21-27 February 2014 #695

The architecture of democracy

Indigenise Nepal’s polity by addressing the birth defects this Constituent Assembly has inherited from the previous one
Bihari K Shrestha
Last year, when the first Constituent Assembly was dissolved, it was widely perceived to have been inevitable because it was born with many birth deformities. Some of these genetic defects seem to have been inherited by the second CA.

Among the many fatal flaws of the first CA, one stood out: it was just too big and unwieldy. As chief architect of the Assembly, the UCPN (Maoist) bears most of the blame for the problems associated with it. But the NC-UML combine were either willing accomplices or gave in to all the demands from the Maoists in order to appease them to adhere to the peace process.

Despite all attempts to reduce the size of the new CA, this time it was the Madhesis who threatened a boycott unless there were 585 members. It was up to the self-styled messiah of ethnic rights, the Federal Socialist Party (FSP), to jack up the total back to 601.

While the four-party syndicate initially put up the pretense last year of nominally reducing the total membership to 491, it put up no resistance at all to the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum Nepal and FSP’s blackmails because this parasitic embellishment benefitted all and sundry. Having 601 seats in the new CA meant that all parties could auction off their proportional representation seats to the highest bidder.

Despite their democratic garb, the parties have been exacting their pound of flesh from long-suffering Nepalis. Given the extreme frustration of the people, the Election Commission had tried to introduce a threshold of five per cent of votes for a party to be represented in the second CA through the proportional channel, thus limiting the parties in the chamber to a more manageable number.

But the same politicians, addicted as they already were to sharing in the spoils, successfully ganged up against the commission thus ensuring that the CA2 would have an unwieldy number of parties represented. For all practical purposes, therefore, the CA2 is a genetic clone of the CA1. There is only one difference: the Maoist and Madhesi parties have been cut down to size for their many sins of the past. And the FSP has been nipped in the bud.

But the tragedy for us hapless citizens is that despite such a resounding verdict in the election, the NC and UML, otherwise the principal beneficiaries of popular disenchantment, remain mysteriously wedded to the federalisation agenda that was imported by the Maoists, who literally forced them to agree at gunpoint. In short, the second Constituent Assembly like the first is based on lies, blackmail, and perversity which is why it is highly unlikely that it will fulfil its mission.

What is worse, while Nepal’s polity has always remained the fiefdom of the few politicians in power, a domestic driving force to make a difference has been conspicuous by its absence all along. Most countries allow their presidents, however ceremonial, to assume extraordinary powers to put their democracies back on track. In Nepal it is a case of double jeopardy though. The president has acted when he shouldn’t have and hasn’t acted when he should have.

If members of the CA2 care to listen, indigenisation of our democracy is what is needed. India had faced the problem of lack of accountability of her politician as early as the 1950s and the then ascetic, erudite, and highly respected socialist politician, Jaya Prakash Narayan advocated the “reformulation of India” based on the five-tiered Panchayat system, each such tier linked organically to the one immediately below.

Given the fact that Narayan was in Kathmandu at the invitation of King Mahendra, before he replaced multiparty system in Nepal with his own version of the Panchayat system, it would be fair to maintain that the Narayan model did influence the shift in political dispensation in Nepal at the time except for one basic difference. While Narayan’s prototype provided for an elected executive president at the top, Nepal’s version was led by the king.

Though limited in scope, Nepal already enjoys genuine grassroots democracy in at least two sectors: forestry and health. While forest user groups have been instrumental in restoring the country’s natural wealth in record time, Mothers’ Groups have made Nepal the international role model for achieving MDGs in child survival and maternal mortality reduction.

In these and other similar institutions, it is people’s own participation in decision making that has assured transparency of management and accountability of leaders. These two essential attributes of a genuine democratic practice have been achieved even against Nepal’s unchanged feudalistic backdrop. Such experiences show that our democratic architecture can and must be specially fabricated if it is to deliver goods to the people for whom no known regime has provided any respite so far.

Bihari Krishna Shrestha is an anthropologist and was a senior official in the government.

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