Pitfalls of Populism

Nepal’s hapless citizens have perceived the emergence of an alternative force — the Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) — as a panacea to their numerous problems.

By Taha Kehar | October 2023

A spectre is haunting our inherently post-truth world — the spectre of populism. This political malaise has been injected into civil polities across France, India, Pakistan, the US, and the UK and has become a challenge to exercise. Once billed as a challenge to the status quo, the populist agenda is now viewed with suspicion and bears the potential to threaten democratic values and civil liberties. The paranoia surrounding this global wave of populism has led even the most prudent of political pundits to adopt a cynical outlook on self-proclaimed political messiahs.

It is, therefore, difficult to be optimistic about the rise of messianic politics in Nepal. The landlocked nation has witnessed copious political cataclysms over the last few decades. A chequered history of insurgency, intense polarization, and rapid shifts in governance structure may have altered the country’s socio-political complexion, but it has done little to dismantle the hegemony of traditional political stakeholders. Disenchanted by the status quo, a large segment of Nepal’s population believes that the existing political institutions don’t serve its interests. Mired in a crippling sense of alienation, Nepal’s hapless citizens have perceived the emergence of an alternative force — the freshly minted Rashtriya Swatantra Party (RSP) — as a panacea to their numerous problems. The RSP went on to contest elections a few months after it was founded in June 2022 and became the fourth-largest party in parliament. Soon after the polls, the RSP joined the seven-party coalition led by President Pushpa Kamal Dahal.

Following disagreements over reinstating the home minister, the RSP bowed out of the coalition in 2023 and instead pledged to offer external support to the government. Since then, the party has performed exceedingly well in the April by-elections for the House of Representatives and has emerged as a potent player in domestic politics.

A quick glance at the RSP’s manifesto reveals that the party is a strong proponent of constitutional socialism and participatory democracy. However, the RSP’s success cannot be solely attributed to its policy initiatives and political programme. Rabi Lamichhane, the party’s founder, enjoys a celebrity status that precedes his journey as a politician. Before his foray into politics, Lamichhane was a successful journalist who used his television programme to expose corruption and the injustices fuelled by the political incompetence of Nepal’s power elite. Through these endeavours, Lamichhane succeeded in cultivating an image of himself as a bastion of change. The RSP founder capitalized on his image and entered the political arena with the intention of becoming the saviour the people ardently hoped for. It comes as no surprise that he was elected with a majority of 34,312 votes — an impressive feat that puts established political groupings, such as the Nepali Congress and CPN (UML), to shame.

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