“Our leaders never retire”

Himal Khabarpatrika 22-28 April

Interview with civil society leader Devendra Raj Pandey on the 12th anniversary of the Democratic Movement in 2006. 

Himal Khabarpatrika: This week marks the triumph of the 2006 Democratic Movement. How do you recall those heady days?

Devendra Raj Pandey: After 1990, people were growing frustrated with political parties and the Maoist insurgency was escalating. Yet, civil society was passive. The royal coup in 2005 gave us new energy, and we announced a civil movement for peace and democracy.

Why was civil society passive?

This is what happens when you have the desired political system, but the leaders do not deliver. Democracy was already restored in 1990, so we did not have to fight for it. We were disillusioned with elected leaders, but we could not ask them to step aside and let us govern the country.

Why has civil society failed to create the kind of political order it envisioned?

You can change the regime, but not the attitude of political leaders. After 1990 and 2006, our leaders considered money instead of people as their source of power. The general people or civil society were responsible because they stand united to overthrow authoritarian regimes, but are divided when political parties come to power. They never question the party they belong to.

How has Nepal’s political course been after 2006? 

Nepal was run by political cartels until recently, with a syndicate of top leaders taking all important decisions. And they were doing it not to serve the country but to cling on to power. The transition to federalism was long and bumpy, but we did not have the luxury to undo everything and start afresh. Even after three tiers of elections under the new Constitution, Madhesi, Janajati, women and Dalits have political grievances. But there is a sense of political stability, and I am hoping for new power dynamics within existing political parties and the emergence of a new political culture.

Are you suspicious of the communist government?

There is speculation that the communist government will curtail civil rights and impose authoritarianism. I do not think so. We cannot regress. Democracies are under attack, and populist ultra-rightists are emerging around the globe. Our democracy is in much better shape. The only problem is that our leaders never seem to retire or improve. A politician returns to power after 12 years, but his style and attitude does not change. It looks like I am pointing to NC President Deuba, but this is true right across the political spectrum.

Has civil society been donor-driven?

With financial assistance come political agendas. Soon after the restoration of democracy in 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed and several new nations were born. The Western powers invested heavily in transforming these new nations into democracies. That was when they began funding Nepal's civil society movement. If we allow them to decide our state structure, order and distribution of resources, it will be harmful to us.

Why did civil society not intervene when the Maoists tried to push ethnic identity-based federalism?

Civil society was polarised, too. While some supported the Maoist agenda, others tried to foil them. There was no space for neutrals like us.

But none of you came up with ideas to reconcile ethno-centrism and regionalism.

Who listens to ideas in Nepal? I personally believe that we must accept that the State has historically excluded Janajati, Dalit and women. If we make this acceptance a point of departure, we can negotiate to mainstream these excluded communities. But how can we even start a negotiation when you end the debate with: 'This country was created by Prithvi Narayan Shah'. A radical idea was countered by another radical idea, and there was no middle ground.

How can grievances of Madhesis, Janajatis and women be addressed?

They need a leadership that can articulate their voice and negotiate with the government. They do not have a leader at the moment. For example, Madhesis are being led by dishonest and opportunist leaders. It is easy for the government to coopt them. But what if Madhes explodes against its own so-called messiah? It is a responsibility of the government to foresee future crises and avert them through negotiations.

What's next after the Constitution, elections and federalism?

Creating three levels of government is real devolution, and the Centre should no longer try to retain the unitary system. Tax payers are concerned that the State will now have to pay for too many ministers and MPs. If our elected representatives want to address these concerns, they must renounce their sense of entitlement.

The agenda of stability and prosperity seems to have struck a chord with the people?  

I do not understand why we are suddenly after prosperity at a time when we have failed to deliver even development. The Prime Minister is making one grandiose promise after another. But where is the mechanism to realise these dreams. A few ministers have hit the ground running, but overall the system has not improved.