Politics is a game of tradeoffs dictated by the universal law of “unlimited wants, limited resources”. It includes calculated moves that enable one to turn ideologies and philosophies into policies and laws. Nepal’s political context has been special though and the tradeoffs seem extreme to a lay person like myself.
Everybody seems to want to “fix Nepal’s politics”. It is in this context that the need for “alternative politics” has been highlighted. But what does this alternative politics mean? Is it an ideological discourse on how the society should be governed, a practical behavior change, a definition of certain type of entrants in politics, or a philosophically charged way of doing politics? And how does this alternative politics move beyond the idea stage? Here are two potential lens to define alternative politics.
The access lens
Most people in Nepal can’t claim they will be heard at their elected representative’s office. Heard meaning getting a reasonable response; that someone in the office spends five minutes listening and thinking through the complaint. In the current scenario, the only people who will be heard will probably be party leaders whose phone number have been saved in mobile phones of elected representatives. The rest will have to rely on Hello Sakar to file a complaint and twiddle their fingers hoping someone will call back. There is the reason Nepali people look over and over the menu only to order “momo” and “chowmein”. We must question why Nepali voters keep supporting the same political party.
Top political leaders rely on the social capital of their cadres who have penetrated the deepest sections of the society. For a voter, who is treated differently in government offices based on whose reference they have, will choose the reference that gives her the highest mileage. Big concepts like development, foreign investment, feminism and corruption don’t hold much meaning or someone who literally has to vote for Congress or UML to get their citizenship certificate to go abroad. Thus it pays to vote for someone a voter feels is the rainmaker for him/her. The new politics needs to break away from this tradition of limited access to elected representatives.
The new politics in Nepal should allow a person who is not part of a vote bank, who doesn’t fund campaigns, and who is not an influencer or thought leader, access to his/ her elected leaders. This enables the elected person to be everyone’s mayor, everyone’s prime minister. Else, democracy takes the worst form, of complete dominion of the minority by the majority. There is a huge opportunity for new political parties to set standards and gain people’s confidence.
True opposition lens
We do not have political parties that actually sit in the opposition for the people. If it were otherwise, we would probably see numerous lawsuits, petitions, a detailed report on where and how the ruling party messed up, and protests to make ruling parties adhere to laws and get them to work for the people. In alternative politics, political parties are always mindful of their roles, whether they win or lose. Political parties have so far behaved more like NGOs, knocking on donors’ door for funding, and they won’t do anything until they get that funding.
Similarly, political parties knock on people’s doors to get votes. The parties then disappear until the next election. Campaign promises seem to be driven only by election, rather than by a desire to serve people. Opposition politics in Nepal is limited to pulling the other party down (Sarkar dhalne), rather than to protect and further people’s interest.
Nepali people are quite independent. They choose to roll up their pants, when the streets flood during monsoon and pull each other out from street floods. They never take it to streets en-mass to demand basic facilities. So for a lay Nepali person, expectation from the government seems close to zero. The only times they have to cross paths is when people need some contractual documents like citizenship, passport, or land-ownership certificate or driving license. Nepali people’s connection with the government is limited. And this is precisely where alternative politics is needed.
Is it possible?
With the dinosaurs of the 1950’s set to be extinct in next 10 years, it is possible for even traditional parties to practice alternative politics. They are well-positioned to bring change because their social capital has penetrated the deepest roots of the society. With a newer generation at the helm and with never-before-experienced connectivity I am hopeful older parties will adapt. They must, if they don’t want new political parties to overtake them.
With new political parties, instead of banking too much on the novelty factor, they need to set up a system that enables them to stay fresh and relevant. New parties probably seem accessible now. Whether they remain accessible in next 20 years for the generation that will be born next year will determine whether they really practice alternative politics.
Establishing a robust organization, keeping in touch with the people, entertaining new ideas and people, ensuring the founders are not de facto chairpersons and key decision makers, and growing the party without being cadre-based, will all be a challenge. The new political parties don’t have historical baggage. But how will they win the majority to rule without themselves being replicas of old parties? It would be a shame if in next 20-30 years, all they manage is to replace one set of tyrants with another.
The author is founder of a volunteer-run health initiative called Medication for Nepal (MFN)