Towards a Democratic Nepal: Inclusive Political Institutions for a Multicultural Society
Sangeeta Thapliyal ·       

What leads to violence in a democratic state? Does democracy provide space for violence if the politics is exclusionary to certain people or groups? Do excluded communities resort to violence if they are alienated from socio-economic and political spheres? How can a democratic state deal with it? Is federalism a better choice than a unitary form of government or would constitutional amendments suffice? These and many more issues are dealt by Mahendra Lawoti deftly in his book Towards a Democratic Nepal: Inclusive Political Institutions for a Multicultural Society.

Nepal adopted multi-party democracy in 1990 and retained the constitutional monarchy. However, except for the general election of 1991 when the Nepali Congress (NC) procured a majority, in none of the subsequent elections a political party had a majority share. These were coalition governments, none leading to political stability which further deteriorated due to the Maoist insurgency.

The author blames exclusionary politics within Nepal for the emergence of the insurgency. The Maoists were discriminated against at various levels. The United People's Front of Nepal (UPFN), was discriminated against, right from the time of the drafting and adoption of the constitution (1990) and in governance and conduct of political activities. The UPFN cadres were harassed by the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist). The socio-economic conditions of inequality, over-centralisation, incompetence of the governments, lack of modernity and neglect of the peripheral and ethnic groups added and led to the rise of Maoist insurgency. In fact, these conditions were equally responsible for creating situations which led to increased participation of the indigenous nationalities, Dalits and Women in the movement. Many people belonging to these groups were not in the cadres of Maoists but identified with their cause.

The multi-party governments in Nepal did not provide opportunities to the marginalised sections of the society such as the Janjaties (ethnic nationalities), Muslims, Women, Dalits, and Madhesias (people from Nepal's Plains) that constitute two-thirds of the state's population. There was predominance of the dominating communities e.g Brahmins, Chettris, Newars etc, in employment, politics and business. This continued even after 1990 and was reflected in the management, functioning and policies of the state. For example, the use of Nepali language in public service examinations was favoured to the advantage of dominating communities but not those who did not speak this language. The constitution gave prominence to Hindu religion and accepted the King of Nepal as a Hindu King thus relegating the non-Hindu people to a second class status. These forms of exclusionary practices and polices led further to alienation of these groups.

Lawoti prescribes inclusive politics to take care of the varied aspirations of the people in a multi-cultural society in order to have a stable democracy. The strength of the book is not in describing the problems of democracy in Nepal, its causes and consequences but in providing prescriptions or strategies to deal with them. He prescribes a proportional electoral system; affirmative action polices and reservations; declaration of a secular state; a centralized judicial review; constitutional protection of minority rights; right to form identity oriented parties; inclusion and accommodation, power sharing and group autonomy; consensus model for representing the voices of the people etc. He prefers the controversial constituent assembly over a constitutional amendment. One of the core demands of the Maoists is to draft a new constitution through a constituent assembly. They do not accept the present constitution of Nepal. Even the CPN (UML) in 1990 had extended only a 'conditional support' to the present constitution. However, of late there has been no serious effort to create public opinion on this subject because it would open space for a debate challenging traditional socio-political power structures. According to Lawoti, this debate in fact would serve the aspirations of the people not belonging to the traditional power structure better than a constitutional amendment. In his words "the oppressed socio- cultural groups would benefit more from a higher level of public debate because they can participate in and influence the public debates. Thus, their influence would be higher in the constituent assembly option."

Federalism is another formula prescribed by the author. He asks for the state to be restructured on the basis of socio-cultural identities of the groups. A regional government representing marginalized socio-cultural groups would be able to formulate policies beneficial to their people. Even ethnic minorities living in their own area would benefit through federalism as they would constitute a relative majority in a region as compared the entire state. For Dalits, he recommends non-territorial federalism. He calls for the formation of House of Nationalities as the upper house of the country and asks for a right to form new regions.

Lawoti rests his recommendations on a worst case scenario that if the marginalised communities continue to get alienated it would generate violence similar to the Maoist insurgency. And a large scale violent politics might disintegrate Nepal. According to him, Nepal is geographically united but not socio-culturally and economically.

In Nepal the socio-cultural exclusion took place even before the inception of democracy but there was no violence. Secondly, even if it is argued that democracy provides space for expression that at times can lead to violence; one cannot ignore the role of leadership as in the case of Maoists. Maoist movement is a political movement; to which the support of the socio-culturally marginalized groups is incidental. Thirdly, the response of the establishment in Nepal has been varied for both the Maoists and the protest movements. Force, inducement, negotiations were used for the maoists where as there have been attempts in meeting some of the demands of the such as a National Foundation for the Development of Indigenous Nationalities set up in 2002. Even if it is considered a token gesture, in the game of political contestations the support of Janjaties can take the steam away from the protest movements. Unmet expectations therefore, may or may not lead to violence. Basing a view on a hypothetical crisis situation may not be a fair assessment. Going by same logic, the Maoists should have challenged the monarchy after the King declared emergency on 1 February 2005 and marginalized all the other forces politically. Instead the Maoists got embroiled in their own infighting and leadership bickering rather than challenging the identified enemy, that is, the monarchy. There can be no linear approach thus to deal with situations linked with human behaviour. A case for an inclusive politics stands on its own merits rather than spurred by the spectre of violence from protest movements leading to the disintegration of Nepal.

It is an interesting book, which raises many pertinent issues concerning Nepal's politics. It is an honest attempt to put forward a case for inclusive politics for Nepal in particular and the relationship between a democratic state and its people in general. In a larger theoretical framework readers from South Asia will be able to identify with their own politics and the challenges faced by them. It was a delight to read this book.