Nepali Congress is finding it hard to come to terms with Prachanda’s capacity to drive national politics and his ability to divide political forces. However, in a democratic polity, it is natural for the opposition to try to weaken its counterparts. One should not expect strict adherence to democratic means from the likes of Maoist chairman. Prachanda is, of course, a dictator in disguise. But who is not? Some try imposing their will in a dictatorial fashion, while others look to do it through democratic means by manipulating democratic norms. Prachanda can fall into either category as and when he likes.
Therefore the problem is not with the Maoists or Prachanda, as they stand for what they are. The fundamental problem lies with the inability of Congress leadership to judge the political context, and its failure to prepare strategy and leadership to avert any unwarranted political scenario. Congress leadership has failed to display political acumen. Most importantly, it has failed to clarify why it is against the ethnic model of federalism proposed by the Maoists and the Madhesh-based parties. The most important issue for Congress is not to judge and analyze what Maoists or Prachanda will do in the future, but how it intends deal with politics of extremes, one led supposedly by progressives (in the guise of ethnic federalism advocates) and the other by conservatives (those against federalization itself). It is clearly going to be a long battle of ideas and ideology, which unfortunately, Congress has given up long ago.
As columnist Prashant Jha has rightly put, “the line between the erstwhile liberals and conservatives has truly blurred”. NC is sliding towards far right as it fails to counter the ideas helping establish ethnic politics. Political ethnicization is nothing new, particularly in a democracy constantly exploring alternatives to accommodate the aspirations of excluded groups. What remain problematic, nevertheless, are extremes ideas that try to construct the character of groups, communities or ethnicities based on any single variable or completely rejects the aspirations of excluded groups. Nepali politics, today, is caught between these two camps contesting each others in the name of ‘ethnic rights’ or ‘nationalism’. This has blurred the ‘centrist’ space, which is not only adverse to positive political development of our country, but also to the very identity of Congress.
Congress should immediately begin to address some of the tough political questions. For how long can Congress cling to minority vs majority model of democracy? Can democracy understood and practiced by Congress effectively address the ‘differences’ borne out of social, ethnic and feminist movements? How are the ‘differences’ constructed? What specific ‘differences’ have to be recognized? Will the democracy of tomorrow uphold and thrive on the values of ‘differences’ and ‘contestations’?
On the other hand, Congress needs to introspect on the challenges put forth by advocates of ‘ethnicity’ as a single defining factor of federal Nepal. It has to explore whether democracy can thrive on singular models of identity. Will the emphasis on the recognition and representation of difference not violate equal rights of each citizen? What would be the basis for defining ‘differences’ and ‘commonness’? How will the democracy of tomorrow address the question of justice along with the question of power and coercion?
The answers not easy, but it has become important to address these questions. It would be naïve to claim that Congress has not transformed itself in the last 70 years of its existence, but any such changes have been made reluctantly, compelled on it by the realities of modern society. Congress is justified in opposing a singular model of ethnic federalism, but it needs to work on mechanisms that would rationalize its claims in favor of multi-ethnic model. There is nothing wrong to adhering to certain political philosophy, but such a philosophy must be guided towards consistently improving the quality of lives of common citizens.
NC should internalize that multiculturalism is Nepal’s reality. It cannot run away from politics of differences.
Congress should not hesitate to internalize that multiculturalism is one of Nepal’s abiding realities. It cannot run away from the ‘politics of differences’. Activists and political forces that believe in diversity of cultures, religions and ethnicities can neither favor ‘single-ethnic model’ of federalism nor can they confine themselves to the ‘camps of conservatives’. Those who believe in respecting the differences based on ethnicities must move towards ‘centre’ of the political spectrum so as to forestall further polarization of Nepali society. However, it is important to lay down the political features of that ‘centre’.
The ‘central’ political philosophy should not be against any group or community, but at the same time it should also not provide disproportionate advantages to certain individuals falling into particular categories. Further, the ‘centre’ should allow each and every group, ethnicity and community to celebrate their tradition, without compelling others to do the same. Celebrating tradition is connecting with the roots, which means going back to community, ethnic group and family.
Those advocating single ‘ethnic’ models of federalism cannot, at the same time, look to completely dismantle the past as tribes, clans and ethnicity are by-products of long historical process. The ‘central’ political philosophy, according to American sociologist Robert Nisbet, “ should not help revive old communities, but the establishment of new forms: forms which are relevant to contemporary life and thought.” There is nothing wrong in ‘ethnic’ demands, but the determinants defining the ethnicity in the past must be attuned to the contemporary realties. The ‘centre’ must allow everyone to celebrate their ‘differences’, but must strive to find ‘commonness’ within such ‘differences’.
Can Congress accommodate differences in Nepali society, and yet strive for commonness? What does it mean to recognize differences in public and institutional contexts? Can it claim the ‘centre’ political spectrum by disassociating with practices of conservatism? If NC manages to do so, it will not only help revive party identity, but also emancipate the country from the clutches of distorted social and political discourses guided either by the ideologies of ‘singular ethnic federalism’ or ‘anti-federal’ extremes. Such extremism can only be averted by eradicating its precipitating ‘conditions’. And, for that, the ‘centre’ must prevail. NC’s survival largely depends on rational choice, particularly, on how it can overhaul its political ideas to recapture the ‘centre’.