The Watershed Moment in Nepal’s Nascent Democracy

On November 30th, the Nepalese government under the leadership of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda), proposed an amendment to the constitution that was promulgated just a year ago. In the days since, the leading Opposition party, the Communist Party Nepal – United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), refused to follow obstructed proceedings to the extent that the agenda of the Constituent Assembly had to be postponed for the next session. Outside of the building’s walls, thousands of students protest the Amendment Bill, considering it subservience to ‘external pressure’. Away from the capital, major segments of the Madhesi community – for whose welfare thebill was proposed – have rejected the proposed amendment, deemingit well short of what they deserve, with one party leader saying it ‘does not even address the minimum demands. How then, could this be the defining moment of Nepalese democracy?

An important functional facet of democracy is mandate. Prime Minister Kamal Dahal had come into office on the back of a vote from the agitated Madhesi community to redress their long standing socio-political grievances. Just last year, the Madhesi community – allegedly with the support of neighboring India – caused an economic blocked for six months that cost that dealt a major blow to the country’s economy, and organized protests amidst which 50 people died. While the PM is accused of bowing down to public pressure, he has in fact done the opposite, committing virtual political suicide in following his democratic mandate. Surely his resignation from this post back in 2009 due to conflict over the sacking of the Army Chief is still fresh in his mind.

The true ideological premise of democracy however, is representation. Prachanda fulfills this in two ways – demographically and constitutionally. Demographically speaking, the aggrieved Madhesi community occupies the plains of Nepal. That is just 20 percent of the land occupied by nearly 50 percent of the population. The Madhesi people have been consistently under-represented in the legislature, judiciary, and executive, and have faced issues with citizenship and recognition of culture. Prachanda’s proposal – carving a new province from Province No.5 of Nepal’s 7 provinces – at least partially seeks to redress that. This amendment is also representative of the newly embodied constitution, which speaks of multi-cultural, multi-lingual and mutli-ethnic Nepal.

Of course, there are some serious problems with the bill. For one, the bill doesn’t truly solve the problem of proportional representation – the Madhesi people want two provinces instead of one along the Terai plains. They also vociferously oppose another tenet of the bill, the language which implies the prohibition of naturalized citizens through marriage from holding top-state positions, including the Prime Ministership. Critics argue that this disenfranchises large swaths of women who were naturalized after being married to Nepali men, from the political sphere. Another issue is the recognition of all mother tongues in terms of official status. Of course, the more inclusive the bill becomes of the suggestions, the more enmity and accusations of foreign influence it will rouse from student protesters, the CPN-UML, and other factions.

Perhaps the focus then should be on the oft-forgotten but most fundamental manifestation of democracy – compromise. Like the laws of demand and supply that eventually create equilibrium in the free market, divergent interests in a democracy are ideally supposed to morph into a mean of these interests which makes it majoritarian in the truest democratic sense. To get from one to the other, the relevant parties must reach some semblance of mutual interest through a process of negotiation.

Within the past few weeks, another important political development has taken place in Nepal; the Rastiriya Prajantara Party has merged with the Rastariya Prajantara Party Nepal after years of differences. Maybe Nepal has much to learn from within itself than it imagined. If it does so, in an increasingly polarized and dichotomized world, perhaps the international community can learn from Nepal.