Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Democracy and ethnic dissent

The predicted future of the so-called "New Nepal", in terms of peace, stability, democracy, and political liberalization, has been far from realized. The current political mess raises fundamental questions about the role and the ability of the current generation of politicians at the helm of affairs to provide the structures and institutions which are required for sustaining the drive for much needed social, economic, political reform and democratic consolidation.

In Nepal, where meaningful employment and professional development opportunities are scarce, politics has become a very useful means of conversion of political power and position into economic wealth for the benefit of the few at the expense of many. The politics has degraded to such a level that, it is all about regime survival rather than addressing the broader needs of the nation. Nepal's malaise, thus, is a reflection of endemic political problems.

What the current generation of politicians fails to understand is that democracy is simply the means, it is not an end in itself. The presence of democracy (debatable in the case of Nepal) neither guarantees peace, stability, nor prosperity. Political sincerity and selfless desire to serve the nation is needed to ensure peace, stability, and prosperity. Mere lip-service of democracy is not worth a penny.

With the passing of each day, the situation is getting even more complicated. Exit of Mahantha Thakur and other members of parliament representing constituencies in the tarai will harden the lines of ethnic division and further alter the already bitterly fragmented political landscape in the future. However, it is both a crisis and an opportunity.

One may question the timing of their quitting the party. Obviously, there is a political space available in the tarai, which they know, is up for a grab. There is nothing wrong with that. Politics is all about competition. As long as politicians follow the rules of engagement and remain loyal to the constituents and the nation, formation of new political parties will not hamper democratic consolidation. It will rather enhance the process.

Mahanta Thakur and others that reigned from the parliament to start a new party have done what most politicians shy away from doing. This is not the first time politicians have deserted their party with a perception of better political future. But the purpose of deserting the parental party is quite different this time around. Unlike Sher Bahadur Deuba and Bam Dev Gautam, who led the dissident factions of the NC and the UML solely for the purpose of remaining in the corridor of the power, Mahantha Thakur has taken a plunge to empower fellow Madhesis from the tarai. He says so and there is no evidence at this point in time to discredit his intentions as a flat lie. Politicians within the NC may choose to disagree, but there are not enough grounds to question his integrity, at least not for now. Although he did not do a good job at explaining the vision and long-term goals of his yet to be named party in his recent interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the recent interview alone does not provide sufficient grounds for political pundits to write his political obituary and brand him a traitor.

Thakur did not have tons of cash at his disposal like Deuba and Gautam, which they used for horse-trading in the parliament. If Thakur had money like them when they broke away from the NC and the UML respectively, there would be at least a dozen more parliamentarians from the tarai behind him. What is exemplary here is, unlike Deuba and Gautam, who masterminded virtual split of their parental party for the sole purpose of remaining in the corridor of power, Thakur has deserted his parental party, which is already in power to start a new party, for which, it may take years to come to the power. He could have remained in the NC and enjoyed power, but he has chosen not to do so. Actually, he is a rare species among the Nepali politicians.

The tendency among the politicians is to raise their voice when they are out of the power. But by dissenting when in power and quitting ministry and the parliament, he has to some extent proved that he has set a positive precedence. The days ahead will prove whether he did so to vent anger against his Pahadi masters within the NC or to empower fellow Madhesis.

When the major political parties are on decline, ethnic politicking moves from the margins of political arena to fight for center stage. This is what happened in India and this is what is happening in Nepal as well. Regional parties got stronger with decline of Congress Party in India. To some extent, it is a natural process. With time, ethnic groups get educated and become aware of their rights. Unlike in India, where it took nearly half a decade for ethnic forces to understand their rights and solidify their bases to challenge the monopoly of the Congress Party, in Nepal, it was rather quick. One of the main factors that propelled the rapid surge in demand for ethnic rights was the division of nation state along the ethnic lines by the Maoists. Needless to say, they had done it to buy unequivocal and everlasting support of ethnic groups. The recent dissolution of the sister organizations formed on ethnic and regional basis proves that the Maoists are getting increasingly nervous about the increasing dominance of ethnic politics in Nepal.

What does the exit of Mahantha Thakur and other MPs from their respective parties mean for the functioning of Nepali democracy? If viewed from the standpoint of ethnic interest, the exodus of MPs from major political parties should be seen as a healthy development. Of late, it has become clear that getting ahead in Nepal depends to a large extent on obtaining at least a partial stake in the state for your own ethnic group. It has given ethnic groups a form of psychic emancipation that NC, UML, RPP, and RJP, were not capable of conferring.

Although the line of difference between the major political parties and genuine ethnic political outfits such as MJF in the tarai is getting hardened, the political necessity of alliance building in future will prevent the hardening of identity from being translated into conflict. As the tarai also has big percentage of people that have migrated from hills, the moderating constrains exerted by ethnically heterogeneous constituencies will make it impossible for one narrow ethnic party to win elections without the help of another.

Although the new political party floated by Thakur will result in renegotiation of power relations, it can help resolve the problems in the tarai. The major political parties instead of snubbing and discrediting Thakur and his colleagues should try to reach out to them and forge an alliance to stabilize the tarai. They are the best bet available. As most of them are staunch believer (at least were so till a while ago) of liberal parliamentary democracy, they can negate the secessionist effects exerted by the groups led by Jay Krishna Goit and Nagendra Paswan. Thus, the new party floated by Thakur should be seen as an opportunity rather than a crisis. It can act as a buffer between the state and the secessionists and help pacify the dissent.

The future steps taken by the government with regard to addressing the legitimate demands of the people of the tarai will determine whether the government is for national consolidation or disintegration. The current Seven Party Alliance government should stop viewing the problem in the tarai from the Maoists' lenses and immediately start negotiating with this new front. The need of the hour is a unified state with unified economy. By denying the rights of people, forget about building a "New Nepal," the current political leadership will not be able to maintain even the status quo.

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