The search for order and justice

DEC 12 -

As the constitutional crisis deepens, and prospects for April elections reduce, it is a good time to reflect on the post-2006 framework that got us here, and where Nepal heads now.

In the next few weeks, this column will raise a few larger questions.

Has the opportunity offered by the People’s Movement been squandered away, or is there still hope? Was the quest for a republican constitution written by an elected CA a doomed project, or was the problem one of political mismanagement?

Who is responsible for the seeming chaos that exists at the moment, or is it too simplistic to only blame one political force or the other? What explains the crisis in Nepali politics, or are colliding personal ambitions to blame? What is the nature of the current political leadership, its constraints, and has it managed to cope with the challenges?

What explains the multiple paradoxes, with society appearing to move in one direction (growing urbanisation, mobility, rising entrepreneurship,

an expanding middle class, and transition from agricultural to a modern economy) but the politics remaining insular, almost feudal in nature, seemingly out of tune with popular aspirations, and illiterate about the policy changes required to cope with newer economic realities?

There is no one answer to this complex conundrum, but I invite others to join this debate in the spirit of understanding the 2006 movement, the missed opportunities, and the progress made, and how to restore the political process back on track.  

The People’s Movement had several slogans, from “Gyane chor, desh chod”, to “loktantra and ganatantra, jindabad”. Its key drivers were three stakeholders—the Seven Party Alliance, the Maoists, and the Citizen’s Movement for Democracy and Peace (CMDP), which provided the impetus and energy for earlier rallies and helped bridge the gap between different political forces. At the time, the mandate of the Jana Andolan was interpreted to be for shanti (peace), ganatantra (republic), and loktantra (democracy). The ambit was widened subsequently with parliamentary declarations to include dharmanirpekshata (secularism). And the Madhes andolan nine months later added two more fundamental values—sanghiyata (federalism) and samaveshikaran (inclusion).  

But if one were to distill the meaning of the Andolan to its core, it was for order and justice. There was fatigue with the violence, with the constant turn-over in governments in Kathmandu since 1990, with the antics of the palace which had lost its traditional legitimacy after the 2001 massacre and the political legitimacy with the 2002 and 2005 coup, the day-to-day bandas, curfews and hartals. There was suffering as a result of the war, the displacement, the loss of loved ones, and the culture of destruction that had introduced a new dynamic in rural and semi-urban landscape. People thought one final movement would help win them the stirtha (stability) that had been missing in national life.

But alongside, the other impulse was for nyaya (justice). The movement, by all accounts, was not merely infused with negative energy directed at Narayanhiti. There was hope that the new system would produce a more meaningful democracy—something that the 90s avatar had failed to do. It is important to credit the People’s War for the People’s Movement—the latter would not have happened but for the former. And the Maoist war, for its all wrongs, represented a parallel nation-building initiative. The People’s Movement took that to the next level where a broad constellation of forces and interests came together for a common purpose, for justice for their perceived grievances.

Judged by those standards, where do we stand now?

Nepal is at peace. Seven people were dying every day at the peak of the war. Nepal reported the highest number of disappearances anywhere in the world for two years running. Mobility was restricted; the culture of fear and silence engulfed the countryside; Kathmandu had to regularly face blockades; two armies were battling each other; there was a parallel state and parallel administration and suspicion marked everyday interactions between citizens.

The end of the war and violence is a phenomenal accomplishment. There hasn’t been a single major ceasefire violation, political space has opened up with all parties having freedom to express their views and organise on the ground, one army has gone and the other has behaved with restraint, and there is freedom of movement. Those who blame the 2006 change as the root of all problems are blind to this major achievement, which has had an enormous positive impact on how citizens lead their daily lives.

But the quest for order and justice remains elusive. Several factors are responsible for this gap, but two stand out.

The first is the fragile balance of power, where no force achieved a decisive victory in the war or the elections. No party is strong enough to impose its writ, but many have the power to veto anyone else’s move. The Maoists could have exerted stronger political and ideological dominance after the polls, but they opened up several fronts and allowed all anti-Maoist forces to consolidate—thus ruining their advantage.

The fact that the there are so many parties, and there are so many factions within each party is a reflection of the deep divisions in Nepali society.  This is Nepali democracy’s biggest strength for it is a guarantee that no force can exercise hegemony; it is also the polity’s biggest weakness for it has crippled decision-making.

The second major factor is the existence of entrenched old interests, which neither liked the ascent of newer forces like the Maoists or Madhesis, nor had reconciled itself to the political values of the 2006 change. In early 2009, a very senior Nepal Army general had told this writer, “This CA must not produce a constitution, for it will lead to a Limbuwan and Madhes and a Tharuhat and that will break up the country. It is better not to have a constitution at all than have it through this CA.”

His belief was clearly widely shared by sections of the political and business class, and civil society conservatives—for they celebrated the end of the CA. Their only wish they had was the government at the time the CA ended, so that pro-change forces would be left with no bargaining power at all. This is at the heart of the current impasse. Newer forces like the Maoists kept making compromises with such interests, and have now become almost a part of the existing political-business networks, which makes the quest for justice even harder to achieve.

There is often a contradiction between order and justice with one value coming at the cost of the other. Six years after the Andolan, Nepal has peace but no order; the freedom to ask for justice but no justice. The quest for these principles will continue to mark politics.

(Next week’s column will examine the role of the Maoists as the principal agent of the transformation.)

Posted on: 2012-12-12 08:28