By Sanjit Shrestha
The argument for a democratic government in its most simplistic form is that it allows check and balance in governance whereby political leaders are incentivized for appeasing the public in the fear of being held accountable during elections. This entails maintaining their public image through their actions and words.
A monarch on the other hand gets their prerogative to rule by birth, and thus isn’t encumbered by public accountability. The sentiment of democratic superiority over authoritarianism on fulfilling public demands is well-accepted. Thus, sometimes we can see transgressions by politicians being punished in parts of the world; either they’re ousted or forced to resign for incompetence.
In today’s world of information superhighway, politicians are scrutinized more actively than ever making it increasingly difficult for them to get elected a second time unless one does a decent job. Hence, politicians are quick to deescalate any public outrage from growing.
Nepal has had a relatively recent transition to a Federal Republic structure after the abolition of monarchy. The nascent republic has held three successful elections after the transition, and so there is a general understanding among the populace of how people’s power is supreme in a democratically inclined country.
Despite this, Nepali politics is plagued by a blatant disregard by the politicians of public opinion which we will term here ‘The Politics of Indifference’. This indifference can be felt in insensitive decisions such as spending millions in carpets for the Office of the President during the COVID-19 pandemic, in blatant displays of affluence by politicians with their fancy cars, or in systemic flaws such as lack of security in quarantine facilities which resulted in a gang-rape of a woman in Kailali.
The indifference is accentuated by the politicians’ unwillingness to explain themselves or their actions to the public. Sometimes their decisions are overturned after public protests but there is rarely any explanation of why the decision was made in the first place. However, public disillusionment towards politicians and politics in general grows despite the change in their decision. The need for public approval seems to be absent among Nepali politicians.
There has been plenty discourse on the inability of our politicians to govern which indirectly explicates this indifference as mere incapability. That part is well-documented, so not discussing that in detail here.
There have also been talks of political immunity despite bad decisions and poor accountability which allows politicians to have this blatant disregard for public opinion. However, the aspect that we might have missed is the possibility of intentionally creating such indifference for political gain.
The Politics of Indifference breeds hopelessness among general public, propagating the belief that no matter who gets elected, the country’s situation is unlikely to alter. This reduces voter turnout by evoking political nihilism among general public and discourages activism.
Also, a vast majority of the population refrain from actively engaging in politics due to the negative connotation attached to it. Indifference in this regard can emerge as a powerful tool for maintaining the status quo on the politicians’ part. Consequently, the game of merry-go-round among older generation of politicians means political offices remain concentrated within a small group. Political Indifference and poor accountability in elections reinforce each other.
A more pernicious consequence of this public hopelessness manifests in the delegitimization of democracy and party-politics itself. You might have probably heard US citizens wishing Mr. Obama were still their president. But you would have to be a Nepali Congress activist to say you wished Mr. Deuba were still in power.
The difference lies in the trust of the system. US citizens, despite their feelings towards the incumbent government, have immense respect for their Constitution and believe in the prevalent system of elections for democratic legitimacy. In Nepal, however, we constantly say the system is corrupt and no one person will be able to transform it.
The key difference is the belief in the power of the ‘demos’ in democracy. Americans value their vote and believe in their candidate’s ability to bring positive changes. In Nepal, the indifference is felt regardless of the party in power. This is exacerbated by the harrowing absence of ideational opposition between the parties.
In Nepal, political parties have become a form of identity and the victory of one over the other doesn’t entail large policy changes. In a nascent republic, such political acts become major barriers for increasing affinity for democratic values among the public. In other words, these acts of indifference are poisonous for bottom-up state-building.
Embracing nostalgia and negativity instincts are both results of human biases. People tend to remember the good over the bad from the past. But, these biases alone cannot be blamed for the spate of warm nostalgia for monarchy in Nepal. Political parties also need to take the blame for not embracing the spirit of democracy.