The idea of elections has changed from an eagerly awaited event to an occurrence that could be good or bad but necessary for the continuance of the present political system.
When Nepal was being ruled by an oligarchy, the very idea of freedom, liberty and periodic elections were unimaginable and people often had to pay a penalty for speaking about these ideas. When monarchy prevailed, discussions related to political organisations, freedom of speech and expression and free fair elections were limited to tea-bars. Now when we have established universal adult franchise, liberty and rights for all citizens and recurring elections, people have become indifferent to these accomplishments.
People of Nepal have always welcomed the idea of elections. The first promised Constituent Assembly election raised Nepali consciousness. Although the dream could never be accomplished it left Nepalis with a hope that elections could be a solution to the past 105 years of misery. While election for the legislature was held in 1959, the short 18-month democracy could not address Nepalis desire for freedom. Thereafter a system that mocked basic rights, liberties and universal adult franchise lasted in Nepal for 30 years and it was monumental in instilling a belief in the Nepalis that elections were the only means to achieve freedom and equality. There were two main reasons for this. First, B.P Koirala’s 18-month rule was able to ignite sparks of hope among the people by ensuring good governance and development. Second, the pleasant experiences of a democratic rule across the border inspired people here. People saw how India and China had started progressing in various avenues since the 1950s.
John Stuart Mill said: “Men as well as women do not need political right in order that they may govern, but in order that they not be misgoverned.” This very idea had always been an unfulfilled desire for the people of Nepal. The 105 years of tyranny coupled with 30 years of authoritarian regime instilled a belief that elections were the only means of emancipation for the people of Nepal. It would not be incorrect to say that elections were regarded as a sacrament during this period.
The years that followed were successful in developing a system that was close to what Rousseau said: “the general will is always right and tends to the public advantage”. But the successive governments proved to be incapable of maintaining a balance of trust. The nation was burdened by trade deficits as well as trust deficit—the trust of the people in the system was eroding. The process of this erosion continued until there was a complete overhaul of the political system in 2005, to be soon replaced in 2006 for a demand to elect the Constituent Assembly. As the belief in the parliamentary system had been eroding over time a fresh and new mission was necessary to capture the political imagination of the people, which was the Constituent Assembly. But the first CA could not deliver the constitution. The people again voted for a new Constituent Assembly in 2013 which promulgated the constitution satisfying the majority and alienating the minority. The country saw an unprecedented 19 Prime Ministers in 27 years. The situation of our democratic system was exactly like what Plato had imagined—choosing leaders by elections is comparable to navigating a doomed ship: “The sailors are quarrelling over the control of the helm; each thinks he ought to be steering the vessel, though he has never learnt navigation and cannot point to any teacher under whom he had served his apprenticeship; what is more, they assert that navigation is a thing that cannot be taught at all, and are ready to tear in pieces anyone who says it can.”
Thus, after two decades of parliamentary democracy, the abolition of a 240-year-old monarchy and the death of 17000 people, elections have transformed from a sacrament to an event.
The results of the 2017 elections were seen as an end to political instability, with the Communist alliance winning almost a supermajority. But the subsequent events till date proved that Plato still cannot be disregarded, the question had slightly changed from who would be at the helm of the ship to who would be the captain of the aircraft. But the ghost of the 1990s is still haunting us in 2021. The infighting in the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) led to the dissolution of parliament which was reinstated by the Supreme Court. But the preceding events of this political turmoil successfully captured the lack of interest of Nepali people to participate in an election. The public argument behind the same was the serious blow elections could have on the state coffers, but the underlying reason for this could be the absolute loss of faith in the electoral system. The establishment faction of Nepali polity which had been successful in projecting election as a ‘magical potion’ that can solve all the problems of people has failed. The idea of elections has further changed from an eagerly awaited event to an occurrence that could be either good or bad but necessary for the continuance of the present political system. Thus election has become a ‘necessary evil’.
The alternative system of governance to the present system is the debate that should be saved for the future.