Interview | ‘We need to heavily guard ourselves against falling into the trap of populist narrative’: Hari Sharma

In a new political game, or in any political game, Nepali elites remain as a permanent establishment and they create the political discourse. There's a tussle between outsiders and insiders in Kathmandu politics.

NL Today

  • Read Time 12 min.

Political scientist Hari Sharma is a vocal critic of politics of convenience and politics of collusion and an advocate of constitutionalism, process, liberal values and principles of democracy. From these standpoints, where does he see the Nepali political process heading towards? What is the future of politics in Nepal? Siromani Dhungana and Mahabir Paudyal met with Nepal’s eminent scholar a few days back to discuss wide-ranging issues of politics, governance, federalism, and many more. Excerpts:

When the constitution was promulgated in 2015, it was thought that Nepal’s derailed politics of process would be back on track. That’s not the case now. How do you assess the constitution implementation process? 

This constitution that we have in place is just about five years old in terms of its actual implementation. So you can’t judge a constitution in five years’ time unless there’s a grave crisis coming in. I don’t see any constitutional crises at this moment. But I’m very much dismayed and disappointed with the lack of constitutional commitment of the so-called drivers or the pilots of the constitution. Most of the constitutional anomalies emanate from the irresponsibility of the political parties and their leaders. 

In five years, the time has come to review this constitution. Actually, I thought the political parties would do some review of the constitutional and political process of the last seven years in their respective conventions but none of them was found to be doing so.

There’s a tussle between outsiders and insiders in Kathmandu politics. People who come from outside are co-opted into elite politics here. However hard one works if he or she is coming from outside, he or she is still an outsider in Kathmandu politics.

The state of affairs right now is rather bleak as major institutions are eroding in terms of their delivery and credibility. For example, the Supreme Court is embroiled in deep controversies or even a crisis of its own integrity and legitimacy. Especially after KP Oli’s virtual coup over the constitutional appointment process, constitutional institutions started to suffer the setback. Constitutional bodies created to give life to the constitution are either not functioning properly or they have been made weak. Constitutional bodies such as the Election Commission, Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), Human Rights Commission, Dalit Commission, Madheshi Commission, Indigenous People’s Commission and various other commissions are needed because constitutional values need to be implemented through these state institutions. As things stand, these commissions are either not functioning well or are in bad shape. Our constitution is going through the first experimentation of implementation of federal, provincial and local government systems. Therefore, the first five years of its implementation should have been something we could look back to with pride. This did not happen. 

Our constitution is a social constitution because citizenship is divided into various social categories. You have to look into these different social categories that the constitution wanted to do justice to. At the same time, we also need to create a unified notion of a Nepali citizen or a Nepali subject. Because the constitution is a product of the time it has to take into account the realities of the day such as social diversity, social aspirations and identity politics among others. Why is identity politics important? Let me tell you.  One of the major definitions of identity politics, or identity for that matter, is that you are the best person to describe your own identity. For example, I’m a male but if I want to categorize myself as bisexual, heterosexual, or homosexual, I have every right to do it myself rather than others ascribing my identity. Identity politics is about your own individual identity and assertion. But the constitution talks about group identities, whereas identities are always individual. It is tricky how to mediate the differences within one category of identity and individual aspirations.  This constitution is basically a social constitution born out of the claims and counterclaims of different identities. It needs care, compassion and more positive forward-looking leadership to deal with it. 

Do we have such positive, forward-looking leadership in politics at the moment?

No, unfortunately. The leaders of present-day politics, irrespective of all political parties, have treated these identity groups simply as their vote banks and followers, not as independent identity-bearing autonomous entities. They generally tend to forget that Janajati identity politics, women identity politics, Dalit identity politics, Madhesi identity politics, or any other identity politics movement emerged out of the imagination for liberation, imagination for creating an equal just harmonious society. They have not reached out across the aisle. Leadership has to be much more careful and willing to listen, see and hear others. Such a leadership was not seen after the promulgation of the constitution. Present-day leadership, irrespective of all political parties, has not been true to the spirit of the constitution, the constitution which they themselves drafted with a lot of difficulties and a lot of labor pain.  As a result, people have begun to say that this constitution doesn’t work. 

So what should be done about this constitution? 

Like I said, it should be reviewed because that’s a regular process. I want to suggest through your media that there should be a lot of discussions on the constitution, including federalism, secularism and inclusion before the general elections. Elections are times of heightened political communications when everybody can raise different kinds of issues. Before that, I would like to urge this current parliament to form a parliamentary committee to look into their own past record to find out what needs to be reformed so that the political debate around the political reforms does not get hijacked by some radical fundamentalists or conservative forces. The political debate needs to be properly kept within the parameters of the parliamentary debates and discussions or within the political parties which believe that forward-looking politics is possible. The debate has to be meaningful where everybody can participate and share their feelings about the working of a political system.  It has to look into whether the constitution has been able to fulfill our aspirations. These debates on various contentious issues that emerged out of the non-functioning of our political class which has created the anomalies of the institutional arrangement need to be kept within the reasonable framework so that we have a healthy, proper and constructive debate.

Political parties are not keen on holding the kind of healthy, proper, and constructive debate you have suggested. Who will lead this debate?

Parliament should. It’s unfortunate that after two derailments of parliament we have not been able to kick-start the parliamentary process in a healthy and systematic manner. But the current parliament, before it becomes defunct for the next round of parliamentary elections, has to resolve various contestations. Parliament should form a committee headed by all parties represented in the parliament to review how parliament worked, how the political system worked, and how the governments worked. This committee will have to review how honestly the political parties represented in parliament worked in implementing the constitution.

First, they have to look back into themselves instead of blaming the constitution.  They should be honest enough and reflect on whether they were on a wrong track or where they missed the chance if they did. If they want to implement this constitution and take the country forward wisdom has to prevail in all political parties. Sadly, I haven’t heard any politicians and political parties saying that they made a mistake. It’s time for the political parties before going to the people to admit that they made mistakes and that those mistakes would not be repeated. They should say to the people: ‘We went for local elections, created provincial arrangements and federalism. But in the course of implementation of the constitution, we may have made mistakes. And because of those mistakes and miscalculations, we may have caused great suffering and confusion to you. We promise that we will look into the workings of this constitution and our own institutional system and assure you that there will be a better government and better possibilities in the future.’

Again, the sad thing is nobody is talking about the suffering of the people. We went through two years of the pandemic but no political leadership came forward and said he would work to heal the wounded society. Nepali society is a wounded society, wounded in the first place because of the conflict that created deaths and displacement, then earthquakes, then blockade during the constitution promulgation and then erosion of various institutions. Who is to blame for this? The leadership should tell us: ‘This is where we missed the train, this is where we missed the occasion.’ We need a reflective leadership that can dare to say ‘I made a mistake but I have learned from it and I will not repeat it.’ I want to hear political leaders stand up in a genuine manner and say ‘we have made a collective mistake, we failed but one failure cannot stop us.’ They need to look at the purpose of politics itself. A question needs to be constantly asked of a political leadership what is the purpose and meaning of politics.

Somehow the purpose and meaning of politics have come to mean creating opportunities for only politicians and making money. They have stopped caring what the people have got to say.

But if you live in a democracy you have to answer to the people. People and the media should constantly ask what is the purpose and meaning of politics. Without delivery of goods and services in the larger framework of public policy and accountability, no matter how rhetorical your language is on democracy it will not work. Ultimately, people need to be heard, leadership needs to be seen, the government needs to be seen in terms of what they’re doing. Unfortunately, since the pandemic, no government has been seen. But we must not stop questioning the leadership. As long as you have a democracy you can use it to question the leadership.

General people seem to be completely frustrated with political leadership. How should politics manage the frustration of people?

In any given polity, system, or society having expectations is the right thing. Without expectations, society cannot move forward. But expectations need to be managed. If expectations are not managed, we will enter into the arena of frustration, which is where many of us find ourselves at the moment. Frustration can also be managed but if neither expectations nor frustrations are managed then apathy creeps in. Apathy is when we start to believe it is in our destiny to suffer at the hands of irresponsible leaders and nothing is going to happen. Apathy finally leads to depression. I haven’t seen any society going into depression or permanent apathy. So if you say that apathy will go a long way then our politics fails. Politics is a collective affair. As a political scientist, I would like to believe that the meaning and purpose of politics is not defeated in Nepal.

Can we say that Nepali politics has run into the vicious cycle of change and euphoria followed by disillusionment? Because after every system change, we tend to crave for the past and say the earlier regime was better. Now people have begun to say the country was much better without federalism and republic.

I think people are making a great mistake by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. About the vicious cycle you talked about, we run into this vicious cycle everywhere. Samuel Huntington in The Third Wave calls it ‘authoritarian nostalgia’ which makes us feel the past is always beautiful.

Another aspect of opposition to republic and federalism is resistance to change. In a new political game, or in any political game, Nepali elites remain as a permanent establishment and they create the political discourse. There’s a tussle between outsiders and insiders in Kathmandu politics. By virtue of various institutional arrangements, the people who come from outside are co-opted into elite politics here. However hard one works, if he or she is coming from outside, he or she is still an outsider in Kathmandu politics. How come you have the same business tycoon as a key position holder in CPN-UML and in Nepali Congress a few years later?

If so, how can that elite capture be broken?  

I had a great hope that federalism would do it. I had a hope that the true value of local government would do that. But it didn’t happen. We set visions of change in the constitution but we did not create the instruments to realize the change. For example, we created the National Natural Resources and Fiscal Commission but I hear that it has not even been given enough human resources. Education and health were supposed to go down to the local governments and provinces but they are still under the control of the centralized system.  To free politics from elite capture, new elites have to emerge. The risk again is even those new elites might be co-opted. With federalism, I was thinking politics would go out of Kathmandu but it did not happen. If it did, it would perhaps make a much-needed difference.

In this context, how do you see the anti-federalism sentiments which have begun to resurface in recent times?

As elections are coming, various kinds of agendas may be raised. Some might even say that we no longer need federalism. Like I said, election times are heightened political communication times.  We should not bar anyone from articulating their views but you need to see the distinction between populist politics and constitutional politics.  Constitutional politics has checks and balances and it stands on clear constitutional premises as to what needs to be done.  But populist politics has no such checks and balances and it is not grounded on any reasonable premises. 

Gagan Thapa was the only one leader from Nepali Congress to be seen in parliament, to raise questions in parliament, to try to hold the government accountable, to talk based on facts, data and evidence. If that was the morning, definitely it shows the day.

You need to be very careful about politicians using populist politics as a vehicle to power. Populism is all about making promises and providing easy solutions to complex problems. Populist politics would have you believe that since all politicians are corrupt they should be hanged and it will solve all the problems.  We all need to guard ourselves against falling into the trap of a populist narrative.

On federalism, where actually did our politicians make mistakes?

Political parties actually failed to educate the people on federalism. As a result, people did not own up the federal system. It should have been the concern of the political parties to educate the people on federalism. Their concerns were only elections.  Constitutional values were completely forgotten. Even human values have been forgotten. Have you ever heard political leaders talk about untouchability, disability, regional deprivation and poverty? Sugarcane farmers go on protests for months on end, women from Nepalgunj walk all the way up to the capital for justice. Yet no political party talks about it. They do not even show courtesy.

What do you see as the major challenges to this constitution and the future of politics?

I think monarchy will not return because we have 70 years of history of struggle against the monarchy. There will be a tiny section of the population talking about monarchy but there will not be a sizable number of people and institutions to champion the cause of monarchy. Besides, the monarchy’s own credibility has suffered after the 2001 palace massacre. Managing the institution of federalism that we have created will be a big challenge. Again, you have to be mindful of the fact that the real threat to federalism does not come from outside but from those who once championed federalism.  The centralized tendency of political parties has shown that they themselves might harm federalism.

With the advent of Hindutva and the rise of fundamentalism under Narendra Modi in India, secularism in Nepal is also being challenged. The basic tenet of secularism is that the state has no religion except justice. If a state patronizes certain faiths and excludes others, this creates a division in the society, negates certain local customs and practices while protecting and promoting others.  For secularism to sustain, we need leaders with liberal minds, which we lack at the moment.

Let’s talk about the government. How do you compare the government of Sher Bahadur Deuba with that of his predecessor KP Oli?

Honestly, I don’t see any difference between Deuba’s government and Oli’s government. The only difference is that I know some of the people in the present dispensation but that is immaterial to the people. In terms of accountability and public delivery, there is no difference. The earlier government was more rhetorical in promises but zero in delivery. The present government does not have rhetoric, does not have delivery.

In Nepal communist parties have always claimed themselves to be ideologically different from Nepali Congress and vice versa. When it comes to what they profess and what they do, do you see any difference between Congress and communists in Nepal?

I think the difference is less about ideologies and more about political culture. The difference between the political culture between Congress and communists is getting much narrower.  The political culture of all these political parties is becoming similar. Ideological differences are becoming irrelevant. We are living in a post-ideological situation all over the world.

Finally, when Nepali Congress General Convention elected Gagan Thapa, Dhana Raj Gurung and Bishwa Prakash Sharma to top positions a kind of euphoria and hope was seen among the party cadres as well as the general public. What does that indicate about the politics of hope in Nepal?

The leaders you talked about were showered with praises and congratulations when they won. We have to look back at the track record of the party to assess if these new faces will be able to live up to the hopes and expectations of people. The past experiences of how leadership has emerged in the Nepali Congress are a mixed bag.  Congress is the party that made BP Koirala Prime Minister of Nepal when he was in his late 30s.  It used to be the party of the youths and the revolutionaries. But when we talk about youths we also need to talk about dynamism, outlook and philosophy.  The new faces you talked about have reached the nooks and corners of the country and they thus seem more connected to the people and seem to understand the situation on the ground much better. But does this alone help? Is being popular enough? It is not.

Political parties actually failed to educate the people on federalism. As a result, people did not internalize the federal system.

The truth of the matter is their test has just begun.  Leadership is not only about making promises, but also a test on how well s/he can deliver on those promises. It takes time for a person to become a tested leader. These leaders are dynamic and seem to care what the people think about them. They are good at articulation, they are promising as well. In this sense, there is a reason to hope from them because they were among the leaders to raise people’s voices when the party was in opposition. Gagan Thapa, for example, was the only leader from Nepali Congress to be seen in parliament, to raise questions in parliament, to try to hold the government accountable, to talk based on facts, data and evidence. Frankly, he was the only face of the opposition during the tenure of the earlier government.  If that was the morning, definitely it shows the day but the day is yet to arrive.