If govt with strong mandate fails, dangerous alternative forces may arise

  • Interview Shyam Shrestha

Feb 26, 2018-

A former editor of the widely read magazine, Mulyankan Monthly, Shyam Shrestha is a highly-respected leftist thinker. Mukul Humagain and Kamal Dev Bhattarai interviewed Shrestha to gauge his views on the new communist government that has come into power with an emphatic win of almost a two-third majority in parliamentary polls, and to discuss whether this political force will be able to keep its promises of taking Nepal towards prosperity.

How strong do you think the unified party formed merging CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Centre) will be, especially considering that Nepal’s history is peppered with incidents of parties breaking apart?

The people voted for the left alliance with the hopes of having a stable government under one strong party. The leaders of the left alliance have certainly managed to build a large house. The unified party, now dubbed the Nepal Communist Party, will be the largest communist party in South Asia. The problem lies in the weak foundations and in the lack of ideological alignment. Perhaps if the party leadership had held discussions on the philosophical aspects, it would have strengthened the party base.

The unified party is to become a single socialist party following the Marxist-Leninist philosophy and leaving Maoism behind. The left alliance’s electoral manifesto might give insight into the party’s thinking. The manifesto refers to democratic socialism, economic development, and prosperity. The issue here is that the party is branding itself as a communist party, but wants to adhere to social democracy. There is no fault in being pragmatic, but the party should be clear on its intentions. More focus has been accorded to the math behind the unification and less on the philosophy. This has weakened the foundations of the unified party.

Post unification, we will see four major political forces in federal parliament: The communist party, the Nepali Congress (suffering its worst defeat ever in elections), and the two Madhesi parties. What role do you see the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Madhesi parties playing in the future?

If the communist party unifies after laying a strong philosophical foundation (which it hasn’t yet) and if it follows through on the promises made in its electoral manifesto, we will see the NC becoming weaker overtime. This is because the base that the NC usually stands on—the upper middle class and the middle class—will be catered to by the Nepal Communist Party. This will happen if the communists fulfil their agenda. The problem is that some of their projects, such as the setting up of an effective cross-country rail in five years, are nearly impossible. 

The NC’s leadership is fairly conservative and is ageing. It’s because of this ageing leadership that the NC lost this time around. If you look at support for the party itself, the NC still won a fair share in the Proportional Representation (PR) system. But if you look at support for its leaders under the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system, the NC received votes that were almost equal to the two Madhesi parties combined, and that were much lower than the number of votes received by the left alliance. The situation is pretty bleak for the NC. Even if the communist unity breaks down, the NC will still need to form an alliance with the Madhesi parties to form a government. A coalition with many partners will neither be stable nor effective.

It is plausible for the Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum Nepal not only to form a coalition with the communist government, but also to merge into the Nepal Communist Party due to its socialist background. Such a move would give the government the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to make changes without bargains and compromise. But this is possible only if the government promises to undertake the constitutional amendments that the Madhesis want. The Rastriya Janata Party Nepal joining the government seems a little more farfetched. But I wouldn’t count it out completely if the government agrees to amend the constitution.

But doesn’t a two-thirds majority also create a space for the government to bend the democratic value system?

I don’t think so. The leftist parties seem to be more focused on disseminating information and discourse among the people than the NC. The communist parties also seem to be more democratic from within than the NC. While Sher Bahadur Deuba picked most of the candidates for the last elections unilaterally, such decisions in the UML—and to some extent in the Maoist Centre—come from the bottom-up. One fear is that the government, if they achieve two-thirds majority, can become conceited. To check this tendency, the press and civil society will have to come out strongly against it, should such a thing occur.

One of the reasons the current government gained votes was the people’s belief that it would bring stability. Now that the government is taking shape, what are some agendas it has to fulfil?

One of the biggest problems is that Nepal has never run according to the system. Nepotism and money politics have played a large hand here. All parties have started out trying to fight this and bring change, but were changed by the system instead. The first thing the new government has to do is to work within the system to rectify it. Inequality is rising in Nepal. So, the first thing to do would be to counter it. Tied to this, elections have become so expensive that contesting in polls is out of the reach of people without monetary backing. Once in power, an elected representative works to recoup the money spent campaigning. This leads to a cycle of corruption. So, we need electoral reforms. Our administrative, judicial and security systems are conservative and resistant to change. So, we need to reform these to make them more accessible. We also have to reform the trade unions, which currently are involved in unequal distribution and are deaf to oversight. We also have to reverse the current trend of our citizens leaving the country, which has created a shortage of labour and intellect. Nepal also has to promote a unified foreign policy agenda, and refocus efforts on economic diplomacy. Education and healthcare reforms are very important as well.

India’s external affairs minister visited the country and met with Prime Minister KP Oli even before the formation of the government. The new government seems to be close to China as well. As signatories to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and with India also being supportive of Nepal’s development aspirations, what policy strategies should the government take in its relations with the two Asian giants?

China has asked for Nepal’s proposals regarding road development last week. India also sent a message of erasing past policy stances by sending its external affairs minister. The United States too has signalled its wish to provide Nepal with aid—though this decision was taken during Deuba’s tenure as prime minister, the new government will be its beneficiary. This shows that Nepal is being situated in a place of import by three powerful global entities. Nepal has to show great proficiency in its diplomacy. Simply making noises will not do. We should stop talking about pitting India and China against each other—this will never work. We need to focus on connecting the North with the South while also seeking help to develop our hydro-energy sector. We need to allay India’s fears in the matter and ask them to join the BRI. We also need to seek technology transfers from our neighbours, because Nepal has enough money to develop medium scale road connectivity projects on its own.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Oli have created a revolution through the formation of the left alliance and the subsequent unified party. This merger and Oli’s nationalistic stance have provided great electoral dividends. Now, the new government does not have any excuse not to perform well. If anything were to derail this, what will the situation be like?

The government has nearly a two-thirds majority, our neighbours are supportive and the party itself has a large base. If, even with such favourable conditions, the government cannot deliver, we will see these results: Nepal’s communist and leftist movement will be derided for a long time—the entire movement will take the blame. Next, the fall of communism will mean that another force will rise—which does not necessarily mean the Nepali Congress. The current alternate force is democratic. But should the communists fail, I fear the rise of a different alternative force that could be fuelled by religious or other philosophies, which would be dangerous for the country.

A major challenge for the new government will be to divest power from the centre to local and provincial levels so that federalism is successful. How will this government implement federalism to make the system sustainable?

The political leaders have shown a tendency to grab and centralise power whenever possible. The leaders have shown an aversion to federalism, even as the country itself has adopted the system. I see a major confrontation arising when it comes to reducing the centre’s power, and increasing power accorded to local and state levels. Another thing is that even with the Maoists and Madhesis, seen as champions of federalism, in government, we do not see them defending this system strongly. However, I do not see federalism failing even if leaders are against it. For one, official languages are decided at the provincial level, which will increase access. The centre does not have any power to overturn this; the same goes for the industry and the university system. There may be attempts by the centre to draw back certain state and local powers. However, I do not foresee the centre effectively being able to curtail such decentralised rights.

Published: 26-02-2018 08:30

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