Friday, May 19, 2017

My Case Against Naya Parties

In his recent article on naya parties published in The Kathmandu Post (click here to read the article) Ajaya Bhadra Khanal presents some interesting insights on the essence of naya political parties. Khanal answers a few issues/questions which are often raised by the opponents of the idea of 'naya political parties for change' and explains his views on why naya political parties should be considered a potent alternative to the existing 'old' parties.

I think this interesting debate needs to continue. I add some points below as a response. 

Firstly, I disagree with the argument that the local polls of May 14th reflect any significant change ('bulldozing', in Khanal's terms) in people's consciousness. The participation of the political parties who claim to do naya politics was minimal.  Their candidacies in 4-5 high profile seats were largely symbolic. One can interpret the number of votes they have acquired so far as encouraging, but encouraging, in politics, is often insignificant.

Looking at the pace in which Viveksheel Party and Sajha Party have been progressing (or seem to progress), it is fair to estimate that it would take another 75 years for them to occupy any significant space in the national politics -even that if everything goes right during the course.

However, my criticism on the rationale of the ‘naya parties' is not on their pace. It is on the rationale itself.

I find the rationale that the existing old parties have become ineffective, bad, irrelevant, etc. and in order to fix this we need naya parties -as inherently fallacious.

If political parties, all of them, are considered by people as bad, irresponsible, out of touch with reality, sluggish, corrupt and so on -as commonly stated by the proponents of naya parties -it is indeed a serious problem. Disgrace of political parties in a democracy indicates grave challenge to the existence of the whole social-political system. If this is really the case, criticizing political parties for not being good is not an answer. What we need is a deep reflection on social and political systems to find out the sources of the problem. It requires collective efforts from civil society, media, and ordinary citizens. 

Political parties themselves are merely a part of the social-political systems. I am not convinced by the argument that opening a new party or two can fix this erosion.

As the Nuer proverb goes, if your cattle are infested with fleas, you don’t buy cows from your neighbor but disinfect the ones you have.

I don’t agree with Khanal’s second argument that ‘new emerging social reality (or modernization)’ or the ‘changing nature of our society’ demands for naya parties.

I agree with the view that Nepal’s political parties are not adapting to the changes in social, cultural, economic realities as rapidly as we would expect them to. However, this perceived weakness of existing or old political parties also does not sufficiently build the ground for the opening of naya parties.

Political parties are not structures. They are processes, driven by incentives. They have (or should have) infinite possibilities to adapt with the ‘changing nature of society’. If they fail in this enterprise, people choose other parties, new leaders.

Citizen-party relations are much more dynamic than what is reflected by the results of periodic elections. I find it difficult to agree with the claim that Nepal’s old or existing political parties are oblivious to the aspirations of their constituencies. The place of political parties in societal systems is a tricky question. One needs to see how Nepal’s political parties are embedded in social systems; how they are manifested in people’s everyday interactions; and how they shape social exchanges. The political parties won’t become irrelevant just by having a strong wish.

Khanal’s emphasis on the changing nature of our society reflects a notion generally held by ‘naya’ parties which is that we live in modern times and what matters to us is ‘not politics but development’.

Honestly, I find this notion very problematic. First, let me deal with the notion of politics often portrayed by the naya parties.

Proponents (not Khanal, though) of naya parties often tend to define politics as a set of lies, inter-party feuds, parliamentary brawls, strikes, chakka jam, and long, superficial rhetoric of leaders. They want people to believe that politics, therefore, is useless. What is more important is development.

I think this is wrong and irresponsible. Development in itself is a political question. Politics is a process which addresses key concerns in the life of a state or a society. Politics, therefore, concerns everyday life of every citizen. Dismissing politics as a useless ideological talk is not a healthy contribution from those who seek career in politics.

I have said over and over again, and want to repeat here as well, that development is not the basis but the result of certain social condition. This is where the argument of naya parties their ardent supporters seems the weakest. If development is your ultimate goal –you need to first address the contradictions in the social system with the objective of promoting rights and equality.

When Khanal rejects the argument that a naya party needs to be based on a social movement, he could be right to some extent on the problematic associations of political movements and parties in the context of Nepal. We of course do not need another Maoist movement, and the 'third' jana andolan. However, social movements should not always and necessarily mean mass mobilization over a political cause. A party’s movement can also translate into a social movement provided it deals with relevant social (and political) questions which people want the answers for.

What disappoints me about naya parties is their utter indifference to pressing social-cultural questions which continue to divide (and/or unite) the people of Nepal at this very time.

The questions of language, citizenship, relationship between state and religion, autonomy and self-governance are the examples of the key questions which are highly contested. I do not know what do naya parties think of these questions, other than that they find these questions as less important.

To believe that today’s smartphone carrying, whatsapping, career oriented, intelligent youth want only flyover and metro rails but not respect to its histories, identities or political rights is largely superfluous.

It is important, as Khanal argues, to build parties who garner support from people with different identities and social/cultural backgrounds. However, this is not possible without first having policies for dealing with diversities and delving into ‘divisive’ questions.

I would very much like to see the movement for naya parties starting with important questions, building alliances, promoting debates, formulating stances, creating pressures, which could form the basis for building political parties. Unfortunately, it happened the other way round. Parties were registered first. As a result, the naya parties have become similar to the fenced golf courses in which membership is reserved, and the goal is limited.

Let me finally come back to the point where I started. I would do that by posing a few questions.

What is the guarantee that the naya parties will effectively translate people’s aspirations into the performance of the state if they are given a chance to lead the country? What if they fail in their claims?

The essence of these questions is that in politics what matters (and should matter) is the process, but not the actors. In order for a society to be able to continue, people need to have faith in the process rather than the actors who create or modify possibilities. Obsession with competence or integrity leads gradually to dictatorship which we and the whole world have seen enough.

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