The middle way

  • Unless we find moderates on all sides, we are likely to see a repeat of the first Constituent Assembly
  • Apart from the thankful end to the violence and the emasculation and eventual ouster of the monarchy, the most salient features of the political agreements and disagreements post 2006 have had an ethnic content to it
- Deepak Thapa
The middle way

Apr 23, 2014-

Donald L. Horowitz, Professor Emeritus of Law and Political Science at Duke University, is among the most eminent names working on the issue of ethnicity and a condition that seems to afflict all societies comprised of more than one ethnic group—conflict. Best known perhaps for his magisterial Ethnic Groups in Conflict (1985), he has recently published a short article, ‘Ethnic Power-Sharing: Three Big Problems’, in the Journal of Democracy (available at

Coalition of moderates

Horowitz begins with the assertion that achieving a truly democratic society becomes very difficult in situations where the population is divided along ethnic, racial, religious, linguistic or other cleavages for the simple reason that such societies produce ethnic parties, and votes are split along those divides. Two of the most common solutions to such inter-ethnic competition are consociationalism (where grand coalitions are put in place instead of the adversarial form of democracy, including at times the provision of veto to all groups, small and large, in the coalition, leading to government by consensus) and centripetalism (where moderates on all sides of the divides form interethnic coalitions by compromising on competing claims, leading to interethnic majority rule).

The difference between the two approaches, writes Horowitz, is that the former envisages a post-electoral arrangement where all groups elected to parliament form a mandatory coalition, while the latter is a pre-electoral voluntary arrangement bringing together moderates. And, the ‘three big problems’ he identifies are: i) the conditions required for either to be adopted; ii) the possibility of the inter-ethnic coalition not holding over time; and iii) a situation of immobilism brought about by consensus politics.

Horowitz identifies 78 countries between 1970 and 2010 that went through one or more conflicts along ethnic divisions, drawing on databases created by four American academic institutions. He looks at factors such as inter-communal conflict and protest, ethnic violence, and the intensity level of violence. Of these 78, only 20 managed to reach power-sharing agreements among the ethnic groups. That certainly does not provide an encouraging scenario for multi-ethnic societies and therein lies some lessons for Nepal.

Ethnic content

Whether one agrees with Horowitz’s assessment or not, Nepal figures among his 20 countries that have reached a modus vivendi for ethnic power-sharing. It seems counter-intuitive that Nepal should be considered a test case to begin with, since the very reason Nepal made it into these various databases was the Maoist conflict, which, as we all know, had the stated aim of providing justice to the poor and the downtrodden, ie,  it was ostensibly a class conflict. However, the insurgency’s focus on the emancipation of minorities (not in the numerical sense), using the argument that ethnicity/caste and class are two sides of the same coin, ensured that the then CPN (Maoist) resembled, as a keen observer of Nepal’s contemporary history once put it,  “an ethnic liberation movement” more than anything else.

Let us further consider the various institutional arrangements put in place after 2006, and also the main divergences that led to gridlock in the waning days of the first Constituent Assembly (CA). Apart from the thankful end to the violence and the equally thankful emasculation and eventual ouster of the monarchy, the most salient features of the political agreements (and disagreements) have had an ethnic content to it. The declaration of Nepal as a secular state, the introduction of fixed quotas in the CA elections, reservation of seats in the civil service, and the ratification of ILO Convention 169 all had to do with ethnicity. Additionally, the guarantee following the Madhes Movement that Nepal will be federalised, the rise of Madhesi parties, and the palpable tensions revolving around the form of federalism preceding the dissolution of first CA in May 2012, were all rooted in ethnicity—in the broad sense of differences brought about by caste, language, religion and place of residence, and not having to do with Janajatis alone as is generally understood in Nepal. Taken together with the thrust of the Maoist insurgency, with its own strong ethnic undercurrent, one can surely agree that politics in post-2007 Nepal has been one of inter-ethnic accommodation.

Going back to Horowitz, some of his enunciations are highly relevant to Nepal. For instance, not included in his count of 20 so-far successful countries are those that reached “agreements that merely provided for regional autonomy or territorial devolution (or for federalism that amounted merely to devolution)”. After all is said and done, the federalism question in Nepal, beginning in the 1950s with the Tarai Congress and picked up by the Sadbhavana Party and an assortment of Janajati outfits in the early 1990s, has always been about empowering those who felt left out of the political process. Whether the best way to achieve that is through six states or 14 or a number somewhere in between is something the country will have to decide soon, but it is the manner in which federalism has so far been conceived that is problematic. As the research institute, Martin Chautari, concluded, the various drafts of the thematic committees of the previous CA (and now ‘owned’ by the current one) “reveal a disposition towards understanding federalism in terms of decentralisation...[and] an overall lack of thought on balance and the shared-rule aspects of federalism. Shared rule and self rule combines the benefits of unity and diversity through representative institutions.”

Inter-ethnic arrangements

There is also something to be said about, in Horowitz’s words, the role of the  “international mediator whose only interest is to restore the peace” regardless of how it plays out in the long run, particularly given that a “well-kept secret among proponents of various prescriptions of inter-ethnic accommodation is that they are rarely adopted”. Hence, the problem of adoption and whether Nepal was ready for all the political agreements reached over the course of 2006 to 2008. Of course, that does not mean that such arrangements should not have been tried out but going forward with the full realisation that there are many obstacles to lasting peace would have forced the protagonists to seek genuine compromises rather than cling to mutually antagonistic positions.

One can still argue that a “severely divided society is one in which ascriptive cleavages are highly salient in politics (more salient than alternative cleavages such as social class),”  as Horowitz puts it, is still not applicable to Nepal. Perhaps it is because ascriptive divisions are not so clearly demarcated, at least not yet, and also because of the considerable overlaps across boundaries, politics in Nepal has remained somewhat free of all-out ethnic influences. But, unless we find moderates on all sides finding ways to work out of the morass we are likely to see a growing reification of identities and its corollary, the “inflexibility of representation”, not to mention a repeat of the first CA, where the deadlock arising out of a weak variation of consensual politics ultimately led to the failure of that body to draft a constitution.

Of the 20 countries listed by Horowitz, in only nine have inter-ethnic political arrangements lasted more than five years and Nepal is not counted among them. But then Horowitz’s time-frame of analysis was confined to 1970-2010, and, given that peace has held in Nepal so far, that tally of nine should now be expanded to include Nepal as well. Our best hope is that Nepal will not fall off that list.

Published: 24-04-2014 08:28

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