Fracturing within and among the political parties of Nepal has been a common phenomenon for over half a century, but recently the practice has exceeded all reasonable limits. Today, lack of a common vision among the political parties and their leaders, together with social divisions in the name of ethnic or regional politics, indicate that we are embarking on a path that is far from certain. The developments of the last few years demonstrate that the political parties are in the midst of serious internal crises. If the major parties break apart the stage is left for ethnic and regional party politics to take over. The established political parties are suffering grave internal disputes and the resultant power struggles are building towards a mighty explosion. The recent example of the UCPN-Maoist split, with the Mohan Vaidya faction breaking off its relationship with the mother party and declaring itself a new party called CPN-Maoist, is a clear indication of this. Recent feuds also within the CPM-UML as well as within the Nepali Congress party, where Janajati and Madhesi leaders have threatened to quit if their parties do not accept ethnic-based federalism, are yet more profound examples of the same. The phenomenon seems set to continue.
Strong political parties are of paramount importance for open, competitive, democratic politics, particularly in emerging democracies such as ours. All democracies demand strong and sustainable political parties that have the capacity to represent the people and to provide choices that underline their ability to govern for the public good. In our context, though, all the mainstream political parties are experiencing internal party-feuds and have developed cracks from within. Factionalism has become a normal phenomenon in the country, and our newly established democracy suffers greatly because of it. Indeed, that very democracy may itself be in serious danger if the political parties cannot re-define their attitudes, space and manifestos and learn to serve the people better.
We seem simply to accept the facts: we neither look for rational reasons, nor do we take seriously the possible consequences. Should we not start to ask questions? Why are our major parties being torn apart? Who is to blame? Are the internal feuds driven purely by political and ideological motives, or are the splits caused by something else? Answers to these questions must be urgently sought if we are to establish sustained and fair party politics in our country.
Splits within Political Parties
The political parties are among the most crucial of national institutions for the promotion and consolidation of democratic norms and values. In their many forms, they should not merely contest elections, but should on a continuous basis mobilize and organize the social forces that energize the democracy. In our context, however, reality on the ground is much more complex. Nepalese politics and the political parties themselves suffer from gutbanni, natabad, and cripabad: most importantly they suffer from a culture of deep-seated greed for power.
Over time political parties everywhere do split and re-form. Politics do polarize. It is the essence of democracy. However, in our context it would appear to have been happening for over seven decades not so much for ideological or even rational reasons, but because of personal hunger for power among the leaders and, most importantly, disagreement in len-den between them. The Nepalese political parties seem to be guided less by principles and convictions and more by power grabbing in order to serve their own petty interests. A recent split of the Maoist party, for example, would appear to have had less to do with ideology and more to do with personal conflict and the sharing of power and resources. Such splits are easily attributable to a moral vacuum in our politics.
The practice of these splits within and among the political parties is responsible for a severe weakening of the nation state, of its democracy, and of its political stability. It is a disease that affects South-Asian politics in general, but in our country it is more visible. Nepal has over seventy years’ experience of political parties, but it still suffers from nepotism, favouritism and corruption. There is little to prove that we have learnt much from our many years of experience. Party politics should essentially be about serving the people, but never has there been a serious interaction between our people and the political parties or their leaders. In many cases even a single family or clan sets the agenda for the whole party. In the political process, the wishes of the people should be providing the principal guidelines for action, but the political parties have deceived our people so often that they feel that the politicians have no further interest in them beyond their votes.
Pulling Politics Back from the Brink
We need always to remember that if the political party system weakens, democracy itself weakens, and with it society as a whole. Political parties are the backbone of any democracy. They provide the means to achieve the desired social goals, and without them democracy has no meaning. It is partisan politics that puts flesh on the democratic process and institutionalizes its ideals. Thus excessive factionalism and splits within and among the political parties without rational justification may defeat democracy itself. Since the nation may pay a huge price for this, it is vital that we pause now and seek to establish value politics as an extremely urgent priority.
Firstly, to improve party politics, the parties themselves must encourage greater participation in open debates on all important issues. Nothing should be secret in a democracy. Open, competitive, and fair participation in a framework of legitimate, credible party institutions enables citizens and groups to defend their interests, to act on issues that they care about, and to hold their leaders accountable for their decisions. Such institutions, enlivened by contention among socially rooted interests, can moderate conflict, convert demands into public policy backed by a working consensus, and earn legitimacy.
Secondly, promoting inner democracy and inner morality within each party is also essential. Leaders need to show quality and commitment to good causes, and fair debate and regular elections to change the leadership within the party are also vital. In politics, as in any walk in life retirement gives opportunities for a new generation with energy and ideas to represent the changed needs and sentiments of the people.
Thirdly, there is an urgent need for greater transparency in the funding of the political parties. They clearly need money to plan and implement their manifestos, to mobilize support, to compete, and to perform their democratic functions. Yet, political money and those who donate it are widely seen as problematic - at times, even, as a threat to democratic stability. People ask how leaders have become ‘fat cats’ overnight? Is it not time to ask ourselves and them about their sources of income? Is it not time to investigate?
Finally, the aim should be to establish a fully-fledged democracy. As in all social institutions, there are good and bad people, good and bad leaders. Bad leaders must be discarded at all levels, and the politics of gutbandi stopped. A political party cannot gain strength by flexing its muscles in the street, but by committing itself to workable policies and plans, to gaining the loyal support of its members, and above all to earning the trust of the people. Natabad and gutbandi do no good for a party, and they do no good for an emerging democracy such as ours. Most importantly, party politics must not be hijacked by a handful of party bosses as appeared to happen during the final days of our Constituent Assembly. Party politics must, therefore, be freed from the faria of a few leaders.
Justice, fairness, national and group identity, good leadership, and healthy politics are essential elements of democracy. The political process must reflect all these elements as it strives to advance social values while regarding the interests of the people as being of paramount importance. It is time for our leaders and all who care about the future of our country to take these issues seriously, to listen to the people carefully, and to do their utmost to pull the country back from the brink of a possible catastrophe.