Beyond finding answers to who exercises power and how, what makes the political analysis of developing countries interesting is the attempt to understand how those in power increase their capacity to bring about change, how they respond to the demands of change, and how they cope with the social conflicts that inevitably emerge from societal change.
The present House of Representatives, the second after the restoration of democracy in Nepal in 1990, has seen practically every political permutation and combination in government formation. The ruling combination – some legal experts refute the claim that it´s a coalition of the Nepali Congress and a breakaway faction of Communist Party of Nepal sporting the suffix of ´M-L – enjoys the silent support of a splinter group of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party and together commands a comfortable majority in the House. Theoretically, therefore, the government does not lack the power to introduce change.
However, despite this unquestioned legitimacy to rule, the government has been floundering in a swamp of indecision. It was browbeaten by the business community when its proposal to implement a Value Added Tax was diluted into a parody. Even the one success that the government had been gloating about, police actions against the Maoists under the widely-known code ´Kilo Sierra Two´, seems to have come unstuck as the latter struck back with their “Base Area Preparation Operation” in late October, catching the government unawares. Everybody knows there is a government in the country but nobody is ready to accept that it works.
A government not seen to be working is seldom obeyed. A secretary to the government publicly challenges his departmental minister and gets away with it. Adulterators of mustard oil, when caught in the act, demand their spurious product back and get it. Glorified clerks in the donor agencies, not content with dictating terms, start meddling in the day-today administration of projects. Friendly countries deliberately delay, and sometimes even refuse, to send routine agreemos for publiclyannounced ambassadorial nominees.
The government´s record in handling social conflicts is no less grim. The Maoist uprising, which has affected a third of the country´s districts, is believed to be more of a social unrest than a political movement. However, the government has failed to address any of the underlying social causes of the violent reactions in various areas. Advocates of an-cien regime openly fan casteist and communal fires by harking back to the hoary traditions of Hindu society, but the government is unable to present coherently an alternative that is as glorious but a lot less unjust.
The Nepal Sadbhavana Party (nsp), a political outfit that claims to champion the rights of the madhise (non-hill people of the Tarai), had started disintegrating when their leaders were seen to be interested only in political musical chairs. Now, thanks to the insensitive approach of the government in Kathmandu, NSP leaders have hardened their stance on issues such as citizenship, language and reservations in government service, and their stock is once again up among the voters.
All of these disgruntled elements routinely take pot-shots at the Constitution, while the government watches helplessly. If power is defined conventionally as the rights possessed or given by the electorate, the national government has all the power it needs. Sadly, it lacks the authority, which is the power to give orders and have others obey. Part of this situation can be explained by the paradox of politics: governments that face the most formidable tasks are generally the ones with the least capability. A more convincing explanation can perhaps be found in the nature of power itself. Unlike despotic regimes, democratic governments cannot rely on authority that is solely coercive – much of it has to be moral.
In the first-past-the-post elections to the parliament and winner-takes-all form of government formation, the chances of a government truly representing the majority are extremely unlikely. In such a situation, the leaders acquire paramount importance. Their conduct has to be beyond suspicion and inspire confidence. Until and unless the government lasts long enough to establish a record of sincere performance, it is the moral authority of the leader that is the source of the government´s authority. At the most charitable, Nepali Congress President and Prime Minister of Nepal, Girija Prasad Koirala, has been found wanting in inspiring confidence. Little wonder that he continues to use the fear of impending elections to keep his flock together. He has little else at his disposal.
The power that flows from the barrel of the gun is definite, but dangerous. The power emerging from the ballot box is wholesome, but not definite. Only the moral authority of visionary leaders can shape traditions and institutions to offer the best of both. No such figure appears on Nepal´s political horizon for the next elections – due in November 1999, but which may take place earlier.
Hope has to be pinned instead on the possibility of a clear single-party majority emerging so that even some perfectly ordinary people can do extraordinary things by working together under one ideology. Until then, there is little else to do other than take solace in the fact that power without authority may be inconvenient; but the other extreme, authority without power, is truly insufferable.