Monday, May 22, 2006

On the HoR Proclamation

The House of Representatives in Nepal passed a “historic” proclamation last week. Time will tell how historic it is, but for now it has to be seen as a major decision.

The King’s Blunders
In a famous Hindi movie, the merciless villain Gabbar Sing reminds hapless villagers that only one person can save them from his wrath—khud Gabbar (Gabbar himself)! In the April uprising of Nepal, only one person was ultimately responsible for the massive decline in popularity of the Nepali monarchy—the monarch himself.

The king surrounded himself with bad people and paid the price. All this while he was constantly talking about “swachha chhabi.” Even when he took over direct rule, many Nepalis were willing to give him a chance. People were sick and tired of violence and constant abuse of the system by everyone. No matter what his intentions were (and whether he had any good intentions is now questionable), king Gyanendra’s utmost priority should have been to project an image of reform and a system of governance based on accountability, integrity and strong democratic norms. It’s hard to imagine that a team with people like Kamal Thapa, Jagat Gauchan, Sharad Chandra Shah and Niranjan Thapa, would ever give that impression.

The Proclamation
There isn’t much room to disagree with some of the tenets of the proclamation. However, there is no mention of issues (i.e. corruption and lack of strong democratic norms) that are equally, if not more, responsible for plunging Nepal into the current state of mess. As it is worded, the proclamation gives the impression that it was the king who is at fault for everything. Is that really the case? Are the politicians unwilling to take responsibility for anything? Like I have said over and over again, the king’s moves would be extremely unlikely, if not outright impossible, had the leaders succeeded in garnering the support and trust of the general population.

Another issue that is untimely and unnecessary under the present context is turning Nepal into a secular state. Not once did I see people on the streets demanding secular Nepal. People were mostly upset about the lack of progress on the peace front seemingly declining everyday situation in Nepal. Is Hinduism to be blamed for Nepal’s crisis? Why the issue of secularism before corruption? Did the people march on the streets asking for a secular Nepal?

Besides, isn’t Nepal status as a nation an issue that is decided by all Nepalis rather than by a parliament that is defunct for all practical purposes? After all the last elections were held over eight years ago, and the ground realities are much different now.

The army is said to be freed from the king’s clutches. This is fine on paper. But politicizing the army and making it run on the whim of the defense minister or other politicians will be death wish for Nepalis. After all the army is the only obstacle to stop a full-fledged takeover of Nepal by the Maoists.

And, in the absence of context, what is the law of our land? Since when did parliament become bigger than the constitution? Remember, this is an opportune time to start from a fresh slate. What happens now could have long term repercussions. The politicians should be mindful of not setting precedence that will hurt the building of democratic culture in Nepal. Things need to be done the right way, not in a haste that reeks awfully like a locomotive fueled by vendetta rummaging through the political scenario.

If this proclamation is challenged at the Supreme Court, what is the court expected to look at? Is it appropriate for laws to nullify the constitution? Isn’t it the other way round? And the way parliamentarians are going around threatening judges of impeachment should they go against the people will, what direction are we heading towards? Isn’t an independent and strong judiciary a fundamental requirement of lively democracy?

Learn your Lessons
So far everything appears to have been driven by the Maoist agenda. What has the government received in return? Are the Maoists willing to stop their extortion spree that has become more rampant in the weeks since parliament was restored?

A big debate is going on about the suppression of the people’s movement which saw 22 people lose their lives. However, there seems to be no talk about the 13,000 dead directly as a result of the Maoist rebellion. Is this kind of double standard going to be the norm now?

Lots of mistakes have been made, especially since the 1990 popular movement, that has stifled the growth of a vibrant democratic system in Nepal. The need now is to sift through those mistakes and figure out ways of not repeating them. Acting in haste to quell immediate voices of decent is not as important as starting to build a deep-rooted democratic culture that is self-sustained and immune to attack from any person or institution that is driven by personal agendas.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Election or Consensus?

This whole issue of consensus just drives me nuts. On one hand, we talk about democracy and democratic culture, institutions etc. etc. And on the other hand we always seem to be bogged down by this whole idea of “consensus decision.”

Now don’t get me wrong. Consensus is not necessarily a bad thing. Understanding and accounting for everyone’s voices is important. But in a democracy, the voice of the ballot is far stronger than the voice of consent. And when we are consistently pursuing consensus, we lose the vibrancy and active participation that democracy guarantees.

I won’t even talk about the pre-2001 days when consensus was used as a means to postpone serious discussions rather than to genuinely arrive at a unified decision.

Let’s take the election of the speaker for instance. The seven party alliance apparently tried very hard to make Subash Nemwang the “consensus choice.” Fine. But that effort simply delayed Nemwang’s assumption of office. With the Nepali Congress and the UML supposedly behind Nemwang, why not simply have an election and elect him? If nobody decides to run against him, then fine, he’s the unanimous selection.

We’ve seen a similar culture within party-politics where the leaders are so bent on presenting a “consensus candidate” that what the party members really want is usually suppressed under the opinions of “senior” leaders.

Democracy is based on the electorate choosing their representatives—no matter how big or small the destination is—parliament, city council, school board etc. There should be a consensus on only one issue and that is the election schedule. And if there is only one candidate, so be it. We have an unopposed winner!

Shying away from elections can very well mean ignoring the will of the people, be it the general population, party cadres, or any given group. Consent is good only up to a certain point. Serious issues require serious steps and there no action more serious or inclusive than an election.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Democracy is not Merely a Brand

The post-1990 democratic era saw the raping of democracy by the very people who were trusted by Nepalis to establish a transparent democratic system in Nepal. These netas left no stones unturned to cling to power and abuse their power.

When it came to benefiting from a certain move, they did not even hesitate to involve the palace in decisions where the king had no constitutional role. Case in point—the house dissolution recommendation of Manmohan Adhikari and the ensuing squabbles.

In any case, on February 1, 2005, king Gyanendra became the latest attacker to the constitution. But what we must not forget is that had the netas done their jobs right, the king would not have the guts to mess with democracy and the constitution.

Did the king make a mistake? Certainly!

Is the king and the institution of monarchy solely responsible for the mess Nepal is in right now? Absolutely not! He's played his part and the latest mess is probably all because of his doings, but in no way is the king solely responsible for what Nepal has gone through in the last decade and a half.

So what is my point?

My point is that we have not heard a single word of remorse or self evaluation from the leaders, who are currently too busy deflecting all the blame to the king and the palace. Like I said, yes, the palace is at fault, but shouldn't the citizens of Nepal have the opportunity to be reassured by the netas that what went on between 1990 and 2004 will not happen again?

What we don’t want is the politicians committing blunders with mid- to long-term repercussions, all in the haste of “providing an outlet to the current crises facing the nation.”

At the very list, the politicians should clearly and concisely answer the following three questions:
  1. What plans do they have to ensure transparent governance based on meritocracy, integrity and accountability?
  2. How do they propose to ensure that the planned constituent assembly elections will be fair and be conducted without any threats or “civil-actions” by the Maoists?
  3. What will happen to the leaders who engaged in massive corruptions while they were members of the post-1990 governments?

Debate along these lines are crucial to allay the concerns of those Nepalis who are suffering from the JJAPKC syndrome (jun jogi aaye pani kaanai chireko). We should not forget that the post-1990 experimentation with democracy failed because of lack of vision and planning necessary to build strong institutions. We should not be making the same mistakes again and simply hope that the brand “democracy” will take care of everything.

This is our country and we should help change it. As Gandhi once said, “the spirit of democracy cannot be imposed from without. It has to come from within.”