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Reading the Nepali State

Challenges of State Building in Nepal

Published Year: 2009

Published by: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES)

Author: Chandra Dev Bhatta

Price: Not mentioned, Pages: 129


Two centuries on, the characteristic of the Nepali State remains fundamentally the same

Pranab Kharel

Nepal is today in one of the most important and challenging moments in its history. With the abolition of the two centuries old institution of monarchy, Nepal stands at a crossroads from where it has to decide its future course. A key element of this new course would be the nature of the state. Traditionally the Nepali state has been based on agro-military relations backed by the Hindu religion. The beneficiaries of the state privileges were high-caste hill Hindu males who had monopolised the state. The state established clientele relations between the rulers and the ruled. This meant that one had to be close to those in power to benefit from the state. However, with the restoration of democracy in 1990, the basis of the state's legitimacy changed. The agro-military basis was replaced by the constitution, making citizens the source of sovereignty, although it continued to be a declared Hindu state.

These were some of the important changes Nepal underwent in the last two decades. Challenges of State Building in Nepal by Chandra Dev Bhatta helps us understand the current challenges facing Nepal in this context. Bhatta's study focuses on post-conflict Nepal. He argues that merely focusing on macro social variables such as ethnicity, territory, religion, culture, language and caste would not be sufficient for understanding Nepali politics. The geopolitical problems “entrenched in local power struggle” is a major factor impinging on the process of state-building in Nepal. Although the author does not intend to “elucidate on the conceptual tangle of state building”, the book has dealt meticulously with the theoretical underpinnings of state building.

The book is divided into six parts. The first part deals with the concepts of state and nation, with particular emphasis on the difference between the process of nation-building and state-building. The second part deals with the Nepali context; in particular, it tries to understand the decade-long conflict, which, is the result of “bad governance and unholy compromises between elected politicians and selected elites”. The third part covers topics such as the concept of nation-state in Nepal with particular emphasis on the crisis of state-building in Nepal and the rise of ethnic and territorial politics. The fourth part deals with the emerging challenges facing the state of Nepal which range from the constitution making process to governance and state restructuring to economy. In the fifth part titled “State-building from outside”, the author talks about the role of donors and non-governmental organizations in state building. Finally, the author discusses some of the measures that could strengthen the state of Nepal.

As it is not possible to deal with each topic separately here, I will highlight some of the important aspects covered by the book. The idea of state is central to the work. State is a legal political entity, exercising power over a population living within the geographic boundary under its jurisdiction. In the case of Nepal, the author argues, the characteristics of the state have not changed much in the past two hundred years or so. The Nepali state remains founded on the clientele relations between the state and its population. Therefore, no matter which systems emerged out of the revolutions in past six decades or so, “the elite power structure has remained unchanged” in Nepal. The movements raised public aspiration but did not deliver on the promises. Nepali politics has always been characterised by a “compromise between the political parties in the conflict and the regime at the helms of power”. This compromise has resulted in the formation of a salaried political class, particularly after 1990. This has resulted in a sovereignty gap between the source of sovereignty, the citizens, and its executors, the political actors. This, Bhatta asserts, has led to serious undermining of the state, whereby the state has not been able to strengthen its writ.

But the question still remains: why has the process of state building been unsuccessful in Nepal? There are primarily two reasons for this: the model adopted and the actors involved. The liberal model followed by Nepal assumes the existence of a self conscious homogenous unit around whose allegiance states are built. But in reality such group consciousnesses are built by officials and elites through the use of selective images from history. Therefore, in Nepal state has been exclusionary, privileging people who speak certain language, belong to certain class / caste, gender, and ethnicity. To add to this, the state has been interpreted and understood differently by the urban elite, comprising of middle class and civil society. For them the state is an instrument through which their vested interests can be fulfilled; hence they always attempt to monopolise it. On the other hand, the vast majority of the citizens -- often treated as second class -- are left out of the entire state mechanism.

As the state fails to exert its infrastructural power, the ensuing result is the rise of ethnic and territorial politics. Though it may not be the sole reason, it is definitely an important one. The other important aspect the book touches upon is the emerging challenges in the post-conflict situation. These, Bhatta argues, must be addressed to strengthen Nepal's future. I particularly appreciate the author's attempt to point out some specific issues regarding this subject. For example, he has rightly pointed to the need for restructuring the parties that are advocating for the restructuring of the state; they clamour for an inclusive state but are themselves involved in undemocratic practices. He seems particularly worried at the militarisation of the parties.

Economy is another area that draws Bhatta's attention. He argues that the neo-liberal policies adopted in the post 1990 Nepal privileged certain classes over the masses. This encouraged the comprador class, which unfortunately has an effective say in the affairs of the state. This is the class responsible for advocating pro-market policies and creating islands of richness amid vast swamps of poverty. This class, Bhatta argues, has been bolstered with the involvement of some of the policy makers (either parliamentarians or a top bureaucrat) who “are themselves engaged in private businesses”. Foreign policy is another challenge faced by the state of Nepal, more so as Nepal's standing in the international community is on the decline. This problem has been more pronounced in the years after the restoration of democracy.

The fifth part deals with state building from outside, and focuses on international organisations that are supporting the efforts of the state. However, the modus operandi of such organisations is questionable as they rely too much on urban based civil society organisations (CSO) to deliver. These CSOs are found to be anti-state and pro-market. They have not been able to function effectively as a bridge between the state and the citizen. The donor community has “always produced recipe” for the problems faced by the country. However, one needs to understand that Nepali actors have seldom demonstrated the desire to produce homegrown solutions for their problems. Also, the donors have been asking the government to prioritise areas for aid.

Another interesting phenomenon of donor involvement in the state building process is the rise of consultancy culture within the academia. This does not help in the long run as the policies generated out of this clientele research are bound to backfire. The way out of these problems, Bhatta suggests, is to make the state inclusive and accommodate the aspirations of various cultural groups. This is because “the state in the past has failed to appreciate the systematic differences in society, culture, political ideology, and orientation of people who came at different points of time in the country.”

This timely work covers all the areas deemed important for building “new Nepal”. However, the author would have done some topics more justice by treating them in detail. In particular, the topics of governance, national security and foreign policy needed further elaboration. The book also lacks consistency as far as the pitch is concerned. Some parts are enthralling while others fail to engage the reader. Nevertheless, one does wish that the book could also be produced in Nepali, allowing for a greater readership as it deals with crucial issues regarding the formation of the Nepali state.

Source: The Kathmandu Post (17 May 2009)

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