More than a decade ago, a former defense secretary of India, who served on the board of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies in Colombo with some of us from Nepal, recounted to me this interesting story. His grandfather, a dewan of a princely state, received complaints that a certain state functionary was not repairing a particular road in the districts, implying corruption and misuse of funds. Dewan Sahib did not berate or summon the official, nor did he form a commission of investigation. He simply sent a letter indicating that he would be travelling to some place through that district, would not be stopping there, but that he hoped everything was in order. He never made that trip, but all the roads were repaired to the satisfaction of the locals. This story was passed down in the defense secretary’s family to highlight the power of agya balam, the power of moral force behind the spoken word.
The point is that political corruption, unlike garden-variety bureaucratic corruption, is essentially about an undermining of the very ethical basis of rule. Mahatma Gandhi had agya balam in ample measure which has steadily declined in modern India to the point where, in the infamous 2G licensing scam, the prime minister and his cabinet are currently defending themselves in the court of public opinion like pickpockets in front of a junior magistrate. The loss of the moral high ground has also infected India’s “left-secular-progressive” civil society in the Fai scandal involving an ostensibly American Kashmiri activist but in fact a paid Pakistani spook. Nepal’s partisan civil society that midwifed Loktantra is in an even worse shape: they provided the protective cover to parties and politicians in power who, as Darfur, passport, red sandalwood or the many other Loktantrick scandals indicate, are in politics not for principles but for pelf.
This loss of the ethical base is the main reason why the Constituent Assembly cannot make a new but viable constitution ever. With hype bordering on snake oil salesmanship, the CA was sold to an unwary Nepali public as the ultimate salvation for everything: it has instead turned out to be a Pandora’s Box and the goblins that have emerged have scared our party Pandoras into political paralysis. What indeed has the CA achieved? Six years into Loktantra that promised a New Nepal through this vehicle, the old institutions have been laid to waste but not even the foundation stone of a new order is in place. Those who brought about this desolation cannot agree on the nature of that keystone, nor even have the moral strength to carry one to place.
The real issues of governance in Nepal that needed sorting out are not new: their story began in 1980 following the National Referendum. Instead of seeing that vote as one where almost half the population rejected even a “reformed Panchayat” (in reality a reversal of the autocratic turn the Panchayat took in 1975 shortly after the coronation of King Birendra), the hardliner elements therein saw it as a victory that gave them the mandate to sideline proponents of multiparty democracy. So much so that an elected Kangressi mayor of Kathmandu was summarily dismissed and replaced by Panchayat bureaucrats. The result was public dissatisfaction that erupted in the 1990 street protests that ushered in multiparty democracy, resulting in the 1990 constitution. It was drafted by the Kangress, the EMaLeys, the Durbar as well as the extreme Left including the gurus of today’s Maoists.
The 1990 constitution had many defects but they were not impossible to reform through normal parliamentary measures. Those amendments were only never carried out; such reforms were stopped from even being considered by claiming that it was “the world’s best constitution”. Among its substantive defects was the financial unaccountability of political parties that provided the basis for unchecked corruption by parties in power. It deleted the constitutional protection for local bodies such as municipalities and districts that the Panchayat constitution had. In a move reminiscent of the Panchayat dismissing Kathmandu’s popularly elected Mayor, the Kangress government dismissed Rolpa’s elected district government laying the basis for subsequent Maoist insurgency and the clamour for federalism. The army was not quite under an elected government, which some say was a blessing in disguise as it did not get politicized and corrupted as the police, but which prevented the nation from availing of its service in quelling internal armed political violence. It was delivered a final blow in 2002 when parliamentary parties refused to submit themselves to the curative will of the people through elections, first at the local level and subsequently nationally, thus making corruption endemic.
Despite these amendable failings, the 1990 constitution had sound political foundations. Indeed, it was only by standing on it that the current experiment was even initiated. Since the political adventurism of 2006 has ended in a miscarriage, since the mandate of the CA has long expired (and the Supreme Court too says so), and since the interim non-constitution provides no provision for fresh elections, a fresh popular mandate is only possible standing on the 1990 constitution. Is that even possible now, given that after an omelet has been made one cannot hatch a chicken?
It is important to understand the two basic political undercurrents within the omelet-making set in today’s Nepal that may decide the course this nation takes after August 31. The dominant doctrine in operation is Leninism, a cynical exploitation of Marxism by a class of professional revolutionaries through a mix of pragmatism and opportunism. It is based on political elitism that seeks to capture state power by any means including violence to impose its own idea of what society should be like. Led successfully so far by the Maoists, its primary strength is its ability to split its nearest rival the EhMaLey and to hijack the garb of nationalism in its anti-Mughlani version. Its primary weakness is the distrust it has generated both nationally and internationally with its cynical misuse of power that prevents collaboration with it.
The other doctrine is held by a decimated and divided Kangress (the Madhesis being ideologically mostly frustrated Kangressi personalities anyway) which carries the burdens of past sins including the personal ambitions of its past president that dismantled the Nepali state along Leninist Maoist lines. That the 2006 experiment has failed is widely accepted within this group, but they stand undecided at the fork in the road ahead. Heading one way are mostly Girija acolytes who want the Nepali President to do a King Gyanendra after August 31. Looking the other way are those sidelined by Girija who argue for a return to the 1990 constitution as a base for further reforms.
It is only if this latter group emerges with any significant political voice that the real reform of democratic governance can begin. That would need to include significant decentralization of developmental powers to the districts; Nepalis voting more for principles and less for warlord personalities through a proportional system; separating legislative and executive powers by ensuring that elected representatives remain good legislators who cannot become ministers unless they vacate their parliamentary seats; and assuring the periodical renewal of fixed-term political mandate. The alternative is Leninism’s dictatorship of the politburo where corruption is controlled and amalgamated into the ruling elite’s authoritarianism.