One reason why western countries promote multicultural societies is because diversity sharpens minds and gets people thinking. Any city that comes even close to be called Nepal’s melting pot is probably Itahari. Strategically located between Dharan and Biratnagar, Koshi highway and East-West highway intersect here. People of almost all ethnicities—from the Tarai to hills—have made Itahari their home. And it has also proven that it thinks.
The reflections that the intellectuals of Itahari began last week about what has been wrong with our recent political judgements are a small spark in that direction. Why two great political changes of 1990 and 2006 failed to translate their promises into reality was a question that got the city’s front runners thinking.
Politics is indispensable. But the absence of alternatives for people makes today’s politics a dangerous thing. When contesting, political actors start seeing themselves as the ultimate substitutes for one another, they resist progress; the clock stops for them. An increasingly robust consensus in Nepal today is that the country is going through the worst crisis in its history and every available political choice looks worse than the other. In response, what we often get to hear from our political class is that despite all its drawbacks, we would have to bear with it since there is no alternative.
But this is only half the truth, derived from our past experiences. The other half, however, would look like the ‘movement’ that has started from Itahari with a message that a thinking populace will eventually find an alternative from within. The process of evolving choices becomes faster once people debate, self-assess and prepare to mobilize themselves for the future.
Nepal’s political mobilization is predominantly top-down, inherited mostly from our deep monarchical history and culture where one man’s say in the system would be the last. It has tangibly relocated into the way our political parties operate. From a nucleus generally called ‘central body’ formed by a few ‘enlightened’ men, to developing as full-fledged political parties, they worked hard to motivate people, built pyramid organizations brick by brick and received power from people’s participation. They also led successful movements for political change, more often than our neighboring courtiers. But once they reached the top echelon of power by forming governments, they never returned the power to the people. This is what happened after every political change, be it in 1950, 1990 and 2006.
We live in a different world today. The open and liberal democracy that 1990 brought in has greatly increased our access to information. Our students and youth think in terms of the future, instead of living in the joys of the past. A vast majority of them can see how competitive the world has become and are ready to take it head on. The ‘critical mass’ and middle class is growing.
Yes, a large section is still behind and the poor continue to lead dismal lives. But this number is in gradual decline as a result of increasing access to remittance. Rural population demonstrates better political wisdom despite its enduring poverty. Its resilience is where the power of Nepal as a nation emanates from.
Any alternative aspiring to reverse the old political trend today must be a people-led, bottom-up initiative and must appeal to this emerging segment of society. Some attraction towards extremism certainly exists as a result of the agendas rammed from the top, but radicalism is not the defining character of Nepali society. A mixed demography like that of Nepal, in fact, thrives only on tolerance and co-existence.
Top-down state machination is carefully designed to function on the belief that the state does no wrong. The executive head of the government, as the legitimate top representative of the people, appoints various department heads, whose ‘ingenuity’, whether or not it exists, the rest of the country ought to trust. The relationship between the heads and subsidiaries of political parties is similar too. Like in many nascent democracies of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, our problem starts from here. Problems persist in spite of a functioning constitution, legal structure and plenty of international cooperation, let alone in their absence. If ‘power corrupts’, it is because the very idea of concentrating authority into the apex of a top-down system is by definition destined to corrupt.
A bottom-up enterprise, on the other hand, puts the reins of the system in the hands of individual citizens. While embracing private sector-led business efforts in the economy, it incorporates local efforts into a national system in politics, connecting them through an appropriate constitutional-legal framework. We cannot allow the national stalemate to continue, waiting for the elusive and so-called ‘charisma’ of an individual leader. A bottom-up system relies on collective ideas. Say, for example, Nepal wanted to adopt a consensus-based political environment through its Interim Constitution in 2007, which was a good way to foster a collective attitude among people’s representatives. Sadly, the impressions of power-seeking individual tendencies of the past pulled back political minds, rendering the whole system defunct.
Pursuing bottom-up political alternatives is difficult in Nepal, but not impossible. It calls for entrepreneurial organizing spirit, innovation, and most importantly, funding. The first two may be found aplenty but the third must come from somewhere. Therefore, organizing small citizen movements for local agendas in our municipalities and villages could well be a realistic starting point.
Pokhara two weeks ago united in an unforeseen manner for its rightful demand of a regional international airport. Other such movements already exist in the form of community forestry groups, women’s groups and consumer groups. Why not build wider local networks asking seemingly neutral professors, lawyers, doctors, teachers and village wise-men to lead their own loose networks? A national renaissance for Nepal is in the making under a thoughtless polity at the top. Alternatives eventually emerge out of a fluid political landscape.
What Itahari has spoken resonates with the entire nation and it needs to spread fast. People are ready to evaluate themselves, accept where they failed and promise to look forward. During difficult times like now, every little thing we do may blossom into a real national awakening for a better tomorrow.