New Nepal is rapidly heading towards its innate “tarkik nishkarsha”, i.e. a messy conclusion that confounds normal political logic and which will create more problems than it promises to solve. And the reasons are embarrassingly obvious: the street protests of spring 2006 were inspired more by alien concerns and forces than the political needs of the country; the architecture it gave birth to was based on fantasy theories reflecting very little of Nepali socio-economic reality; and the solutions it sought had nothing to do with the real problems facing her citizens or their aspirations. The result is that the political masters of New Nepal are focused less on finishing an un-writeable constitution or stabilizing the 12-point Delhi-imposed ceasefire and more on populist vaudeville known in Nepali as nautanki.
A ground-level view of the coming mess was provided to me recently at the neighbourhood newspaper kiosk by an acquaintance, one of the movers and shakers behind the now politically active Chhetri Samaaj. He waxed eloquent about how he was a ‘New Dalit’ in New Nepal. As an un-reconstituted constitutional monarchist, he was a politically marginalized figure. As a Chhetri, the largest and most widespread ethnic group in Nepal, he had been ‘othered’ and deprived of an identity in a land united by his forbears and served by him loyally. His religion and culture too had been knocked off their pedestals, and his history was being erased by the government headed by Brother No. 2. However, unlike Old Dalits, he was not going to let anyone keep him down for long, come what may! What made his tirade against the current dispensation intriguing was his take on current events and the indication of the direction protests might take in the coming spring.
Constitution making was in limbo, he argued, not because the ‘revolutionaries’ have not had the time to sort out the contentious issues: it was so because they had no idea what was to replace the foundations they had destroyed and because transition itself was a lucrative business that needed stretching as far as it would. Federalism as advocated ethnic populism was unworkable because, no matter how one drew the boundaries, it would ‘other’ over two-thirds of the population therein. On the form of governance, having sidelined the monarchy which was an institution outside of competitive electoral politics, the current crop of leaders have put every institution – bureaucracy, judiciary and army included – on the partisan auction block. It is a recipe for unending political instability, more so because the issue is not whether a prime minister or a president is directly elected and has executive authority. It is about the separation and balance of powers; but to put in place such a system, there is no trust among the big party protagonists. None are confident that the capture of power by one, even with ballots and not bullets, will not result in the marginalization of others; and the partisan fight will then morph into whose electoral or judicial mandate is more legitimate. And there is no statesman in the observed political firmament with any ethical stature even to propose something halfway acceptable, especially when all parties and their bosses have packed the CA with murderers, embezzlers, passport sellers and the like.
Bereft of substance, the current dispensation hopes to distract rising popular anger by nautanki forms such as removing King Tribhuban’s statue, widening the capital’s roads and promising to end power cuts with diesel power plants and imports from an already power-starved India. What angered my ‘othered’ friend with the road-widening program were its blatant bulldozing by disregarding due process and the ignoring of pedestrian needs. “Have the Maobaadis become Pajerobaadis so soon that they can only think of roads for cars and not for people who need to walk?” he asked. “And should this be their priority or that of an elected municipality? Their mandate to rule has long run out even to make the constitution they were supposed to make!” He was convinced this was all about feeding the official budget to their party thugs. Pajerobaad, named after the Japanese luxury SUVs, was the most iconic veniality that discredited the parliament of Democracy-1 in the 1990s and had contributed to the Maoist uprising.
The politics of pelf is most obvious in the electricity sector reeling under the kind of worsening power cuts that happen only in war-torn countries, not one which was supposed to have received “peace dividends” since six years past. That is time enough to have actually built and commissioned a major power plant! The significant reform effort that would have set things in the right direction, the proposed new electricity act first tabled by Prachanda’s government and subsequently re-tabled by all those following, is still languishing in the parliament. The reasons have to do with opposition by party trade unions in the NEA and assorted rent-seeking hydrocrats in cahoots with trading houses that would benefit from importing diesel plants and selling hydro licenses to Indian companies.
This love of “200 MW diesel plant” is nothing new: it was the main motivating factor behind the push for the eventually aborted Arun-3. The only publicly available study on the economics of diesel is found in a 1992 study by the NEA, which showed that the electricity from the Hetauda diesel plant cost about eighteen rupees per unit in FY 2045/46, and that was when the cost of diesel was close to single digits with the dollar buying only half of today’s rupees. Even if ordered today, it would take two years to commission, but there would be no transport, storage or paying capacity to handle the voluminous diesel it would consume.
That same story applies to import from India: if all went well, and India had the surplus power to export, putting in place a 400kV transmission capacity could not be done before two years. In that time, for only two-thirds of the cost of Indian imports the roughly two dozen Nepali hydro developers are more than capable and willing to add at least a hundred megawatts every two years to the national grid (as are Nepal’s solar enthusiasts); but no party is willing to support them because it does not fill party coffers. It is quite obvious that the real political interest is in the shower of benefits from the twelve billion in the diesel plant’s procurement.
The naked anti-socialist Pajerobaad of the current dispensation is seen in their attempt to smother community electricity. The Nepali Kangress energy minister in the Madhav Nepal government closed down the NEA department facilitating rural communities in this direction: Baburam’s government has recently closed down the government’s support to the program under the 20:80 scheme. And these parties call themselves democratic socialists and communists! Again the answer is obvious: NEA trade union opposition and the shower of procurement benefits from conventional donor-supported centralized ruralelectrification whose political economy is the complete opposite of community-led efforts.