives to provide local public services without always obsessively having to worry about what party heads think and do to one another in the capital).
How did we come to this stage?
In 2002, six years after the start of the Maoist insurgency and at the end of the five-year electoral cycle, the then-Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba could have called for local elections. But amidst the drumbeat of Maoists' threat to incite more violence, worries about safety and possible victories of Maoist sympathizers led Deuba to dilly-dally and ultimately decide otherwise. His decision ultimately led to him being sacked for 'incompetence' by the then-king.
Deuba replaced locally elected officials with government bureaucrats. Thinking that this was a temporarily necessary measure put in place until the insurgency could be quashed, the mainstream pundits and the press did not challenge Deuba's decision at the time.
After taking over from Deuba in 2005, the king held local elections. Those were boycotted by most political parties. Since the king's absolute rule did not command legitimacy in the eyes of the many, whatever the elections concluded, it did not last long.
Looking back, it's fair to say that Deuba's decision and the further decision by all political parties to keep the issue of local elections on the backburner seem to have sucked the life out of our Democracy. What's more, they have contributed to the state of affairs that we are seeing today, whereby Nepal's Democracy has not risen above Kathmandu's party-heads' personality-based politics.
To no one's surprise, the vacuum created by the absence of locally elected bodies was occupied by politically appointed bureaucrats and local outfits of all major political parties.
These outfits constantly quarrel with one another, engage in corruption, and derive their power not by winning the confidence of the local people but through the blessings of their political masters in Kathmandu.
So entrenched has been this arrangement that its results have recently played out in different ways: a reporter was beaten up in Biratnagar. Local law enforcement machinery could not take on the local politicians who provided shelter to the alleged culprit. Instead, it looked to Kathmandu's party heads for what to do and not to do.
In Dadeldhura, CA members went on a rampage and beat up school headmasters in front of students and parents, forcing them to resign. There was no local recourse because everyone knew that the fist-wielding politicians enjoyed their Kathmandu-based party heads' blessings.
Early this year, Chitwan was proud that all its residents were about to have access to improved sanitation services. Its residents looked forward to declaring Chitwan Nepal's first open-defecation free district. But long-running local party-political quarrels over who gets how much over what contracts put a damper on the residents' enthusiasm.
Locally responsive democracy is the heart and soul of Democracy. Unless we achieve it in a competitively electoral manner, the hollow smugness of Democracy would only add to bad governance on all levels.