Many of you will remember the Panchayat-era textbook that had the chapter "Reasons for the failure of the party system in Nepal". The mess in the political parties these days makes one wonder if there was some truth in the "reasons" manufactured by Panchayat ideologues.
The Nepali Congress was at the forefront of the struggle against the "Partyless Panchayat Democracy". Voters gave it an absolute majority in the parliament elected after the new Constitution came into force. But the party literally threw it away when, in 1993, the prime minister was forced by his fellow MPs into going for a midterm poll when they defied the party whip and abstained from a crucial vote in the House. The Nepali Congress exhibited its well-known knack for extracting defeat from the jaws of victory.
And it never did learn any lessons. All erring lawmakers were nominated again. The party\'s whip in the new parliament was even given to the very person who had led those into defying it in the earlier one. The issue within the Nepali Congress has never been one of institutionalisation, but of massaging the egos of sulking stalwarts. The fault-line in the Nepali Congress is so deep that it actually behaves like two parties. K.P. Bhattarai and G.P. Koirala have to hold regular summits to bring the party back from the brink of a formal split.
The Communist Party of Nepal (UML), the main opposition in the parliament, is in no better shape. Showing more discipline, their factional leaders do not squabble in public, but they can\'t help taking a dig at each other in public through their respective mouthpieces. Maybe the reason for the relatively muted wrangling within the UML is that the party has already split once after 1990, with the ML breaking away last year. Even though the ML faction failed to get a single seat in the parliament, it controls powerful local government units, including the Kathmandu Metropolitan Council.
The less said about other sundry leftist political parties the better. They are the private turfs of their leaders. For example, Nepal Workers\' and Peasants\' Party (NWPP) is little more than a front for the political ambitions of Bhaktapur strongman Narayan Man Bijukchhe, better known by his nom de guerre, Comrade Rohit.
Then there are the parties chiselled out of the Panchayat mould, and they seem reluctant to part with what they see as their historical glory. Leaders, who spent lifetimes practising partyless politics, when all they had to worry about was not losing palace patronage, just don\'t have the killer instinct to thrive in the cut-throat world of Nepali democracy.
It\'s too early to be judgmental, but they seem to be learning all the wrong lessons from the Congress and the Left. And one lesson they have learnt well is how to form factions and split the party. Groupism inside the Rastriya Prajatantra Party and the Nepal Sadbhavana Party tend to get even more destructive than in the Nepali Congress or the UML.
One has to wonder: is this a national trait? Can\'t Nepalis ever work together? Looking at the affairs of political parties in Nepal, it\'s hard to believe that they are comprised of the very same people who struggled so hard and for so long for democracy. Many of them went straight from jail to be sworn in as ministers. Just look at them now It\'s still not too late to institutionalise political parties. Even the unrecognisably diluted "Political Parties Bill" passed by the Lower House of the parliament before it adjourned last week offers some scope for change. However, the first step must be to free parties from the stranglehold of ambitious leaders who consider contesting organisational elections an insult to their long years of sacrifice. Pious intentions are not enough parties now need rules to govern their behaviour through institutional reform.
After India gained freedom, Mahatma Gandhi suggested that the Indian National Congress be disbanded. Perhaps he did not want its proud legacy of the independence struggle to be wasted. Maybe it\'s time for Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) to think in really radical terms as well. After all, politicians from the two parties do seem to get along better with each other than with rivals within their own parties. And they did work well together during the interim government when the memory of struggle was fresh.
But public memory is notoriously short. And if anything can stop a King Mahendra from emerging again, it can only be institutionally resilient and ideologically unambiguous political parties. If the present mess gets messier, if those who fought for democracy continue to squander it, then another generation of Nepalis may once again be forced to memorise textbooks with chapters like "Reasons for the failure of the party system in Nepal".