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How does democracy work?

A useful primer on the process of democratisation in Nepal

Multiverse of Nepal's Democracy: Contents and Discontents

Published Year: 2010

Published by: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES)

Editors: Dev Raj Dahal & CD Bhatta


by Pranab Kharel

FEB 18 -
The process of democratisation in Nepal is a six-decade old exercise intermittently cut short by various “coups” by former monarchs. A recurring question during this time has been: What ails Nepali democracy? The immediate answer that comes to mind is the failure of the concerned actors to institutionalise the process of democracy, but what really prevented them from doing so? How was the process of democratisation carried out? What were the agencies employed for this purpose, and were they sufficiently equipped to carry out the process? These are some of the questions that Multiverse of Nepal’s Democracy: Contents and Discontents, a volume edited by Dev Raj Dahal and C.D. Bhatta, attempts to answer.

Divided in five chapters, the book delves into various facets of Nepali democracy. The first chapter, co-authored by Dahal and Tone Bleie, focuses on whether the culture of constitutionalism has been a part of this process or not. They argue that constitutionalism as an idea may have found currency among political actors, but it has not been institutionalised as a majority of them seek extra-constitutional measures to function.

This is precisely why, the writers argue, there is the need to institutionalise the process of creating authority through a democratically-formed constitution as, “through constitution, democracy creates a government’s rational authority. It sets limitation on unreasonable rule and tyranny of all sorts, and nourishes broader representative (sic).” Once this happens, it will pave the way for safeguarding the rights of the people. It is worth noting that the latest “wave of democracy” has sought to establish the discourse of human rights as inalienable.

However, while discussing the dimensions of democracy, it is necessary to take into account the nature of the Nepali state with which the process is closely linked. The traditional Westphalian notion of state—which brought citizenship, territory and sovereignty under a single political community to help resolve conflicts among various groups—has come under pressure owing to the process of globalisation. As globalisation advocates for greater linkages across societies and cultures, the nature of the state has also undergone tremendous changes. Dahal and Bleie argue market-driven globalisation has altered the nature of the state from being a welfare-oriented one to a competitive market-driven one. This, they believe, “has made state-centric definition of democracy problematic for two reasons: global movements of Nepalis and the capacity deficit of the state to play traditional role.”

The second chapter by Kashi Raj Dahal deals with the crisis of a constitutional state, wherein Kashi Raj focuses on Nepal’s need for six constitutions in 60 years. A close look at the constitutional history of Nepal suggest that rulers in any given period have come up with a constitution, although grudgingly, in hopes of diffusing the public anger directed against the regime of the day.

The focus of the 1948 constitution, for instance, was to address the demands of the protesters against the Rana regime. Similarly, the 1962 constitution was designed to consolidate the Panchayat polity rather than aiming at facilitating the process of democratisation. However, the 1990 constitution—which came against the backdrop of the Jana Andolan—started the process of democratisation. The post-1990 polity opened up considerably, allowing for freedom of movement, speech and association—all basic fundamental rights. However, a democratic constitution will lose its value and utility if the provisions within are misused. And that is what happened in 2002, wherein then king Gyanendra carried out the putsch, claiming to do so as per the authority vested in him by the 1990 constitution. In fact, this tendency of defining constitutional provisions to suit one’s interests has been a major drawback of constitutional practices in Nepal.

Another theme dealt within the book has been the evolution of civil society in Nepal. The term gained much currency in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when major Western powers floated the idea of having a “civil society” as a complementary force to the state, where they would perform the hitherto role performed by the state. In other words, civil society would provide an alternative platform to engage in the democratic exercise.

C.D. Bhatta points to an interesting phenomenon wherein civil society, mainly NGOs, is used for regime change. He argues that the nature of NGOs/civil society in Nepal is problematic as they are under the influence of the power centre, including political parties. This blurred boundary between the state and the society poses a serious challenge to the process of democratisation as it runs the risk of the state being personalised by a certain group—hence the need of a civil society. But if they too are co-opted by power centres then the idea of creating an accountable democratic system will suffer serious setbacks.

While this work on various facets of Nepali experience with democracy has made an attempt to highlight the process of democratisation, it does not devote enough space to the nature of democracy. Nevertheless, this is a useful read for those interested in the process of democratisation in Nepal.

Source: The Kathmandu Post, On Saturday (19 February 2011)

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