Distinguished and honorable members of the panel,
1. We are gathered here to engage in a very promising and seminal discussion on pertinent themes related to Nepal and India. It is an honor to be amidst such an eminent group of people both in the dais as well as in the audience who have contributed widely towards strengthening Nepal-India relations at various fronts. So, at the outset, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the organizers of this India-Nepal Dialogue for providing me this opportunity to share my thoughts on a theme that is immensely relevant to the politics and people of both Nepal and India.
2. The topic “Inclusive Democracy: Experiences of India and Nepal” provides an opening for us to reflect upon the democratic trajectory of both these nations. India has had a rich history of engaging with democratic principles and institutions, making itself known today as the largest and one of the most vibrant democracies in the world. The people of Nepal too have fought relentlessly for several decades against autocratic regimes; albeit our quest for institutionalization of a democratic republic has been realized rather late. Nevertheless, a maturing democracy and an infant republic have much to share with each other regarding the lessons to be learnt and the answers that need to be sought.
3. Today, democracy has acquired universal sanction and attribution as the desirable system of rule or governance. Yet, there is no certainty or agreement about the specific components or processes of democracy. Therefore, it is not surprising that some of the core controversies of politics and political theory continue to revolve around the question of what does it mean to make our democracy more democratic. Particularly, the crises that representative democracies the world over are facing is indeed very disconcerting. On the one hand, you have increasing socio-economic inequalities and political crises brewing within liberal democracies. On the other hand, there are socialist systems that tend to constrict basic political rights and freedoms in the name of addressing the socio-economic domains. Therefore, I think, it has become imperative to indulge in a thought-provoking discussion about striving for a democracy that is superior to these conventional models of democracy.
4. I would primarily like to focus on discussing the challenges that confront Nepal’s quest for realizing a truly democratic polity and society. Together with a diagnosis of the ills I would also like to raise some points that may be useful in understanding what inclusive democracy would actually mean in Nepal’s context and why the concept of inclusion is the most crucial indicator of Nepal’s success in its democratic endeavor.
5. Nepal is unique in the sense that although it is a small country geographically, there is an enormous diversity of races, languages, religions, and cultures. Yet, it has taken a long time for the Nepali state and its political rulers to acknowledge the inequality in political and socio-economic rights among various groups within this valued diversity. Historically speaking, previous autocratic regimes and its political-legal institutions have been the legitimizing protectors of those exploiting and excluding a large section of the people from participation and representation in state structures. However, the past two decades in Nepalese politics have been characterized by a massive upsurge in demands for ensuring inclusion of such groups which have been marginalized on the basis of ethnicity/nationality, region, gender, caste, religion, and language. It is in such a context that the Maoists in concert with the new political forces—Madhesis and Adivasi-Janajatis—had major contestations with the traditional political parties over the tasks of a new constitution. In Nepal, the abolition of monarchy and a prolonged obscurity regarding the new political system that would replace it created a major political void. Post-2006, the political trajectory of democracy in Nepal can be viewed in light of the struggle between political parties over filling this void with new political institutions and constitutional provisions. Some of the key points of contestations directly surrounded the question of democracy and its configuration, particularly regarding the conceptualization and realization of making our polity inclusive.
6. The constitution-making process in Nepal can be considered ground-breaking as it marked a significant break with political continuity in at least three major ways: from monarchy to republic, from civil conflict to peaceful politics, and from non-inclusive state mechanism to inclusive democracy. The new constitution promulgated in 2015, and its ability to pave the way for a stable and peaceful Nepal in the upcoming days can be evaluated in the light of its capacity to fulfill the latter objective—that of inclusive democracy. Although the new constitution comes with some promising provisions, it is rather unfortunate to note that the outcomes of the second constituent assembly did not faithfully reflect the achievements of the first constituent assembly. Among the most notable achievements that we failed to uphold in the final constitution was the identification of the basis for federal restructuring on five criteria of identity and four criteria of capability fixed by the first CA. Additionally, the formation of autonomous states for nationalities with more than one percent of the total population, which would amount to 9-10 states as agreed upon by the State Restructuring Committee of the first CA and the State Restructuring Committee was also discarded. Many progressive provisions aimed at equal and just treatment of women, Dalits and Muslims which were finalized in the first CA were cast-off in the second CA. As a consequence, today we can see right before our own eyes that in spite of getting a new constitution which codifies the concept of inclusive democracy, there are serious dissatisfactions among those who feel left out, particularly the Madhesi-Tharus and Adivasi-Janajatis.
7. It is in this context that I consider it important to underline that inclusive democracy on its own would not yield a fair and equal representation. This is because the groups “included” in state institutions could still be numerically underrepresented. Therefore, it is significant to hyphenate the principle of inclusion with the provision for proportional allocation of political space. Furthermore, even a system of proportional representation would be insufficient to address the task of doing away with the unitary centralized structure of the state. Unless the histories and cultures of ethno-lingual-regional communities are justly recognized, devolution of power alone would not fulfill the aspirations of a large section of the people. Hence, in the Nepalese context, the agenda of federalism is intrinsically associated with the call for inclusive and proportional representative democracy. The current demands for constitutional amendments need to be viewed in this light.
8. The proposition of proportional, inclusive and participatory democracy in due consideration of the three clusters proposed by Naya Shakti party may be considered useful in this context. If we look into the composition of Nepalese society, the population distribution of three broad clustered communities can be broadly identified as those of Khas-Aryas being 1/3, Madhesi-Tharus as being 1/3 and the Adibasi-Janajatis as being the other 1/3 of our total population. Although the new constitution has resolved many issues, the basic contradictions between the distribution of rights among these three clusters have remained unsolved. The continuation of agitations and dissatisfaction in the regions where Madhesi-Tharus and Adivasi-Janajatis are in majority is a response to this discrepancy. It makes no sense to speak of national integrity and social cohesion by superficially assimilating two-third of the population under the homogenizing and monopolizing impulses of one particular cluster. Although the principle of inclusive representative democracy has now been formally recognized, unless an agreement on the arrangement and structure of federal units is reached, and the criteria of inclusion is made clear, uncomplicated and proportional, implementation of our constitutional provisions will become a tough task. It is but obvious that if we are to look forward towards a better, peaceful and stable Nepal, we cannot afford to remain stuck in this political quagmire. Therefore, in consideration of the concrete specificities of Nepal’s “rainbow nation” character, we need to accept not just individual rights but collective group rights as well, we need to provide for not just formal equality but also make provisions for special rights and affirmative actions. More specifically and immediately, we need to push for constitutional amendments to meet the demands of the Madhesi, Tharus, and Janajatis based on the recommendations of the State Restructuring Commission. During my tenure as the Prime Minister and later as the chairperson of the Constitutional Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee, I made relentless efforts until the very end to push for timely rectification and realization of these issues. It is painful to see that my forewarnings then have proved over time to be true.
9. I believe that India being among the first few democracies to take innovative and bold initiatives to recognize the rights of minorities and cultural diversity, its experiences can provide valuable inputs to its neighboring country. The fact that cultural diversity was affirmed and protected in India, that minority communities received special representation in the Constituent Assembly during the framing of independent India’s Constitution are reasons enough to assert that India is most aptly placed to understand our ongoing struggle to make democracy in Nepal more meaningful and all-encompassing.
10. I would like to end by making a final assertion that in order to make our democratic polity stable and strong, we also need to prioritize our developmental pursuits and bring prosperity to the Nepali people. Economic disparities among our people would only aggravate the existing political tensions. Therefore, inclusive democracy would be incomplete without ensuring inclusive development. Given Nepal’s peculiar geostrategic location, we believe that Nepal can and must play a dynamic role in facilitating and enhancing greater economic activities between India and China. It is but obvious that a perpetually poor, insecure, and unstable Nepal would not only be detrimental to our own people and our national sovereignty, but also unfavorable to our immediate neighbors. Therefore, I would like to make a call for consolidating inclusive democracy with inclusive development through shared prosperity with India which would be the best guarantee for our mutual security.
(Speech of Dr. Bhattarai on Inclusive Democracy: Experiences of India and Nepal)