Review of Mahendra Lawoti, Towards a Democratic Nepal. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 69:1, 2006, pp.160-62
Mahendra Lawoti, Towards a Democratic Nepal: Inclusive Political Institutions for a Multicultural Society, New Delhi: Sage Publications/Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point. 345p. ISBN 81-7829-449-4 US$64.95. IRs 395. NRs 632.
Mahendra Lawoti sets out in his book to recommend a model of democracy which he believes would be more appropriate for a country of Nepal’s diversity than the one introduced under the 1991 constitution. Arguing both from general principles (including John Rawls’ theory of justice) and from the experience of other countries, he suggests a raft of measures, including `horizontal accountability’ with independent institutions keeping others in check; ethnically-based federalism with both regional and (for dispersed groups) non-territorial units; proportional representation; entrenched protection of minority rights; and affirmative action in the form of reservations for the most disadvantaged groups.
Much of what the author advocates is well-founded. Lawoti is certainly right to condemn the 1990 constitution’s proscription of ethnic or regionally based parties (a ban which has, in any case, been inconsistently applied). He also plausibly argues that Nepal’s plural society would be better served by a more consensual form of democracy than the majoritarian one that was adopted in 1991 and he sees decentralisation and proportional representation as key measures to achieve this. Most observers would accept the need for decentralisation but the case for PR remains controversial, since it would certainly entail coalition government becoming the norm and Nepal’s experience with such governments has not been a happy one. However, the greater legitimacy attaching to governments resting on a broader base would perhaps make extra-constitutional resistance to its decisions less likely and, as Lawoti points out, single-party governments in Nepal are in any case themselves already coalitions of different factions. My own caveat would be that in any PR system eventually adopted, the threshold vote necessary for a party to gain representation in the legislature should be quite high (say at 5%) to discourage fragmentation. Proliferation of new parties is encouraged by any PR system and, in Nepal’s case, would be reinforced by the `splittism’ that has always been prevalent across the political spectrum.
Where Lawoti is most open to criticism is in his analysis of ethnic, caste and religious divisions and in his provision for group entitlement, in particular the use of a quota system in public appointments to offset the predominance of the traditional elite.
First, although acknowledging that `the cultural identity and configuration of many groups are still in the process of forming and developing’ (pg.247), Lawoti too often treats particular labels as if they were non-problematic. For example, in discussing ethnic activists’ complaints that census figures for proportion of Hindus (80.6% in 2001) are inflated, he does not point out that, for many Nepalese, `Hindu’ and `Buddhist’ are not mutually exclusive categories like `Christian’ and `Muslim.’ He also fails to critique the term `indigenous’, which Nepal’s Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (formerly simply `Federation of Nationalities’) added to their official title in 2003. In much of central and eastern Nepal, Parbatiyas (the original speakers of Nepali ) certainly moved over the last few centuries first as immigrants and then as conquerors into territory controlled by Tibeto-Burman groups. In the western hills, however, Nepali speakers have been present for at least a thousand years and, though they may in some cases have supplanted earlier Tibeto-Burman inhabitants, they can hardly be termed `non-indigenous’, especially as Tibeto-Burman groups themselves also originally migrated into Nepal. In the case of the Sherpas, the migration took place only 400 years ago.
Secondly, while members of Nepal’s political, administrative and intellectual elite are predominantly males belonging to the Parbatiya and Newar high castes, simply being a high-caste hillman (CHHEM - `Caste Hill Hindu Elite Males’ – in the author’s preferred terminology) does not guarantee high politico-economic status. The largest of the `twice-born’ Parbatiya castes are the Chetris and Lawoti’s own table of socio-economic indicators (pg. 106) shows 50% of them below the poverty line in 1996, not very much better off than the `indigenous nationalities’ (57.8% in poverty) and appreciably worse-off than Madeshis (members of north Indian plains castes) and Muslims, for whom the figures are 44% and 38% respectively.
Thirdly, the author’s discussion of why some groups have been so much more successful than others is not fully adequate. Previous use of state power in their favour is certainly one reason, but there are many examples of minorities that have outperformed those around them without any such advantage –Jews in Central Europe, Chinese in South-East Asia, Marwaris throughout South Asia, Thakalis in Nepal or South and East Asian students within some western school systems are all examples. Nepal’s Brahmans are obviously beneficiaries of their superior status in the Hindu social hierarchy but also partly owe their success in present-day Nepal to group cultural traits such as the high value they place on formal study. There is no way of determining which factor is more important in the case of a particular Brahman and `positive discrimination’ in favour of other groups in recruitment for public service (a measure which the author enthusiastically backs) involves a degree of unfairness. Lawoti may be right when he also in argues for reservations on grounds of expediency – essentially as a means of giving the elites of backward groups an incentive to work within the system – but the argument on grounds of simple justice fails.
Fourthly, in reacting against the uncompromisingly assimilationist policy on cultural matters adopted by the Nepalese state before 1990, the author, like many Nepalese intellectuals, goes a little too far towards the multicultural end of the continuum. He accepts the suggestion that since all languages spoken in Nepal are `Nepali’, the national language should therefore be re-christened `Khas-Nepali’. This is partly willful confusion between `Nepali’ as an adjective of nationality and as the name of a language and partly a refusal to admit that Nepali (in the ordinary linguistic sense) should be allowed a special status. As Lawoti himself acknowledges elsewhere, it is by far the most widely-spoken language in the country and therefore the language which Nepalis speak as Nepalis, even though they may quite reasonably want to use another language for communication within their own ethnic group. In addition, there is a case for greater use of languages other than Nepali within the educational system, but the major emphasis should surely be on teaching Nepali properly to all children rather than on the separate development of the seventy or eighty different languages spoken by Nepal’s twenty-five million people.
Finally, Lawoti perhaps overlooks one important point in his many references to India’s experiences in dealing with ethnic diversity. He is right to praise India’s record in accommodation of diversity but he should also have pointed out that India has relied not only on her ability to adjust to ethnic demands but also on the military power at the disposal of the central government. Nepal, in contrast, has suffered both from political mismanagement and, in the crucial years after 1990, the distrust between elected governments and the palace which retained control of the army.
However, none of these caveats detract from the fact that Mahendra Lawoti has produced an extremely valuable contribution to the debate on Nepal’s future and the book certainly deserves careful reading by all those interested in that future.
John Whelpton Hong Kong
NOTES  Germany uses a 5% threshold for this reason. Thresholds are a common feature of PR systems using a combination of directly elected seats and `party lists.’ Unusually for countries with a `First-Past-the Post’ electoral system, Nepal currently has a 3% threshold for a party to qualify for recognition in subsequent elections as a national party whose candidates will all be allocated a single, unique election symbol.
 Whether the expediency argument is valid depends, of course, on whether the increased satisfaction of those helped by affirmative action outweighs the resentment amongst the losers. Ethnic and caste conflict has in many cases intensified after `reverse discrimination’ policies have been instituted and their opponents have argued that the policies themselves are to blame (see, most recently, Thomas Sowell, Affirmative Action around the World: an Empirical Study, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004). Lawoti addresses this argument but suggests that conflict like those in Bihar intensified because measures to help the lower castes were insufficient and claims that the longer use of the reservation system in South India is responsible for the low level of caste conflict now occurring there. In fact it is very difficult to establish causal relationships either way and I suspect that the South would still have been relatively peaceful and Bihar still conflicted whatever policy on reservations had been adopted.