By Pratiksha Ghimire and Yunesh Pratap Singh–
Recently, Kathmandu hosted the ICAPP (International Conference of Asian political parties) Special Conference on Democratic Transition in Nepal, which was attended by political leaders from China, Cambodia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand, and Nepal. Participants in the event shared how their countries have struggled through various forms of transitions. While delegates from China expressed how China has gone through a century of major changes and is still working for the realization of their dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, Nepalese leaders elaborated on the political evolution of Nepal- from autocracy to democracy, culminating in the promulgation of the people’s constitution. This, they opined, is a result of years of struggle, both peaceful and violent, with varying degree of success, and a more intellectual and progressive debate witnessed in recent years. This result, the leaders asserted, came to fruition only because Nepal is and always has been open to adapt to change and follow the changing demand of time and people. Thus, in this context, it is pertinent to discuss the changing notion of democracy, especially with respect to Nepal.
A look back and today
From the genesis of democracy in ancient Athens, to the American Revolution where the Americans fought against the British suppression for their rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, and the wave of democratic uprisings witnessed in the Arab world, reveals that people have always been ready to fight for their rights, dignity and freedom. Every individual is sovereign to him/herself only and to no one else. This sovereignty of each individual, secured and institutionalized through a constitution, is in effect what is called a democracy.
Things change with time, and so has the understanding of democracy, however, its core values i.e. of rights and freedom still persists. Democracy for people today is not only what is inscribed in documents but has become their very way of life, as they have not only heard of democracy as a political concept but also have lived through it, felt it and helped in remolding and redefining it. Thus, today it shouldn’t strike anyone by wonder that everyone wants to feel liberated, every individual wants to enhance their living standards, everyone wants to hold their head high and actually ‘live’ and not just survive.
The case of Nepal
Like any state, survival has been of paramount importance and the utmost priority for Nepal. Given its location, Nepal has long been prone to delicate survival agendas and has struggled and fought in order to ensure it. This struggle for ones very survival is reflected in the lives of Nepali people as well. A large portion of the population still lives below the poverty line where they have to struggle to meet their basic needs. This, in essence makes it, not a “life” with all that it has to offer, but a mere “survival”. Thus, the question is, will the new phase to federal republican democracy and a new understanding of it be able to truly give Nepalis a “life”
In his opening remarks, the chairman of standing committee of ICAPP said ‘political democracy is not enough and democracy must work for ordinary people’. This is an important message for Nepal. Nobody would deny that a major share of credit of making the promulgation of new constitution possible goes to the political parties of Nepal. However, it is also important to realize that their duties don’t end there. Constitution is not an end in itself. In fact, they have a more rigorous role to play now that the constitution has been promulgated.
Political parties in Nepal have, more often than not, been embroiled in conflict so as to further their own agendas. This is unhealthy for them as well as for the wider interest of the country. Their unity is what is admired and desired given the current situation of the country. They should understand that Nepali people, despite the hardships they have faced over the years, have stood by their sides. Hence, now it’s time that they reward the citizens with better life and democracy which is widely perceptible and institutionalized, as a lot has been scarified by them to see it come into being. This is the responsibility that should be shouldered by the political parties in earnest.
Challenges and opportunities (in the context of Nepal’s relation with other states)
Borrowing a constructivist viewpoint, realizing a prosperous and dignified life is not a matter of discovery; it’s about creating those situations. Nepal has already started off in that direction by embracing values of democracy, socio-economic progress and inclusiveness. It’s an attempt to exploit the richness of diversity that Nepal has. It is an attempt at creating a situation where equality, fairness and justice can flourish. As with popular axiom which holds, “Destruction is always easier than construction”, rooting out the edifice of autocracy was the easier bit of the larger aim of realizing a truly democratic and prosperous society. Thus, big challenges lie ahead.
First challenge is to strengthen the relations with the two neighbors. It is needless to explain how relations with the southern neighbor have seen a downturn recently. It is one thing which both the parties have to work on. It should be of utmost priority of Nepal to maintain her relation with the southern neighbor because souring of relations with a state with which Nepal has the longest historical ties, a state which possibly will be one of the biggest power in near future, a state which is a market for Nepal’s economy, is something Nepal can least afford. Nepal’s interest is to prosper economically, thus her policies have to look beyond survival. It’s time that Nepal shifts its focus to areas of common interest with the southern neighbor such as support for industrialization and infrastructures. However, this has to be achieved without compromising on the national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Nepal.
Second challenge lies in the concept of balancing relations between the two neighbors. Nepal’s neighborhood policy has largely resembled that of a buffer state. Nepal has tried to be equal and neutral to both the neighbors, lest favoring one may annoy the other. Nepal’s policy has been ‘look north but keep in mind south’ and ‘look south but keep in mind north’. This is the reason why Nepal has been termed as a buffer state by many scholars and politicians. This notion is flawed in today’s context. It was a strategy applicable in certain point in history and best suited then (emphasis added) to ensure the survival of the state. However, times have changed. Nepal’s recognition as an independent sovereign state spans over a century. Today in the international system, international laws prevail, there are governing bodies such as the United Nations; there is deeper interconnectedness and interdependencies among states; digital media reaches out to millions of people all around the globe, where every step a state takes is closely scrutinized. Expansionist policies have been supplanted by policies geared toward realization economic advancement and global benefits. Thus, Nepal too should move beyond the realm of security and tread towards prosperity. This however doesn’t imply undermining security concerns. But it is important to understand that prosperity in effect will mitigate security concerns as well.
Thus, it is important to pay heed to this changed context as well. Nepal has to “look globally –but keep in mind her national interest”. Nepal has to rethink on her policy towards her northern and southern neighbors through the angle of national interest and welfare of her people. It’s necessary to be bold and take steps to grab the opportunities that emerge from its neighbors.
Third challenge lies in extending, utilizing and maintaining friendship with rest of the international community. Nepal has to collaborate, on economic and developmental agendas with other states. This will help Nepal to gain from multiple sources and also further its connectivity with the rest of the world. This in turn will gradually reduce its “dependency” towards the neighbors. Now-a-days many scholars have emphasized on seeing Nepals landlockedness not as a curse but rather as an opportunity. Geography does not change but the advancement in technology has reduced the effects of this constancy and opened up new avenues. It’s just that Nepal needs to build her capacities to walk these ways. It’s definitely challenging but not impossible.
Unlike conferences where people tend to hear rather than listen, people’s voices cannot be ignored by leaders and political representatives. Nepal indeed has made a historical transformation, it however is yet to realize its desired form, built upon solid foundation. This foundation includes institutions, mechanisms, procedures and other structural necessities that are required to achieve desired goals. However, this foundation has to be built over another structure-a foundation of values. Values of participation, dedication, accountability, transparency and most importantly patriotism, has to be internalized by every Nepali. This will lead to success in achieving glory and not just survival of Nepal, a ‘life’ for people and at long last a commendable and celebrated space for leaders and political parties.
(The authors are pursuing Masters in International Relations at Tribhuwan University in Kathmandu.)