Scandals after scandals, democracy in Nepal seems to be in a mess. You hardly find a silver lining in the opportunities top politicians and big political parties have been wasting. The list is too long to mention all the episodes where the political class fell short in recent times.
Amid such a scenario, it is tempting to dismiss the accomplishments achieved since the abolition of the monarchy and since the promulgation of the new constitution. Democracy, some might argue, is not working and is not effective with the rule of law becoming weaker and weaker.
Though the problem in Nepal is at a much greater scale, the effectiveness and efficiency of democracy are in question not only in Nepal but also in many established liberal democracies. While elsewhere, the situation has been made worse by a problematic role of social media, the case of Nepal is rather different.
Here, the political space, the opportunities for common people to participate and engage in politics are limited as most of the opportunities are captured by professional politicians. I am not only referring to top leaders or members of the parliament at federal or provincial levels. Political cadres too seem to be wasting the opportunities, despite their dedication to politics.
Too many people are too much invested in politics because of their passion and genuine dedication. And there are a good number of them involved because it’s an occupation that can be remunerative enough for them and their families to survive decently, by foul means as well.
The local councilors in the Western democracies might simply do politics on the sidelines, driven by a sheer passion but making a living in different trades. In Nepal, the same people might be full-time politicians, doing nothing else except politics.
We need to create the conditions for people to participate and ideally to deliberate more locally. This is another way of doing politics.
This is not necessarily a negative thing especially because federalism offers new venues for people to interact with and get involved with politics but it can become a hindrance to good governance if they are bereft of integrity. But federalism has potentials.
Though probably too complex and too ambitious for a country that for centuries has been conducting its affairs through a strict centralization, federalism could offer new venues to open up the political space, allowing more people to be involved and perhaps, for some of them to directly participate in the political life.
In certain ways, this is already happening throughout the nation. There are examples of good governance with elected politicians at the local level truly interested in the common good. Observing these forces for good could offer us a more nuanced stance on current political affairs.
At the national level, the overall outlook is gloomy but at the ground level, the situation is more varied, surely more mixed, with poor practices but also outstanding ones. In many respects, what is tarnishing democracy at the national level is a generational problem with leaders too old to really imagine a different way of doing politics.
Though with power and resources, they have a miserable life—intra-party fights, competitors always trying to pull your leg and endless requests of favors coming from all the ways. This is not good at all.
Instead of being focused on the common good, the truth is their energies are invested in fixing internal party dynamics, tackling the incessant thirst for power continuously claimed by many party ranks.
Why Nations Fail, the bestseller by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson offers insights to understand the trajectory of democracy in the country. There are elites in power, mostly representing one cultural and social group that has a monopoly at all levels of politics, nationally and locally. In this reading, the best practices emerging from the grassroots level should be considered as “outliers”, exceptions rather than the norm.
The risk is even if we imagine that the vast majority of elected officials at local levels are doing a good job in the interests of the people, these politicians—let’s call them agents for change—face a stumbling block when they try to do more or when they attempt at finding a deserving space at higher levels of politics.
What’s the way forward?
This is a difficult question to answer. Certainly one of the answers should not be a return to the past. That was an era that was closed for good even though the claims of a return to the “better old” times will not subside unless politicians start re-focusing on the common good.
There is a big hope from younger generations of political cadres but as a friend of mine recently said these people, born and bred with the senior leaders, might continue to propose the old way of doing politics, once they reach the helm of power. If the real issue is political culture, then perhaps we need to reinvent a new political culture starting from the grassroots and we should demand moral and ethical leadership.
Those politicians working selflessly, those who are “doers” no matter the challenges they face, have a responsibility and also an opportunity to enable a different understanding of politics and there is no better way of doing so than locally. The challenge will be to bridge the gap between civic and political lives. We need more people, especially young and women to address the problems that exist in society. Young people can have many solutions and novel ideas that could truly help the country embrace a much different future. Doing politics, after all, does not necessarily mean becoming a member of a party or run for and win the elections. Politics is mainly about working for and ensuring the common good. This is something that “traditional” politicians should also aspire for.
Delegating people’s power to elected officials does not mean abdicating the citizenry’s responsibility towards public policies and public concerns. We need to create the conditions for people to participate and ideally to deliberate more locally. This is another way of doing politics and if you look at it, the prospects of the country’s democracy are not that bad. They might even look rosy.