23-29 May 2014 #708

A teetering stability

We don’t live in a democracy but in the dictatorship of a syndicate of parties
Rubeena Mahato
The relative lack of political drama in Nepal in the last few months has fooled many of us into thinking that we are witnessing a rare period of political stability. Parties which acted as sworn enemies not very long ago are now bosom buddies.

They agree with each other on everything from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission bill to appointing heads of constitutional committees. It is uncharacteristic for our main parties to display such consensus and one is bound to ask: what’s the catch?

Increasingly, it is looking like there is no opposition left in Nepal, political or otherwise and this is why the present consensus seems more worrisome than comforting.

Every action of the coalition goes unquestioned and the voice of criticism or defiance, which is becoming rarer by the day, is silenced with the cacophony of a compliant media.

The shamelessness with which parties have launched themselves into politicising the judiciary and the approval of silence written all over Nepali newspapers as they continue to under-report the issue leaves little doubt that neither the media nor the judiciary can now be counted upon to protect our democracy.

It is not unusual for journalists and media bosses to cozy up to those in power and the highly politicised air of Kathmandu makes it all the more easier for journalists to succumb to their own biases, but the TRC episode last month took Nepali journalism to an all-time low. Rarely has it been so unabashedly pro-establishment, not even bothering to hide its bias. It faithfully regurgitated the government line on transitional justice and helped run a campaign of lies and misinformation against victims and their families.

If this is any indication of things to come, the fact that 80 per cent of us turned out to vote for the ‘least bad’ of the choices on offer is hardly going to matter. Without check and balance in the form of a strong and independent judiciary and without a vibrant and adversarial media, the elected government would run much the way as a dictatorship would.

What is worse about dysfunctional democracies as opposed to clear-cut dictatorships is that you don’t know who the enemy is, and this makes for a confused and unorganised polity, unable to mount a strong resistance against the rise of an absolute government. We know that voices are being silenced in this country and civil liberties are being curtailed, we know that decision-making remains exclusive and we know that people feel disenfranchised and excluded, but we can’t put a face to these problems. Our dictator is not a person, but a syndicate of parties that will bypass democratic principles and political ideologies to stick to the corridors of power. Our democracy is ironically imperiled by parties whose legitimacy is rooted in the framework of parliamentary democracy.

It is not without reason that Nepal has what looks like a permanent place on Freedom House’s list of ‘Partly Free’ countries. It is in the interest of the political leadership to keep the country in this ambiguous space, where privilege and access can be controlled but where rights exist only so that people can let off steam and grievance do not accumulate to the point of revolt.

There is an argument that some countries are poor simply because their leaders or policy-makers do not know how to solve the problems they are facing. But if Nepal is proving to be a basket-case, it is because our rulers refuse to solve our problems because it perpetuates their hold on power and resources.

It is not unnatural for the powerful to try to protect their privileges, but more worrying is the fact that the vanguards of democracy too have decided that co-option is the way to go. What happens when Big Media which holds inordinate power and influence decides to toe the establishment line and manufacture truth? What happens when big parties dump principles for the politics of accommodation and when the only voice of opposition comes from a leader of a fringe party who is ignored by the mainstream press?

We take our freedom for granted and will not realise what we have lost until it is taken away. Let’s hope it does not lead to another democratic reversal, and we have to head back to the streets to reclaim the press freedom and credibility we have so willingly given up.


Read also:

Locked horns, Damakant Jayshi

Just free, Editorial

Bypassing the bosses, Anurag Acharya

The tale of two commissions, Binita Dahal

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