External Affairs

The Deck Is Stacked Against Nepal’s Small Political Parties

Despite their agendas of good governance and economic development, the new outfits are unlikely to match up to the big political parties that are masters of vote-bank politics and are deeply rooted in every part of the country.

Leader of Sajha Party Rabindra Mishra (left), former Nepali Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and leader of BibekSheel Nepali Ujwal Thapa. Credit: YouTube screenshot (left), Reuters and Twitter

Leader of Sajha Party Rabindra Mishra (left), former Nepali Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and leader of BibekSheel Nepali Ujwal Thapa. Credit: YouTube screenshot (left), Reuters and Twitter

Kathmandu: There is a fundamental contradiction in former Nepali Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s new political outfit, Naya Shakti (New Force). During a recent interview with The Wire, Bhattarai said that he resigned from parliament – before going on to form his own party – as he was unhappy with the way the aspirations of Madhesis and Janajatis were thwarted in the new constitution promulgated in September 2015. He says he was particularly upset with the final federal model that was agreed upon amongst the major political parties.

Back in Nepal, however, Bhattarai has been rather keen to take ownership of the new constitution, the making of which he had closely supervised as the chairman of the constituent assembly’s all-powerful Constitutional Committee. This is why he keeps insisting that the country’s political change is now complete with the promulgation of the new constitution under his watch and the time is now ripe for the country to move forward on the path of economic development. But if the main issue of federalism remains unsettled, as Bhattarai himself admits, how can he say Nepal’s political journey is now complete and that economic agendas are all that remain?

This is only one of a litany of criticisms levelled against Bhattarai and his Naya Shakti. The other criticism is over his lack of clarity. He talks about Nepal’s economic transformation but skips details of how he intends to achieve this. In the interview with The Wire, Bhattarai said that “the old binary of left and right is not working” in Nepal and so there is a need for “a new political thought or ideology which is suited to the 21st century and the current condition of Nepal”. But, again, he does not specify what such an ideology might be.

Many Nepalis are also uneasy with the chief architect of the Maoist war – in which 17,000 people were killed – trying to make a clean break from his mother party. It suggests that perhaps he never believed in the Maoist agenda and only used the war to achieve his political goals. If that is the case, say his detractors, all those killed during the Maoist war would have died in vain. Most of Bhattarai’s critics are queasy about the fact that he was directly responsible for so many deaths and will thus never listen to him, much less vote for him.

As the voices of criticisms have grown, senior members of his party – which is less than a year old – are already abandoning him one after another. Others have been fired for deviating from the party line. Perhaps realising the hopelessness of the situation, Bhattarai is already thinking of merging his Naya Shakti with the Upendra Yadav-led Federal Alliance, a group of small ethnicity-based outfits.

The missing rationale

Some of those who have left Bhattarai’s party have joined another brand-new political outfit, the Sajha Party, which was recently put together by veteran journalist and philanthropist Rabindra Mishra.

Mishra is a respected journalist and has helped raise and mobilise hundreds of millions of rupees from Nepalis living abroad for various charitable causes back home, including post-earthquake reconstruction, and development of health and education infrastructure in rural Nepal. Mishra, who does not have any previous political experience, nor the kind of heavy baggage Bhattarai is doomed to carry. Even as a journalist, Mishra spearheaded a popular crusade against corruption. His long tenure as the chief of the popular BBC Nepali radio service has also been widely acclaimed.

So when Mishra talks about the ‘four pillars’ of his new party – system, transparency, integrity and meritocracy – people tend to believe him. His message that the major political parties of the country are capable of bringing about sweeping changes but incapable of institutionalising those changes also resonates. When asked about how he will position his party, Mishra says, “Anyone with a heart will always be on the left of the political spectrum” and as such his party’s guiding ideologies will be “participatory democracy and liberal welfare economy”.

The oldest of the three outfits promising “post-ideological” politics is BibekSheel Nepali (Party of Rational Nepalis). BibekSheel Nepali, which was formed in 2012, is led by Ujwal Thapa, a youth activist and entrepreneur. It is a party “not only built by the youths but also led by them“. The party believes that it is time the country is freed from the clutches of old politicians and the “energetic, entrepreneurial and persistent” youth, the change-agents, are given a chance to lead Nepal. BibekSheel Nepali’s goal is “to build a peaceful and prosperous Nepal within our own lifetime” through “pragmatic reforms”.

The public accounts of its expenses that the party maintains (a rarity in Nepal), its consistent support for vital health reforms and its contribution to post-quake rebuilding have all been widely praised. As has the party’s initiative to outlaw the culture of bandhs and other forms of disruptive strikes. Compared to Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti, BibekSheel is seen as a more credible outfit, largely because of the involvement of clean, qualified and competent youths in its ranks.

Three is already a crowd

But whatever their merits, these new parties are likely to struggle in electoral politics. This is because they face the likes of Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal-Unified (Marxist-Leninist) (UML), currently the two biggest political parties in Nepal, and each a master of vote-bank politics. The Maoist party of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has also long since abandoned its revolutionary zeal and has turned into another parliamentary party that is obsessed with getting into office.

Let us consider the case of UML. It’s a political juggernaut, with 400,000 general members and strong presence in each of the 75 districts of Nepal (and in each of the seven proposed federal provinces). It’s organisational strength and unity is a matter of envy for other parties. There isn’t a sector in the national economy which isn’t shaped by trade unions and other UML sister wings. The party and its affiliates also control non-governmental sector. Recently, a UML MP told me, only half-jokingly, that during his search he had found only one NGO in Nepal where the ‘influence’ of UML didn’t work.

The Nepali Congress, the country’s oldest running political party, has also been able to spread deep roots in every part of the country. Its politicians, just like their UML counterparts, are old masters in vote-bank politics. Also like UML, Congress too has strong and reliable patronage networks all over Nepal.

The employees of most government offices in Nepal are neatly divided among those supporting Congress and those supporting UML. Only now has a tiny section started supporting the Maoist party.

Interestingly, all three big political parties in Nepal see themselves as left-of-centre. So there is not much in terms of ideological differences among them.

Wait-and-watch agenda

It is a near certainty that with their well-connected patronage networks, Congress, UML and Maoists (now also called the big three), will between them once again win most seats in any future election. The rest will be divided among the pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party (which attracts those dissatisfied with all post-2006 changes, including the abolition of monarchy) and the various Madhesi parties (which have been able to do well in niche areas in Tarai-Madhesh).

Of course, there is no shortage of political parties in Nepal. In the second constituent assembly elections held in 2013, 122 different parties took part and 27 of them were elected into the national parliament. But most of these smaller outfits have been formed by break-away members of major parties and there is not much to distinguish them from the major parties. Even in Tarai-Madhesh, there is very little in terms of ideological differences among the around 15 parties that claim to represent common Madhesis.

They all appear the same because there are only a handful of emotive issues with which to rouse the Nepali electorate today – with all the popular debates centered on some variant of ‘federalism vs unitary state’, ‘inclusion vs development’, ‘monarchy vs republic’, ‘secular vs Hindu’ debates. When the meaning of what it means to be a Nepali is being bitterly contested, issues of good governance and economic development are easily lost in the cacophony. And this is one reason the three major deviants from established political culture in Nepal, each with its own version of post-ideology polity, will have a hard time.  

If agendas alone determined the fate of political parties, BibekSheel Nepali should perhaps have emerged the biggest party in the last 2013 elections. In the event, it didn’t get a single seat in the 601-member assembly.

Again, clean governance and reliable and affordable health and education for everyone are worthy goals. But they don’t sell in these divisive times. The political culture of Nepal is another hindrance that these new outfits will struggle to overcome. Even young voters in Nepal tend to vote for the same political parties that their parents supported. If not, they vote for the party which supports their career development; right political connections are always handy in the thoroughly politicised Nepali society.

There is no hope thus for Naya Shakti, Sajha Party or BibekSheel Nepal in the local level election slated for May 14. They don’t have the money and muscle that big parties can muster. Nepali electoral laws also discriminate against them: the candidates of political parties outside the parliament must contest in the local election as independents. And Nepalis are just not used to voting for independent candidates; only two of the 601 lawmakers elected in 2013 won as independent candidates. Another parliamentary bill that is being considered will bar from national parliament any political party that gets less 3% of total votes in proportional representation component of the election. The bill, if passed, will make things even more difficult for these small outfits.

Therefore, whatever the advocates of these new outfits might claim, the time for the kind of post-ideological and agenda-based polity they supposedly champion has not come.

Biswas Baral is a Kathmandu-based journalist who writes on Nepal’s foreign policy. He tweets @biswasktm.