Ganga Thapa, Professor of Political Science -
Abstract: Small countries’ foreign policies always face significant challenges, but this is particularly so when they border two major powers. Such is the case for landlocked Nepal, which must navigate the always tense Sino-Indian relationship. Nepal traditionally has had a much closer relationship with India, with which it shares both longstanding trade and cultural ties. Nepal’s democratization, which proceeded through several stages from before the nation’s civil war to the writing of a new constitution in 2015, put new strains on the relationship. An informal blockade of trade with Nepal that same year disrupted ties for several months, but recent bilateral visits have improved cooperation. Meanwhile, Nepal has welcomed increasing levels of Chinese investment in Nepali infrastructure and industrial projects. The Chinese have also aided Nepal’s military, causing some concern in New Delhi, and allowed Nepal to join its Belt and Road Initiative. Nepali officials have also reached beyond its neighbors to seek better relations with European and Asian states. Ultimately, effective foreign policy for Nepal will depend on the success of continued democratization and state institutionalization. A fully functioning democracy will be better able to relate to both the region’s major powers and the other small states of South and Southeast Asia.
We are not following the usual practice of quoting authorities and then summarizing with a guarded conclusion, nor do we claim particular expertise in the politics prevailing in post-colonial democracies. Indeed, we are not in a position to judge the narrative of South Asian political history. That would demand a separate conceptual lens. Instead, we will approach this article as generalist scholars of comparative politics, focusing on the nature of democratic institutions, transitions and consolidation in South Asia, and the degree to which neighboring countries have affected them.
The first thing to observe is the geopolitically strategic position of Nepal, whose location remains of crucial significance for three neighbors in the Central Himalayan region. The preponderant impact that disparity in size has brought to this country is a common staple in political analysis. This has been as true in the past as it is now. What is less observed is cross-country comparative analysis. This article attempts to explain in rough terms how the presence of large neighbors has had major impacts on the dynamics of democratization in the process of transition. Let us briefly consider those political dynamics.
States are likely to be influenced by their very large neighbors, suggests the Democratic Diffusion Hypothesis. If a non-democratic state ‘A’ has a very long border with a democratic neighbor ‘B’, then the probability of state ‘A’ making political transition to some level of democracy is high. But if neighbor states are all democratic or partly democratic, it will be very difficult to maintain a non-democratic regime.1 Nepal offers a clear case to test this hypothesis. The salient impact of neighborhood is evident here in two critical and cumulative ways: size and frequency.
Geopolitically, Nepal’s non-democratic feudal monarchy lay next door to two mega-states—India and China. But neighborhood impact operated here in relatively measured terms, as Indian influence operated under muted effects of science and technology (S &T), particularly Information Technology (IT). Cell phones and computers were not available to the masses. Also, the physical barrier of the Himalayas restricted the flow of population and contacts through modern transportation. This contiguity of Indian states and cities explains the heavy influence India has had on Nepal. Such influence functions in multiple forms social, economic, cultural, political, and demographic. These impacts have been largely unidirectional: from India to Nepal.
The differential impact that India and China wielded on Nepal’s politics and foreign policy was determined by the modes of political impact—India since its independence in 1947, but China in an earlier period from 1911 to 1949 when the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party dominated the government. Could the presence of two mega-states in its neighborhood leave Nepal untouched, particularly when there was no third state to intervene?
The Democratic Diffusion Hypothesis seems to be at work in this case. Between 1947 and 1951, the traditional monarchy, a dyarchy of two dynasties, the Shah and the Ranas, began to crumble, and ultimately collapsed in 1951. That was just two years after the October takeover that brought the Communists to power in China. But a more powerful influence may have been the advent of independence and democracy in India in 1947.
Nepal’s Relations with India and China
Since the end of the Cold War, foreign policy has presented daunting challenges to the theory and practice of democracy. Foreign policy and democracy are inseparable, and democratic control over foreign policy is necessary to promote mutual respect with other countries while the state establishes democratic processes and institutions. Each country walks its own path to democracy, and develops a foreign policy approach that fits its political system. Globalization has generated interest in various forms of democracy, while promoting understanding of the international system. Study of international relations focuses attention on key factors such as international law and public opinion (a bottom-up approach to foreign policy that takes in diverse societal interests), and national and strategic interests.
The demise of Cold War bipolarity brought about dramatic changes in the geopolitical position of many countries. Small developing countries present excellent test cases changes in foreign policy making. Foreign policy is often a response to challenges that come from the international system. Due to political changes in Nepal since 1990, which include competition among political parties, the presence of powerful media and especially free elections, have helped promote a more popular-based foreign policy. The path ahead to strengthen international relations remains bumpy. In a globalized world, cooperation among the political and private elites favors democratic policymaking.
Nepal is a small state seeking to maintain its independence while pursuing effective foreign and security policies. It is a mountainous, landlocked, and underdeveloped country. This is not typical of an average small state. The small states of South Asia cannot ignore three dominant realities. First, the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is no substitute for national security policies. Second, external powers are either unwilling or unable to directly commit themselves to the security of small states of the region. Third, if foreign policy pursues security by non-military means, then traditional foreign policies have proved inadequate to secure their fundamental national interests.
Modern India-Nepal ties date back almost to Indian independence. Early on, the two nations signed key treaties. The Peace and Friendship Treaty in 1950 set up national treatment for businesses from both countries, as well as reciprocal treatment of citizens of both countries. A Treaty of Trade and Commerce that same year simplified customs and duties. The two countries then agreed on trade and transit treaties in the 1970s. Relations were rocky during the tumultuous reign of King Birendra during the 1980s, and after the royal massacre in June, 2001, when King Gyanendra became king. The latter king served until his removal in 2008. The most recent crisis concerned a blockade set up by the Madhesi community to seek better representation in Nepal’s parliament, in 2015. The Indian government denied any role in the blockade, though many Nepalese blamed New Delhi.2 It was widely considered an “unofficial trade blockade.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had actually promoted better relations through his “Neighborhood First” policy. He sought better economic, communication and transit links among South Asian countries.3 In 2018, Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Oli visited India and inked three new agreements on agriculture, waterways, and rail links. India and Nepal agreed on a twelve-point statement that set aside the constitutional issue at the heart of the 2015 dispute.4
China has often been at a disadvantage vis-à-vis India in dealing with Nepal. For instance, Beijing has so far been excluded from the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sector Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), an organization promoting cooperation among South and Southeast Asian nations near the Bay of Bengal.5 Nepal signed its first treaty with China in 1960, along with a border agreement the next year. The two countries reached a secret agreement for Nepal to buy Chinese arms in 1965. Actual purchase of weapons led to the lapse of those trade and transit treaties with India.6 Growing China-Nepal military relations have raised concerns in India, though the scope of these ties so far remain limited. The Chinese Defence Minister visited Kathmandu, the Chinese government has approved grants of $32.3 million for disaster training and $3.8 in aid to construct a training academy in Matatirtha. Beijing has also provided $7.7 million in direct military aid.7
Nepal has sought to balance ties between the two countries. Both countries have invested heavily in Nepal. India has been the largest investor in the country, and has done joint construction of power plants, and offered $1 billion in credit in 2014. China overtook India as the largest outside investor in 2015.8 China has invested in such projects as the Araniko Highway from Kathmandu to the Chinese border.9 Oli traveled to China before he visited India, and signed eight agreements for $2.4 billion in aid and loans for water, cement and fruit production facilities.10
Despite Indian and Chinese investment, Nepal’s border regions have remained relatively underdeveloped. India has been more interested in China in promoting better trade and transport links through its border areas, especially by agreeing on a new treaty to facilitate automobile and bus transit in 2004.11 When he ran for office, Oli insisted on better relations with China. Despite improved cross-Himalayan ties, possibilities for improvement may be limited by geographical and political factors. The Tatopani border crossing remains closed, Nepalese companies are unlikely to use Chinese ports over Indian ones, and Chinese-Nepali rail links remain limited.12
Nepal’s leaders are beginning to cast their foreign policy net beyond their two neighbors. When Oli participated in U.N. meetings last year, he held bilateral meetings with leaders from various countries, especially Western countries. Ministerial-level meetings with Japan and America have become more frequent.13
South Asian Democratic Transitions
Although countries of South Asia have developed strong incentives for political parties to cultivate democratic governance, political development did not affect lives of ordinary people, or make even modest improvements in state institutionalization or economic development. A crucial factor is the considerable powers granted to central governments, in order to create smoothly operating political systems. These states’ primary concern was protecting the regime’s legitimacy, rather than meeting public demands. The top leaders at each level tend to assume exclusive powers, which can lead to abuses of power. Conversely, it is unlikely that the central government may generate a relatively stable system whereby their social bases become more stable, loyal, and clearly defined, or facilitate rapid progress of democratization. A general lack of political will means that politicians do not adequately address the needs and aspirations of the people, or bring about needed changes in their lives.
When South Asian democratic institutions, including the parliament and political parties, are unable to promote egalitarian democracy, people tend to lose trust in political parties and legislative bodies. This is despite periodic political reforms, such as direct elections and retooling of party ideologies. Political elites place family and patronage demands over popular demands. Widespread use of armed muscle and vote buying (guns, goons, and gold, to use a popular expression) helps secure political victory. Once in power, politicians fail to adjust their policies, and this creates even more tension among the populace.14
The post-colonial environment in which South Asian democracies function means that each country developed according to the manner in which it gained independence. The quality of democracy varies in specific dimensions, i.e., popular participation, political rights, degree of economic inequality, institutional control and competition, political responsiveness and accountability, and regard for the rule of law. Contd....
The politics of identity is a dominant feature of Nepalese politics, even as efforts to build and protect the political system and strengthen its legitimacy gather steam. Various challenges to the social and political order make people less fearful of participating in politics, and potentially can ameliorate popular disillusionment. Nepal was never colonized per se, but struggles with a political culture characterized by the lack of collective action. Identity politics draw a large number of participants that may include international NGO networks, and this increases the complexity of both political issues and policy choices to address them.
Nationalist political ideology recently is taking root in India, and this has become a troubling feature in other South Asian countries. This undermines democratic consensus, as demagogic rhetoric fuels resentments among multicultural populations, and governments struggle to control the situation. How can a modern democracy meet all these challenges at once, so that all individuals are treated as equals, individuality is respected, and group claims receive due recognition, e.g., through collectively-owned enterprises or entrepreneurs? Can a country like Nepal create a liberal democratic society to hold different groups together in a common polity? The struggle for democratization is long and arduous, and democrats must be patient and take the long view.15
While democracy has spread geographically, fostering transparency, accountability, and improved governance, South Asian states have yet to set up decentralized political structures, implement policy rapidly, or change citizen political participation structures to shape the individual behavior. Chadda observes that South Asian political arrangements are largely confined to an “elite bargain,” which leads to slow political consolidation in India and Nepal, or interrupted political consolidation in Pakistan.16 We argue that South Asia is grappling with historical mistrust among its respective countries, which is displayed as internal division, interstate conflict, political and religious extremism, and terrorism. This was foreseen by Huntington when he warned that popular demands of “newly developing countries” would rapidly escalate and generate high levels of government spending; this in turn would reduce funds available for investment, which would hurt economic growth.’17
The power asymmetry of India is enormous: a geographic behemoth and major economic and military force. India is the oldest democracy in South Asia; it shares boundaries with Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. It is the most important member in the SAARC; its economic, political, and military capabilities are far superior to other members. But prospects of South Asian democratic integration depend on its democratic politics.18 A variety of militant insurgency movements in the region pose severe strains on centralized governance while fostering expectations for improved democratic governance. Can South Asian democracies effectively create modern national societies that can direct goal-oriented change at the individual level? If people believe that democratic rule is the only appropriate way of governing, their goal becomes can shift to sustained social change. The problem is that, while many South Asian countries today are generally considered democracies, their foreign policies often fail to adequately reflect democratic norms.
Nepal on a New, Uncertain Path
Nepal has undergone three waves of democratization: in 1951, 1990, and 2006; it had seven constitutions between 1948 and 2015. The latest turning point was the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006 that ended the decade-long Maoist conflict, and subsequently abolished the Hindu monarchy by way of the elected Constituent Assembly in 2008. These massive changes provide an opportunity to assess the utility and validity of formal institutions and the necessity of participatory-representative culture. Can lessons of post-colonial transition learned in one country be successfully applied to another? If a democratic country may keep the potential opponents of democracy away in the long run, to borrow from Wright,19 perhaps freedom of expression and democratic organization are appropriate ways for governing. The Nepali people may cherish their newly democratic communities, even though government control over culture and political structure may be unprecedented. Nevertheless, Nepal’s road to peace has been marred by political instability. This is what Dahl describes as “democratic paradox,” wherein citizens have low faith in democratic institutions but high esteem for democratic ideals.20 We may not want to believe that Nepal is a failed state, or it is on the verge of collapsing, losing the ability to govern, and providing physical security for its citizens, or controlling its territory and previously ungoverned spaces.21 But, Nepal has struggled to consolidate and sustain democracy, and prolonged political instability has undermined economic growth and development.
Nepal is a democratic state with long-run unresolved issues. It is not yet able to enforce many of its political decisions and policy choices. The link between the state and civil society interest groups is very weak. The bureaucracy is too unwieldy and thus ineffective in practice. Corruption among bureaucrats and politicians is rampant. State-society cooperation is lacking, as is social control. The state has failed to construct an effective, legitimate, and responsive state within the context of a representative, pluralistic system of governance. More effective institutions are needed for institutionalization of democracy, so that “citizens positively perceive the actions of government and its policies as being close to their performances.”22 Nepal has failed to overcome problems of class, ethnicity, regional bias, gender discriminations, and economic disparity.
The state simultaneously faces threats in two directions. First, there is a danger of the return of authoritarianism, albeit with a nominal democratic make-up—no substantive democratic changes and a generic transition tending toward authoritarianism. Second is the roller-coaster of a conflict-prone and corrupt state. This instability is linked to both internal and external causes. Sandwiched between India and China, Nepal’s Omni-directional foreign policy may not be compatible to serve peace, prosperity, and democratic norms. This is a vital area crying out for further research.
Nepal experienced democratic transformation from the authoritarian monarchy in 1990 whereas the “Third Wave” (1991) noted by Huntington started in 1974-1975.23 Politicians’ greed and focus on politicking remain formidable impediments to improving opportunities for all social groups. Nepal has not yet improved the quality of its elections; it lacks institutional mechanisms to insure free and fair electoral competition. Mainwaring and Scully refer to an “inchoate party system,” which is predominantly driven by personalities instead of being consolidated by ideologies. Nepal’s demagogic politicians promote socialism, communism, and democracy all at once.24
A state in which enterprises lack leadership can hardly play its needed role to enhance democratic legitimacy and it may not be adequately adaptive. The roles of the government and parties are severely limited and political leadership is largely reactive rather than proactive. The reason is very clear. We may preserve democracy only by limiting individual political ambitions, and we need more effective governance in place of what is widely practiced. Although discussion about the quality of democracy is “typically understood as different from the degree of democracy,” what is required in Nepal is to raise public awareness.25 Nepal’s current problems are often discussed in terms of public order, institutionalization, policy formulation, and accumulation of social capital for effective governance. More effective inclusion of citizens in decision-making and meaningful political reforms are necessary to enhance the quality of democracy, rule of law, and good governance.
Democracy and Stability
Robust democracies are difficult to overturn. We cannot say whether economic development consistently increases the people’s trust in political systems, but it does affect the success of democratic transitions. Guan Zhong, an ancient Chinese political philosopher, stated that people learn to behave with good manners only when they have sufficient clothing and food. He meant that people do not think about good governance if they lack basic necessities. Democracy allows citizens to evict politicians who have failed to grow the economy, for instance. Also, political pluralism feeds the participative mind-set and greatly increases circulation of information, which helps people influence state policy and fosters civil liberties and basic freedoms.
Economic success also contributes to consolidation of democracy and sustainability of a socioeconomic system. But, economic growth alone is not enough. Democratic transitions are not driven by demands for redistribution.26 Consolidating a stable, vigorous democracy involves setting up viable institutions capable of responding to aggregate social demands, especially from the most neglected in the population. This is certainly true in South Asia. We can think of the two transitions – economic and political – as different yet progressing simultaneously. Rapid economic growth may not bring political stability on its own, unless political institutions are also allowed to develop and mature rapidly. India has maintained democratic politics for over seventy years, even though the country is plagued by widespread poverty, social inequality, exclusion and marginalization of minorities. Ordinary citizens often cannot partake in decision-making or elect candidates to political office. Political accountability is often lacking, Indian democracy can often degenerate into “delegative dictatorship.”27 The Indian state remains stable, but Indian society possesses little more than virtual democracy. Mary Albino claims an average Indian takes home just US$1,100; 42 percent of its vast population, or 475 million, are living on less than $1.25 per day. About 60 percent of the people are living below the poverty line. India is home to more poor people than any other country in the world.28
Indian democratic rule is praised for peaceful transfers of power, and for elections judged to be free, fair, and consistent with international democratic norms. Some argue that India’s democracy emerged as a product of nationalism and leadership’s commitment to liberal democracy and self-rule. This left little room to motivate citizens and foster conditions conducive to change in political rights or human rights, reform of inefficient institutions and reinforcement of the commitment to secularism. During Nehru’s tenure, Indian foreign policy promoted principled ideas and programs. In the recent decades, the importance of winning an office by selectively targeting groups of people has grown.
Analysis I: the nature of democracy
Scholars have devoted considerable attention to political participation and governing and have recommended means by which citizens may have constraint-free interactions. There is increasing interest in various participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian modes of democracy and greater attention to three categories of citizen disposition: democratic commitment, political capacity, and political participation. Specifically, we question the ways in which political orientations are susceptible to alteration by the political process. Studies have examined voter choice as a simple calculation, in contrast with conceptual innovation and governance forms of political activity. Centralization and personalization of power by rulers was a major obstacle to democracy, social coordination, and institutionalization. The emergence of new information and communication technologies since the 1980s has offered governments opportunities to deliver public services more effectively, but core problem remained ensuring some level of democratic political participation. Theorists such as Huntington give importance to democratic consolidation. Linz and Stepan emphasize autonomy of politics, and note that economic performance does not guarantee democratization. Lipset illustrates that socioeconomic development facilitates democratization, and considers whether socioeconomic development brings about a pluralistic social order. This line of research also can account for deviant cases in which socioeconomic development is not associated with democracy.29 Many students of democracy would agree that deep economic crises not only affect the working of democracy, and issues of quality and performance must be discussed to grasp political consequences of economic crises.30
Dahl suggests that, while most modern political systems fall in the “gray area” of neither perfectly competitive nor totally inclusive, most strive toward an ideal type, which he calls a “polyarchy”: a political system including elected officials, free and fair elections with inclusive suffrage, rights to run for office, freedom of expression, provision of alternative information sources, and associational autonomy.31 On the other hand, Charles Taylor presents liberal, democratic, and multicultural states that cannot survive without active participation of people, who actively support or at least do not oppose those states. Based on the right of all to take part in management of public affairs, democracy requires representative institutions, wherein all major elements of society are represented. In turn, these institutions derive requisite powers and means to express the will of the people. Thus, democratic institutions must represent the diversity within the society. Taylor suggests that a first principle of democracy is popular sovereignty, the idea that ultimate political power resides in each person and in all the people.32 If ultimate power resides in the people, only their consent may confer legitimate power upon the state.
Analysis II: Nepal and Its Neighbors
Our aim is to identify and analyze post-colonial democracies of South Asia which might be summarized in terms of emphasizing contemporary ideology and practices shared widely over the last 70 years. While India has been a neighbor that sincerely seeks stability and prosperity for Nepal, the image of Indian leaders gradually has been tarnished. In 2015, an economic blockade on Nepal stopped most cross-border trade. Due to its displeasure at Nepal’s new constitution, India did not stop the blockade. This occurred at a time when Nepal was already struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake, and this measure continued through a harsh winter. Lasting 13 months, this effort effectively blocked all essential goods, including medicine. The blockade increased popular suffering and dissatisfaction. Gone were India’s generous offers of economic assistance. Previous Indian aid largesse was now viewed by many Nepalis as a camouflage for political control, and an effort to maintain direct control due to conservative-nationalist foreign policy. Despite such episodes, even now that the two countries are more than just neighbors and their relationship is still widely regarded as “special.”
Nepal’s new constitution had the support of more than 90 percent of votes in the elected Constituent Assembly (CA)—clear progress since the fall of powerful monarchy. One observer called it “particularly relevant for political stability in the aftermath of violent conflict.”33 India’s attempt to block the promulgation of this constitution, led by foreign secretary Jai Shanker seemed like a revival of British India’s attempts to embed itself ever deeper into Nepali politics. Delhi’s apprehensive reaction was not only intended to maintain its influence; it also showed how a state in the neighborhood could become the target of self-interest. It also offered an example of a small state becoming vulnerable to coercion by a big power, even in the course of a delicate political transition.
The blockade was not stopped by India, and it directly challenged age-old Nepal-India ties. Various observers felt that the economic blockade was implemented for the purpose of stifling the decentralized form of democracy that was emerging.34 The people of Nepal must rely on India for their daily needs, and to punish Nepal for ignoring Delhi’s advice on altering the constitution was an open interference by a state in another’s affairs, and angered many Nepalis.35 India had imposed such economic blockades in 1969 and 1989, and this experience had not faded from collective memory. China, the other powerful neighbor, considered the civil war and its settlement, including the abolition of the monarchy, as Nepal’s internal matter. The question of how long such a bilateral relationship may survive has become ever more central to both countries. While much good feeling remained, anti-Indian public sentiments of that time may still shape Nepal’s democratic transition. The nature of Indian-Nepali ties had fundamentally changed and, for many Nepalis, India no longer seemed like a good neighbor.
The new constitution may not have been a thorough-going participative character with the full range of provisions regarded as central to a genuinely democratic polity. But, the document was an outcome of an arduous 10-year transition and two assembly elections; it embodied key democratic principles of federalism, republicanism, secularism, social inclusion, and pluralism, along with a unified executive. It also ended the long period of political transition and armed struggle. It intended to promote positive democratic governance which could lead to higher popular participation. Besides, its stated social and economic objectives became a source of political legitimacy for the new regime.
The individual character of both societies helped determine the blockade’s ultimate impact in creating new forms of socioeconomic, political control and new strategies for survival. In 1950, the beginning of Nepal’s constitutional monarchy might not have been possible without the India’s support to King Tribhuvan, who received political asylum in Delhi. This brought the collapse of the Rana oligarchy. During the 1950s, inter-party quarrels and failure to unite and formulate effective democratic rule opened a long phase of political instability undoing the process of democratic consolidation.
In fact, Nepal became a fertile ground for rivalry between India and China after November, 2005. Both major powers were interested in the agreement to end the country’s decade-long civil war in which Maoist insurgents battled the forces of the increasingly ineffectual monarchy. Numerous external actors in Nepal, apart from the two powerhouses India and China, attempted to influence the ongoing reconfiguration of democratic order. These forces have little interest in strengthening state structures and institutions; rather, they worked for their own interests, often by derailing or reversing democratization. Foreign actors found it easier to influence Nepali politics when the country was divided. Nepal faces serious problems in designing its federal structure and implementing new policies. Would not Nepal’s weakness and failure to deliver a powerful institutional design provide an attractive hunting ground for the foreign interests?
International politics is a struggle between competing normative orders where triumph and defeat depend on the optimal mix of power with ideas and ideals. In such a context, any strong relationship with India could lead to serious consequences for Nepal’s bilateral relations with China, and for regional diplomacy. So far, Nepal has avoided taking sides. But, an assertive and nationalist China could have profound impacts the South Asian region’s stability, and this could create a new range of problems for Kathmandu. From a regional perspective, the spectacular rise of China as a global power, along with its phenomenal economic growth, will have major global and regional strategic implications. Nathan refers to China’s “authoritarian resilience” where individual expression is permitted now, but not political dissent. Nepal has to make its own choices. We must come to understand the worth of a democracy, and its association with economic growth. Especially, it needs a fundamental shift its the political discourse, and new ideas can then come from internal and external sources.
Nepal between two big neighbors
No single form of relations suits all countries. Citizens ordinarily pay only cursory attention to politics and so tend to involve themselves minimally; nevertheless, surveys show, they can hold coherent political ideas and even appreciate core ideas of liberalism and conservatism. The Nepali constituent assembly (CA) elections (2008 and 2013) which delivered the written constitution constitute a watershed in Nepali politics, accomplishing devolution of authority and paving the way for democratization. However, the crucial challenge is how the political leadership will push forward liberal governance, and how citizens will participate in policymaking and establishing norms of responsibility, accountability, and full participation. The role of political parties here will be critical. The May 18 (2008) declaration by Nepal’s parliament ending the country’s status as the world’s only Hindu state was one of several hard decisions taken by the new government. For some, it was a revolutionary new direction. The new political system included strong elements of federalism, which replaced its traditional parliamentary order. During most of Nepal’s history, the monarchy had dominated political offices at both the national and local levels. Now that both the regional and local governments may prioritize economic development and anti-poverty programs while pushing forward the transition process, the chances of full institutionalization of democracy have greatly improved.
Nepal has pursued its peaceful transition since the comprehensive peace agreement of November, 2006 between the Maoists and the Nepali government. There is no linear, predetermined, or predictable path for a Nepal’s democratization. Key problems concern human insecurity, the nature of development programs, meeting of popular needs, strengthening of both political parties and civil society organizations. Social movements do not evolve overnight; they need time to mature and there is much volatility in their development. Belgian politician Yves Laterme writes about this at length in the book, Democratic Transitions: Conversation with World Leaders.36 An efficient link between state and society, along with effective articulation and association, frequently translates to good governance. The problems of South Asian democracy are often rooted in leader-dominant party politics and government, which generates ineffective short-term policies, wrong-headed priorities, weak governing institutions, and political instability. Some observers feel that democracy becomes a tool in the hands of the ruling elite to serve their interests, not to empower the people. Such developments are an indication of early onset of democratic decay.
Accepting that constitutional changes are inevitable, various questions remain. Can a certain path lead to legitimate change, and are there limits to it? Democracy by definition is a competitive process. Anderson notes that competition challenges those who can rationalize their commitment to it and with an even greater edge to those who sincerely believe in it.37 Could a “democratic” state be better mobilized, given capacity to act with established practices of tolerance, and prevent deadly conflicts and keep the existing peace in place? While people may never feel free under a powerful government, perhaps a society could be democratic for the most part, if important issues and crises are decided by popular majorities rather than just by those possessing power.38
Ongoing conflict against the state is a familiar theme that confronts nearly all South Asian countries. This is partly due to a political culture in which people vote periodically for leaders, but then leave all major decisions in leaders’ hands. This can lead to excessive reliance on party or government leaders, and turning to them only when things don’t go right. In Nepal’s case, the nation got rid of the monarchy because the king acted as though he had a divine right to rule, a glaring anachronism in the 21st century. Formidable obstacles stand in the way of realizing a modern political state through constitutional politics characterized with both mass mobilization and civic virtue. There is plenty of blame game going around, but it is for us as voters to remain optimistic about the ability of Nepali politicians to deliver transformative changes. In the past ten years, Nepal has turned a new leaf by accepting the concepts of democratic governance, popular articulation of demands, and exercise of political and social rights. However, Nepal today is also in a desperate need of democratic reconciliation of ethnic and cultural differences, which could jeopardize democratic progress. This means that full consolidation of democracy is a long-term endeavor, and the road ahead likely will be quite bumpy. This situation compels national leadership to collaborate and cooperate because the core of the democratic system is inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability.
Finally, we conclude with two issues which are vital to sustaining Nepali democracy. First, Positive Peace offers a theory of change to explain how a nation functions, and why highly peaceful societies thrive.39 Positive peace involves the attitudes, institutions, and structures that create and sustain peaceful societies. These include acceptance of the rights of others at both the individual and state levels, and good relations with neighbors.40 Positive peace is a useful concept for Nepal because its democratic transition is still underway, and the country is highly vulnerable to pressures, interventions, and intrusions from its large neighbors. The uncertain and often highly unpredictable nature of Nepal’s foreign relations likely will affect the country’s political transition in various unforeseen ways.
Relations between two states are never symmetrical, especially when they involve a major power and a small developing state, such as India, China and Nepal. The Relational Deficit that characterizes relations between Nepal and India (and to a lesser extent between China and Nepal) is a direct function of the longstanding statism and Realpolitik in the foreign policies of all three countries. This topic could use a close, unflinching examination to address issues that have become chronic and complex. The earlier the efforts come, the better for understanding the foreign policies of both countries.
We have examined the nature of Nepal’s relations with its large neighbors, India and China, and the effects of those relations on Nepal’s democratization. China has far less influence than India in Nepal, but has been more supportive of Nepal’s leadership under both the monarchy and the democratic government. China also views Nepali politics through the lens of its traditional stance of non-interference in politics of neighboring countries and protection of sovereignty of states. Of course, China has often intervened in the politics of such neighbors as North Korea, Vietnam, and Myanmar. Due to historic cultural, social and political ties, Nepal’s relationship with India has always been more important. Going back to the colonial period, India has always had strong influence in Kathmandu, and has often used its influence to weigh in on political developments in Nepal. In 2015, India briefly imposed an economic blockade on Nepal, as an expression of opposition to Nepal’s new constitution. India likely will continue to exercise the most influence on the country, and this will continue to shape Nepal’s democratization.
: A previous version of this article was presented at the International Conference
‘Challenges to the Postcolonial Democracies: India and Her Neighbors in South Asia
’ (February 14-15, 2019) organized by Galsi College and Bengal Institute of Political Studies (BIPS) sponsored by Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies. Purba Bardhaman, Kolkota, West Bengal, India. The author would like to thank all participants for their many insightful comments and suggestions. The author would also like to express appreciation to Professor Anand Aditya for his careful reading of earlier drafts of this article and constructive feedback.
1 Doorenspleet, Renske. 2006.
Democratic Transitions: Sources of the Fourth Wave
. New Delhi: Viva Books, p 147.
2 “History of India-Nepal Relations.” 2016. South Asia Program at Hudson Institute, Backgrounder, pp. 19-22. www.southasiaathudson.org/backgrounder (retrieved 7/9/19).
3 Sharma, Robin. 2018. “The New Reality of the India-Nepal Relationship,”
South Asian Voices
, May 10, p. 1-3. Southasianvoices.org/the-new-reality-of-the-india-nepal-relationship/ (retrieved 7/9/19).
4 Bhattarai, Kamal Dev. 2018. “Resetting India-Nepal Relations,”
, April 10, pp. 1-3. https://thediplomat.com/2018/resetting-india-nepal-relations/ (retrieved 7/9/19).
5 Current members are: Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, and Bhutan.
6 “History of India-Nepal…,” op. cit., pp. 19-22.
7 Nayak, Nihar R. 2017. “China
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8 “History of India-Nepal…,” op. cit., pp. 19-22; Rajagopalan, Rajeswari Pillai. 2018. “Should Rising China-Nepal Military Ties Worry India?”
, August 20, pp. 1-2. https://thediplomat.com/2018/10/shoudl-rising-china-nepal-military-ties-worry-india/ (retrieved 7/9/19).
9 “History of India-Nepal…,” op. cit., pp. 19-22.
10 Pant, Harsh V. 2018. “Why India needs to safeguard its ties with Nepal,” June 27, pp. 1-3. Observer Research Foundation. https://www.orfonline.org/research/41945-why-india-needs-t0-safeguard-its-ties-with-nepal/ (retrieved 7/9/19).
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, September 13, pp. 1-3. . https://thediplomat.com/2018/09/the-limits-of-nepals-china-outreach (retrieved 7/9/19); Bhattarai, Kamal Dev. 2018. “Nepal Finally Looks Beyond India and China,”
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ution transformed the political system from no-party polity to a multiparty parliamentary democracy with competitive elections.
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30 Morlino, Leonardo and Mario Quaranta,
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37 Anderson, Lisa. 1999.
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