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Populism and Nepal’s democracy

Populism and Nepal’s democracy

Following the recent general elections, minor political parties entered the arena with the aim of securing a role in governance, capitalizing on the current electoral framework where no single party can secure a parliamentary majority. Despite initial anticipation of an ideological shift when the Maoist party engaged in the peace process and formed an alliance with the CPN-UML, the coalition fell short of such expectations. Nepali politics is viewed by analysts as being at a critical juncture due to governmental instability, rampant corruption and policy dilemmas. While Nepali people hoped for a lean and efficient administration under democracy, political entities in Nepal failed to deliver on this promise. Instead, the existing governmental structure appeared more bureaucratic and financially burdensome to Nepali taxpayers. Nepal witnessed one of its weakest coalition governments in recent memory, with governing partnerships shifting thrice within a year, reminiscent of past ruthless practices and corrupt leadership.

Even purportedly new political entities became entangled, directly or indirectly, in this murky landscape. Nepali people must understand that a new political party does not inherently equate to moral or ethical integrity. Without ethical leadership, genuine renewal cannot occur. The proliferation of new political parties poses a challenge to Nepal’s democracy and the establishment of a stable governance framework. Hence, analysts must scrutinize emerging trends, including the involvement of Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) in Nepal’s current government.

Analysts assert that RSP emerged from popular sentiments and crowd-driven notions rather than a coherent political ideology. When a political entity originates from populism, it may lack a clear political agenda, principles and policies. Parties’ lack of principles can undermine democracy, as voters may struggle to access accurate information to make informed choices. Furthermore, in the absence of political principles, a party risks becoming the personal domain of its leader, sidelining the interests and agendas of others. Populist ideas have the potential to conceal decision-making processes and mislead the public. Without a solid political ideology, populist agendas may clash with the nation's established plans and policies, resulting in misguided policy decisions. Populist leaders often adhere strictly to their scripted agendas, sidelining other parties from meaningful discussions.

Under CPN (Maoist Center) Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led ruling alliance, RSP has emerged as a significant political force, bearing substantial responsibility and accountability to the Nepali people. However, numerous uncertainties linger regarding the RSP and its leadership. Establishing a political party necessitates several key components: a clear political ideology, organizational structure, committed party members and integrity. Regrettably, RSP lacks all four elements. A robust political ideology serves as the cornerstone of a democratic political party, providing the framework for policy formulation. The absence of such an ideology and principles has downgraded RSP to a populist entity born from popular sentiment rather than sound political doctrine. In a democracy, people reserve the right to inspect their political leaders, and governments and political parties must remain answerable to the people. However, RSP has been quick to silence dissent and avoid pertinent inquiries, raising concerns about its commitment to transparency and accountability.

RSP lacks a robust political infrastructure, functioning more as a non-profit organization where social activists deflect blame onto others without assuming responsibility themselves. Examination of their core leadership reveals a predominance of individuals from elite backgrounds or higher economic layers, primarily residing in urban centers. RSP primarily focuses its activities on urban politics, capitalizing on the ability to amass crowds. The party’s president, Rabi Lamichhane, signals from a media background, using his platform to criticize the government and spread misinformation rather than addressing genuine issues. Lamichhane has adopted a quasi-superhero persona, presenting himself as capable of resolving all challenges through seemingly magical means. Despite his involvement in numerous controversies and disputes within Nepali media and politics, no conclusive resolution has been reached under legal frameworks. Major political parties have exploited Lamichhane for their gains, not bothering to address controversies surrounding him.

Nepal’s major political parties have diligently instructed their members on political ideology and beliefs, yet RSP has faltered in establishing a coherent political ideology and grassroots organization. Instead, RSP relies on amassing followers from the masses without implementing any effective control mechanism. It’s common knowledge that unguided crowds can turn toward chaos and pose a threat to democracy by disregarding laws and regulations. Therefore, RSP must evolve into a responsible democratic political entity, addressing unanswered questions and being accountable to the public. The rise of populism and crowd-driven politics worldwide over the past decade, exemplified by movements like the Mega Republicans in America and radical Hindu nationalists in India, poses a significant risk to democratic institutions and norms. Any embrace of nationalist radicalism could jeopardize Nepal’s overall development and its democratic foundation.

Integrity stands as a crucial pillar for the advancement of democracy. Unfortunately, all political parties in Nepal have fallen short of maintaining integrity to some extent, leading to results of large-scale corruption and conflicts of interest. Despite positioning itself as a viable political alternative, RSP cannot afford to emulate the shortcomings of established parties. Instead, it must exemplify honesty, moral integrity and ethical standards. Regrettably, RSP’s president, Lamichhane, has repeatedly failed to demonstrate honesty and ethical conduct, particularly in relation to an illegal passport case and a cooperative fraud. Moreover, his selection of ministries directly linked to these controversies highlights a clear conflict of interest, further underscoring his lack of integrity. Various incidents involving RSP leaders in controversial situations have been concealed by the party, weakening trust among the people and worsening damage to Nepal’s democratic fabric. When those claiming to offer an alternative view regard themselves as above scrutiny and disregard pertinent questions, public trust is undermined, leading to further harm to Nepal’s democracy.

The prevailing challenges to democracy around the world encompass populism, crowd-centric politics and leaders who undermine established institutions while advocating against traditional governance. Populist figures prioritize personal interests and political gains, deflecting blame onto others for every issue. In the Nepali context, most populist leaders prioritize attaining power rather than fostering long-term economic agendas and developmental strategies. The surge of crowd-centric politics stems from the failures of conventional political parties, which have either failed to address or neglected the people’s priorities. Regardless of the underlying reasons, populism presents a significant danger to democracy and governance, underscoring the importance of responsible political entities and leadership dedicated to nurturing liberal democratic values and fostering trust within society. Crowd-centric organizations can’t serve as a sustainable solution for Nepal’s long-term development. Instead, there is an urgent need to establish a streamlined government alongside an effective electoral system.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's sole responsibility and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is professionally affiliated