Hari Roka's diagnosis of what ails Nepal's democracy should open the way to a healthier debate on national politics ("Why is democracy in danger?" #39). I would like to take the liberty of narrowing the focus of the discussions. The failure of the Nepali Congress-the "guardian angel" of Nepali democracy in Roka's glorified words-to spread its wings and its success in monopolising the halo of democratic legitimacy is at the root of the rot.
In all honesty, you have to admit that the founders of the Nepali Congress earned their party's democratic credentials the hard way. In terms of people-oriented vision, the boys in Calcutta and Banaras in the 1940s were way ahead of their times. They realised that in order to usher in democracy in Nepal they would first have to boot out the British colonialists from India. Today many Kangressis-living and dead-are recognised as freedom fighters in both countries. (And we always thought only the South Americans, with their Simon Bolivars and Che Guevaras, had a history of regional cooperation in the struggle for national liberation.)
If the Nepali Congress today finds itself the sole custodian of democracy in Nepal, you cannot blame the ruling party alone. The astigmatic vision of our other political parties is no less responsible. Look at the CPN-UML. It has the audacity to assert its democratic credentials without even caring to drop "communist" from its formal name. It's not as if the organisation so badly needs the communism tag. Almost everybody refers to it by the last part of its hyphenated appellation, both in English and Nepali.
Our communists should have long ago emulated the pragmatism of their counterparts in the erstwhile eastern bloc. Once the Euro-communists felt the wind blowing in the other direction, all they had to do was rechristen themselves by dropping the much-maligned C word. In places like Romania, they actually engineered the fall of communism and managed to keep much of their power and privilege intact. At the other end, look at poor Gennady Zyuganov in Russia. His party is still formidable, but he stubbornly refuses to consider renaming it in keeping with the political correctness of the times.
A communist past does not preclude a democratic future. When ex-communist Boris Yeltsin used tanks to silence his parliamentary critics in 1993, there wasn't a murmur of protest from Western capitals. Yeltsin may have climbed up the Marxist-Leninist ladder for decades, but his ultimate destination was the presidency of democratic Russia. How far can you expect elderly pensioners' nostalgia for the Soviet Union to take Zyuganov's communist party?
All this makes you wonder whether Nepal's comrades even deserve to be treated with the democratic respect they demand when they fail to acknowledge that communist internationalism has long given way to capitalism-driven globalisation. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) is not in better situation. First, it is full of the same panchas who were supposed to have been punched out of the political ring by the Jana Andolan. Moreover, how many RPP leaders really believe that they have transformed themselves enough to resist the temptation to vault to the reactionary past, should the occasion arise? In any case, if using "prajatantra" as your middle name were to be accepted as proof of your democratic commitment, the German Democratic Republic wouldn't have been relegated to the history books.
The smaller parties in parliament are either too small or still too wedded to the principles of class struggle-despite their agreeable names-that they cannot be classified as democrats. As for the parties outside parliament, let's wait for the next election to see if they are worthy of notice.
So, is it the end of the road for the non-Congress parties? Certainly not. If you can't beat them, join them-literally. Let all the other parties merge with the Nepali Congress. I don't think the Congress Central Working Committee would have a problem with that. The party was born in March 1950 of a holy union
between the Nepali National Congress and the Nepali Democratic Congress. After the royal take-over of December 1960, the main opposition party in the dissolved parliament, the Gorkha Parishad (which everyone thought was the party of those same Ranas BP Koirala and Co. ousted in the first place) merged with the Nepali Congress.
The ideological complications arising from such a union today would not be too difficult to iron out. After all, the manifestos of all the parties in question are already mirror images of one another. So what if the UML has extended only critical support to the constitution it had a part in drafting? Once in the Congress fold, our comrades can retain their right to criticise-it comes with the sovereignty they helped vest in the people.
For their part, RPP leaders don't need to be afraid of the consequences of moving from the right to the centre. Two top leaders of the party have already
proved their political dexterity by heading governments under the partyless and multiparty systems. Leaders of the smaller parties and alliances, who tend to be more personality conscious, shouldn't have reason to worry either. They can find their own space within the Nepali Congress. It's not just former prime ministers like Krishna Prasad Bhattarai or Sher Bahadur Deuba who are herding their own flock within the fold. At a lower rung, you can see people like Khum Bahadur Khadka and Govind Raj Joshi busy building their own base. Moreover, if you want to go it alone, people like Ram Chandra Poudel and Shailaja Acharya have managed to thrive on an independent image.
If this scenario sounds too good to be true, then take a close look at the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Japan. It has been able to prosper for 50 years amid difficult compromises and shady backroom deals. But nobody questions the LDP's commitment to pluralistic principles. In fact, every time there's a leadership contest in the LDP, it looks like the country is in the midst of a general election. You don't have to be a Soviet Union for the party to tower over the system.
The Nepali Congress is an equal-opportunity party. Conservative, liberal, reformist, maverick politicians of every persuasion have an equal chance to pursue a career. And in keeping with the South Asian tradition, one particular surname has a distinct advantage. The good news is that the leadership issue is no longer settled solely on the basis of septuagenarian consensus. For a country that has had decades of bitter experience with multiparty and partyless politics, an evolution to a one-party system might turn out to be just what we need.
To be sure, our western friends and well wishers who retain the exclusive rights to certifying our position on the international pluralism index might initially find it difficult to accept a one-party system as democratic. As long as the party's name is Nepali Congress, however, I don't think Ambassador Ralph Frank or the presiding chairman of the European Union would have objections.