When democracy was restored to Nepal in 1990, the country was unprepared. The state had been thoroughly centralized under the Panchayat system, with everyone ultimately answerable to the monarch. Between the people and the place, there were only a handful of intermediary institutions, which too came under direct control of the monarchy. Political parties were banned, and so were independent courts and constitutional bodies. Thus post-1990 governments had to operate in a kind of vacuum. Without functioning democratic institutions to hold them to account, the political leaders who suddenly found themselves in power were free to do pretty much as they pleased.
Lack of democratic culture became immediately clear as political parties started a mad scramble for power. Politicians were reluctant to sit in the opposition and miss out on the gravy train. Hence no sooner would a government be formed, the opposition was already plotting its downfall. Nor were big parties like Nepali Congress and CPN-UML united, and competing political leaders often conspired to bring down their own governments. One reason for this perpetual state of instability was the flawed legislation that allowed quick making and breaking of governments. This changed in 2015 with the drafting of a new constitution.
But even though the legislation changed, the mindset of the class of politicians that has continuously ruled the country for the past 30 years didn’t. So despite the ruling Nepal Communist Party now having nearly two-thirds parliamentary majority, its government once again appears wobbly even as more than half its five-year mandate remains. “Democracy demands responsible, broad-minded and consultative political leadership,” says political analyst Krishna Pokhrel. “Yet we have hardly had leaders with these characters since the 1990 political change.”
One reason for this close-mindedness is the tendency of our top political leaderships to limit their horizons to a small coterie of leaders and advisors. They simply don’t trust others. Another political analyst Chandra Dev Bhatta avers that the current regime, like the earlier ones, is heavily occupied by power politics and not with people’s urgent agendas. Bhatta argues that ‘elite settlement’ of various democratic movements and convergence between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ classes to amass power, prestige and money create disillusionment among the masses and thus sow the seeds of instability.
Then there is India, which became enmeshed in making and breaking many governments in Kathmandu. India wanted to maintain its stranglehold on Nepali polity and keep other foreign actors out. But in analyst Pokhrel’s words, “India’s interference persists, and yet the primary drivers of instability remains domestic—and it was no different in the past.”
Sadly, the country’s current political leadership has done little to strengthen other democratic institutions or to make people believe it is working in their interest. It also seems minded to rely on external actors to protect its reign.