While meeting the heads of 18 different parties at Sital Niwas on Sunday, President Ram Baran Yadav expressed fear that the failure to end the current political and constitutional impasse could soon put the country among the list of failed states. “You definitely would not like Nepal to mirror the fate of Afghanistan!” the president cautioned the leaders who have repeatedly failed to work together on important national issues.
So is Nepal really on its way to becoming a failed state? To answer this, we first need to ferret out what elements constitute a failed state. There is no universal agreement on the definition. But according to a widely accepted definition of the Fund For Peace, which brings out the annual Failed State Index, the countries on the brink of failing share the following attributes—the loss of physical control of its territory or a monopoly on the legitimate use of force; the erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions; an inability to provide reasonable public services; and the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.
In tune with its past record, Nepal fared dismally in the Failed State Index 2012 as well, and was ranked 27th most vulnerable country (among 178) that are at the risk of lapsing to the status of failed states. Not surprising, considering the country meets most of the above mentioned criteria. The rising culture of impunity abetted by the prolonged transition has seriously undermined the state’s writ; increasing fragmentation of Nepali society along ethnic lines, and rising awareness among the traditionally marginalized, is undercutting the center’s authority to make decisions on behalf of the diverse Nepali population. Further, corruption, mismanagement and political meddling have subverted the Nepali state’s ability to provide reasonable public services; and to a lesser degree, as it fails to contain fissiparous tendencies within its borders, Nepal is losing its ability to interact with other states as one united country.
Nepal’s FSI ranking, which takes into account 12 different political, social and economic indicators to arrive at a country’s overall score, is a clear indication that if urgent steps are not taken to end the prolonged transition, the country’s sovereign status will increasingly come under question. At this point in time, the only way out of the stalemate is broad consensus among political parties on the future course, especially on new election dates and formation of a consensus government to overlook such polls. Sadly, as things stand, Nepali polity is highly polarized, with political parties aligning themselves on the extreme ends of the political spectrum, a tendency which is likely to be more pronounced in the lead up to the next polls (whatever be its form and timeline).
At the current juncture, what Nepal needs more than anything else is political stability. As a report in Foreign Policy accompanying the FSI 2012 pointed out: “Nepal´s biggest problem is that it just can´t seem to form a government.” The observation, which came before the dissolution of CA, could not have been more apt for the present time as the country suffers from another round of bitter political bickering over the question of the resignation of the incumbent government. This comes hot on the heels of the prolonged drama in 2011 when 17 rounds of parliamentary voting could not give the country a new prime minister. It is telling that since the democratic movement in 1990, not a single government has been able to serve out its five-year term.
As Seyom Brown and Vanda Felbab-Brown pointed out in their June 5 New York Times article Nepal, on the Brink of Collapse, even the election of a new legislature/CA will be no panacea for Nepal’s ills. “Although averting imminent political disaster and violence, the call for
[Nov. 22] elections is unlikely to bring consensus among the self-interested and fractious political leaders, and is quite likely to produce an even more divided legislature.”
Irrespective of the political course Nepal embarks on in the next few years, the specter of failed state is likely to hang dangerously over the country for years to come. The recent remark of PM Baburam Bhattarai that the ‘key’ to resolving the country’s problems is to be found outside the country is an indication of the country’s loss of sovereignty, as instability in Nepal continues to attract unwanted attention of its two big neighbors and the broader international community. If solutions cannot be worked out in the near future, which is a likely prospect, such foreign meddling will only increase.
Irrespective of the political course Nepal embarks on in the next few years, the specter of failed state is likely to hang dangerously over the country for years to come.
The FSI 2012 points out that no country is immune to shocks and pressures, but those with strong state institutions based on the rule of law and democracy can manage such pressures better. Sadly, Nepal sorely lacks such strong institutions. It is important to note that these institutions cannot operate in an insecure and politically volatile climate, characterized by breakdown of law and order, lack of safety for people’s life and property and the pervasive culture of impunity. Deep linkages between criminals and politicians have resulted in a wave of crimes and undercut political legitimacy. Absence of transitional justice mechanisms has left thousands of families that either lost or had their loved ones ‘disappear’ without justice. As a result, many of them have started seeking redress through UN Human Rights Council, further putting a question mark over Nepal’s ability to avail justice to its own people.
But there is still hope. For one, in the drastically changed political context, it will be hard for the traditional elites to continue to hold on to old powers and privileges. If they are not ready to let go of their unearned perks willingly, the demand for greater say and representation of the marginalized and the poor sections of the population in all state apparatus will only get stronger, eventually forcing difficult choices on the old power centers. Thus, no matter how long the current state of transition continues, the Nepali state is set for radical transformation. It will be up to the political actors to ensure that such a transformation takes the country on a peaceful, progressive path rather than a regressive path that is sure to set in motion another prolonged period of violence and instability, taking the country another perilous step closer to the status of a failed state.