The unprecedented growth of people power in Nepal cannot be appeased with piecemeal solutions. It demands equality based on the principle of “no affluence, no poverty”.
Any indication of where Nepal is going requires an assessment of where we are coming from. And we have not yet come a long way. The past years have yielded little scope for reflection, analysis or honest criticism. In fact, we have almost lost the habit of intellectual discourse. And the most pressing area for discourse in Nepal today is that of populism. Understanding populism can help usher genuine development at the very grassroots.
The movement for democracy that overtook Nepal indicated that populism is not to be ignored. It was the people’s sheer will power that saw the toppling of the Panchayat superstructure. During the most crucial days of the movement for democracy, the political parties were not leading, but rather were led by, the people. Pent-up emotions exploded in the public arena in a way that took everyone, even the most astute political analyst, by surprise.
Populism as a paradigm for development recognises that culture and motivation of the masses as meaningful, their lives purposeful, their knowledge valuable, and their constraints real.
The motivation to develop must have its roots in culture, for economic development by itself will not satisfy the human soul. The convergence of populism in Nepal, as elsewhere in the Third World, is a symbol of protest against the unfulfilled promises of urban industrial mobilisation and its associated “capture” of power by a minority.
The past three decades have seen the culture of the masses being gradually replaced by the elitist culture of the “privileged” on the one hand, and that of the “nouveau riche” on the other. The sheer strength of populism rooted in the mass movement has subsequently given vent to an initiative for change. Much of the malaise inherited over the last thirty odd years needs to be replaced by democratic principles which accept heterogeneity as the heritage of human kind.
The populist movement in Nepal is an anti-thesis to the one-party state, where the avenue for opposition was a blind alley. It also indicates that the innate need for self-worth which overrides economic worth. This, the two dominant paradigms of development theory –capitalism and socialism — do not provide.
Deeply entrenched as they are on the western concept of “economic development”, where individuals are looked upon as production units working under pure objectives of efficiency, productivity and competitive market mechanisms, these paradigms overlook the humane quality of life that looks towards equity and distributive justice.
Because of its very spontaneity, populism which is the outcome of mass participation may be looked upon by the sophisticated and “rational-thinking” as unfounded on empiricism. Preoccupation with objectivity and empirical evidence steeped deep in a “positivist” approach to science has constantly held at bay any attempt to search for realistic, “simplistic” indicators of the quality of life.
The need for alternative strategies to alleviate poverty, hunger and disease has led the way to the people-centered approach which some call “sustainable development” — a kind of development that sustains culture, religion, language, ethnicity, as well as economic well-being, not forgetting the concern for environ-mental sustain ability.
In the changed context of Nepal, we must accept the heterogeneity of Nepali life and the right of an individual or community to sustain its identity. The total stifling of this identity, in an attempt to project the Nepali image as a single homogeneous one, has done the nation enormous harm and today we find de-mystified the utopian image of Nepalis as being naturally and perfectly homogenous.
The aftermath of the fall of the no-party Panchayat system has already brought in its wake debate over a wide range of issues that two months ago were taboo. Among others, these relate to the question of religious secularism versus maintaining Nepal’s identity as a Hindu kingdom. There are also issues of ethnicity and language. Clearly, while some might try to take uncouth advantage of the situation in order to grab the leadership mantle, the issues are genuine and indicate a desire of communities to retain their indigenous character and maintain their socio-cultural roots.
As a result of this newfound awareness, other issues which were taboo are also finding their rightful place in Nepali discourse: “participatory development”, “people power”, “empowerment” and “activism”. All these terms, in their genuine usage and not as puff-words used by an un-participatory regime, have their roots in populism.
It is too early to assess the gains from the assertion of populism in Nepal. While the origins are justified, the outcome is unknown. Unlike capitalism and socialism, populism has no distinct archetype. It springs from injustice and calls for equality based on a philosophy of no affluence, no poverty.
The people have spoken in Nepal. But populism is a grassroots upwelling that is non-prescriptive and puts forth no models. There are no directive principles. Having shown the way, the people expect their leadership to display statesmanship and lead to the only conclusion that populism demands — broadbased, non-exclusionary development that touches every member of every community. Those who would lead this society need to understand that there is strength in diversity, and that the need for equity and distributive justice cannot be ignored any longer.
P.Thacker is affiliated with ICIMOD and the Center for Women and Development, both in Kathmandu.