On Tuesday last week, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) organised a discussion to explain its idea of "larger national consensus" to a wider Nepali intelligentsia. Arguing that the deteriorating socio-political and economic situation in Nepal has come to this sorry pass from the failure of the ruling and opposition parties to uphold the norms of parliamentary democracy, they made a plea for a national consensus that includes all parties and also wins the confidence of the king. It is possible, they argue, to find this common meeting ground from within the current constitutional framework. They identify six areas that need an across-the-spectrum consensus:
l the Maoist problem,
l socio-economic and political reforms,
l minimum conditions for good governance,
l eradication of corruption,
l the political culture to be maintained between parties, and
l a less expensive and more representative electoral system.
They suggest a three-phase program of interactions to reach this goal: a discussion between all parties, then a conference of all national political parties in parliament, and finally discussions with those parties outside of the current framework (Maoists and others).
This is no doubt a commendable exercise. But the effort is hampered by several factors, only one of the RPP's own doing. This party has a good chance to occupy the currently vacant "liberal democratic" band of the Nepali political spectrum that is left of the hardline royalists and right of the socialists. But for this to happen, the party must shed its self-created image that it is a party of ex-panchas and come out aggressively as liberal democrats capable of calling for a political program of their own that does not have to drag in the king as a shield every time.
If they were to take the suggestion from Raghav Dhoj Pant that they begin self-reform by making sure that at least half their central committee members are not senior ex-panchas, they might have a chance. Given the reality of present-day, donor-dependent Nepal, it is better that a liberalisation program be pushed honestly and openly by liberal democratic politicians than undercover and politically fraudulently by socialists and communists, as has happened in the last ten years. And this way, they may even pull to their side the frustrated middle and lower rung cadres of the Congress, which have come from the erstwhile Panchayat anyway.
The RPP's efforts are hamstrung because the political problems in the six areas identified by them come mainly from a flawed political framework agreed upon between the king, the Congress and the communists on 8 April 1990 (Chaitra 26, 2046). It is this framework that gave birth to the malfunctioning 1990 constitution, which in turn gave birth to the defective administrations, elections and many other ills. Calling for national consensus on current problems or constitutional amendments without addressing the flaws in the framework of the original understanding between the three forces will not bring down the fever that grips the Nepali state. After all, a parliament is the very place from where consensus is normally supposed to emerge, and what we have in Nepal currently is a colossal failure on this count. There is no doubt that the Nepali people will not tolerate a return to the autocratic past. The flaws in the political understanding of 1990 have become glaringly obvious in four areas: the role of the army, issue of local self-governance, representation that is more real and equitable, and the role of a proper political culture.
The 1990 framework tried to create a modern state where the army is not under the country's government. The Maoists have challenged that understanding rather successfully and shown that a government without force is an invalid. Mao said that political power grows out of the barrel of gun, and so it has in the districts of Nepal. People listen to the Maoists because the barrel backs what they say. Nobody listens to His Majesty's Government of Nepal because what it says has no such backing.
The 1990 framework also refused to devolve political power from Kathmandu to local self-government. It is not there in the constitution, and the half-hearted passage of acts that are never seriously implemented has not helped matters nor inspired confidence in those on the periphery. The Maoists have simply stepped into this political vacuum in rural Nepal's aspiration, and seem to have been welcomed by the villagers. The attempt now to run development programs from the centre in the name of an Integrated Security and Development Package again bypassing local units of self-governance is bound to create more local resentment and compound the problem.
While the 1990 framework agreed upon a Westminster-style parliamentary model with a winner-take-all system of elections, it has not been able to represent many identities, views and aspirations, whether ethnic, religious, linguistic or simply secular developmental. Today, the winners of elections are afraid to go to the villages and face their electorates.
Those calling for alternative modes of economic or ethno-linguistic development find that there is no party that emotionally represents them. This has led to a political culture where peaceful protests are not heard or responded to (forcing a trend to violence), where parties call for bandhs at no cost to themselves (but only to the working public), and where elected offices are not meant for public service but are merely rent-seeking enterprises for personal gain ("the best business in town").
The RPP's call for a larger national consensus has to go to these issues at the heart of current malaise in Nepal, but they seem to be coy about challenging the 1990 framework lest they be seen as reactionaries out to turn the clock back to the Panchayat days. To be credible, they must begin by reforming themselves, clarifying their political philosophy both intellectually and in practice, and broadening their liberal democratic base. Not really being party to the 8 April 1990 consensus on the political framework (the Palace ditched them as political bureaucrats with a public image liability), they do not carry the burden of its baggage. Hence they should be in an ideal position to bring forth innovative suggestions to rectify the flaws in the body politic that would inspire the youth of Nepal, then not even teenagers who could vote today. Is their leadership up to it or is it a tired group of old-time politicians that is content to remain "all Chiefs and no Injuns"?