ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Nepal: Challenges to Democracy

Nepal - Nation-State in the Wilderness:Managing State, Democracy and Geopolitics by Lok Raj Baral (New Delhi: Sage Publications), 2012; pp xvii + 308; Rs 750 (HB).

 

Following its consolidation by King Prithvi Narayan Shah and his followers in 1768, the Nepali state ­defined itself against external threats, especially the rising British Empire in the south, while trying to cope with ­unusual heterogeneity of cultural and political traditions, with the ambition to establish “Asal Hindustan” or a true Hindu land. Among the most defining events in the history of the formation of the Nepali state include the Treaty of Sugauli (1916) with the East India Company that demarcated the political borders of what is now known as Nepal. The other defining events include the nationalist movement of 1950 that toppled the Rana oligarchy and ushered in democratic reforms, the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950 that institutionalised the “special relationship” with ­India (thus questioning the sovereignty of the Nepali state), and the three-decade long absolute monarchy where the rulers attempted to promote the “one nation one culture” doctrine. In recent times we have seen the replacement of the absolute monarchy by the restoration of multiparty demo­cracy in 1990, followed by the 10-year-long violent Maoist insurgency (1995-2005) and their transition into a significant political force following the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2006 and a historic Constituent Assembly election. Other significant moments defining Nepal today are the radical declarations by parliament that ­included renouncing Nepal’s monarchy as well as declaring itself a secular state, the rise of regional political parties as well as the increasing assertiveness of ethnic movements, and the ongoing debate on the state restructuring and the nature of federalism. The pace of change has been so swift and analytically difficult to decipher that Baral starts by saying, “Theorising Nepali politics is a daunting task”. 
 
Divided into six chapters, including an introduction and a conclusion, the book takes issue with the eroding capacity of the Nepali state in the midst of a series of tumultuous yet significant sociopolitical transformations in the past 200 years. In his attempt to question the ­capacity of the state, Baral wonders:
Politically unstable, economically weak, inter­nationally dependent, coupled with the upsurge of regionalism, parochialism, and sectarianism, how could such a frayed state transform itself into a new order at a time when its own capacity is in question? (p 49) 
Jump Theory of Politics
 
Baral finds solace in “jump theory of politics” to characterise the situation in ­Nepal, “which carries the historical baggage with the elements of change” (p 28). He goes on to say that changes are deceptive because they lead nowhere. Taking issue with the weak state, he argues that although the state and its organs are in place, it lacks a political mission and strategies to make them functional. Throughout the book the author argues that democracy faces challenges in Nepal not because it is not suited to Nepal but because it has not been institutionalised. He blames the monarchy, the parties and external powers as the three enemies of democracy. Although Baral engages with the debate on state failure, he does not suggest that Nepal is a failed state; his key contention is that the Nepali state is under strain but not yet in the collapsing phase. 
 
Baral’s approach is nuanced in the sense that while he acknowledges the challenges faced by Nepal, he is also ­interested in the resilient capacity of the Nepali state and society to withstand ­tumultuous changes. He offers an engaging and emphatic approach to the study of the Nepali state based on grounded evidence and historical specificity and focusing on its resilient capacity to withstand various “crises”. Baral advocates for a revamp of the state that would ­entail the overhaul of both the normative and organisational parts of the government. While it is easy to agree with Baral’s assessment on the weakening state ­capacity and his argument for revamping the state, he does not offer a way forward other than to suggest that this should not be at the cost of democracy. He argues that Nepal’s future lies in secularism and democracy with a human face and calls for the state to be both egalitarian and authoritative. Perhaps a deeper discussion on the resilience and ability of the Nepali state and society to withstand “crises” as well as the specific factors that contribute to resilience would have enriched the discussion. The role of political scientists, other social scientists and intellectuals, and their engagement demands some critical scrutiny as well.
 
Reflective Account
 
In his attempt to present a “comprehensive” assessment, Baral details the political developments in modern Nepal with a more focused discussion on the post-1950 era. Given the very nature of the Nepali state and its geopolitical constraints, the author has devoted a significant part of the book to locate Nepal in the region as well as in the wider context. Baral should be commended for this mainly because except for the populist anti-India rhetoric, the current scholarly debate has completely failed to ­engage with the external forces shaping the Nepali state and restructuring it. 
 
Though based on his rich understanding of Nepal’s politics, the book reads like a reflective account and one that shares frustrations and grievances with the diminishing capacity of the state and, more specifically, with the political leadership. Overall, the chapters are rich, although they could have been ­organised better to bring coherence and avoid repetition. The bullet points on pages 276-279 read like a policy brief or a paper written for an ­audience well-versed with policy issues. These could have been replaced with a thorough and engaging discussion. 
 
In a context where much of the public debate on Nepal has been populist in ­nature and often written with little historical and analytical depth, the current monograph by one of Nepal’s leading ­political scientists is welcome. The book is extremely useful for students of politics in Nepal and offers an excellent case study for those interested in the nature of state formation as well as the debate on state failure more widely.

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