Disregard for democracy

Published On: May 31, 2018 01:30 AM NPT By: Dinesh Bhattarai

Dinesh Bhattarai

Dinesh Bhattarai

Dinesh Bhattarai, former diplomat and foreign policy expert, has served as the foreign affairs adviser of former prime ministers Sher Bahadur Deuba and Sushil Koirala.

Communists have congenital contempt for democratic pluralism. Identity politics they introduced is fueling fears, divisions, and anger in Nepali society

The KP Sharma Oli led communist government completed 100 days on May 26. First 100 days provide clear signals about the fate of promises made in election manifesto and benchmark of political efficiency.  This period also shows the confidence of the government to address the pressing issues and the course of actions it intends to take. It is the period opposition refrains from criticizing the government and gives it a benefit of doubt. It was during the first 100 days of US President Franklin D Roosevelt that New Deal program had taken shape, in the wake of Great Depression in 1932 that addressed the major problem areas of American economy including in agriculture, unemployment, industry, infrastructure and banking. 

Oli, during the election campaign, had projected himself to be a true voice of genuine patriotism with a mix of jingoism and populism. Nepali nationalism in communists’ terminology remains unfortunately equated to anti-Indianism. He minced no words in condemning India for imposing economic blockade and smartly exploited the people’s unspeakable hardships and sufferings. He projected Nepali Congress as an ‘Indian puppet’ for its inclusive nationalism, and termed the constitution amendment proposal introduced by Sher Bahadur Deuba’s government for further broadening inclusivity and ensuring ownership of all as having come to please foreign power (read India). Several vituperative speeches made on campaign trails sharpened the divisions among the people and sowed the seeds of ‘us’ vs ‘them.’

Consolidating power 

Oli and his ally Maoist Party secured overwhelming majority in the elections.  As promised during the election campaign, two communist parties led by Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal merged into Nepal Communist Party on May 17.  NCP has 174 members in 275 House of Representatives, and 42 members in 59-member National Assembly. The party has majority in six out of seven provinces where it has its governments, and it remains a formidable opposition in Province 2. This makes the Oli government the most powerful in recent political history of Nepal. 

The unified party has adopted the ideology of ‘people’s democracy for the 21st century’ departing from ‘people’s multiparty democracy’ of late communist leader Madan Bhandari. They have vowed to work with socialism with ‘people’s democracy’ as the guiding principle. Two communist leaders (Oli and Dahal) have also agreed to rotate government leadership—first three years for Oli and remaining two years for Dahal. With the arrangement for co-chairmanship, the unification looks purely like a power-driven transactional agenda.  

The unification is a welcome political development, given the perennial instability of Nepali politics, and stagnation of development works. It is expected that Nepali politics after years of protracted political transition will enter a new era of stability for prosperity within an overall framework of democratic polity. 

This is significant as Nepal enters into a new dispensation of federal democratic republic under the constitution that was promulgated in 2015. It is also equally significant for communists’ rise to helm of state affairs through electoral process to guide future of democratic Nepal. But the erstwhile leaders of UML will have a challenge to safeguard their democratic credentials earned over the years since joining the parliamentary democracy in 1990 in the company of Maoist leaders who until yesterday thought violence was the means to political power and carry the baggage of “crimes against humanity” from the decade-long armed conflict. Government’s recent amnesty to ‘murder convict’ diminishes the hope of conflict victims for justice and sets ominous trends in motion.

Pride and prejudice 

Prime Minister Oli went to India on a high-profile state visit and return state visit to Nepal by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came within 33 days. This was a welcome development given the importance of Nepal’s relations with neighboring countries and need for intense engagements at the highest levels for building trust and confidence in wide-ranging and multifaceted age-old relationship.   

While in India, Oli shied away from using the word ‘democracy’ during the official joint press conference with his Indian counterpart on April 7, 2018. Forget the issues affecting the daily life of people that he had so eloquently raised against India at campaign trails.  He failed to present the pride of Nepali people before the leadership of the largest democracy that had taken punitive actions in the form of economic blockade against the people of Nepal for their unflinching faith in democracy.  Oli felt pride in power, not in the unwavering commitments of his people in democratic process. This is depressing to democratic pride of Nepali people.  

While it was publicized that domestic politics was off the table during Oli’s India visit, Indian Foreign Secretary quoted Modi as telling his counterpart to “carry all segments of society in the political and economic development of Nepal.”  Earlier in February 2016, Foreign Secretary quoting Modi told the media that Oli “briefs our Prime Minister on developments in Nepal” and “gives an assurance ….to resolve the remaining constitutional issues in a time bound manner,” when no joint statement was issued citing differences. 

These clues from one-on-one meetings, in which Nepali leaders prefer not to include any aides leaving no institutional memory for reference, demonstrate double standards. Such practice shatters trust and confidence in international relations.

Questionable intent 

Government’s actions of the first 100 days raise more questions than they answer.   Scrapping of Falgun 7 as national day that made Nepal enter into modernity from medieval period, and mother of all subsequent democratic changes, raises doubt about government’s commitment to democracy. Education minister talks of plans for socialism-oriented syllabus in schools. Prime Minister has shown a growing penchant towards the accumulation of political power by bringing several investigative agencies in his office. In all-powerful prime ministerial system of governance, this concentration of power shows the deep-rooted distrusts on the system giving a notion of strongman theory in the making.  

At a time, when the country confronts a variety of new generation of challenges including the exodus of youth in search of opportunities, government’s policies and programs reflect the dreary repetitions of high words of aspirations and cheap slogans without any concrete and credible policies and actions.  

Communists have congenital contempt for democratic pluralism. The introduction of identity politics by communists in Nepali politics is fueling fears, divisions, and anger in Nepali society.  If not nipped in the bud, this cancerous trend will eat the vitals of Nepali state causing the time-honored tradition of remarkable tolerance, harmony, and resilience to crumble and unique unity in vast diversity of Nepali society to cease. 

The conduct of foreign policy has a vital bearing on the survival of Nepal as a united, dignified and prosperous nation. With an ad-hoc, reactive and divisive approach to foreign policy, the hidden costs of politics of populism and jingoism will multiply and will turn Nepal—a country of immense natural resources and amazing diversity maintaining unique unity—into an epicenter of geopolitical tide in a highly sensitive geostrategic location. Winning elections is a lot easier than actually providing credible governance.

The author was foreign relation adviser to former prime ministers Sher Bahadur Deuba and Sushil Koirala

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