The Americans are heading for elections in November as a deeply fractured nation. They are divided over the war in Iraq, over domestic health policies, tax cuts, education spending, budget deficits, trade agreements, gay marriages, environmental issues, immigration policies, jobs losses and the foreign policy.
The Nepali people also have never been as divided as they are today. But unlike the Americans who let elections decide which side wins, in Nepal the electoral process set by the 1990 constitution lies in tatters.
That constitution was expected to herald a new Nepal by institutionalising a representative, democratic and inclusive polity that would begin efforts to deliver basic services to citizens. In the first election, the Nepali Congress, a party committed to social democracy won with the UML in opposition to provide a power balance, while the monarchy remained constitutional. But things soon started to go terribly wrong and the new institutions could not respond to the new challenges.
The US has faced serious challenges. But, over the years, the Americans have overcome them and, in the process, built their political institution. Closer to home, the Indians have managed to sustain a democratic process too. They elected new chief ministers in four states in December 2003 and soon will begin the process of electing their new prime minister. Though imperfect and ridden with limitations, both the American and Indian forms of electoral processes have worked.
One of the reasons for the derailment of the electoral process in Nepal is because of faults in the practice of implementation of the constitution. The American and Indian constitutions were incomplete when they were first drafted but both have space for amendments. As new challenges have emerged, both constitutions have been amended. In Nepal, however, the new constitution was projected to be the 'best' in the world, with suggestions from its crafters and implementers that it needed no amending.
It became clear, as the framework began to be implemented, that the constitution's provisions alone would not be able to address Nepal's problems. Clearly, adjustments were necessary and amendments had to be introduced. The 1990 Constitution has provisions for amendments that require any amendment be passed by a two-thirds majority of the parliamentary members. Between them, the NC and the UML enjoyed a comfortable majority in successive parliaments, but amendments were never considered though limitations had already been highlighted. Instead, successive governments and parliaments allowed only a few to corner all the power, resources and opportunities thus making the governmental business exclusionist but rudderless. The only time Nepali lawmakers came together to muster a two-thirds majority in the parliament was when the treaty on the Mahakali River was ratified on the night of 20 September 1996.
How and when will a participatory electoral process emerge in Nepal through which the Nepali people can express their differences through a ballot and not by killing each other? These questions haunted me as I observed American Democrats going through the primaries of electing their nominee to take on George W Bush. Peace and elections in Nepal seemed so far away.
"Thinkers prepare the revolution; bandits carry it out," wrote Mariano Azuela, referring to Mexico of a century ago. Azuela's statement also became true in Nepal of the 1990s as the country's thinkers allowed banditry of malfeasance, ideological bankruptcy and loss of community with the people corrupt the gains of the 1990 revolution.
Nepalis must, however, begin rebuilding on the foundations laid by the 1990 'People's Movement'. The good news is that everyone remains beholden to its spirit. King Gyanendra keeps reiterating his commitment to multiparty democracy, the main political parties are faithful to the parliamentary process and the latest statement by Maoist leader Comrade Prachanda mentioned, "achievements of the popular movement of 1990". So, where is the problem? Given this reference to the spirit of the people's movement a consensual way forward should be achievable, hopefully to begin the electoral processes. Cultivating tolerance and engaging in creative dialogues will help build trust to arrive at such a consensus.
Water Analyst Ajaya Dixit wrote this piece while in Boulder, Colorado on a month long writing assignment.