Authors: Rumela Sen, Columbia University and Naresh Gyawali, Kathmandu
TS Eliot warned in his 1925 poem that the world ends ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. Almost a century later, this seems to be an apt description of Nepal’s struggle to maintain hope amid disillusionment and despair.
The first decade of the 21st century saw Nepal emerge from a decade-long civil war, abolish the monarchy and sign a historic peace deal that brought the Maoist guerrillas into the peaceful electoral process. Popular enthusiasm ran high for democracy.
Nepal backpedalled on these tremendous gains in the second decade. Intense political and ethnic feuds brewed over the drafting of the constitution. It took eight years, a massive earthquake and an ensuing humanitarian crisis to finally expedite its adoption. Still, Nepal’s political instability remains in the third decade.
As Nepal was grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic amid limited testing and a tenuous health infrastructure, the parliament was dissolved twice in five months in 2021. The 2022 election saw a power struggle breaking out within the judiciary while ordinary citizens faced a debilitating 8.64 per cent inflation rate.
Of all the shocks in Nepali public sentiments, a ‘pandemic of rape’ is the most jarring. Some cases made headlines because the perpetrators were celebrities, including an actor and the captain of the national cricket team. Though both men were immediately arrested, they received some public support. Protests were held in front of the police station and on the streets in their defence.
Despite a 20-fold increase in reported rape cases in Nepal over the last 25 years, activists worry that many cases still go unreported or dismissed. A case involving a 12-year-old girl from Bajhang district in western Nepal was dismissed due to ‘lack of evidence’.
These events highlight the culture of impunity that protects culprits and discourages victims of sexual assault from seeking legal action in lieu of ‘settlement’ and ‘reconciliation’.
This raises the bigger question of whether more women in office would lead to better policies to reduce violence against women.
Women’s representation in Nepal fell from 12.5 per cent (30 seats) in the first Constituent Assembly election in 2008 to 4.25 per cent (7 seats) in the 2022 election. Nepali women held prominent positions in the civil war between 1996 and 2006 and Nepal’s subsequent transition to democracy. Despite progressive laws like the Local Level Elections Act 2017 and constitutional quotas for women’s representation, patriarchy runs deep. Beyond fulfilling mandatory quotas, Nepali political parties hardly support women, particularly those from marginalised groups, to run for office.
Women who do get elected are often assigned to non-executive, deputy positions as a cursory nod to mandatory requirements. The World Economic Forum ranked Nepal 96 out of 146 countries in its 2022 Global Gender Gap Report. The Nepal Human Development Report 2020 highlighted the structural barriers and social exclusion that underpins gender discrimination and inequality in Nepal.
Gender disparity runs deep in Nepal’s electoral system. Running for office in Nepal is prohibitively expensive, and consequently, exclusionary. In 2022, Nepal witnessed candidates win elections by simply outspending opponents. Campaign cost is a major barrier to women’s and marginalised groups’ political participation.
Nepal has no public financing for campaigns and little control over funding sources and transparency. Though candidates must file post-election spending statements, the Election Commission of Nepal does not audit or publicise them. This opacity breeds corruption and undermines the spirit of democracy.
Fed up with corruption and failed governments, Nepal’s young voters have shown a preference for young candidates. This is evident in the 2022 electoral triumphs of Balendra Shah — a rapper with no political affiliation — as Mayor of Kathmandu and Rabi Lamichhane — a TV journalist — as Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Home Affairs.
The 2022 elections signal frustration with politics-as-usual and a shift away from programmatic politics to populism. Populism thrives on polarising society into ‘the pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’.
Populist leaders like Balenendra and Lamichhane regularly emphasise their ‘outsider’ status and highlight that their new politics is very different from the ‘corrupt’ politics of the old guard. Ordinary Nepalis are depicted as ‘pure’ and worthy of new leaders like them. The resurgence of right-wing Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party in Nepal is one further manifestation of this new populism.
Another polarising issue in Nepal in 2022 was the ratification of a US$500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant backed by the United States. It received support from the opposition but divided the ruling party. The Maoists are apprehensive that it will push Nepal into a military alliance with the United States under the US Indo-Pacific strategy.
Despite China’s concern, the MCC was ratified by the parliament on 27 February 2022 after a stern US warning that non-ratification would lead to a review of its bilateral relations with Nepal. The ratification included an explanatory comment to pacify those opposing the MCC that it was not part of the US Indo-Pacific strategy and would not compromise Nepali sovereignty.
Another significant event in 2022 was the appointment of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, as Prime Minister on 26 December. This could usher in a new beginning for Nepal in 2023. But ironically, Prachanda formed an alliance with his archrival, KP Sharma Oli, who dissolved the parliament twice in 2021.
This may seem to defy common sense, but it is just ‘politics as usual’ for Nepal, one that breeds public ennui and populist polarisation. Nepalis are losing hope, in slow whimpering sobs and not with a bang.
Rumela Sen teaches at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Columbia University.
Naresh Gyawali is a journalist based in Kathmandu.