Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Parties: Orphans Of Ideology

 Yuba Nath Lamsal

The national congresses of three key parties – CPN-UML, Nepali Congress and Rastriya Prajatantra Party or RPP are over now. The other party CPN-Maoist Centre is also set to hold its congress in two weeks. There are some marked similarities in the congresses of the three parties. The congresses of all parties began with fanfare and hullaballoo and ended in a fuss. The parties had been expected to debate issues having direct bearing on the people and the country and come up with the policy tools to address them. Nothing such happened. The principal focus seemed to be on how to capture the leadership and secure party positions.

Given the way the mega meetings were held, it is clear that our political parties are devoid of ideologies and principles. No debate was held on ideology, policies and programmes. Parties have become orphans of ideology. There has been marked dichotomy between principles and practice. None of the political parties practice what they preach. This inconsistency in principle and practice, and rhetoric and action has made it hard to predict what course of action the parties and leaders will take.

Declining trust
When principle, ideology and moral authority cease to guide the parties, anything is possible — good or evil. This makes parties and leaders unreliable and unpredictable. This is perhaps one reason why there has been declining trust in political parties and leaders. People are getting apathetic to politics as a whole. This is a global phenomenon but more dominant in Nepal. As a result, in the eyes of people, politics is not being taken as a ‘noble profession’ but as said by George Bernard Shaw the ‘last resort of scoundrels’— a game for power and position. This is global problem but more in developing countries including Nepal.

Parties are facing existential problem. Existential politics is what has made the parties unpredictable. The parties, instead of standing firmly for the cause and ideals they fought for, focus on agendas that serve their immediate interests. Even party is not in the supreme interest of leaders. A leader thinks of the party and a statement thinks of the country. Our leaders mobilise and use their energy and resources to consolidate own clique and faction rather than the party. They, in a conjurer type, try to create illusion among voters during elections to grab votes. This is how market politics is evolving and has become dominant in the world -- do what market demands and get quick return.

Let us take a close look at the ideological orientation of our parties. Nepal’s political parties can be divided into three categories -- rightist, centrist and leftist. In the right is the RPP, whereas Nepali Congress is the centrist party but moving to the rightist direction. The UML is a leftist but moving to the centre. The Maoist Centre is also a leftist party and slowly moving to left of the centre but it is still in dilemma where it should make its position clear. There are some other leftist parties, which claim to be revolutionary leftist but are not in the mainstream politics. The Janata Samajbadi Party has more like left of the centre orientation while Loktantrik Samajbadi Party is basically Terai-based party with slight right orientation. The CPN-Unified Socialist is a newly established party and its position is yet to be tested.

The Rastriya Prajatantra Party is royalist that advocates revival of monarchy and Hindu state. On this ground, it may be called a rightist party. However, in recently held national congress, RPP demonstrated more democratic exercise and culture than UML. In the recent 14th national congress, the UML tried to discourage democratic exercise in the name of consensus while choosing the leadership, which is a testimony that the party has still not come out of the old Marxist-Leninist hangover, despite the fact that party in principle follows Madan Bhandari’s People’s Multiparty Democracy — a competitive democracy. This signifies the fact that UML, too, does not practice what it preaches.

NC’s political position is right of the centre having faith in liberal democracy with some degree of social justice. In other words, its guiding principle is social democracy, something akin to the Nordic political system. NC’s founding leader BP Koirala defined democratic socialism in Nepal’s context and adopted as the ideological basis of the party. With BP Koirala’s demise, NC not only lost its ideological leader but also its ideological identity. NC in practice has abandoned the democratic socialism and adopted ultra-capitalist model.

The other key party is the Maoist Centre that emerged from the armed insurgency but it has now split. Two groups walked away from this party and adopted different political course. Prachanda-led Maoist party is now in peaceful parliamentary practice. It was built on Mao Zedong’s ideological dictum of ‘power comes out of the barrel of gun’. Now it is adjusting with the peaceful parliamentary practice and has inconsistencies in ideology and practice.

Rhetorical inconsistency
A communist party does not believe in parliamentary politics. The tendency of Nepal’s communist parties is to try violent method in the beginning and soon switch to peaceful parliamentary politics. The UML once experimented with violent method seeking to establish one-party communist regime but soon gave up adopting democratic path. The MC too followed it. However, their democratic credential is still under scrutiny because of rhetorical inconsistency.

The marked similarity in all parties of Nepal -- big or small -- is ideological vacillation and oscillation. The inconsistency leads to credibility problem for parties in the eyes of people. They are required to come out of the vacillation and establish credible and firm political and ideological base. Otherwise, parties will be orphans of ideologies and may lose their relevance.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

From Democracy To Oligarchy


Yuba Nath Lamsal

Even as liberal democracy is said to be what Francis Fukuyama says ‘the default from of the government in much of the world’ a new study has revealed that more and more countries are experiencing a marked erosion in the state of democracy and are reverting slowly to authoritarian trend under the facade of democratic set-up. According to the study of International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) on the state of democracy, 70 per cent of the global population currently lives either in non-democratic regimes or in democratically backsliding countries.

Similarly, the Freedom House, which studies the health of the democracies in the world, says in its 2021 report that democracy is in a long recession. It says, “In every region of the world, democracy is under attack”. The Freedom House concluded that democracy declined in 73 countries in the world including India, while it slightly got better only in 28 countries. This global democratic recession is, therefore, a matter of concern and it begs academic research on why democracy, despite its virtues, is in the downhill spiral worldwide.

Behavioural degeneration
Democratic erosion begins with behavioural degeneration in leadership. The power hungry politicians tend to centralise power in their hands. The longer a politician remains in power the more authoritarian he/she tends to be turning the system to run at whim wherein cronies and crooks become dominant at the helm of affairs while people and their genuine representatives take a back seat in decision making. This is how authoritarianism is born, grows and ultimately eats up our hard-fought democracy. This is exactly what Larry Diamond, a political science professor at Stanford University, terms as democratic recession while another US political scientist Francis Fukuyama calls it as the decay of democracy.

Authoritarian tendency arises from the political chaos wherein system fails to work, institutions become dysfunctional, the mechanisms of checks and balances collapse and decisions are made on a whim. Systemic collapse and institutional dysfunction are the early symptoms of a failed state. The system of periodic elections is therefore a necessary tool to test the quality and popularity of leadership and also a mechanism to check leaders from going astray. This is necessary both in the government as well as party functionaries.

In some countries, elections are held but doctored to ensure the victory of those in power. Such elections do not provide free choice for the people and do not ensure genuine democratic franchise. Free, fair and affordable elections are the necessary tool to ensure democracy in the government as well as in the political parties. If elections are fair, electors freely choose their leaders or representatives, which is good for the health of democracy. However, elections are getting so expensive that honest politician can hardly contest the polls. As a result, the elections are hijacked by the rich, corrupt and crooks, which kills the soul of democracy.

In Western democracies, leaders serve in the party and the government for a limited period. In some countries, legal mechanisms restrict the leaders to be in principal position for unlimited time. Mark Twain said “politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason”, perhaps referring to the danger that leader may turn corrupt and authoritarian if he remains in power for unlimited period.

The hunger to remain forever in power and position is more visible in Nepal. Once a person reaches the apex position of the party or the government, he tends to continue to have hold onto power. Similarly, marked intolerance and impatience to go to power has often led to political instability and deficit of public trust on parties and leaders in Nepal. This is partly a reason why democracy often suffered a setback in our country. This tendency to remain in power by hook or by crook is common in all Nepali parties.

Prachanda is in the party’s apex position for more than three decades and he is likely to be in that position for a few more years. There is none to challenge and replace his leadership in the party. Mohan Vaidya and Baburam Bhattarai were potential threat to Prachanda’s leadership but they are out of the party now. While Vaidya quit the party on ideological ground, Bhattarai’s departure from the Maoist party was purely on ground of leadership tussle as he reached the conclusion that he would never be able to get the number one position in the party as long as Prachanda is there.

In the similar manner, KP Oli has emerged unchallengeable leader in CPN-UML. What Oli says is the UML decision. His principal rivals Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal have already quit the party primarily because they could not tame Oli. Their bone of contention with Oli was power as they wanted to capture party leadership despite the fact that they had been party’s principal leaders for quite a long time. The circumstances in UML now are such that Oli may remain party chief as long as he wants.

The story of the Nepali Congress is slightly different as some leaders have publicly challenged Sher Bahadur Deuba’s leadership. But it remains to be seen whether they maintain this momentum till the party’s national congress. However, the mentality to remain in power forever is quite prevalent in the NC leadership as well.

Democratic recession
Power is principal objective for parties and leaders whereas ideological issues and values are secondary. Ideological issues are hardly debated in the party meetings and conventions. This was clearly noticeable in the UML’s 10th convention held in Chitwan. The way leadership was chosen, wherein election was discouraged, is the manifestation of departure from party’s guiding principle. This is exactly what CPN-Maoist Centre may follow in its national congress to be held in near future. Only Nepali Congress may be different as there are high chances that NC leadership will be chosen through election. However, on other behavioural matters Nepali Congress is on the same boat with other parties in the journey from democracy to oligarchy, a marked symptom of democratic recession in Nepal.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Leaders, Lackeys And Lapdogs


Yuba Nath Lamsal

A season of political jamborees has started in Nepal. Parties are set to hold mandatory national congresses. All major parties are doing their homework for their gala meetings probably within a couple months. CPN-UML seems to be ahead in this process. The UML is holding its national congress in Chitwan this month in which it expects to pull a crowd of at least half a million people on the bank of Narayani River. Other parties are to follow. Nepali Congress and CPN-Maoist Centre, too, have announced plans to hold their national congress soon.

As a precursor of the mega event, a political jamboree of the UML called the statute convention was held sometimes ago in Godavari, Lalitpur with pomp and fanfare. UML chairman KP Sharma Oli might have been carried away and thrilled by the presence of a large number of diehard loyalists and display of his big cut-outs in the conclave. However, he should not be mistaken by the presence of a few thousand people as a gauge of his popularity. For a party which boasts to have more than 800,000 organised and committed members, the gathering of a half million may not be a big thing. Other major parties, too, are capable of bringing similar number of people. Crowd pulling seems to be a new political game among parties to give the impression that they have strong popular base.

Misleading crowds
However, crowds are often misleading. They do not give true perspective of one’s popularity. Crowd sometimes symbolises popularity and sometimes hatred. Winston Churchill had similar perspective on crowd. After Britain-led Allied forces defeated Hitler’s army in the World War II, British Prime Minister Churchill was a real war hero not only in his own country but in the rest of Europe. When he was to address a mass meeting after the war, a huge crowd had gathered to hear what Churchill had to say. Pointing to the crowd, a diehard loyalist said how popular Churchill was. However, Churchill replied “they would be twice as big if gathered to see him hanged”.
Churchill’s party lost in the parliamentary election held immediately after the World War victory. Similar cases are in many other countries where political parties have lost elections despite the leaders’ high popularity ratings. Thus, there is a marked difference between perceived popularity and real popularity. In politics, popularity testing is often tricky.

Nepali Congress leader Krishna Prasad Bhattarai was a political celebrity nationwide in the immediate aftermath of the 1990 change. The then Prime Minister and NC chief Bhattarai successfully and to the best satisfaction of the people facilitated and coordinated the promulgation of a new democratic constitution and conducted general election in time thereby completing the political transition within the stipulated time frame of one year. NC won majority in the election under Bhattarai’s leadership. But he himself lost to the then UML general secretary Madan Bhandari in the 1991 election.

Similar case is with Maoist supremo Prachanda, who was the centre of attraction after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord between the government and the CPN-Maoist. A huge crowd used to gather to see him speak. As other parliamentary parties had been discredited owing to their misgovernance and misconduct, Maoists had been viewed as a better alternative in national politics. This popular sentiment was reflected in the results of the first Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in 2008. The Maoists emerged as the largest party, although still short of majority to form its single party government. In the first-past the post system, Maoist won 121 of the 240 seats but failed to secure majority due to the proportionate representation system.

However, Maoists, too, failed to live up to people’s expectations. Prachanda’s party fared miserably in the second CA election trailing a distant third behind Nepali Congress and UML. Even Prachanda lost from Kathmandu. Girija Prasad Koirala also fell victim to the hollowed impression of perceived popularity. Koirala dissolved the House of Representatives and declared fresh election in 1994 almost two years earlier than the scheduled one even when Koirala-led Nepali Congress had continued to command comfortable majority in parliament. Koirala, being starkly unable to keep his house in order, chose this gamble to marginalise dissidents within his party and teach them a lesson. The election proved to be suicidal for Koirala as the Nepali Congress lost election.

Ex-King Gyanendra, too, suffered from this syndrome with sponsored crowd and thought that people were with him. This fallacious belief gave him the courage to try to turn the clock of history back to the era of his father- King Mahendra, which proved him costly as the 240 year old monarchy was abolished. KP Oli seems to be following GP Koirala’s footprints and wants to remain unchallenged leader in his party even at the cost of party’s interest. Since senior leaders like Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal and Bamdev Gautam are already out of the party, there is none in the UML who could challenge his leadership. However, it remains to be seen how the UML under Oli’s leadership will fare in the next general election.

Flawed impression
Oli is under the impression that what UML achieved in the last general election was purely due to his popularity. His firm stance against India’s callous blockade and signing of the transit agreement with China were, of course, courageous acts which have reserved a special place in history. But that alone would not have ensured UML’s impressive achievements in the last election, if the communist parties had not been together.

KP Oli is still under the impression that he continues to enjoy popularity he once had. But that is not the case. In his second innings as Prime Minister, the act of issuing Nepal’s map incorporating Lipulek, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura has definitely added extra feather in his patriotic hat. However, he utterly failed to keep the party united. Lackeys and lapdogs have a greater say whereas honest and committed members have been sidelined. This is not an isolated problem of any particular party but a common phenomenon of all Nepali parties.

( Published on Nov 17)

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Parties In Existential Crisis

 Yuba Nath Lamsal

A political party is a collective expression of people having identical interests, values, principles and commitment to certain cause and mission. Greek philosopher Plato in ‘The Republic’ talks about factions and groups in politics of ancient Greece, which, in a way, can be termed as the early version of political parties. However, the history of modern political parties goes back to the early 19th century with the formation of the Conservative or Tory Party in the United Kingdom in 1823 followed by Democratic Party in the United States in 1828.

The birth, growth and development of the political parties went along with the development of democracy. In multi-party democracy, political parties and democracy are like Siamese twins. Political parties are the principal basis, without which democracy cannot survive, grow and prosper. Democratic polity, thus, is inconceivable in the absence of political parties. Politics is a public domain and its sole objective is public good of larger masses. Organisations or parties are necessary to better pursue public good and common cause of the masses. A group or organisation has more strength and louder voice than individual cry. In a democratic politics, organisation or political parties are necessary to have greater influence on the masses and attract attention of larger section of the society.

Vanguard of class
According to Robert Michels, a party is more important for the working class than others because, in his words, “the weakest section of the society is often defenceless at the hands of those who are economically stronger”. It is only on the strength and power of organisation or party, individuals attain political dignity, maintain their identity and influence in decision-making process. John Stuart Mill calls political party as necessary elements of a healthy state of political life, whereas Vladimir Lenin says a party is the vanguard of a class, and its duty is to lead the masses and not merely to reflect the average political level of the masses.

When it comes to Nepal, the origin of political party goes back to second decade of the 20th century. In 1927, a group of politically enthusiast youths namely Umesh Bikram Shah, Khadga Man Singh, Ranga Nath Sharma and Maina Bahadur formed a political group called Prachanda Gorkha’ with the objective of establishing parliamentary democracy in Nepal, which is the first political party of Nepal. However, some historians call the Prachanda Gorkha as a mere clique of people and was not a political party. According to them, Praja Parishad, which was formed in 1936 with the clear mission of overthrowing the Rana family oligarchy and establishing democracy, is the first political party in Nepal.

Perhaps, Nepali Congress is the first political party that made a real impact on Nepali political ambience. It was Nepali Congress that spearheaded the popular movement sending the century old Rana oligarchy packing and ushering in a multi-party democracy. Then came the communist party followed by several others of different hues and colours. Now there are over five dozens political parties with only a half dozen functionally impacting Nepal’s national politics.

Political parties are essential instruments of the modern democratic polity. They have played crucial role in establishing democracy and nurturing it. But some tend to argue that our parties are the principal culprit in discrediting democracy. Nepali democracy is young and has a chequered and tumultuous history. However, democracy has come under assault in different intervals. In a less than a decade since Nepal had the first triumph and trial of democracy in 1951, multiparty system came under attack from the institution that had been restored on the strength of people and political parties. Kings had been reduced to a mere puppet of Ranas until 1951. Had the people and parties not backed the king, the monarchy would have been abolished right in 1951 as the king had already fled to India.

But the same institution crushed democracy putting leaders, who had fought for the authority of monarchy, behind bars and depriving the parties of their rights. The hijacked democracy and rights were reinstated only in 1990 through the joint struggle of the Nepali Congress and the United Left Front, comprising seven communist parties. The role of the parties has been central in bringing about political change in Nepal, whereas monarchy has always been a stumbling block. Another attempt was made by Gyanendra Shah, who by accident ascended to the throne in 2001 after the assassination of King Birendra and his entire family, but was soon scuttled by another popular movement jointly launched by an alliance of seven parliamentary parties and an insurgent Nepal Communist Party-Maoist.

Gyanendra Shah’s thoughtless move changed the country’s political contour as it paved the way for brining parliamentary parties and Maoists together and putting an end to 240-year old monarchy and declaring Nepal as world’s youngest republic. Had Gyanendra Shah not chosen to tread the suicidal political path, monarchy would not have ended so easily. In abolishing monarchy, Gyanendra Shah was primarily responsible. King Gyanendra failed to comprehend people’s pulse especially after King Birendra’s assassination as they had a little respect on the new king.

Public apathy
Similar case is with political parties. People’s trust in political system and parties erodes because of self-centred, egoistic and eccentric behaviour of leaders, which turn parties into weeds on the flourishing political farm rather than inevitable element. This is not an isolated case of Nepal but global trend as political parties are facing existential crisis due mainly to dwindling faith of people in them both in the developed and developing democracies. As observed by Kenneth Wollack, citizens, globally, have grown frustrated with political parties and leaders and the society views political parties as “ineffective and corrupt”.
Tyrants take advantage out of the growing public apathy towards parties, the evidence of which can be taken from our own country. King Mahendra’s coup in 1960 and Gyanendra’s misadventure in 2005 are the cases in point like what Tocqueville said ‘threat to democracy comes more from within than from outside’. The people neither supported the king’s regressive move, nor did they come out to the streets spontaneously against it. It took years for the Nepali people to realise that democratic anarchy is better than the tyranny of monarchy.

(TRN on Nov 3, 2021)

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Political Uncertainty Is Over


Yuba Nath Lamsal

The government headed by Sher Bahadur Deuba has completed the first hundred days in office. The first 100 days that is also called as the honeymoon period cannot be taken as the yardstick to judge the performance, success or failure of any government. However, the government sets its tone during this period to get into action based on which one can presume where it is heading towards.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba came to power at a time when the country’s politics was in the midst of uncertainty. The scene of uncertainty had loomed in the Nepali political landscape after the first dissolution of House of Representatives in December 2020. Despite reinstatement of the House by the Supreme Court, neither new government could be formed nor did Oli government prove its majority in parliament. As uncertainty persisted, KP Sharma Oli dissolved the House second time in May 2021, to be nullified again by the Court. With the formation of the present government, the period of uncertainty is at least over.

Diverse interests
Given the circumstances with which Deuba rose to power, it is not wise to expect much from the government during this period. The task is not easy for Prime Minister Deuba. Firstly, he has to manage the coalition partners and take them all along. The coalition partners have diverse interests and it is very difficult to manage them, which was clearly manifested in the unusual delay in giving the cabinet a full shape. It took more than two months to complete the expansion of the council of ministers.

Secondly, the opposition party is strong and aggressive. The CPN-UML is the main opposition party, which has the largest number of seats in parliament. The opposition party has already exhibited its ire and intention due to which the parliament has not been able to function smoothly. The continued disruption in parliament is UML’s tactics not to let the parliament function so that Oli’s dissolution of the House of Representatives could be justified. The UML is likely to continue House disruption even in future. It will, thus, not be easy for the government to deal with and face the opposition party in the coming days unless certain compromise was brokered between the ruling and opposition parties.

On the basis of the performance of the government in the first 100 days, no grade can be awarded so far. We still need to wait for a few more months to see its performance. But time is very short for this government to show its worth because the elections are closing in. The year 2022 is election year and elections for provincial legislative assemblies and local bodies have to be conducted by May-June 2022, while parliamentary elections are scheduled in November, 2022. The government has to make preparations for the elections right from the beginning of the next year.
Once the election process begins, the election code of conduct may not allow the government to make decisions of far-reaching consequences. If the government really wants to demonstrate its performance, it has to act right now because time is running short. Given the timing in which the government was formed, nothing significant can be expected. The only success of this government will be to maintain the present coalition and successfully hold the local, provincial and parliamentary elections in time.

The previous Oli government that lasted for three and half years missed its opportunity. He banked more on rhetoric than concrete actions except a few decisions with historic significance. The period of Oli’s first innings as Prime Minister was, definitely, a historically memorable one from the perspective of national dignity as he firmly stood against the India’s economic blockade and reached agreement with China on transit facilities. Similarly, the amendment of the constitution incorporating Nepal’s map with Lipulek, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani areas in it was another historic act during Oli’s second term.

The formation of Oli-led government had, indeed, triggered a new sense of optimism in Nepal. It was perhaps the strongest government with nearly two-thirds majority in parliament. However, the ruling Nepal Communist Party ( NCP), which was created following the unification of the two largest communist parties, namely the UML and CPN-Maoist Centre, did not live up to the popular expectations of the voters.

Now it appears that the unification of the two parties was artificial and a mere marriage of convenience. In other words, the unification was out of compulsion as both parties felt existential threat. Had UML and the Maoist Centre not formed the electoral alliance, Nepali Congress might have emerged as the largest party in parliament. Oli was under compulsion to have alliance with the Maoist Centre to ensure the formation of the post-election government because UML alone would not have secured as much seats as it secured if it had contested the election alone.

Existential crisis
Similarly, the Maoist Centre had also felt existential crisis as it had been weakened due to splits after splits in the party and might have fared poorly in the election. Thus, Maoist Centre chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda felt necessary to forge an electoral alliance with the UML and ultimately party unification. However, the alliance between Oli and Prachanda did not last long. The power tussle among the senior leaders within the NCP more particularly between Oli and Prachanda intensified. It was KP Oli’s responsibility to keep that unity and parliamentary majority intact. But he failed to manage within his own party, which led not only to the collapse of the Oli government but also split the party. Instead of managing dissent within the party, Oli chose to dissolve parliament, which the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional.

Prachanda and Madhav Kumar Nepal, too, might have been partly responsible for the party split and collapse of the majority government. But primary responsibility rested on Prime Minister and party chairman Oli. If Oli had managed to keep the party unity and the NCP government intact and smoothly handed over the leadership to someone through the party’s national congress, his name would have been written in Nepal’s political history along with BP Koirala, Pushpa Lal and Madan Bhandari. But Oli missed that opportunity and will be remembered like other former prime ministers and nothing more than that. History rarely gives opportunity to individuals and it is now up to Deuba to learn lesson from history.

Friday, October 8, 2021

The Age Of Market Politics


Yuba Nath Lamsal

Ideology, values and principles have taken a back seat in the post-industrial societies. What constitutes prominence in the present day politics is the interest and profit. Even in politics, everything is being judged and calculated from the matrix of interest, profit, and loss. In the age of market politics, market has emerged as the principal determinant, where money plays bigger role than anything else. This is not an isolated trend of a particular country or region but a global phenomenon.

Politics is for power. For ancient idealist thinkers like Confucius, Plato and Aristotle, politics is struggle to attain power through ethical means while realist philosophers like Niccola Machiavelli are of the view that politics is ‘the ruthless pursuit of power’ to be achieved by hook or by crook and ethics has no place. In the book ‘The Prince’ Machiavelli even suggests the use of deceit, murder and war as legitimate means to attain power and maintain grip on power. Saint Augustine even justified crimes to get power, while Mao Zedong went one step forward defending brutal force and said ‘political power flows out of the barrel of gun’.

Non-violent approach
However, people like Mahatma Gandhi, calling ‘violence as the weapon of the weak’, championed the non-violent approach to get political power. Demand and supply play a key role in economics, so is with politics. When profit is the principal motive in politics rather than public good, parties turn out to be enterprises, and the politicians the bosses turning politics into a profit-making venture and the ‘last resort of scoundrels’ as aptly said by George Bernard Shaw. Politics becomes the affair of profiteers, and public good and social service are confined to mere showcased artefacts.

Gandhi, in his later life particularly after 1940s, realised that his dream of a democratic Indian society would be a sham with the partisan politics and broached the notion of consensual governance. Even Alexis de Tocqueville saw greater danger to democracy from within the system rather than from outside. Tocqueville said ‘governmental centralisation and market consumerism reduce civic virtues into private life of quiet servitude’.
As citizens tend to become more self-centred, political and social movements are getting weaker. The survival and development of democracy depends heavily on the constant vigil of the people, which is fast eroding. The changing nature of society and growing individualism have given rise to public apathy to political system from which authoritarian tendency is slowly rising its ugly head both in parties as well as in governance. Some western political scientists and analysts even try to liken the eccentric Trump era in USA, rise of Boris Jonson in the UK, Recep Erdogan of Turkey, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Narendra Modi of India with this newer trend of world politics.

Alberto Fujimori also did not intend to be a dictator. He rose to power by means of election with the pledge to heal Peru’s multiple wounds. However, circumstances and his own ambition coupled with wrong decisions led him to earn the ill-fame of a tyrant. Similar case is with Ferdinand Marcos of Philippines, Napoleon Bonaparte of France, Benito Mussolini of Italy and Adolf Hitler of Germany, who ran evil empires of their time. Joseph Stalin of Russia earns the reputation of noted authoritarian hawk in the world of doves. Ziaul Haq, Pervez Musharraf, Idi Amin, and Pol Pot are also a few names of worst nemeses of democracy.

In the present globalised world, Nepal, too, is not immune to this syndrome. Market politics has contaminated Nepali parties and leaders. Despite the rhetoric of commitment to democracy and democratic ideals, our parties are getting bureaucratic and leaders autocratic in both action and behaviour. The bigger the parties, the more bureaucratic they are. Power is being concentrated at the hands of a one man (women, so far, have not held the apex position of any major political party in Nepal) or a tiny clique close to power centre, whereas the voice of the rank and file is getting feeble. The behaviour and working style of the principal leaders of major parties are its manifestation.

Even party’s organisational apparatuses give leaders more leverage to become autocratic. Our political culture itself is more power centric and seeks power worshipping. Some relics of feudal system like chakari, curry favour and sycophancy have not gone away completely in our society even after doing away with the feudal system. Feudal culture continues to rein in our mind, thought process and our working style. Leaders tend to be rulers and masters whereas people are still treated as subjects. Whatever leaders do is either for their own, or for their families and the cliques close to the leaders.

Even the party is not in their interest, let alone the people and the country. Whatever meagre they do in the name of public good is not taken as their duty but as out of expediency or favour to the people. This scenario is exactly what Aristotle called ‘an oligarchy — ‘the rule of rich, the rule by rich and the rule for the rich’. Despite all odds and ills, there is no alternative to democracy. What we need to do is to manage, improve, reform and update ourselves, our functions and our handling to make the system more workable and accountable to the people. Moreover, the complications and deficiency we have come across is not owing to the system alone.

Politics is not a problem but should be a solution. The political system we have adopted is virtuous, though it may still not be perfect. The problem is, therefore, not with the system but with those who are responsible to handle the system. Its cure is with ourselves, our parties and our leaders. Transparency and accountability in parties and leaders are what we need the most. For this, greater public vigil and democratic literacy among leaders and people are also equally necessary which alone compels leaders to be more democratic, transparent and accountable.

Democratic culture does not ripen overnight but requires a long time to take its roots, grow and develop. Our democratic history is relatively short, chequered and tumultuous with many ups and downs; twists and turns. We can, thus, be optimistic that with the march of time and volume of experiences, we can enrich our democracy. Let us hope time heals everything.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Is Socialism Irrelevant?

(First published in The Rising Nepal daily on September 21, 2021)

Yuba Nath Lamsal

Former American president and one of key actors in writing the US ‘Declaration of Independence”, Thomas Jefferson back in 1787 said: “Societies exist under three forms, sufficiently distinguishable- without governments, under governments and under governments of force”. Jefferson’s assertion was based on his observation of European society as he was serving as American ambassador in France.
This speaks of the political and social conditions of different European nations and their behaviour. There were still some countries in Europe that had as Jefferson said ‘governments of wolves over sheep”. At times, other continents were much better and more prosperous than Europe. Asia (China and India combined) accounted for more than half of the global GDP until early 17th century. The industrial revolution that began in Europe made the situation ups and down from which Europe emerged as dominating world power establishing colonies worldwide by the use of machine and merchandised power.

Industrial revolution
In the early stage of industrial revolution, Europe was under the spectre of feudalism. Capitalism was growing in the womb of feudalism. The impact of renaissance was slow in Europe but was growing firmly. Thinkers and philosophers like Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hegel, John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau contributed with their critical thinking of reason to bringing about a new renaissance in political, economic and social sphere while machine power conquered the world.

The Magna Carta had already given rise to cognitive sense in Britain. Inspired by ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’ of American War of Independence, Jacobins ignited the fire of revolution in France with the slogan of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. The French Revolution proved a turning point in political uprising in almost every part of Europe against the dominant feudal dispensations, in effect, heralding a new era of liberal political order.

Since then great changes have taken place in the world. Now we are in the age of fourth industrial revolution -- from steam engine to electricity, computing and the present era of artificial intelligence. The technological advancement has also changed the life style, thinking and nature of the society.
In the realm of politics, feudalism and fascism were replaced by capitalism. Adam Smith provided theoretical basis for capitalism in which free market, private ownership and individual liberty play the key role. The American slogan ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’ caught the mind of people across the world like wild fire, trying to create liberal democracy as the universal political lingua franca. However, Karl Marx, a German philosopher, challenged the validity of capitalism as a system of inequality, exploitation of labour and profiteering by a handful of capitalist and bourgeoisies in the expense of workers. Marx, along with his comrade in arm Frederic Engels, came up with a new theory of socialism, a system of collective ownership in production and state’s strong regulation in economy.

In the aftermath of World War II, the idea of socialism based on Marx’s maxim "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” gained ground in many developing and newly liberated countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. According to Karl Marx’ theory, only a handful of people benefit in capitalism and the vast majority of workers get exploited. Marx advocated the revolt as the natural right and only option for proletariats and workers, ‘who have nothing to lose but chains of exploitation’, to establish socialist form of government. Enthused by Marx’ theory, now defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) was the first country to experiment socialism under Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s leadership later to be followed by several other countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.

It was also the Soviet Union where the socialist system first collapsed, which, too, was replicated in other countries in the world. Presently, there are only a few countries in the world where the Marxist model of socialism still in practice. However, it needs to be debated why socialist model failed despite the existence of a large majority of the working class population in these countries.
Firstly, it needs to be seen whether the socialist governments established in different countries were exactly in a manner what Marx had theorised. According to Marx, socialism is the product of class struggle. Class struggle sharpens only when capitalism fully develops, wherein bourgeoisie and proletariats clash and vast majority of proletariats overpower the handful of bourgeoisies. None of the countries where socialism was declared were ripe for that as capitalism had not even started.

In Soviet Union or Russia, the number of proletariats was negligible and the combined force of workers, peasants, petit bourgeoisie and even a portion of middle class deposed the Tsarist rule in Russia. Socialism in east European countries was Soviet Union’s gift. Peasantry was the primary force behind Chinese revolution under Mao Zedong’s leadership and Ho Chi Minh followed suit in Vietnam. Similar cases are Cuba and other Latin American countries.
Now Socialism is retreating worldwide but the philosophy as such is still vibrant and kicking. China, Vietnam, Cuba and only a few countries alone have maintained the socialist system. However, are these countries really socialist as Marx has explained?

Socialism seeks to build a classless society but more classes were created and individual rights of dissent were denied in the name of discipline and democratic centralisation. Democracy was denied and only centralisation was enforced. The collectivisation in production and ownership discouraged incentives. The government could not ensure ‘from each according to ability’ but has to provide ‘to each according to his needs’. As the government failed to maintain balance between the demands and supply, economic chaos erupted and public trust on government eroded -- the scenario was further blown out by western media. The public rose against the government and the system collapsed first in the Soviet Union then followed in Eastern Europe and several other countries in the world.

China is a unique case allowing capitalist economy under the communist political system. Unlike Soviet Union, China and Vietnam allow individual ownership and private property to certain degree. As private citizens enjoy incentives, it keeps on motivating Chinese for more production, which has contributed Chinese economy to continue its growth.

Private incentives
In the wake of rising popularity of socialism in different countries, capitalism, sought to change, update and adjust itself to cope with the newer trends giving capitalism more human face with social welfare benefits. While capitalism updated and innovated and even embraced some of socialist characteristics, socialism failed to update, innovate itself and embrace changes. Too much centralised system in economy, lack of private incentives and denial of individual liberty and freedom hindered production and productivity giving serious blow to socialism in several countries in the 1990s decade once again giving upper edge to the capitalism in the global ideological battle.

Western capitalist pundits called the collapse of Soviet Union and setback of socialism as the triumph of capitalism over socialism. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama went even one step further calling it the ‘End of Ideology’. However, capitalism is also not in the purest form but has mutated into hybrid avatar. Similarly, the appeal of socialism is relevant and strong even today. But socialism needs to be updated, innovated and changed in tune with the call of time and context to maintain its relevance.

(Lamsal is former chief editor of this daily and former ambassador to Denmark)