Monday, January 17, 2011

Address ethnic grievances

Nepal´s politics is famous for ugly feuds for power and vertical splits. Virtually every political party suffers from factionalism. While the larger parties like Nepali Congress (NC), the United Marxist Leninist Party (UML), and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) are barely holding on, the Madhes-based parties are withering faster than anybody could have imagined a while ago.

One of the reasons why the factions within the larger parties do not dare to walk out from the parent party may have to do with already divided political space and political apathy that is out there. But when it comes to the Madhes-based parties, which either ballooned (read Madhesi Janadhikar forum) or was created (read Tarai Madhesh Democratic Party) to benefit from rising ethnic sentiments, there is nothing that glues politicians that deserted their previous party to join or form the Tarai based parties. In the case of major political parties like the NC, UML, UCPN (Maoist), ideology binds people together, albeit loosely. In the case of the Tarai-based parties, it is increasingly becoming clear that they flocking together was purely because of the perceived political opportunity.

The ongoing disintegration of the Tarai-based parties is more dangerous than many think. It would be quite naive to expect that ethnic uprising, which the nation witnessed in 2006 as a result of high level of marginalization in the society, will not take place again. As a matter of fact, with the seed of ethnic hatred already sown, half of the work toward instigating ethnic violence is already done. There is no reason to believe otherwise that the opportunists that deserted parties that they belonged to before the Tarai uprising to join or form the Tarai-based parties and who have now been walking away from them, will not further stoke ethnic divisions to mobilize support and use that support for instigating violence. Violent ethnic conflicts always serve ethnic-entrepreneurs. Muslim identities in Bosnia after Bosnian civil war became much stronger than they used to be.

Governments’ apathy towards creating equal opportunity has provided a space for ethnic-entrepreneurs to benefit from ethnic grievances. Fearon and Laitin (2011) looked at 139 civil wars during 1945–2008. They found 79, or 57 percent to be “ethnic” and another 24 or 17 percent to be mixed or what they call ambiguously “ethnic.” What is even more disturbing is that while 53 percent of the 17 civil wars breaking out in the years 1945–49 were ethnic, for the next six decades, the corresponding percentages are 74, 71, 67, 81, 83, and 100 (for 2000–08). These ethnic wars happened not just only because that the governments were insensitive but also because many saw an opportunity to benefit from ethnic violence.

Ethnic violence is more likely in the districts, where ethnic-entrepreneurs succeed in establishing their base. As followers gain access to local institutions through patronage networks that derive electoral gains from communal violence, the propensity of violence will further increase. Belonging to smaller political outfits will not bother them. In a country, where the majority government is unthinkable given the expansion of political representation in the name of inclusion, who needs a bigger party? Small is beautiful and profitable. The likes of Rajendra Mahato can vouch on that.

The real problem in Nepal is that while people belonging to marginalized ethnic groups want equality, those representing them want the marginalization to persist, as they are politically and personally benefiting from it. Hence, the real challenge is to defeat the agenda of the ethnic-entrepreneurs and foster a cohesive subnational community that can on its own generate progressive social policy capable of fostering equality among the citizens.

Even though the ethnic quest for equality is losing its luster because of the wrong people taking up of a very worthy agenda, it is moral responsibility of the ruling elites to work towards making citizens equal. The best place to start would be to introduce a policy that would reduce ethnic income gaps. Income gaps between ethnic groups stoke ethnic divisions. Such a policy was introduced in Malaysia after the race riots of 1969, which has on the whole worked well so far.

The government needs to act swiftly and introduce policies aimed at uplifting the status of ethnic minorities, or else with continued disintegration of regional parties, there will soon be too many ethnic-entrepreneurs resorting to violent means to achieve their political ambitions. In a country where the person that initiated a bloody conflict, which killed more than fourteen thousand people and displaced thousands can become a prime minister, is there really a reason for some ethnic zealot with political ambition to refrain from instigating violence

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