United in dotage: Old age runs deep in Nepal’s mainstream politics

Top leaders of almost all political parties are too old for active politics: Sher Bahadur Deuba is 76, KP Oli 70, Prachanda 67, Mahanta Thakur 79, Madhav Kumar Nepal 69 and Rajendra Mahato 63.

NL Today

  • Read Time 6 min.

Kathmandu: It is simple. Top leaders of big political parties in Nepal are already too old for active politics. They already have been tested and failed. They lack the vision to drive the development initiatives and give direction to what kind of future Nepal should have.

In a way, they are united in dotage. That is why they either resist or defend themselves when it comes to the issue of handing over leadership to the next generation.

Their common line of defense is: “I still want to contribute to the prosperity of this country”. They, however, forget their promises when the opportunity comes to their hands.

Sadly, most of them get elected from the popular votes. Does this mean our voters prefer older candidates to younger ones?

The answer is not as easy as the question is.

Generally, people might think that voters prefer a leader of their age. But this presumption does not fit in our context. Nepal’s total youth population is nearly 40 percent. This age group has, however, not been able to claim leadership. Or the elderly leaders do not want to transfer leadership to the youth.

One of the main reasons for the situation, observers say, is that power and resources are concentrated in the hands of the old leaders.

Some leaders admit this is the case. On August 9, CPN-UML leader Binda Pandey raised the issue of becoming a candidate for the lifetime of some leaders. “We need to formulate a policy barring leaders to contest after a certain age and time,” she demanded.

Forever in parliament

As per the available data, as many as 28 leaders from various political parties have been contesting in the elections since 1991. But they do not seem to be in the mood to quit politics any time soon.

Nepali Congress president Sher Bahadur Deuba, CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli, NCP-US chair Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal, Loktantrik Sabajbadi chair Manatha Thakur have continuously fought the elections since the restoration of democracy in 1990.

Interestingly, many of these leaders were elected to the parliament when they were quite young. UML chair KP Sharma Oli was 38 when he was elected from Jhapa. Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara was just 32 when he became a member of parliament for the first time. Bijay Kumar Gachchhadar was 37, Bijay Subba was 33, Rajendra Pandey was 35, Lal Babu Pandit was 32, Dilendra Badu was 32, Purna Bahadur Khadka was 32, Chhakka Lama was 33 and Hridayas Tripathi 31 when they were first elected as the MPs.

Why does the same story keep repeating, especially in the case of the old leaders of the main parties? Why do they contest the polls? Is it because they are indispensable for politics? 

These are, but not limited to, among the leaders Nepalis have seen be elected in parliament from time to time–some of them for every term. But, exceptions aside, nearly none of them have done anything substantive for the nation and the people to boast and pride.

On and off, voices are being raised on various platforms, including on social media, that the old and non-performing faces should be allowed to rest and pass the baton to their successors—young, energetic and daring leaders. 

But if current indicators are anything to go by, the same set of rulers who ruled the roost since 1990 are going to contest the polls and probably win and be dominant in national politics yet again, in their own way. These leaders are not in the mood to quit any time soon. They have built strongholds at their constituencies using power and resources. Similarly, they have developed party mechanisms according to their own convenience.

Do we need them at all?

So why does the same story keep repeating, especially in the case of the old leaders of the main parties? Why do they contest the polls? Is it because they are indispensable for politics? Or have they performed some such deeds for which Nepali people and Nepal should be forever grateful to them?

Nepal Live Today tried to untangle these questions with the help of commentators who have followed these developments closely. 

Shankar Tiwari, a columnist and intellectual affiliated with Nepali Congress who, for long has been advocating for leadership change in politics including his own party, traces this anomaly to the democratic change of 1990 and that of 2007. After the success of the 2007 democratic movement, the expectation was that the political parties would reform themselves and their conduct.  “They instead resorted to old ways of doing politics,” he said. “They began to work to keep their dominance in power in parliamentary politics.  The iron law of oligarchy developed inside the party and became stronger.” 

What does the iron law of oligarchy do? “It does not allow the entry of new faces in the top posts. The old faces use oligarchy to perpetuate politics of threat and coercion and control in the parties,” he explained. “So old leaders say to the new ones, ‘you are not old enough to become ministers or rule the country.’ They discourage the new people.”

Shankar Tiwari further explained with an example. “When Sher Bahadur Deuba became the PM in the mid-1990s, he was a second time MP. Now we have a leader, already a third time MP, who wants to project himself as the PM. But he is being told no, it’s not your turn yet.”

He was referring to Gagan Thapa. Majority of youths in Nepali Congress seem to be in favor of projecting him as the future PM. But the current PM and others in the party’s top posts seem to be silently resisting the idea.

Our political parties have deliberately not mentioned the term limits for the chiefs of the parties or the prime minister’s posts. “They are guided by party control mentality and therefore the same faces stand in elections now and again,” he further said.

According to Tiwari, this will have larger implications in national politics.  An aspiring leader with zeal and enthusiasm cannot even think about becoming the PM. “They become discouraged. The party remains stagnant in the hands of the few oligarchs. It blocks the entry of new leadership. It discourages the youths to come into politics,” said Tiwari. Worse still, in his view, genuine and honest leaders see no future in politics. “Youths become hopeless and politics goes into the hands of the same tested and failed leaders.”

The tendency of the same old faces contesting the elections to remain in power, in his view, is also guided by the thought that once in power you can accumulate wealth for yourself and cadres by misusing state resources which again allow them to maintain their hold in the party.  “It somehow sustains the vicious circle. So they go to the polls again and again, and remain in power again and again.”

Thira L Bhusal, a senior journalist who has followed parliamentary politics closely and who is the editor of a recently published book Parliamentary Committee Practices: From the First Parliament to Federal Parliament sees it normally. We hardly have any precedent of senior leaders voluntarily retiring from active politics. Most of them, even those who held the posts of party chiefs, prime ministers or those who held key executive positions in their respective party or the government, have clung on to power until they last, he explained.

But we need to look at it differently, said Bhusal. The generation of leaders in question spent their entire life as whole-time party members and leaders. They concentrated their entire efforts to get to the top positions in the party or government. “Unlike in other developed and democratic countries, leaders in Nepal didn’t rise to power by introducing any innovative ideas on economic, social or development issues,” Bhusal tried to simplify.

So why does the idea of retiring from active politics and guiding the parties as mentors never cross their minds? According to Bhusal, there are some definite reasons. First is that they see their relevance in politics and only in politics. “They can’t remain idle and to remain relevant in society they see nothing but party and government positions,” he said. 

Second, our society has a tendency to give more importance to those holding positions and power. “Unlike in other developed societies, non-political fields such as professional, academic, social and business sectors have failed to create as much influence and impression in the society,” he said. “They don’t want to retire because they know power is concentrated in politics and it is most lucrative.” As the state agencies have failed to make them accountable for wrongdoings, the system has been held hostage by a handful of people and it has become a safe haven for them. “They feel unsafe once they are out of political power,” explained Bhusal.

But how justifiable is it to blame the old leaders alone for this situation? Bhusal thinks that the second-rung leaders in the parties are also responsible for the reluctance of the old leaders to relinquish power. “The new leaders have failed to challenge them seriously and force them to quit. A few leaders have tried and the top leaders have felt the pressure. They should be able to fight and force the older generation to quit,” he said.

Like Shankar Tiwari, Bhusal attributes the lack of a system of retirement or term limit as another reason. “There should be at least one criteria either based on tenure or age bar. Once the system is established, every single leader will be compelled to abide by it,” he said.

What will be the consequences of the same old faces remaining in power for years and decades? “Innovations stop. Change of leadership doesn’t mean only change of faces. New leaders come with new ideas needed to drive the country,” he said. And the lack of new leaders in the party and power is a complete letdown for the young and aspiring leaders. “Current scenario and the system in our politics doesn’t attract promising people. Then politics fails people.”