Nepal’s struggle for democracy, rights and self determination is as old as the nation itself. After decades of struggle and a mixed bag of success and failures, the year 1990 saw a decisive end to decades of the Panchayati Raj and heralded an era of multi-party democracy in Nepal. With that, grandiose promises, commitments and pledges for reform were made. Expectations ran high. However, a self centered and myopic leadership ensured that the ‘legitimacy gap’ increased with each passing year, leading to complete disillusionment and anger as is witnessed today.
The June 1, 2001 royal massacre was followed by a faltering King, unable to take charge, demonstrate leadership or give direction to the country. Now, two decades of democracy, two kings, twenty Prime Ministers, over 400 ministers, 601 CA members, four deputy Prime Ministers, seven elections and a civil war later, Nepal’s political class has very little to show in terms of its achievements.
A decade ago, before the civil war and while Nepal was going through the so called ‘phase of establishing democracy’, the country was ranked third in the list of countries with the highest number of missing prisoners and till recently, we were in a list of 13 countries which had witnessed the maximum killings of journalists with impunity and no justice. Protectionism to the powerful and a growing nexus between criminal elements, business and politics has been the norm and continues till date. Despite this, we call ourselves a democratic country. In reality, Nepal has never had true democracy and when out leaders claim that democracy is being threatened, they are merely trying to protect their personal interests.
Parties have been formed, elections held and yet, people’s rights violated by a system of party dictatorship under the guise of democracy. Bandhs, which have a dictatorial premise, have been called by so-called democratic parties. Nepal’s greatest tragedy has been its slow growth, low income and literacy rate, and the feudalistic mindset that is a breeding ground for ‘patronage’ democracy. To continue a system of patronage, adequate finances are imperative and therefore, the looting of public coffers and rampant corruption has become a norm.
The foundation of the current clutter was laid when the so-called elected government refused to act against the recommendations made by the Mandal commission. The desire of every government to abuse the system to benefit themselves is blatantly evident and yet, there has been no effort to set up any system of checks and balances, transparency or accountability – essential pillars of a democracy.
The leaders have always engaged in politicking, not governance. There have hardly been any systems that have been established or policies implemented; the aim primarily has been to ensure that the political leaders continue to hold on to power and not allow true democracy to emerge for that will mean putting the real power in people’s hands. Our political class as well as civil society is well aware of the various policy gaps, and missing laws and legislation, yet even simple amendments which would be in the best interest of the people take years to be passed. Yet, it seems the bill to grant MPs the right to purchase duty free Pajeros was passed in one meeting.
In a democracy, power rests with the people but in Nepal, power is a personalized commodity used by the political class. Voters are bribed with public money, contracts are monopolized by political parties, hooligans are in the pay list of leaders at the cost of the rule of law (openly stated by the home minister) and corruption has become a way of life. Almost every politician, bureaucrat and businessmen has amassed wealth disproportionate to his/her source of income, and yet, the law doesn’t seem to catch up.
There is an incestuous relationship between the official watchdog agencies and the organizations that they are expected to watch over – for example the customs department and smugglers, the forest department and timber smugglers, the labor ministry and manpower supply agencies, the police department and powerful murderers, among others. This has led to the emergence of an efficient and parallel economy of corruption, whereby billions are conveniently siphoned off into personal assets, further dampening Nepal’s prospects of economic development. The only solution lies in the Nepali people taking on the role of being the watchdog.
Nepal continues to have the highest rates of child malnutrition, 8 million people remain outside the ambit of food security because of rising food and fuel prices, millions live below the poverty line and inequality and corruption remain endemic.
Recent articles in the papers have stated that over USD 450 million is smuggled out of the country each year. The question is, will anything ever be done or will it all be swept under the carpet? This can of worms of how the business-bureaucrats-politicians nexus has plundered the country has to be opened.
Even without going into any debate on what constitutes a democracy, one can conclude the minimum requirements would be transparency, accountability, justice, equal opportunities for all, a vibrant and thriving fourth estate, a conscious civil society and a state of mind that promotes these values. It must be left to the readers to decide if successive governments or parties have delivered on any of these counts or made any attempts to establish true democracy. The rot has set in; a turnaround seems immensely challenging and requires courage and determination. However, to believe that any of the leaders or parties has the moral courage to take it on would be akin to living in a fool’s paradise
The author is an expert on development and emergency response