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Don’t write off democracy in Nepal

Wherever you go in Nepal, you can see children playing the country's favourite game, football, bouncing an improvised cotton-wool ball on th...

Written by Ashok K Mehta |
February 13, 1998

Wherever you go in Nepal, you can see children playing the country’s favourite game, football, bouncing an improvised cotton-wool ball on their ankle. Most of their elders liken the state of the country’s politics and democracy to a football. They are right.

King Birendra, the harried referee of this game, is tired of blowing the whistle. A landmark judgment of 13th September 1995 by Chief Justice Biswanath Upadhya, overturning the King’s order dissolving the House on the then CPN-UML prime minister Manmohan Adhikary’s recommendation, and restoring Parliament, had set the judicial cat among the constitutional pigeons.

The latest drama began on this January 6 in Kathmandu was over the recommended mercy killing of the hung House born out of Nepal’s second multi-party election in June 1994 after the restoration of democracy in 1990. The House produced four governments in three years exhausting all political permutations and combinations deriving from Article 42(1) of the Nepalese constitution. With noanti-defection laws and the elasticity provided by the Upadhya judgment, governments kept coming and going.

The latest proxy battle fought around Naryanhity Palace was between parties registering a no-confidence motion and staking claim to form the next government and those preempting the no-confidence motion by recommending dissolution of the House. It is the same old story of jockeying to become the caretaker government for the next elections. Incumbency can be a vote winner.

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The phased local body elections were held last year when the UML was in office, supporting the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP). It swamped the elections, capturing traditional Nepal Congress (NC) preserves.

The Surya Bahadur Thapa-led RPP-NC alliance government fell under the weight of its on inner-contradictions. With both parties vertically divided — RPP now formally split into Thapa and Chand factions and NC being pulled apart by G P Koirala and K.P. Bhattarai — each one of these four is being held responsible for bringingdown a government, though this time, it was Chand who engineered the no-confidence motion against Thapa.

With 19 MPs in a hung House of 205, RPP, the third largest party after UML and NC, has been calling the shots ever since the era of three-party coalition governments began in 1995. RPP is loaded with talent and experience, a party of prime ministers and ministers of the dreaded partyless panchayat raj, the voice of the palace. It has inflicted the greatest damage on democracy.

King Birendra’s New Year holiday in the picturesque town of Pokhara was disturbed by Thapa’s recommendation under Article 53(4) of the constitution to dissolve the House and order fresh elections. This move was almost similar to the one followed three years ago by Adhikary to avert a no-confidence motion. The rest is history.

The received verdict on democracy in Nepal is that it has not worked because the constitution is flawed, politicians have failed, and there is a leadership vacuum. The minority view is that it is too earlyto write off democracy and its institutions. After all, it has been tried out for just six years. The monarchy has been the biggest gainer. It has recovered both the halo and glory it lost during the movement for the restoration of democracy.

Besides its bruising experience with democracy, Nepal is faced with three internal security problems which have a spillover potential: the Maoist insurgency in west Nepal; the threat of a popular revolt by the deprived against Brahmins and Chhetris; and the fear of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

There will be new governments in India and Nepal. Both must get down to settling old treaties and trade relations. The irritants in the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship which bother Nepal can be removed by a reciprocal sensitivity by Nepal to India’s long term security interests. On its part India will do well to be guided by the simple advice friends of India in Nepal offer: "Act in the interest of the people of Nepal and not in the interest of any one or otherpolitical party".

The writer is a retired major general

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