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Nepal's Protest, Policy making and the Question of Democracy


For the past few days protesting masses of predominantly young people have been slowly engulfing the erstwhile deserted streets of Kathmandu Valley. Disenchanted with the leadership, to them the protest seems indispensable. The primary demands of the protest are accountability, quality Quarantine facilities and to emphasize PCR tests rather than continuing with highly controversial RDTs.  Though the demonstration has been peaceful, the Police have resorted to use of force to disperse the crowd. If the shower from a powerful water cannon and the pangs inflicted by the lathi charge were not enough, the Home Ministry via a press release has now threatened to imprison participants of the protest for up to 6 months. The outcry is not impetuous, it cumulated over past couple of months in response to the way government has handled the pandemic. Accusations of financial irregularities and the obstinacy with which leadership is rife has only aggravated the already worsening public opinion of the government. Notwithstanding immensely unfavorable public opinion, the government has been unapologetically moving ahead with discredited plans and policies.

Given these developments, it is pertinent to ask who really formulates government’s policy. Does average citizens play any role in shaping the government’s decision? Even if it does, then to what extent? What might be other factors responsible for decision making? To what extent other factors can be taken in to account? What does democracy means? What one expects from a democracy? And is Nepal really a democracy?  Here I will shed light on some recently formulated policies and will infer why the government seems so indifferent towards popular and even expert’s opinions.

“..Of the people, by the people and for the people...” Those were Abraham Lincoln’s words and it contains the true essence of a democracy. Nevertheless, a government by the people may not be necessarily of the people or for the people. In a research paper released by two American professor back in 2014 titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”, they inferred that though US is structurally a Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, the “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence”.  With this finding heavily supported by empirical data, can we still consider US a democracy?  The paper seriously questions America’s claim to being a democracy. However, the finding not only pertains to US but can be relevant when scrutinizing other “democracies” with a liberal economy. So, does Nepal qualify to fit the definition of a state described by the theories of Economic Elite Domination and Biased Pluralism?

For the past three decades Nepal has gradually introduced number of measures to liberalise the economy. Subsequently, liberalisation engendered a plethora of groups representing varied business interests. These groups have always promoted their own specific business interests without any regard to the well-being of the common citizens and have adopted a de-facto protectionist policy on their own to establish monopolies. These groups act like a government within the government, effectually forbidding any policy changes which challenge their status quo and reduces their share in the profits. These groups have successfully transformed themselves into Cartels.

The government recently unveiled its plan and policies for the fiscal year 2020-2021 where it has hinted at promoting privatization of education. How come a country constitutionally requiring to have an inclination towards socialism has veered off towards privatizing something as fundamental as education?  The Nepalese constitution has a provision which states “Every citizen shall have the right to get compulsory and free education up to the basic level and free education up to the secondary level from the State.”  And the policy utterly goes against the constitutional norms.  Though privatization has helped the state to secure some of its education goals, it has also commercialized education subsequently making it expensive and inaccessible. Therefore, in long term the privatization is immensely detrimental for our education system and only adds to the profit of the “Cartel” but why didn’t the government of a democratically elected “Communist” party formulate a policy favourable to average citizens ?

Another recent policy which stirred up much controversy was regarding the increase of tax on Electric Vehicle (EV). Though this provision will have an adverse impact on Nepal’s economy and public convenience, the government has unscrupulously defended it. So who really profits from EV tax increase? It is quite clear that average citizens are at loss so we again ask the same question, why a democratic government formulated a policy which will inevitably harm the public interest?

Nepal’s policy making process has been immensely exclusionary. The chief interest groups which commands influence on policy making are Donors, bureaucratic body, politicians , various private business groups and mass-based organizations. In a paper titled “The Politics of Education Policymaking in Nepal” published in 2019, Rebat Kumar Dhakal observes that “the challenge for bureaucrats and politicians (major formal policymakers) is to ensure that policymaking is sensitive to the different interest groups (‘superclass’ private sectors, donor agencies, development partners) that shape the Nepali public sector” even when they are not based on ground realities. But why should a government be sensitive to few specific interest groups and ignore majority public opinion? Is it not that the government was formed by the majoritarian principle in the first place?

This takes us to the principle of quid pro quo. In Nepal the bureaucrats forms close ties with International interest groups whereas the politicians with private sectors (Dhakal, 2019). The mutual benefit each group enjoys supersedes the need of any immediate and strong public relation. In the past labour unions and other mass based organizations significantly influenced the policy making but there capacity seems to have waned out whereas the average citizens’ concerns doesn’t even come in the picture. To involve more stakeholders in the policy making will only hamper the interest groups’ agendas and therefore the policy makers take caution to avoid uneasy situations.The policy making has become a “behind the closed door” phenomenon and little or no effort has been employed to take concerns of general public into consideration into policy or any decision making.  Only the affluent group with their own interest has been able to get their way.

This explains why government preferred to continue the procurement of RDTs. The decision is favourable to the interest of certain private groups which forms a close tie with the politicians. The "Cartel" has its way even if it means jeopardizing public health and our policy makers seem to be complicit. It explains why our Education policy is such and it also explains why our EV policy is such. Therefore, this brings us back to the question of whether Nepal is actually a democracy.

Nepal is essentially a Majoritarian Democratic state structurally but when we discern its policy making process it seems the will of many hardly matters. A democracy is meant to strengthen and cater to people’s interest but that hasn’t been a case in Nepal. A government is formed by a majority which reflects the people’s desire but to build up your foundation on people’s desire and to work against it is purely a treachery. Though, there have been instances where people have come out in large and forced the policy makers to change their decisions, the indication is strong that we are moving towards a model of Biased Pluralism and Economic Elite Domination. In another words, Nepal is slowly turning into an Oligarchy.

The current protest has questioned the decision maker's conscience. It has also forced us to start scrutinizing the decision which is largely made "behind the closed door". Though there is a possibility of some vested political interests in this protest, we have no ground to invalidate its inevitability and indispensability. Therefore  if successful, this protest will serve as a precedent and will definitely impact on how the policy is formulated in future. 

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