“Forget Kathmandu – an elegy for democracy”. So Manjushree Thapa named her famous and critically acclaimed book about the turmoil that has been such a loyal companion to the political history of Nepal. Apart from being an painfully beautiful title on a book, it also speaks volumes about just how tired the Nepalis are of the political chaos that still won’t loosen its grip of the country. Nepal has endured several coupes, a long a bloody civil war and a revolutionary Maoist party to name a few things. The country has reached the brink of democracy many times only to see it slip away, often due to the power being seized back by the royal family of Nepal. On many occasions, the non-democratic powers have overthrown the pseudo-democratic rulers using very little effort since the attempts of creating a functional democratic system have failed so completely. Many times, all they needed was to sit and watch as the patience with the pseudo-democracy slowly faded. The history has been marked by many bizarre events, one of them that stands out is the massacre of the royal family. The Massacre (there’s only one of them that you can refer to here in Nepal) is something of a mystery; it was never established who committed it nor if it happened merely due to a drug induced loss of sanity or if it was a carefully planned execution with political motives. The reason it was never cleared who committed the massacre was because just like the democratic process in general, the investigation of the murders was nothing short of a Kafka story. Apart from being an exceptionally bloody and morbid event, the Massacre also had a huge impact on the history of Nepal sparking the civil war (You need to read the book to get an idea of the impact, come to think of it you should actually just read Thapa’s book instead of this shitty blog).
You might wonder why I’m writing about the political history of Nepal on this specific day. It’s because right now, after several failed attempts spanning over a 8 year period, the parliament is due to finally vote through a permanent constitution. Apart from not being able to pull off the ratification of the constitution (or actually even settle on a draft to vote on nor decide if the constitution has to be ratified by majority vote or complete consensus) during these 8 years, the politics has distinguished itself by various scandals of all sorts and a widespread, systematic corruption. The current constitution proceedings have been quite strange to say the least. I couldn’t really believe what I saw watching the news. After experiencing Nepal first hand, it seems to me that the politics has (unwillingly) a ridiculous and satire-ish shimmer to it. It’s not really possible to take it fully seriously. It seems like the Kafka story hasn’t ended:
This is just one of the unexpected (?) turn of events when trying to settle on the permanent constitution. The lack of a permanent constitution and the inability to reach one puts Nepal in a difficult cache 22, a cache 22 that comes with large portion of irony; the well-paid and to various degrees bribed politicians that are now in the office are more or less guaranteed to keep their jobs as long as a permanent constitution isn’t ratified since the constitution is required to have new elections. Thus, the longer the politicians can succeed in failing with the constitution, the longer they can keep their fat paycheck and the power. The progress that actually has taken place over the last decade feels fragile considering its only been 9 years since the civil war ended and the two opposing major forces are both still around. Even if few people consider it likely, pushing forward with a completely dysfunctional democratic system and failing one more time with the ratification will to some extend increase the risk of non-democratic forces to seize power again. There is lots to be said about the political system in Nepal and few of them are positive despite some progression in many areas.
However, just as easy it is to disregard and disqualify the Nepali attempt for democracy on the basis of the very obvious and visual flaws that it displays (just watch the link above) just as easy is it to believe in the western democracies due to their professional and well-polished exterior qualities
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that Sweden should copy the Nepali system or that there isn’t a difference in quality between the achieved level of democracy in Sweden and Nepal (there is a huge difference). But neither should the discrepancy between the two lead us to believe that any of us in the west lives in a true democracy or believe that our democratic system is working as well as the system would like us to believe. When I spent a year in the states, I had the pleasure to experience the election between Al Gore and George W Bush close-up. I was completely shocked by the sheer stimulus pressure, the insane amount of advertising and how difficult it was to tell the political advertisement apart from any other ads. It was nothing but just another commodity being sold. This was obvious in the daily discussions on the election: who was the most trustworthy, best looking and god-fearing man of the two (or three, counting Ralph Nader but he was rarely mentioned at all)? Which one should we buy? Very little was spoken about the actual politics. Some of my friends went nuts when Obama came to office with the slogan “Yes, we can!”. For me, it just reminded me of the all too polished but empty-of-content 2000 election and a soap commercial I watched when I was a teenager.
The ratification process of the constitution of Nepal doesn’t remind me of anything I’ve ever seen before growing up with the ridiculously stable Swedish political system. Main point: As with many other things when living abroad, everything you experience sheds new and different light on your own society, culture and its system (true cliché). When it comes to the comparison in this post the new light makes the west look awful good. But, you need only to scratch the surface of the west to discover severe flaws. I’d like to think that the west enjoys looking at the reflection of themselves in the mirror of the likes of Nepal because it makes us feel better.
Still reading? Back to the actual topic. A question was raised in the title of this post, should we forget Kathmandu? Or reversing the question; is there still hope for Thapa’s elegy for democracy ? The picture isn’t altogether that clear. The book finishes of with a quite tired epilogue that sounds like everything but hopeful regarding her elegy:
“…we want democracy. And for my birthday I want a rocket ship…”.
She also states that the final step of the revolution is to ratify a permanent constitution and that nothing is more critical to Nepal now (this was in 2007) than achieving full democracy. So far the constitution hasn’t been ratified and I’m guessing that Thapa along with the rest of the Nepali people is twice as worn-out now by the never ending political turmoil than she was when she wrote that tired epilogue wishing for a rocket ship for her birthday years ago. It’s obvious from what I see here in my daily life that the Nepalis will be forced to dig even deeper to find whatever patience is left because there are few signs that the political turmoil will settle in a foreseeable future. Still I remain hopeful, I think Nepal has gotten too close to achieve a functional democracy this time around to turn back again. However, for all the progress that actually has taken place since 2007, it would be foolish to believe that the non-democratic forces that still lingers in Nepal has endless patience as the Kafka story continues. So, no we shouldn’t forget Kathmandu. Yet.