Deep social cleavages polarize society into antagonistic identity groups. These groups have become so deeply rooted that politicians are appealing to the base group. Citizens usually vote for authoritarian candidates when they appeal to their own base.
Social cleavages are increasingly connected to a political identity, you begin to have a flattening of cross-cutting cleavages which creates even tenser political and social situations. Polarization include gridlock and a lack of compromise while partisans “blam[e] the other party for all incivility in the government” (Mason 2018, 3)
Nepali politics has gotten increasingly partisan, and meaningful debates are becoming rare. There are instead shouting matches. Public trust in state institutions is very low, with massive protests against social injustices ever rising. In these turbulent and uncertain times, people flock to those who can give them a semblance of certainty. politicians try to win people over by appealing to their base’s instincts, often exploiting their caste and creed sentiments. Political rhetoric in Nepal can be summarized as “you are with me or you are against me”. There are many causes for this deep polarization in the politics of Nepal. They stem from a long history of the social class system, poverty, and regional conflicts.
Social caste is an essential identity for the Nepali people. it determines their way of life as it affects their family life, food, dress, occupations, and culture. The social Cast system has become a social cleavage that has divided society into antagonistic identity groups. The caste system is the basis of feudalistic economic structure with the system of individual ownership. The caste system is divided into four folds which are Brahman (priests and scholars), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaisya (merchants and traders), Sudra (laborers), Dalits (untouchables). The membership is both hereditary and permanent so movement in this hierarchy is very limited. Caste determines an individual’s behavior, obligations, and expectations. Additionally, this also determines the access to land, position of political power, and command of human labor.
This deep-rooted cast system and ethnic groups play a key role in determining political identities. Many scholars have claimed that the insurgency(1966-2006) was stemming from “rage against a long legacy of oppression based on caste and ethnicity” (Do & Iyer 2007). Ethnic identity has morphed into political identities. The dominant and majority cast in Nepal are the Brahmins and Chhetris that reside in the hilly region and the capital. This also seeps into the economics where the upper-class hoards most of the wealth and high-income jobs. They also have the most influence and opportunities in society. Furthermore, in the 2013 election, the Maoists asked the voters, especially the hill Brahmins and Chhetris, to sacrifice their nationalism for the sake of the marginalized communities and indigenous nationalities. The move resulted in an embarrassing defeat for the Maoists.
The Social class system also contributes to poverty. The lower class is prevented from gaining a financial foothold due to the historic feudal system. 25.2% of the population lived below the national poverty line. Illiteracy also plays into the class cleavage. The poor also are illiterate as they do not have access to education and cannot afford to school. Most illiterate people vote on political ideology, driven by religion, caste, and communal sentiment. This leads to the election of unfit and authoritarian leaders who manipulate public sentiments and adhere to their social standings.
Regionalism also contributes to the deep polarization in Nepal. External actors, particularly India, China, and the US have played a role in shaping Nepal’s domestic political affairs and identities. The right swinging congress party is generally favored by India while the left swinging Maoist party is favored by China. These two parties are usually the ones that go head to head during elections.
The Indian government has often used economic blockade to pressure Nepal. When Nepal was hit with a massive earthquake in 2015 an economic blockade was placed which led to a humanitarian crisis. During the process of recovery, there was halted oil, essential supplies, and aid crucial to sustaining the population during this natural crisis. It was able to stir up nationalistic sentiments and unite the Nepali people. Massive protest across the nation was happening to condemn the act of India. This issue also deepened social cleavage. The conflict resulted in hilly people versus the Madheshis who have ancestral roots in India. This was prominent in the 2017 elections, as the most significant factor deciding the polls turned out to be India’s economic blockade, which generated a wave of nationalist sentiments against the southern neighbor. Many people who considered themselves committed to democracy chose to vote for the more ‘nationalist’ communist alliance.
This historic polarization in Nepali society is heavily reflected in politics. This harms democracy as the marginalized groups are excluded which goes against the constitution. The election of political leaders who have exploited these sentiments has led to authoritarian rules and governance.
Mason, Lilliana. 2018. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Do, Quy-Toan, and Lakshmi Iyer. 2007. “Poverty, Social Divisions, and Conflict in Nepal.” PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi: 10.1037/e504182013-001.