TCS Daily

Delusions about Democracy in Nepal

By Christopher Lingle - May 3, 2006 12:00 AM

Vientiane, LAOS -- Widespread applause greeted the restoration of democracy by Nepal's King Gyanendra in appointing former Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to head a new government. Koirala was nominated by a coalition of the seven main political parties that instigated recent protests; whereupon the King officially appointed him to the office.

With a new head of government, Nepal's Parliament will be reopened 16 months after being dissolved by its King in a step towards assuming absolute power. In 2002, he applied Constitutional powers to dissolve Parliament and remove the prime minister. (A constitutional clause allows the king to intervene if elected politicians fail to run the government.)

At that point, Nepalis were unmoved by these steps since the democratically-elected leaders proved themselves to be both incompetent and corrupt. And it was widely accepted that firm actions were needed to curb Maoist violence and demands for "revolutionary taxes" and the dragooning of peasants into their military.

A dispassionate assessment of this movement away from autocracy towards democracy suggests it deserves two cheers, if that. Nepalis are caught between a rock and hard place in their Himalayan redoubt.

The political elite are widely distrusted given the endless infighting and corruption that yielded few positive gains after democratic reforms brought them to power in 1990. And so it is that while there are no well-functioning democratic institutions, the quality of the impending leaders is suspect.

Nepal remains poor despite enormous potential. It has a comparative advantage in adventure and eco-tourism, rich land resources for developing high-value agriculture and under-utilized water resources that could be generating vast amounts of hydropower.

And Nepal must be one of the luckiest countries on earth being "land-linked" to China and India with the two largest population masses and their vibrant economies. It is not hard to imagine the economic benefits from following Singapore's example for Nepal to be a free-trade entrepĂ´t. But mainstream political parties made no meaningful steps to support economic initiatives to support these potentialities when they were in power.

Perhaps the four-year "recess" granted to Nepali legislators will mean they will be more competent and less venal than they were before the King dissolved the assembly. Alas, there is no way to hold accountable any of those that caused so much damage and disruption recently if things go as they have in the past.

In assessing the likely future for Nepal, it is of some interest to consider the concerns being expressed over 84-year old Koirala's health. But a question raised here goes beyond his physical condition.

Koirala is on record for stating that he heeds the voice of the people is a puzzling and troubling claim. Perhaps he has been hearing voices in his head or had divine visions or telepathic connections with most of Nepali citizens. Presumably it was these voices that he used to justify spending so much promoting "mobocracy" that frequently interfered with life on most streets in Nepal's urban areas.

His claim is troubling given that history is littered with leaders claiming to know what is in the best interest of their fellow citizens. Those emboldened by confidence in their visions of the best or true path for their country too often lapse into autocratic or idiosyncratic behavior.

That this is a real and present danger is clear in the contents of a pact entered by the Maoist-communist insurgents and the parliamentary parties in their quest to take power. A letter of understanding signed by the seven parliamentary parties and the CPN (Maoist) agreed to an ambiguous concept of "absolute democracy". While this is presumed to be better than absolute monarchy, it may be more problematic than meets the eye.

Absolute democracy as operated by the one-party regimes in China and North Korea involves a dictatorship of the proletariat. As such, decisions over what is best for the country left up to a small elite made up of members of the ruling party.

The letter of understanding also included another ambiguous phrase in committing all parties to use "agitation" to achieve the end of absolute democracy. It is clear that this was little more than a code word for violence given recent street demonstrations and the Maoist actions in the countryside.

Political actors, whether royalists or Maoists or parliamentarians, show little concern for the misery Nepalis suffer in the here-and-now from their political actions. While the Maoist disrupted life in much of the countryside for the past 10 years, the mainstream parties increasingly used their influence to disrupt life in the cities.

It is as though citizens must feel that having the economy of a deeply-impoverished country brought to its knees is worth the shift in political power. That sort of deal sounds not so much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as demanding a new captain as the ship sinks.

Perhaps another metaphor is more appropriate here. Nepalis are meant to take solace from Lenin's adage about the need to break eggs to make an omelet. This is an apt phrase given that food was in extremely short supply over the past few weeks, especially in Kathmandu.

Christopher Lingle is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi.


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