The government has ordained that Republic Day will be observed for three days. Festivities are to begin on May 28 with the illumination of public buildings and conclude on May 30 by broadcasting “inspirational” songs through public media. President Bidya Devi Bhandari will grace the commemorative ceremony with her presence on May 29 at the Nepal Army Pavilion.
Turning public events into quasi-religious performances is a habit that the government of Nepal has inherited from its monarchical predecessors. When rituals are performed in good faith, they become an opportunity of restoring collective confidence. However, customary observance of traditional practices is often bereft of any meaning.
Since the promulgation of the controversial constitution in 2015, functions to mark Republic Day have begun to resemble the pomp and show of the “Push 1” celebrations of the royal-military coup of the Panchayat era. Commoners seem to have lost all interest in the official functions of the governing elite.
Memories are notoriously fickle, and people often remember what they wish to retain. But for a large section of the population that was young enough to hope, mature enough to toil, and old enough to rejoice, Jestha 15, 2065 BS (May 28, 2008) was a day of exhilaration.
A mixture of immense relief and unbridled optimism suffused the air of Kathmandu on May 28 when the first meeting of the newly elected Constituent Assembly decided that the country would henceforth be a federal and democratic republic. The reign of the Shah kings had been duly consigned to the dustbin of history.
A series of events since the declaration of the republic have shown that the entrenched sources of power don’t disappear altogether when the system of governance in a traditional society change. The old elite often reinvents itself as progressive pluralists to claim leadership positions in the new order.
Analogous to the three estates of the ancien régime in France, the realm of the Shah-Rana autocracy rested on four pillars—the military, the mendicants, the merchants and a dedicated cadre of mandarins and minders. From the so-called Celestial Advice of King Prithvi Narayan Shah to the wishful commands of the last Shah ruler, the elite’s loyalty to the crown and reciprocal reward from the sovereign remained the central feature of the monarchical order.
Republican aspirations of the Rhododendron Revolution also drew their inspiration from the four values—Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, Laïcité—of the French Revolution. Progressives of Nepal added two more to the list of democratic principles—federalisation and inclusion—to accommodate the aspirations of self-rule and participation that had begun to be voiced through street protests.
Since the promised revolution ended in a mediated compromise, there was little chance of dismantling the antiquated institutions inherited from the past. Introducing reform is a slow and lengthy process that requires a firm commitment of the political class and constant people engagement. Institutions of the state have either begun to malfunction or become largely dysfunctional because the political parties and civil society are complacent and seem to have reconciled with the resigned expression of yesteryears: “Ke garne? Yo Nepal ho!“
Being voluntary associations, political parties are one of the most adaptable institutions of a democratic republic. Party organisations have to sense social undercurrents and continuously reform themselves. Except for the core ideology and founding principles, all aspects of their operation need to change to keep up with the times.
The sad reality of political parties in Nepal is that the only things they seem to discard without second thoughts are their core values and fundamental principles to maintain the centrality of their version of the “paramount leader”. At least five elements of the resilience of political parties can be enumerated—legitimacy, dependability, efficiency, predictability and adaptability.
Legitimacy is acquired through a complex process of interactions. Public consultations to refine operational details help build social credibility. Organisational elections are essential for establishing the authority of the leader at every level. Protests, agitations and peaceful marches to voice people’s grievances are necessary to maintain political combativeness.
The performance at the polls demonstrates the popularity of the party. The implementation of the agenda promised in the manifesto when the party manages to get into government, either on its own or through partnership in a coalition, is the preparation period for oppositional politics.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the major political parties have failed to function appropriately almost on all counts. They have become mere electoral machines. The Nepali Congress, which is still the default political platform of the bourgeoisie, hasn’t hit the streets since the success of the April Uprising. The CPN-UML is the quintessential organisation of the majoritarian ethno nationalism of the dominant community.
The Maoists know what they once were, and are unhappy with what they have become; but appear undecided about what they want to be in the future. The less said about the form, function and failures of “other” political parties, the better. There is hardly anything of substance that differentiates one political party from another.
Is there any wonder that political parties have come to be accepted merely as a necessary evil of the electoral contests? Party functionaries that contributed immensely to establishing the federal democratic republic have now been reduced to being the butt of public ridicule and open derision.
The risk of the republic turning into an “elected autocracy” through the continued practice of majoritarian and demagogic populism lies in the ideological, structural and organisational decomposition of political parties. The spokes of the democratic wheels—politicos that are ideologically driven, organisationally sound and rooted to the ground—that drive the republic forward are broken.
The decline in the dependability of political parties has given rise to at least two simultaneous phenomena in several countries. Since political parties have all but abandoned agitating and negotiating for the rights of the downtrodden, the working class, the peasantry, the differently-abled population and other minorities that are marginalised from the mainstream society, issue-based organisations have come up to fill the vacuum.
Running parallel to the recognition of cause-based organisations and using their acceptability as a base, social and cultural celebrities have begun to challenge the hegemony of established parties. A cricketer in Pakistan, a comedian in Ukraine, an NGO activist in India and a retired army chief in Thailand are some examples of “outsiders” coming into politics to fix broken governance.
The problem with NGOisation and what can be termed the “STARisation” of politics is that they turn active participants of democratic processes into passive beneficiaries and speechless spectators. A republic works only when its citizens are committed to making it work.
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