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Nepal’s “Zombie” democracy

Originally Published on | Rabindra Misra’s compelling plea for fundamental reformulation of Nepalese polity

Writing in the Foreign Affairs magazine on the “Age of Zombie Democracies”, a leading Human Rights lawyer and president of Human Rights Watch had observed that they are “the living dead of electoral political systems, recognizable in form but devoid of any substance” although they “still hold periodic elections since their people have come to expect them”. By this yardstick, Nepal certainly counts as one among them, because, for the last three decades we have been holding regular elections only to find the life and economy of the people stagnate or get steadily worse even as Nepal has lately ranked as the most corrupt country in Asia.

Lately, one of Nepal’s prominent journalists and chair of Bibeksheel Sajha Party, Rabindra Misra has released a paper in which he has argued for an end to gratuitous and malfunctioning federalism, a referendum on stealthily introduced secularism, and improved governance and developmental delivery before “the imported republicanism” too is discarded by people, tacitly implying the need for restoration of the monarchy in Nepal. This has since set off furious debates primarily on social networks and on TV.

Federalism and secularism in violation of the Interim Constitution

While discussing the shortcomings of the federalist and republican restructuring and secularization of Nepalese polity it must be noted that the adoption of the new constitution in 2015 was in direct violation of the then Interim Constitution. As per the provisions of the Interim Constitution, a nationwide poll was held on the draft of the new constitution, and, as per the media reports, people had overwhelmingly objected to the federalization and secularization of the country. But, the Assembly never bothered to amend the draft accordingly. Thus, federalism and secularism were thus illegally imposed on the people, to begin with.

Derelict democracy: Corruption and more corruption.

Another important issue Misra failed to take note of is the fact that while Nepal’s multiparty system was corrupt from day one of its restorations in 1990, its federalist version has only made it worse. For instance, the first elected multiparty prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala was tainted with a series of massive corruption allegations, now etched in history as Dhamija scandal, Lauda Air scam, and so on. Then, fast forward three decades, the previous PM KP Sharma Oli has been accused of mega scams of unprecedented magnitude. For instance, a July 6 (2020) Twitter entry enumerated a total of 39 different corruption allegations against him that included such mega rip-offs like Wide Body and Narrow Body commissions, “Yeti Holdings scam”, gold smuggling, Ncell write-offs, helicopter buys, OMNI scandal and so on, all of them together amounting to mindboggling billions.

Lately, the NC president Sher Bahadur Deuba has succeeded Oli as PM. But Deuba’s reputation for corruptibility is no different. In his four previous avatars as PM he has been known for exchanging everything–appointments, contracts and election tickets–for cash. Besides, it was under his watch that his party was badly routed in the last election. But in flagrant violation of democratic norms, he simply refused to step down. Come hail or brimstone, he has his own like-minded faction to support him in his party. Now that he just got started in his fifth inning as PM, he already had to apologize–and get away with it–for defying all expectations and appointing two businessmen-turned-politicians, reportedly close to his wife, as ministers, one of them by robbing a Dalit candidate of that opportunity in the Gandaki Province.

Nepali-flavoured democracy: Just about every single politician is a corrupt man or woman in Nepal

While “democracies rest upon the principle that government exists to serve the people”, in Nepal the democracy project has failed miserably in this mission whether a constitutional monarchy or federal republicanism. The problem has to do with the persistent feudalistic social order in the country. Almost all politicians come from the ranks of the feudal elites, known as Thalus, who are generally high caste and relatively wealthier amidst a people most of whom remain economically poor, socially marginalized and thus, politically powerless. The Thalus, a hereditary entitlement generally, lord over their communities, head the local political parties and get themselves elected to local bodies and higher offices, and have always indulged in blatant extraction of resources from the village commons and their less fortunate neighbors without any accountability to go with them.

Back in 2012 during the interim between the first and second constituent assemblies, I had the opportunity of speaking to an exclusive seminar of 35-second tier leaders of all major parties who also included more than half a dozen ex-ministers. Based on this conceptual premise, I, with some trepidation, placed before them my incriminating and provocative conclusion that a successful politician in Nepal in most cases remained a corrupt man or woman necessarily. But what followed was both revealing and dismaying at the same time. The entire gathering in the meeting erupted in laughter, thus letting out the message that politicians in Nepal remained not only corrupt but also unabashed and unashamed at the same time.

With the federalization of the country and the number of local bodies drastically reduced in number–the present 753 from the erstwhile 3500–their elected officials now remain five times more distant from the electors, thus dramatically magnifying the problem of lack of transparency and accountability to the people. As the former Home Minister, Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal once put it, if all the corruption cases at the local level were to be prosecuted the chances were that there would be no elected official left in the local bodies.

Corruption: the source of chronic political instability in Nepal

Besides, corruption also breeds political instability that has remained a hallmark of our ill-fated multiparty system, including the current political crisis to rock the nation. As mention above, while former PM Oli was moving from one scandal to the next, his detractors in the party was lying low until Oli completed the two-year honeymoon period during which the constitution disallows any no-confidence vote. Once PM Oli crossed this threshold and became vulnerable to dislodgement., the competing factions in his party led by former prime ministers, Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, Madhav Kumar Nepal (MKN) and Jhala Nath Khanal (JNK) began to demand that Oli run the government according to “bidhi” or appropriate procedures. In practice, that would have required Oli to get all his major appointments and award of contracts–the wellspring of all bribes and commissions–approved by the small apex committee, the Standing Committee, which they dominated. So, for Oli their demand for bidhi was merely the euphemism for bhagbandaa, or sharing in the spoils of governing, a practice that has long taken root in Nepali politics to keep potential detractors happy and silent. For instance, it was widely reported that part of the massive “Wide Body” commission mentioned above had made its way to the then leader of the opposition in parliament, the NC president SB Deuba, now the sitting PM. Besides, Oli for his part remained convinced that it was due to him personally that the party had won big in the last election and therefore, refused to be fettered by the greed of fellow politicians in the party. However, Oli himself allegedly being the most corrupt politician historically, he did not have the moral high ground to refuse his rivals’ increasingly dogged pursuit of him. That was what goaded Oli to resort to all manners of subterfuge, including disbanding the parliament twice against the spirit of the constitution.

Nepalese democracy: people get to choose only between two most corrupt politicians

With the party rebels and the opposition parties working in tandem, Oli, as expected, did not survive. Based on the number of MPs supporting the NC president, Sher Bahadur Deuba was declared the new PM who, as mentioned above, seems to be well on his way to commit his own acts of omissions and commissions already. But for the people themselves, it comes as a massive tragedy. They live in a democracy under which their right is limited to choosing between the two most corrupt politicians of all time. What is equally worse is, just now the third politician-kingmaker in the current fluidity is the fugitive from transitional justice, Prachanda, who has the blood of 18000 innocent victims slaughtered under his watch among many other criminal offences.

Judicial letdown

The current political turmoil also witnessed the rare involvement of a consortium of five retired chief justices who argued in favour of the restoration of the parliament the first time it was dissolved by Oli. But it has been its second restoration by the Supreme Court that finally saw the back of Oli from the premier’s seat. Both those verdicts have unfortunately been rather mechanical in character, assiduously following the letters of a badly crafted constitution at the hands of these gangs of corrupt politicians. According to an international juridical authority, Aharon Barak, president of the Israeli supreme court (2002), a Supreme Court’s judicial discretion must meet “the triple test of integration with the past, justice in the present, and an appropriate norm for the future”. Given that Nepal’s democracy has always remained tortured at the hands of these corrupt politicians, it was hoped that this time around, our apex court would intervene differently towards bettering our future. But unfortunately, that did not happen.

Moving forward: Partnering with the coalition of the willing

It is in such convoluted context that Rabindra Misra’s call for revisiting the Nepalese polity has been made. Unfortunately, these corrupt politicians also make the loudest voices aimed at suppressing such demands for change. However, there is also a growing groundswell of a force (not the fossilized and corrupt RPP) demanding the restoration of constitutional monarchy that they view as an indigenously established and traditionally sanctified countervail against bad governance. Unlike in other regions–such as EU ganging up with sanctions against authoritarian Belarus or even Russia just now–Nepal’s two neighbors include one that has always been hegemonic and predatory over landlocked Nepal and had even promoted terrorism against this handicapped neighbour by hosting, aiding and abetting the murderous gang, erroneously called Maoists, for a full decade. Therefore, the search for force for change must be domestic in Nepal and Rabindra Mishra’s must now further his agenda by spearheading a coalition of the willing.

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