Nepali Times
State Of The State
In a soft state


It has been just twelve years, a fleeting moment in the time-scale of the history of a nation. But our dreams have already turned into the nostalgia for an imagined past. Either our expectations were unrealistic or our disappointment is premature. We are being too impatient in dismissing the gains of the Peoples' Movement of 1990 so soon. The tree of democracy can't bear fruit unless it is given time to strike roots in the hostile soil of entrenched authoritarianism.

The allegation that the tree began to rot from the day it was replanted in the country is not entirely baseless. Whether it was the agriculture minister trying to hide the stink of a fertiliser deal behind a cloud of expensive cologne or the commerce minister dripping the sweetness of sugar deals, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai's cabinet colleagues abjectly failed to set standards of exemplary behaviour in the heady days of democratic euphoria in 1990.

It was in such a political climate-fear of a free-for-all counterweighted by an equal fear of the concentration of power in the hands of any one organ of the state-that the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 1990 was drafted. Apart from being a document of compromise between the king, the Left Front and the Nepali Congress, the constitution is also a monument to the cautiousness of a generation too frightened to rewrite the basic equation of power. By the promulgation of the constitution, sovereignty shifted from the crown to the people, but the onus of enforcing it remained with the king.

Written with the intention of ensuring stability, it is not at all surprising that the present constitution has not succeeded in facilitating fundamental changes in Nepali society. Whether the issue of citizenship or the question of national languages, the constitution has singularly failed to resolve long-standing disputes that could have helped form a new solidarity in the country. Instead, the polity is beset with a structural statis-nothing seems to change in the country except the all-too-frequent changes in the names of occupants of ministerial quarters at Harihar Bhavan.

Had the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) championed the cause of constitutional amendments in normal times, people marginalised by the present set-up would have eagerly rallied behind them. But sadly, these aren't normal times. The country is in the grip of a vicious insurgency. When the very survival of the state is at stake, the immediate task is to save it from disintegrating. In any case, the changes being mooted by Comrade Madhav Nepal & Co emit a reactionary ring-the concept of an all-party government is not consonant with the principles of the parliamentary system.

Their other proposals for constitutional amendment seem even weirder. Cutting down the number of parliamentary constituencies can't possibly improve peoples' representation in the formulation of national policies. Putting a cap on the number of ministers is best left to the common sense of the prime minister. Once in a while, we do end up having highly insecure individuals at Baluwatar, but that should not prompt us to further reduce the authority of the prime minister.

Discussing structural defects in the constitution is not taboo just because there is a state of emergency in the country. In fact the debate can take place even more earnestly, since there is no immediate need to introduce amendments. The same, however, can't be said about the severe operational dysfunction of almost all the political parties.

Political parties are the building blocks of a parliamentary system of democracy. Since any edifice is only as strong as its weakest component, all political parties in the country-not just the ruling one and the main opposition-need to be strengthened. Parties centred on a towering personality who dispenses patronage to her family and friends can wreak havoc with any constitution. As a corollary, those parties that reward their cadres for contributions made in the past, rather than offering incentives to individuals who hold the promise of performing better in the future, can't retain their democratic character for long.

Then there is the institutional disorientation of a failing state. It is caused by unhealthy competition between different actors of the state for spheres of influence. Over the last decade, the palace, the executive, the constitutional bodies, the legislature, the judiciary, the media, donors and civil society (mainly NGOs) have emerged as competing centres of power perennially engaged in enlarging their turf.

The unintended consequence of these pulls and counter pulls is that they have weakened institutions. It is an irony of our times that we have a powerful legislature, an independent judiciary, a strong executive and even an influential Fourth Estate, but the result is a soft state too weak to enforce its will. This is a classic paradox of the whole being a lot less than the sum of its parts.

The spread of the Maoist insurgency prompted well-meaning donors to offer the mantra of Good Governance as a fail-safe treatment of all ailments afflicting the nation. Sadly, it is another instance of the medicine being even more dangerous than the disease. The Good Governance template has been designed to check the authoritative tendencies of all-powerful governments in former Soviet Block countries. It is ill suited to nation-states in the making where state building and democracy building have to progress together.

The moral of the story: change has to begin from the bottom. That is what democracy is all about. The challenge for the moment is to establish authority, synthesise institutions, and strengthen political parties. Constitutional amendments can wait.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)