Nationalism, Maturity and Light

By Murari Sharma

Kathmandu, the capital of the second richest country in water resources, spends much of the day without electricity, as the 11-hour power cut a day has kicked in. It is a shame that our leaders have not learned to stop whining and blaming someone else for their failure like urchins and take responsibility like adults. Often they do not see beyond self-enrichment and, when they do, jingoism prevents them from doing what is right for Nepal.

Our political and intellectual leaders have travelled far and wide and seen what other countries have been doing to promote growth and improve the life of their compatriots. However, they seem to have learned little or nothing from their expensive trips. Not even from the next-door neighbor, Bhutan, which has been moving forward in great strides.

Om Pradhan, a former minister and ambassador of Bhutan to the United Nations in New York, had told me once that he had read about the Karnali Power Project when he was in Class 5. He did not know then that Bhutan would develop Chuka and Tala projects. However, Thimpu has completed these projects and been reaping huge benefits, while the Karnali Project remains in paper. The Karnali and other hydropower projects are stuck, mired in the most virulent form of jingoism.

Political vision and commitment are key to progress, and King Jigme of Bhutan has proved it right in front of our eyes. I do not approve everything the king has done, but I do think that we should learn from what Bhutan has done well.

King Jigme ruled Bhutan with an iron fist and brutally repressed his opponents. He deprived the minorities of their rights, forced more than 100,000 people to flee the country, and refused to let them go back. During my visits to Thimpu a couple of times in the late 1990s, I saw the incredible fear in the eyes of the minority groups. Tek Nath Rijal, a pro-democracy leader who spent nearly 9 years in Bhutan’s jails and took refuge in Nepal on his release, has chronicled in his autobiography the torture and brutality he and other minority leaders suffered.

The pseudo-democratic change King Jigme has introduced in Bhutan is a charade as well. Scared by the political upheaval in Nepal, the king asked his loyalist to constitute two political parties and contest the elections to give a false semblance of democratic order. He also placed his Oxford educated son, Jigme Khesar, on the throne in 2006 to give people a sense of change. But this has not given equal rights to the minorities or brought them relief.

However, the king has made remarkable contributions to the sustainable development of Bhutan. He constructed the Chuka and Tala hydropower projects and developed his kingdom with the revenue from them and development assistance. As a result, Bhutan is cited for its enviable record of environmental protection, improvement in health and education and increase in the country’s per capita income. Bhutan’s per capita income, which was less than Nepal’s ten years ago, is nearly double of ours now.

Success earns respect and credibility for your thought and method. Even King Jigme’s outlandish idea of gross national happiness, which attaches more value to maintaining the medieval culture and tradition than to modernizing, is mentioned with reverence and awe.

When Om Pradhan and I were counterparts in New York, we used to discuss issues of development whenever we were not grappling with the wedge issue — the Bhutanese refugees. On one occasion, Pradhan told me about the negotiations on Chuka and Tala projects in which he was intimately involved. He said, the negotiations on the Chuka Project were very tough, because New Delhi wanted to squeeze the dragon kingdom as much as it could.

India wanted Bhutan to invest more than it could afford, take a large loan for it, pay peanuts for the electricity, and control the project during its construction phase and beyond. Many times, he told me, the talks foundered due to huge divergence and a couple of time they almost broke down. Bhutan had only two stark options: Either to agree on what India was willing to do and get the project constructed or to do nothing hiding behind the curtain of fervent nationalism.

At the end, Pradhan said, Bhutan decided to do the Chika Project taking a pragmatic approach given the sobering geopolitical realities. If the recollection serves me right, Thimpu insisted on doing the project with 60:40 grant and loan funding of India, on renegotiating the price every five years, and on taking control of the project after 10 years of commission. The Tala Project followed more or less a similar model, with only slightly better terms and conditions for Bhutan.

According to Pradhan, the decision to undertake these projects with Indian heavy hand was not pleasant. It hurt Bhutan’s national pride and delivered less than optimum benefit. Nevertheless, the decision was necessary in the long-term national interest of Bhutan, and it proved prudent for his country. Bhutan was able to free itself from a huge debt burden; and within 15 years of the project’s completion, it was able to raise the price of electricity to the commercial rate and get the control of the project as well.

Let me call this pragmatic nationalism, which has immensely benefited Bhutan. If Thimpu had dithered resorting to jingoism, water would have continued to flow down to India, and the Bhutanese people would have continued to toil in poverty and destitution. Therefore, Pradhan thought Nepal should try to get the best possible deal from India given the realities of today rather than waiting forever for an elusive perfect deal in the future.

Unfortunately, Nepal’s political culture has become so sick that there is no room for healthy debate and pragmatic nationalism. Our leaders have become so cynical that they do not trust and cannot work with each other. They have become so self-centered and short-termists that they do not see beyond themselves and beyond now. Many leaders love or hate our neighbors and friends in their guts regardless of merit or demerit of their Nepal policy.

Any deal with India naturally becomes suspect and explosive because Nepal is more closely linked with its southern neighbor politically, economically and socially than any other country. Many a time, this happens because of India’s attitude. However, we will forget only to our peril that this attitude is defined by New Delhi’s perception of India’s national interest and that Indian leaders and bureaucrats are elected or appointed to advance India’s interest, not Nepal’s.

Today or ten years from now, India will continue to promote its national interest vigorously and try to get the best possible deal from Nepal and other countries. That includes supplying inexpensive electricity to Indian citizens. So blaming Indians for their effort to get the best for their country and postponing hard decisions will not deliver us hydropower projects, electricity or revenue from them. Time is running out more on us than on India.

For instance, if Nepal had been able to do hydropower projects with India 15 years ago, it might have been able to get a better deal. Then India had fewer options for energy supply. In the wake of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters, nuclear energy had fallen out of favor; environmental concerns were favoring clean energy like hydropower; and India desperately needed energy to fuel its growing economy.

That has changed now. Nuclear energy has become fashionable once again, and India has already signed agreement with the United States for secured supply of uranium from the United States. Opposition to large hydropower projects has increased, and the Arun Project has become its victim already. Bangladesh has found huge gas deposits. Clean coal is moving closer to reality. Besides, India has been trying to meet its rising demand for energy by laying pipelines to Central Asian countries where fossil fuel is still in abundant supply.

Time and technological change will not wait for Nepal or its policy makers. We must try to harness our water resources before they become less relevant or irrelevant as a source of energy. Like Bhutan, Nepal has only two bitter choices: Do hydropower projects by protecting our national interest as much as we can or let our water flow down to the Bay of Bengal without being used forever.

Pragmatic nationalism must replace jingoism that has proved an obstacle to our leaders’ growth into adulthood and Nepal’s progress from poverty to prosperity. And only this will save Kathmandu from descending to darkness whenever it needs light.


December 29, 2010

(Printed as lead article in Republica of January 2, 2011)



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