13-19 May 2016 #808

Decay of democracy

History keeps coming full circle, and is repeated as a farce.

Democracy and press freedom are two sides of the same coin: while they strengthen each other, undermining one weakens the other.  

But western parliamentary democracy has a design flaw, it allows unbridled freedom to express the most outrageous views, which in turn permits populist politicians to propel themselves to power.  Usually, this happens during times of economic turmoil or conflict, when the mass media can be used to whip up the electorate by chauvinism, xenophobia, ultra-nationalism, religious bigotry, racism or identity politics.

Modern history is replete with examples of democratically elected demagogues who, after coming to office, dismantle the very institutions that got them there. History keeps coming full circle, and is repeated as a farce. Just look at the rise of the racist right in Europe. Or the terrifying prospect of Americans electing Donald Trump as their next president. In the Philippines, itself a former American colony and a country made in its image, foul-mouthed mayor Rodrigo Duterte who once led death squads, was elected executive president this week.

In Nepal itself, the exhilaration of democracy after the 1990 movement is now a distant memory. The hope that political competition through elections would usher in a spirit and practise of accountability has long since evaporated, as political leaders who suffered under dictatorship and devoted their lives for the struggle proceeded to squander hard-won freedoms. Twenty-six years later, Nepal is still in political transition — having lived through war, a royal massacre, a military coup by the king that led to his ignominious downfall, and the endless political upheavals after that. A constitution that was supposed to end this instability is still contested, and the squabbling continues.

More than 17,000 people were killed in a pointless and misguided war. Millions were displaced, thousands were tortured and disappeared. Nepal’s fledgling democracy was violently uprooted, and development set back decades. In 2006, the rebels and government found neither side could win, and signed a peace deal. They then ran the country under a quasi-democracy so a political cartel could divide up the spoils. The Madhes Movement represents the frustration of leaders from the plains that hill-based parties have monopolised power, but only because they also want their hands in the till.

Nepal’s rulers have given each other amnesty for war crimes, and left the bleeding to bleed. They watch as millions work in slave-like conditions in the Gulf and Malaysia, often exploited and robbed by Nepali recruiters who enjoy political protection, in return for a share of the loot. They treat the treasury as their personal piggybank, plunder our forests and rivers, and poison our people. 

The rulers still rule, but they stopped governing long ago. Earthquake survivors are left to their own devices as they prepare for their second monsoon out in the open, and western Nepal reels under a drought that threatens an unprecedented food shortage.

Inside Singha Darbar, meanwhile, they go about the business of 'politics' without any sense of urgency, trying unsuccessfully to topple each other every so often at the behest of external powers and agencies.  

The most recent 'coup' attempt last week by Sher Bahadur Deuba to get his Nepali Congress to team up with Madhes-based parties and the Maoists backfired when Prime Minister Oli deftly out-maneuvered him in a counter-coup. Suspecting that the Indian establishment had had a hand in it, Oli cancelled a visit by President Bidya Bhandari to India and abruptly recalled our ambassador in New Delhi. This petty tit-for-tat approach has unnecessarily ratcheted up tensions between Nepal and India at a time for much-needed healing after New Delhi’s grave blunder in foisting a five-month border blockade on Nepal.

It would be naïve to assume that this latest spat is only about strained relations between India and Nepal. Actually it is the result of intense political polarisations within India itself between the BJP and the rest, and within Nepal between the NC and the UML. Prime Minister Oli has found it convenient to once again play the nationalist card and gain stature by being seen to be standing up against India, while in New Delhi the anti-BJP forces are using the Beijing bogey in Kathmandu to embarrass Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The sooner we get out of all this populist posturing, the better for the peoples of both countries, who have not given up hoping for good governance, people-centred development and a better quality of life. The media in India and Nepal would do well not to fall into the trap set by politicians, by fanning the flames of conspiracy and intrigue at the behest of demagogues. 

Read also:

Contempt of freedom, Editorial

Pulling the rug, Kunda Dixit

Democracy and democracy, ASHUTOSH TIWARI

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