3-9 May 2013 #654

Muddling through

For Nepal to move ahead institutions must replace individuals as the focus of political practice
George Varughese
Nepal has been in a state of transition since the 1950s. A brief romance then with democracy ended in three decades of single-party, autocratic rule. Since the restoration of multiparty, democratic politics just over 20 years ago we have had 20 prime ministers, a decade-long civil war, and an abortive constitutional development process. No elected government has ever completed a full term, and last month the fifth chief executive in as many years was sworn in.

The indicators of Nepal’s developmental progress are mixed: there are significant successes in health and education, the macro-economy is stable and remittances are high. Investment is low, but there is no obvious economic crisis to spur political action. Though impunity and corruption are rising, the country has not descended into anarchy. While elected local government has been absent for more than a decade, modest levels of public goods and services are available. The country is at a political impasse but seems to be muddling through; a suboptimal equilibrium, perhaps, that is difficult to graduate from.

How corrosive and costly are the effects of this most recent, elongated transition for Nepal? How much of the damage is reversible in the near and medium term? What keeps Nepal’s progress at an impasse? A part of this crisis is the character of the Nepali political party. Following the first People’s Movement, the settlement in 1990-91 was for multiparty politics, whereby popular aspirations and citizen interests would be represented by parties who would govern via parliamentary democracy. Instead, individuals governed and still do. Some have served at least twice if not more times as prime minister. The problem of the undemocratic nature of political parties and their demonstrated lack of belief and investment in democratic practice within themselves did not change even after a second People’s Movement in 2006.

There is also a critical lack of trust among political actors. Commitments made by powerful political figures are no longer considered credible. While the nostalgia for a credible strongman is occasionally evident, more worrisome is the crisis of confidence and trust in political parties and in politics.

On the one hand, parties have shown that they struggle to change. Take their current ineptitude in dealing with identity movements within and outside their parties, or the suppression of dissenting voices and the trivialisation of second and third-tier leadership opinion. The parties have fragmented, making it even more costly to achieve common understanding and build coalitions in future.

Professionals and the rest of the middle class are disengaged from politics and are now either name-calling or launching movements of anti-politics.? This narrow understanding of politics and political practice does not get us any closer to a governance arrangement that is of, for, and by the Nepali people. In addition to ignoring political party reform we are guilty of allowing or hastening the decay of critical formal and informal democratic institutions and practices.

We must pay attention to, for example, the National Human Rights Commission, the Commission for Investigation into Abuse of Authority, the proposed Commissions for Truth and Reconciliation and for Disappearances, associations of government bodies, the community groups that manage schools, forests, irrigation, and so on. These are just some examples where constant institutional strengthening and innovation by both state and society ultimately matters.

A country that was feudal and has been patriarchal for decades was first promised democracy, but subjected to rapacious party politics that did not deliver. A nation that was then torn apart by an insurgency that promised an end to discrimination, marginalisation, and inequality, now struggles to manage a hundred different voices.

The answer in rebuilding societies usually lies in the deliberate efforts of the state, its representatives, and its friends in providing leadership, articulating vision and a clear sense of direction, in redressing grievances and injustices, and in reducing the trust deficit among their peoples and with the state. This has to become the focus of those within and outside government, sooner rather than later.

There is also a lack of clarity of purpose and direction to politics. It is just not clear where we are headed and this is not because the leaders and elites really know either. Politics is not representative of popular aspirations, individual leaders have undermined the very institutions that matter, and myriad groups and coalitions and movements (vertically and horizontally across society) have disengaged from the idea that politics matters most to economic and social life.

A new idea of politics is required in order to transition Nepal towards stable, plural, representative, and accountable governance arrangements. For this to happen, first and foremost, institutions must replace individuals as the focus of political practice, both by parties and by society. Perhaps the current hiatus will spur thought and action in that direction.

George Varughese has lived and worked in Nepal for more than 25 years.

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