Movement for democracy in Nepal
Nepal witnessed an extraordinary popular movement in April 2006. The movement was aimed at restoring democracy.
Although the kingformally remained the head of the state, the real power was exercised by popularly elected representatives.
In February 2005, the king dismissed the then Prime Minister and dissolved the popularly elected Parliament. The movement of April 2006 was aimed at regaining popular control over the government from the king.
All the major political parties in the parliament formed a Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and called for a four-day strike in Kathmandu, the country’s capital. This protest soon turned into an indefinite strike in which MAOIST insurgents and various other organisations joined hands. People defied curfew and took to the streets.
The security forces found themselves unable to take on more than a lakh people who gathered almost every day to demand restoration of democracy. The number of protesters reached between three and five lakhs on 21 April and they served an ultimatum to the king.
The leaders of the movement rejected the half- hearted concessions made by the king. They stuck to their demands for restoration of parliament, power to an all-party government and a new constituent assembly.
On 24 April 2006, the last day of the ultimatum, the king was forced to concede all the three demands. The SPA chose Girija Prasad Koirala as the new Prime Minister of the interim government.
The restored parliament met and passed laws taking away most of the powers of the king. The SPA and the Maoists came to an understanding about how the new Constituent Assembly was going to be elected. In 2008, the monarchy was abolished and Nepal became a federal democratic republic. In 2015, it adopted a new constitution.
Bolivia’s Water War
Bolivia is a poor country in Latin America. The World Bank pressurised the government to give up its control of municipal water supply. The government sold these rights for the city of Cochabamba to a multi-national company (MNC).
The company immediately increased the price of water by four times. Many people received monthly water bill of Rs 1000 in a country where average income is around Rs 5000 a month. This led to a spontaneous popular protest.
- In January 2000, a new alliance of labour, human rights and community leaders organised a successful four-day general strike in the city. The government agreed to negotiate and the strike was called off. Yet nothing happened.
- The police resorted to brutal repression when the agitation was started again in February. Another strike followed in April and the government imposed martial law. But the power of the people forced the officials of the MNC to flee the city and made the government concede to all the demands of the protesters.
- The contract with the MNC was cancelled and water supply was restored to the municipality at old rates. This came to be known as Bolivia’s water war
We can, therefore, draw a few conclusions from these examples:
- Democracy evolves through popular struggles. It is possible that some significant decisions may take place through consensus and may not involve any conflict at all. But that would be an exception.
- Democratic conflict is resolved through mass mobilisation. Sometimes it is possible that the conflict is resolved by using the existing institutions like the parliament or the judiciary. But when there is a deep dispute, very often these institutions themselves get involved in the dispute. The resolution has to come from outside, from the people.
- These conflicts and mobilisations are based on new political organisations. True, there is an element of spontaneity in all such historic moments. But the spontaneous public participation becomes effective with the help of organised politics. There can be many agencies of organised politics. These include political parties, pressure groups and movement groups.
- In a democracy several different kinds of organisations work behind any big struggle. These organisations play their role in two ways.
- One obvious way of influencing the decisions in a democracy is direct participation in competitive politics. This is done by creating parties, contesting elections and forming governments.
- But every citizen does not participate so directly. They may not have the desire, the need or the skills to take part in direct political activity other than voting.
There are many indirect ways in which people can get governments to listen to their demands or their points of view. They could do so by forming an organisation and undertaking activities to promote their interests or their viewpoints. These are called interest groups or pressure groups. Sometimes people decide to act together without forming organisations.
Pressure groups are organisations that attempt to influence government policies. But unlike political parties, pressure groups do not aim to directly control or share political power. These organisations are formed when people with common occupation, interest, aspirations or opinions come together in order to achieve a common objective.
Like an interest group, a movement also attempts to influence politics rather than directly take part in electoral competition. But unlike the interest groups, movements have a loose organisation. Their decision making is more informal and flexible. They depend much more on spontaneous mass participation than an interest group.
1. Interest Groups
- Usually interest groups seek to promote the interests of a particular section or group of society. Trade unions, business associations and professional (lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc.) bodies are some examples of this type.
- They are sectional because they represent a section of society: workers, employees, business-persons, industrialists, followers of a religion, caste group, etc. Their principal concern is the betterment and well-being of their members, not society in general.
- Sometimes these organisations are not about representing the interest of one section of society. They represent some common or general interest that needs to be defended. The members of the organisation may not benefit from the cause that the organisation represents. The Bolivian organisation, FEDECOR is an example of that kind of an organisation.
2. Public interest groups
They promote collective rather than selective good. They aim to help groups other than their own members. For example, a group fighting against bonded labour fights not for itself but for those who are suffering under such bondage.
- In some instances the members of a public interest group may undertake activity that benefits them as well as others too. For example, BAMCEF (Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation) is an organisation largely made up of government employees that campaigns against caste discrimination.
- It addresses the problems of its members who suffer discrimination. But its principal concern is with social justice and social equality for the entire society.
The Nepalese movement for democracy arose with the specific objective of reversing the king’s orders that led to suspension of democracy. In India, Narmada Bachao Andolan is a good example of this kind of movement.
The movement started with the specific issue of the people displaced by the creation of Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river. Its objective was to stop the dam from being constructed.
These single-issue movements can be contrasted with movements that are long term and involve more than one issue. The environmental movement and the women’s movement are examples of such movements.
How do they influence politics?
Pressure groups and movements exert influence on politics in a variety of ways:
- They try to gain public support and sympathy for their goals and their activities by carrying out information campaigns, organising meetings, filing petitions, etc. Most of these groups try to influence the media into giving more attention to these issues.
- They often organise protest activity like strikes or disrupting government programmes. Workers’ organisations, employees’ associations and most of the movement groups often resort to these tactics in order to force the government to take note of their demands.
- Business groups often employ professional lobbyists or sponsor expensive advertisements. Some persons from pressure groups or movement groups may participate in official bodies and committees that offer advice to the government.
While interest groups and movements do not directly engage in party politics, they seek to exert influence on political parties.
The relationship between political parties and pressure groups can take different forms, some direct and others very indirect:
- In some instances, the pressure groups are either formed or led by the leaders of political parties or act as extended arms of political parties. For example, most trade unions and students’ organisations in India are either established by, or affiliated to one or the other major political party. Most of the leaders of such pressure groups are usually activists and leaders of party.
- Sometimes political parties grow out of movements. For example, when the Assam movement led by students against the ‘foreigners’ came to an end, it led to the formation of the Asom Gana Parishad. The roots of parties like the DMK and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu can be traced to a long-drawn social reform movement during the 1930s and 1940s.
- In most cases the relationship between parties and interest or movement groups is not so direct. They often take positions that are opposed to each other. Yet they are in dialogue and negotiation. Movement groups have raised new issues that have been taken up by political parties. Most of the new leadership of political parties comes from interest or movement groups.
- A democracy must look after the interests of all, not just one section. Also, it may seem that these groups wield power without responsibility.
- Sometimes, pressure groups with small public support but lots of money can hijack public discussion in favour of their narrow agenda.
- On balance, however, pressure groups and movements have deepened democracy. Putting pressure on the rulers is not an unhealthy activity in a democracy as long as everyone gets this opportunity. Governments can often come under undue pressure from a small group of rich and powerful people.
- Even the sectional interest groups play a valuable role. Where different groups function actively, no one single group can achieve dominance over society.