Nepal: The Missing State

My representative in Kathmandu has just sent me the following excerpts from a paper by Saubhagya Shah delivered at a seminar in Kathmandu under the auspices of the National Media Development Center (NMDC) and FE5 Nepal on Sept. 20, 2008; Harvard Ph.D. Saubhagya Shah is the program coordinator Conflict Peace and Development Studies at the Tribhuvan University, Nepal.

Saubhagya Shah, PhD

A major irony in Nepal at present is that despite the impressive governing alliance and the strong backing accorded to it by New Delhi and the Western powers, the government has never been so weak. The judiciary has been put under the executive; the large Constituent Assembly has been reduced to a rubber stamp for the wishes of the ruling caucus; and there is acute demoralization in the civil service and the police. The military continues to be treated as a pariah by the new regime and the civil society. The fragmentation and weakening of the various organs of the Nepali state has several major implications for the democratic transition, political stability, and economic growth. Internally, the failure to implement rule of law, curb spiraling crime wave, check the rising political violence in society, and ensuring the flow of essential supplies is leaving the population feeling insecure and vulnerable. The restoration of formal political freedom has not gone hand in had with the reassurance of security and liberty at the individual and community level.

Externally, the new regime has become extremely susceptible to external pressures and influences. There is a general impression that no decisions or appointments are being taken without external approval. The direct involvement of the Indian Embassy in the deal reached between the UDMF and the government on February 28, 2008 and the subsequent handing over of Upper Karnali and Arun III river projects to India are examples of enfeeblement of the Nepali state which adds to the growing sense of insecurity, demoralization, and lack of direction.

The ongoing state disorder and public frustration has usually been explained away as unavoidable transitional pangs that will pass away as democracy consolidates in Nepal. While such a linear view of democratic transition appears intuitive and assuring, comparative study of political transitions after the collapse of authoritarian regimes does not appear to support this view (Linz and Stepan 2000, 0′ Donnell and Schmitter 1986, Bruce 2005). For example, after examining a large number of regime changes that occurred in the “third wave of democracy”, Thomas Carothers (2000) concludes that a sequential move from regime collapse, transition, and democratic consolidation is not a historic eventuality. The sequence can be delayed, disrupted, or diverted by a number of factors chief of which are the absence of foundational consensus on the form and content of the nation-state, a “usable state” apparatus, and adequate security. In the Nepali context, all these three variables have become either absent or are under severe challenge. Between successful democratic consolidation and outright failure, Carothers posits that many of the cases enter the ambiguous “grey zone” where transition itself becomes the normal condition. If the present developments are any indication, the grey zone in Nepal is likely to have a dash of red as well.

The enfeeblement of the Nepali state, both internally and externally, will be a major handicap in ensuring successful conflict transformation, political transition, and democratic consolidation. Some of the worrying signs are the ongoing arms race among the political parties in setting up of and mobilization of youth squads framed around the paramilitary concept. After the Maoist set up the YCL, the UML launched its own Youth Force, and the NC has followed suit with Tarun Dasta who function as shock troops by employing coercive and intimidatory tactics. By taking the law into their own hands, these units often substitute for the state’s legal process. The recent skirmish between the home minister and the Land Reform minister in Siraha is a case in point. The emerging fracture within the state apparatus is a serious trend. After the onset of the insurgeny in Nepal in 1996, the conflict took on a bipolar form between the political parties and the Maoist rebels (Shah 2004). After the palace became active in the political process, Nepal’s crisis took on a triangular character until the formation of the alliance between the political parties and the Maoists in 2005 to fight the king which again restored the bipolar nature of conflict. With the demise of monarchy in 2008, it is likely that Nepal is heading into a multi-polar conflict scenario with the weakening state unable to regulate or moderate the different interests groups working both inside and outside of the constitutional framework.

As the state capacity is gradually being eroded, individual political parties and groups are becoming stronger. When these practices are generalized and normalized, what will emerge is not a civil or liberal but a muscular democracy not very accessible or particularly friendly to the poor, excluded, or the marginalized.


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