Nepal: Political instability, growth, and the role of think-tanks

"Everyone is demonstrating" by Oliphant is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
"Everyone is demonstrating" by Oliphant is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the 1990s, after the restoration of multi-party democracy, the hopes and aspirations of a free and prosperous Nepal amongst its citizenry were profound. The sentiment was fathomable, as the structure they envisioned meant that all people, even those that did not belong to the elite class, had an equal shot at prosperity. Unfortunately, after three decades of democracy, their hopes and vision have not yet materialized. With 28 governments in the past 31 years, the country continues to remain hostage to petty party politics, which has prevented the realization of any significant developmental progress. 

Rejuvenating the hope of economic prosperity, in an effort to reconcile the multiplicity of issues surrounding years of non-participation of ethnic groups, Nepal adopted federalism in 2015. With a two-thirds majority government in its Parliament, the country ventured into a new era of political stability. However, sustained political disorder once again diverted focus from strengthening federalism and conforming to the economic development agenda of creating an enabling environment for entrepreneurship and investment for sustained growth. One might even argue that federalism was never the sole focus of political parties in Nepal, save a few. While the notion of market-preserving federalism holds true for many federal countries, old and new, Nepal’s federal system seems to have been an abrupt phenomenon with no internalization of ideas among the key political parties of Nepal. In due course, Nepal has also witnessed shrinking economic, political and civil spaces. That such shrinking of economic, political and civil spaces has happened at the hands of those that once were their defenders and the harshest critiques of any infringement of civil and political rights at the hands of the monarchy comes as a shock to many Nepalese. During the tenure of the current government, bills that curtail media freedom have been registered, artists have been arrested over alleged defamation claims, a mockery of the federal system has been made (with then-Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli going so far as to say, “Provinces are the administrative units of federal government”), appointments to constitutional bodies have been made with an utter disregard for due process and, more significantly, the House of Representatives has been dissolved twice.

The infighting between the political parties has helped neither the ruling party nor the opposition. One might even argue that the recent political turmoil we find ourselves in has been a result of tensions between the political leadership.    

There is some solace in the fact that one can still turn to the judiciary in these tiring times. However, even a strong and resilient judicial system cannot compensate for a lacklustre executive. Though Nepal has a new Prime Minister, one that holds the confidence of the house, ministerial positions are yet to be filled and the government is yet to take shape. Of the appointments that have been already made, some have been controversial, notably the appointment of Umesh Shrestha as State Minister for Health, a position that experts say Shrestha is not fit for, owing to apparent conflicts of interest, given his ownership and investments in multiple ventures in the health and education sectors. In days to come, it is likely that ministerial positions will be used as bargaining chips, if that has not happened already.

The recent political turmoil that saw two dissolutions of the House and culminated in a change of government under the intervention of the Supreme Court lays bare the fact that the shared vision of the people is not posterior to political gains for their leaders. For a citizen, this signals that Nepali politics have disintegrated and that Nepal once again struggles to protect the ideals of democracy. Enduring attempts to straighten politics have imposed a huge cost.

There is no denying that Nepal has managed to achieve a few positives in the social spectrum; the magnitude of the lost three decades, however, is largely evident in the economic sphere. As of today, a majority of Nepalese still struggle to meet even their basic needs, with over 30 percent being at risk of falling into absolute poverty. In light of the dire political and economic turmoil, citizens are becoming distrustful of their leaders. In desperation, many youth have migrated to countries with ample economic opportunities in hopes of a better future. Given the escalation of such negative sentiments, the future of Nepal is bound to be bleak.

To prevent any further aggravation of the national outlook, it is imperative, now more than ever, for Nepal to make federalism work. This would be an important step to reconcile past mistakes and missed opportunities. 

Strengthening federalism and ensuring political stability would mean that Nepal could focus on economic growth, whereby Nepalese citizens would be able to exploit the many opportunities thus made available in the country, with a certainty that each of them would get a fair share of their labor, enabling them to live a prosperous life. In days to come, civil society organizations will have a larger role to play in assisting the government, especially sub-national governments that face a significant knowledge gap. First and foremost, CSOs and think-tanks need to make use of the tools available to them for a greater discourse on Nepali democracy and the ideas of limited government vis-à-vis the preservation of the spirit of the constitution. The institutionalization of liberal democracy through a culture of holding leaders accountable with respect to their promises and manifestos can occur only through larger political discourse. .This requires CSOs and think-tanks to become vibrant institutions that flourish and sustain dialogue and discourse. Much of the dialogue and discourse also needs to be supported by research and policy recommendations. Again, the role of CSOs and think-tanks in this regard is undeniable and possibly even greater than before.

Most important, CSOs and think-tanks are uniquely placed to fill the knowledge gap that is existent in sub-national governments, particularly in provincial governments. Since the Constitution of Nepal delegates several essential functions to provincial governments, and because there is a visible lack of capacity, think-tanks and CSOs must, without fail, leverage this opportunity. On a more positive note, we are already witnessing several think-tanks and CSOs closely working with provincial governments on a wide array of issues, but the engagement is nowhere near enough to fill the knowledge gap and, therefore, more engagement will definitely be required.

In essence, utilizing the knowledge and capacity of think-tanks will not only facilitate the creation of an environment for much-needed political stability and economic growth in Nepal, but it also would contribute to preservation of the democratic ideals of the nation and, most importantly, the preservation of the federal structure itself.