The mood of Nepali Spring 2012 is the polar opposite of the colour-coded euphoric “rhododendron revolution” of 2006. It is no longer the hope of an inclusive New Nepal that brightens Nepali faces: it is rather the very real fear of ethnic disintegration, civic service breakdown and the thuggery of political parties that darkens their disposition.
The full circle from euphoria to tragedy to farce was captured symbolically in early March by a news item from Pyuthan: senior Maoist leaders, including Prachanda, Baburam and Mohan Vaidya had gone there to attend a mass meeting organized by their party. To their bewilderment, a total strike was enforced by their own disgruntled cadres, and the Maoist leaders had to be rescued by the Nepal Army and helicoptered back to the capital. What a far cry from July 2001 when the Maoists encircled some seventy policemen in Holeri, and Nepal Army, not wanting to be part of a civil war, would not go to their rescue!
There is an apt Nepali saying that captures this incongruity: dhaanteko kuro kaatera mildaina! (A lie cannot be made presentable by trimming and dressing around it.) Ever since coming to power through the ballot without giving up the bullet, the Maoist blusters and bluffs have begun melting away faster than sugar cubes in the rain, their nationalist credentials as well as the high moral ground of fighting against a corrupt Pajerobaadi political system in tatters. Their own cadres have begun asking their politburo aristocrats to account for funds embezzled from party coffers and combatant camps. The ironic tragedy is that this Maoist fall from public grace, far from increasing the stock value of their rivals the Kangress and the EhMaLeys, has actually called into question the latter’s lack of political foresight and ultimately their political ability itself to lead to a ‘New Nepal’.
Furthermore, and even more damaging to healthy discourse in Nepali public life, the decline in credibility of so-called “civil society leaders” and media barons has been even more dramatic than that of the political parties. They are increasingly being perceived not as independent voices of ethical high ground but as mere handmaiden of, and propagandists for, corrupt party leaders. The common refrain one hears is this: “That the Maoists do not believe in democracy nor have they given up violence as a political tool was always obvious as is the fact that the top leaders of non-Maoist parties are visionless, corrupt and mainly responsible for debasing Democracy-I of 1990. It was you, civil society stalwarts who stood guarantee for them in 2006 and put power back in their corrupt hands without submitting them to the discipline of the voters’ whip. Now explain yourselves and the mess you helped create!”
This is where the real seeds of current nihilistic mood lie. That the primary pillars of the 2006 architecture have collapsed is now admitted by recent conclaves of EhMaLey in Tundikhel, the Kangress in east Tarai meet, and the nakedly opportunistic Madheshi leaders, especially the most corrupt among them as they head for jail: the constitution will not be made by May end; ethnic federalism was a big mistake that is impossible to implement; and any chance of agreement with the Maoists has evaporated and with it the possibility for consensus on any burning political issue. Sher Bahadur Deuba has gone so far as to call for reviving the 1990 constitution and to call the seventy-five districts “federal units”. This is indeed what the Kangress and EhMaLeys did in 1990: they simply re-named village and district panchayats as VDCs and DDCs. Deuba, for all his otherwise legendary incompetence, at least has the saving grace of political honesty that his other Kangressi colleagues (and indeed much of the 2006 ‘civil society’) lack. The logical conclusion of such honesty with history must end with the slogan: “Long Live King Mahendra’s 14 Anchals and 75 Districts!” and “Long Live King Birendra’s (and Harka Gurung’s) Five Development Zones!” That would of course damage the “revolutionary” credentials of civil society leaders, even if it would rescue them from continuing to remain the sad under-clad porters of the Maoist political agenda.
The historical victims of such political dishonesty have been many items of public goods in Nepal, two of which can stand as indicative examples: local accountability and the supply of essentials such as gas and electricity. It has been almost a decade when the mandate of the last elected local government ran out, and the neo-feudal leaders of Nepal’s main political parties have not allowed new local leadership to emerge through elections. Indeed, the attempt by King Gyanendra to hold municipality elections in February 2006 was boycotted by parties (which was within their rights); but it was unforgivably immoral of them to appeal to the then insurgent Maoists to “assassinate candidates (as per a hit-list given to the latter) because street protests alone would not stop the voting”. Neo-feudal party bosses fear the rise of new and younger leadership that could challenge their stranglehold on the machinery and they have done everything to discourage it. The result, in all these years of Loktantra, has been loot of public money in the districts by their nominated henchmen through the “all-party mechanisms”. The 2006 civil society stalwarts of course, through their uncharacteristic silence, have been acquiescing partners in this crime.
The artificial shortage of cooking gas points to a serious – and deeply politically structural – malfeasance in the supply of this public good as does the latest saga of West Seti in explaining the deep-rooted rot behind the electricity shortage. The good news on West Seti is that, thanks to a long decade-and-a-half persistent campaign by a few activists (and the fact that Madhav Nepal as primeminister and Gokarna Bista as energy minister listened to them), West Seti is going to be developed, not for export but to meet the shortfall needs of the Nepali grid and its domestic commerce and industry. The bad news is that it will not be developed by China’s Three Gorges, the Australians or any other developer until the electricity sector’s contradictions – the results of misguidance by the Kangress and the EhMaLeys in the mid-1990s aided and abetted by major development agencies – are first done away with.
Just to list them, they are as follows: electricity is a public good and needs the public sector, especially for storage projects, as much as it needs the involvement of the private sector, the municipalities and cooperatives; the new electricity act would lay the institutional basis for this reform but, because it has been sabotaged by myopic trade unions of parties and vested international agency interests, it has been languishing in the CA for the last four years; Nepal has very few good storage and run-of-river sites for its own needs which should not have been criminally given away for export; use of regulated water from multipurpose projects must pay for the cost of dam development which would bring down the cost of electricity; and the cost of sector malfeasance must not be loaded onto the shoulders of Nepali consumers.
Unfortunately, public goods and public welfare are not issues within the ken of the current crop of neo-feudal party leaders: chronic ills in the energy sector and local accountability will continue. Cry, Nepali consumers!