KRISHNA MAN PRADHAN, executive director of Nepal Law Society, has been working for reform in politics, judiciary and electoral system in Nepal for the last two and a half decades. Pradhan recently made an observation tour of the United States, visiting various states and institutions, and exchanging views and knowledge about Nepal’s situation with the people of the highly developed democracy. Pradhan shared his experience with NEW SPOTLIGHT. Excerpts:
Tell us about your recent observation tour of the United States of America?
I was nominated by the US government for a program tour of study of the American Institute. One of the major highlights of that program was to learn about American politics and political thought as well as functioning of the institutions at the grassroots level. I visited a number of states and places in the United States to interact with various persons, including academicians, elected representatives and officials.
What did you learn?
The focus of my program was politics and political parties. I visited a number of institutions and got the opportunity to see the development of various sectors. For three weeks, I attended a course at the Massachusetts University, where I learned how political evolution and institutionalization took place in America. We interacted with various university professors during the program. We learned the evolutionary process of American politics and constitutional development and functioning of federal structure since 1789 in the context of the contribution of war of independence, constitution writing process and civil war. We were taught the principles of government, origins of American government, the division of power in federal structures, the role of Supreme Court in protecting the constitution as well as civil rights and liberties of the people, role of political parties and interest groups and their influence.
How are they relevant to us?
We learned about the election process, decision making process and relations between America’s three main state organs executive, judiciary and legislature. We also learned the functioning of structures of states including federal, states and local elected bodies like city councils and counties. An orientation was also given on the presidential system, legislative system and judiciary as well as federal systems, the role of the president, Congress and political parties in America. These were quite relevant as Nepal is involved in the debate to formulate a new constitution with federal and democratic outlook.
What is your impression?
I have been working in the constitution making process for the last 25 years. Comparing the situation between Nepal and USA, I have drawn the conclusion that it is the institution which is fundamental to strengthen democracy. It is not a constitution but commitments of individuals towards the institutions. The United States has one of the shortest constitutions, which has been functioning well for over 200 years. However, we have already changed the sixth constitution in just over five decades. Instead of strengthening the institution, Nepalese leaders always tried to change the constitution whenever there is a fault in their behavior. I am not certain that even the new constitution will work for another hundred years.
What impressed you the most about American system?
When I was visiting different places, I was reminded of the experiences shared by Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous book Democracy in America. America has gone through a history of turbulence such as during civil war. However, American democratic institutions coped well with all the situations. There were many ups and downs in American history over 200 years. As American people continue to express their faith in the constitution and political system, they don’t have to face political instability. This helps American people to concentrate their efforts in economic development. One of the important parts of American constitution is that it strongly follows the separation of power among three different structures of the states: executive, judiciary and legislature. The Supreme Court has been given power to interpret the constitution. In early days, American court played a very important role by protecting the constitutional process. Interestingly, at the time the Constitution was written, parties simply did not exist in American politics, although they were already a part of the political system in Britain. Major parties were reshaped primarily by the events and emotions of the Civil War period and the Great Depression of the 1930s.
How do you view American Judiciary?
Functioning of American judiciary shows that appointment process cannot make any difference in imparting justice. The judges of Supreme Court are appointed by the president and governors appoint the judges in states. Similarly, the local judges are appointed by chiefs of local bodies. In some places, judges are elected. The judges are appointed on the basis of party’s line and the appointed judges are trusted persons of the government at the time. I heard a lot of negative things about the judiciary including political biasness. However, I find the situation is different. Once the judges are appointed, they deliver impartial justice and nobody questions the neutrality of judgment. When it comes to performing its duty, American judiciary is able to protect the individual freedom and increase the public trust in judiciary and state’s institution. It was very strange for me to see that there were no fixed tenure for the judges and they are appointed for life. One of the judges even announced his retirement at the age of 88. But, they perform their duty as per the constitution and law. In the context of Nepal, our judges retire at the age of 65 and judges are appointed by Judicial Council and chief justice is appointed by Constitutional Council. Even so, the people often question the neutrality of judgment. As the judges retire at the age of 65, they always aspire for another appointment even after their retirement. These tendencies may affect their judgments.
What were your other experiences?
I travelled to Boston, New York, Washington DC, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. What I found was that the long struggle of American people gave the present shape to America. There were racial, and ideological conflicts in the American history. The history of African American is the history of hope and frustration. Before the civil war, many African Americans were held in slavery. The civil war put an end to slavery and postwar laws brought high hopes. The issue of slavery threatened to divide the nation. The constitution was amended and new laws were drafted to protect the rights of the people. My experience is that the economic development and democracy need to go together, side by side. Democracy flourishes with the prosperity and high economic growth. Economic development is necessary to provide a congenial environment for the democratization process. As Nepal’s economy is still based on agriculture and the economic growth is too slow, democracy will take more time to flourish in Nepal.
What is the role of American citizenry?
The beauty of American democracy is that citizens are always concerned about their duties, along with their rights. American citizens are concerned about caring for the public property than individual property. The situation in Nepal is that everybody is concerned about the personal property and state property is nobody’s agenda. This is the reason people create obstruction to roads and services. I don’t think it is possible to change Kathmandu even in 200 years in the current pace of development and with the current social attitude. Nepalese are concerned about individual interests rather than the community and public, whereas American people are concerned about public property and community interest. American society and system are guided by rule of law, but Nepal does not have any working rule of law at all. Nepalese enjoy much more rights but they don’t feel their responsibility towards the state. Democracy and development need to go together. Democracy cannot be sustained without development. I learned the lesson that democracy needs development. Development is not possible without a responsible citizenry and democracy needs a citizenry that can abide by the rule of law. Nepal lacks both. State is not in a position to compensate for the gap.
What did you think of the functioning of local bodies?
There are different types of executive, judiciary and legislature at center, state and local levels. All of them are independent to function. There is no interference by constitution and law in the functioning of state organs and check and balance is working perfectly well. There are more than 7300 local bodies in America and all of them have different structures or the structures of local bodies are based on local needs. The structure of local government institutions are based on local community. This is the reason local bodies are capable to solve the problems. In Nepal’s context, the structures of all 3913 VDCs are the same as all of them are divided in nine wards with 45 plus representatives. Even more interesting is that Nepal’s VDCs receive similar amount of annual budget from the government. Nepal’s local bodies have same rights, same budgets and similar structures. This is the reason local bodies are unable to manage the conflict. Although all the VDCs have different needs and different demands in terms of composition of population and area, they have similar budget and structure. I think there should be need based budgets and structures on the basis of local surroundings. Democracy is not possible without economic development.
What is the state of American political parties?
I found it quite strange to know that American political parties do not have full time workers. Political parties do not intervene in the day to day affairs of the government. The role of political parties is limited only to the elections. Once elections are completed, the role of political parties diminishes. Similarly, there are no permanent party workers. Elected representatives do not need to be accountable to the party. Elected representatives are accountable to the people. Party workers are mobilized during the elections only. Political parties in America are not member based. In Nepal, every political party issues membership and claims that they have one million or two million members. Candidates hire the workers. After the elections, they leave the candidates. One of the reasons behind the rampant corruption in Nepal is that there are full time political workers who need to be paid on monthly basis. Political parties often interfere in the day to day affairs of the government and elected representatives need to serve the party workers all the time. To pay full time party workers, an elected representative has to collect the money by any means. Party workers will be there before elections, during elections after elections. Nepalese parties need to learn from America.
How did you find the participation of women in the USA?
In terms of participation of women in politics, Nepal is far ahead than America. Nepalese women face a number of discrimination in Nepal but they are ahead in politics in terms of participation. In terms of inclusion, Nepalese political system is more inclusive than the American. When I visited a Halio city council of Boston, I was told that only one woman was elected as a mayor of the city and that also from white community. In its two hundred years of history, no African American or Hispanic has bees elected as a mayor there. When I asked the mayor about the inclusion issue, she said it will still take a lot of time to change the participation of women in politics. Similarly, the process of inclusion is also too slow. Women still face a lot of hurdles. A woman is yet to be the president of America. For the first time in American history, there is a president who is not white.
Do you mean Americans are more concerned about quality, efficiency and competitiveness rather than inclusion?
Americans have waged several struggles to make the political system inclusive. Even the civil war of 1863 was fought to establish the rights of slaves. During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln was elected as the president.
In our country, we are more concerned about individuals, rather than institutions. From judiciary to executive and legislature, we choose individuals against institution. What is the situation in the USA?
In the early period between 1779 to 1850, individuals dominated the process rather than institution. When constitution started functioning normally with amendments, the institutions got gradually stronger. Whether in the civil society or at the government level, institutions matter much more than an individual. An individual may come and go but it is an institution which prevails. There are views that the people should be governed by institutions rather than individuals. The teams within the institutions are strong. This is one of the reasons American democracy is different from all other democracies. Contradictory to Nepal’s situation, people in America protect public property against individual property. This sense of strong ownership in public property makes America what it is. They respect rule of law. Every one respects the government order, and laws.