Utter Lack of Urgency

I write these lines shuttling between meetings in Washington and Delhi, where perplexity is what well-meaning people feel when discussing Nepal.

Feb. 14, 2014, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol: 07 No. -16 Feb. 14- 2014 (Falgun 02, 2070)

For a set of political oligarchs who promised a new constitution within a year after the new CA elections, it is now well into the third month and barely the first steps towards forming a government have been taken. An uncomfortable alliance of two of the biggest parties, the Kangress and the EhMaLeys, has finally agreed on a prime minister. Although this coalition promises the stability of numerical weight, it is one “for the interest of the moment” only since they were unable to agree on the rest of the cabinet, let alone major policy principles and constitutional issues, and a circus awaits the nation on this front in the days ahead. The air is already thick with accusations of betrayal by the EhMalLeys, and promises of hard times ahead. 

More destabilizing trouble, unfortunately, lurks not far below this apparently placid surface. The Kangress is essentially a cobbling together of two factions (the Koirala Bolsheviks and the sulking Deuba Mensheviks). The EhMaLeys are four (the warring Oli, Jhalanath, Madhav and Bamdev factions) that have opportunistically fallen into two camps, the Oli-Bamdev upstarts having defeated the Jhalanath-Madhav combo for control of their parliament group. This diversity promises rich permutations of alliances forming and breaking in the days ahead as the myriad strains of ministerial portfolio assignment, agenda setting in parliament, compromising on constitutional clauses etc. make old coalitions a headache and new ones seductive. It also means there is no surety the government that will be formed will be stable enough to govern or produce a constitution, that if does produce one, it will not be burned on the streets immediately as major forces such as the Cash and Dash Maoists, the RPPs as well as the Madhesh parties have been consigned to the realm of untouchability.

I write these lines shuttling between meetings in Washington and Delhi, where perplexity is what well-meaning people feel when discussing Nepal.  How can we talk of development when we don't know what development policies your government has, they ask? Why don't you have a government even three months after elections?  Do your leaders not understand that public patience is a fickle thing that can turn first to apathy and then to anger rather quickly? Without sustained public enthusiasm, don't they understand that implementing difficult development policies is impossible? Why are your politicians so myopic? Alas! When was development ever on the agenda of Nepal’s political parties or the for that matter, the international community more willing to pour billions into the human rights and conflict industry than into reliable power supply! As with well-meaning friends abroad, Nepalis too are perplexed with this tardiness that is costing the political class dear; but, having seen things from close up, they are possibly more jaded and cynical. And deep down inside, many among them are beginning to suspect the worst.

But before we get to what that is, let us take a quick look back at history for insights. In a biography titled “The Private Life of Mao”, his personal doctor Li Zhisui describes the first few days of the Peoples' Republic after the Chinese Communist Party took over Beijing. He was an Australia-trained doctor who had come visiting, but was asked to report for duty to a Beijing hospital. He quickly discovered that it was meant to serve the senior party officials, that well-trained doctors like him as well as the hospitals they were to work in had already been identified long before the success of the revolution. And so it was in every other sector where the government had to intervene or control. The lesson for Nepal’s political class, both those that swear by Mao and especially those that don’t, is that a political class should know what it want, how it can get it, what obstacles it has to confront, clear or bypass. Mao’s communists were clear-headed and singularly focused from day one; and they waste no time consolidating their hold over the state and getting things done.

Nepal's political class, by contrast, has exhibited an utter lack of urgency, indeed of any sense of obligation to do their duty and complete their task they were elected to do, not just now but ever since the current dispensation came to power in 1990 or, if one stretched one's historical hindsight even further back, to 1960. What they forget, or perhaps never bothered to realize, is that power, whether political, military or market, abhors a vacuum. If the supposed power-holder's container is empty, it will be filled by someone else or some politically catastrophic event they never suspected. When these party oligarchs, with their petty intra- and in-party infighting failed to exercise judicious and accountable power, real-time power shifted to both the Maoist insurgency and the traditional forces including the King “to do something”. The fickleness of power is also true in the business sector as well: if a business fails to exercise its persuasive power, it stagnates and is soon overcome by competitors. The traditional Nepali saying captures this well when we are reminded that Laxmi, the power of wealth, is “chanchala”, i.e. fickle, moving from somebodies to nobodies in no time at all.

What many Nepalis are beginning to suspect is that New Nepal’s new political class never really had the power they claim to, that they were but willing foot soldiers for power being wielded by someone else. After the passing away of political stalwarts such as BP Koirala or Pushpa Lal and Man Mohan Adhikari, power in the Kangress and EhMaLeys passed on to essentially political bureaucrats within their parties, people who had been faithful assistants to their big bosses. Not known for taking bold and risky decisions guided by their political understanding, these apparatchiks would go along with whatever decisions were taken by their higher ups, work to implement them and hope for subsequent favour and promotion from their patrons. Such personalities do not actively look for moments to grab to turn the course of history: they are content to wait for the moment to come to them when the right planetary alignment will give them their next promotion to a minister, a prime minister, a speaker or even a president. And they take quick trips to Mughlan tarot card and astrological consultancies!

The Nepali political firmament is lit with a dangerous alignment of forces. Within the tardy parliament is a shaky coalition of Kangress and EhMaLeys that have begun quarrelling even before they have jointly formed a working government. Sitting in opposition are the Cash Maoists, the two RPPs and a host of Madhesh and other parties who have no reason to support this coalition and let it do anything that will allow them to take political credit. Sitting outside, and with enough street power and an even bigger reason to see that this dispensation fails, are the Dash Maoists whose leaders were detained in India so that those wanting a regime change in Nepal could get the Cash Maoists and the Seven Party Alliance to sign the 12-point Delhi deal.

This time around, the Dash Maoists were also artificially excluded from the electoral process. The Hindustan Times editorial of 11th February describes New Delhi’s broad twin policy goals as passing any kind of a constitution to legitimize the 12-point deal and “that the hardline elements among the Maoists who remain skeptical of parliamentary democracy remain marginalized within the political system”. This is hardly a goal for stability, and hardly one that this shaky Kangress-EhMaLey coalition could faithfully implement, try as their political bureaucrats might.

Dipak Gyawali.JPG

Dipak Gyawali

Gyawali is Pragya (Academician) of the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and former minister of water resources.

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