Curse, Myopia and Amnesia



My wife and I recently went to see the Koh-i-noor, drawn in by its curse and controversy. Brought from India and set in the crown of late Queen Elizabeth, wife of George VI, the diamond (105 carats) is the fifth biggest—the biggest is the Culinan 1 (530 carats)—in the world. The Culinan and Koh-i-noor, together with a few other world famous diamonds, are on display in the Jewel House in the Tower of London.

Two million people visit the Tower, a palace converted into a museum, every year paying a hefty fee of 20 pounds each. Many other palaces turned into museums—such as the Louvre and Versailles in France, Topkapi in Turkey, Museo Cerralbo in Spain, and Lal Kila in India, etc.—have also become huge spinners of tourist dollars. So have the remnants of lost civilizations and faiths—such as Mayan and Egyptian pyramids.

Sheetal Niwas in 1923.

Mounir Zharan, my friend and once adviser to President Hosni Mubarak, told me soon after the Tablibans destroyed the Bamian Buddhas in Afghanistan that Egypt, when it embraced Islam, almost demolished the pyramids and sphinx. But wisdom prevailed and now those historical monuments rake in millions of tourist dollars every year.

Philosopher George Santayana has said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I would add this: Preserving history and culture pays handsome dividends. Those who wage war on their history and culture lose big.

How is Nepal doing in preserving history and culture? Very poorly. Temples suffer deep neglect. Greedy predators have usurped and destroyed many pauwa pati and sattal (community centers and inns) to build private homes. Political mobs have pulled down several statues of historical and cultural significance. Only recently, even the government tried to remove some of these treasures from public places.

Specifically, when monarchy was abolished, I had hoped Narayanhiti Palace would be converted into a museum and preserved to display crowns and other regal paraphernalia. But no. Then-Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav, driven by an egotistic crave for the pyrrhic glory of having his office where the king had his, wanted a portion of it. Other ministers did not care, and the cabinet gave part of Narayanhiti Palace to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.What a terrible misuse of a valuable national treasure!

Indeed, the Ministry, housed in Sheetal Niwas, had to move out when the cabinet decided to convert the red-bricked building into the Presidential palace. Krishna Shamsher Rana had donated it to government for use as the state guest house, and Queen Elizabeth, President Rajendra Prasad, and Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Chou En-lai and others had stayed there.The section where these dignitaries had spent their Kathmandu sojourn could have been an important point of tourist attraction.

This was another blatant misuse of a national treasure. The Ministry should have gone back to Singh Durbar. Admittedly, Sheetal Niwas had already lost much of its luster when one of my successors converted the section where the foreign dignitaries had stayed into the foreign secretary’s office. The cabinet completed the misuse by designating it the Presidential palace.

The decision is wrong for two reasons. First, Sheetal Niwas has nearly 100 rooms, which the President does not need for his residence and small office. Besides, people could connect with their President more easily if he were living in modest quarters, not in a palace. Second, the decision goes against the benefactor’s wish. The most appropriate use of Sheetal Niwas would have been either as a state guesthouse, as the benefactor intended, or as a museum.

Anyway, the government converted the remainder of Narayanhiti Palace into a museum. It turned out that the last king, Gyanendra, had already done much damage by demolishing the building where King Birendra was murdered with his family in cold blood. That fateful building would have been an instant hit with visitors, curious to see where the most grotesque massacre of our time had taken place.

Why do the globetrotting Nepali elite—political, bureaucratic, business and community leaders, many of them educated abroad—wage war on history and culture even though they have seen how other countries preserve and tap them for progress? The question brings me to the Koh-i-noor’s curse and controversy. The curse: A male wearer of the diamond will meet with misfortune. So it sits in the queen’s crown. The controversy: Both India and Pakistan claim it and want it back. So Britain can keep it.

I have two theories about this war. First, in a lighter vein, the Nepali crème de la crème want to escape the alleged curse of Bhim Malla’s wife that honest persons should meet with misfortune in Nepal. So they abandon honesty, as male wearers shun the Koh-i-noor.

Second, on a more serious note, Nepal’s accomplished class are under the impact of twin diseases—myopia and selective amnesia. Myopia prevents them from seeing beyond their personal interests and instant gratification, and selective amnesia makes them forget the good things they have seen in other countries as soon as they land at Tribhuvan Airport and embrace the bad ones for life. So, they compromise integrity and sell or destroy national treasures (cultural and natural heritage) for personal power and perks, so foreigners have the reins of Nepal.

Incidentally, such myopia and selective amnesia are not unique to Nepal’s cognoscenti. The former scientist president of India, Abdul Kalam, says of Indians, “Take a person on his way to Singapore. Give him a name—YOURS. Give him a face—YOURS. YOU walk out of the airport and you are at your International best.

“In Singapore you don’t throw cigarette butts on the roads or eat in the stores. YOU are as proud of their Underground Links as they are… YOU wouldn’t dare to eat in public during Ramadan, in Dubai. YOU would not dare to go out without your head covered in Jeddah. YOU would not dare to buy an employee of the telephone exchange in London at 10 pounds (Rs. 650) a month to, ‘see to it that my STD and ISD calls are billed to someone else.

“YOU would not dare to speed beyond 55 mph (88 kph) in Washington and then tell the traffic cop, ‘Jaanta hai sala main kaun hoon (Do you know who I am?). I am so and so’s son. Take your two bucks and get lost.’ YOU wouldn’t chuck an empty coconut shell anywhere other than the garbage pail on the beaches in Australia and New Zealand. Why don’t YOU spit Paan on the streets of Tokyo? Why don’t YOU use examination jockeys or buy fake certificates in Boston?… YOU can respect and conform to a foreign system in other countries but cannot in your own.

“When it comes to burning social issues like those related to women, dowry, girl child and others, we make loud drawing room protestations and continue to do the reverse at home. Our excuse? ‘It’s the whole system which has to change, how will it matter if I alone forgo my son’s right to dowry.’ So who’s going to change the system? What does a system consist of? Very conveniently for us, it consists of our neighbours, other households, other cities, other communities and the government.”

That Indians share the same maladies is no excuse. Small countries have to live and prosper by their wits. So the Nepali elite must be honest, treat their myopia and selective amnesia, and preserve and tap cultural and natural heritage for progress. Will they do it? Maybe 2013 will inspire them. Happy New Year.

Published in Republica

Published on 2012-12-30 01:15:08

Don’t Push It


In a chilly Kathmandu morning, one of us bumped into a Nepali Congress stalwart and asked whether his party’s leader, Sushil Koirala, was going to become the next prime minister. The person expressed his doubts. About the fear that UCPN (Maoist) could capture the state, he asserted it would not happen as long as Goddess Bhadrakali is keeping watch over the country. 

Such questions and fears have become a staple in Nepal. People are deeply worried about the prolonged political uncertainty and its economic fallouts that directly affect their lives. A deeply worried President Rambaran Yadav has lost patience and given political parties a time frame, which has been extended thrice already, to resolve the current impasse which has prevented the formation of consensus government to hold elections. 

People are aghast with the Maoists in particular and political parties in general. People’s euphoria that was in evidence in 2006 has turned into despair and disgust, to such an extent that it has started to embolden the former King and his supporters. Though it could only be a mirage, the confidence of the royalists demonstrates the depth of Nepali people’s disenchantment with the Maoists and other political parties. 


The Maoists have failed to behave as a democratic party and to show political acumen to operate in a democratic system. This failure has become even more glaring since the 2008 CA polls established them as the largest party. Since, they have led two governments and served the longest at the top. As such, their responsibility was higher as compared to other parties. But they clung to the philosophy of “might is right” and “power comes from the barrel of the gun,” rather than seeking the much-needed compromises for progress. 

In a bid to remain perpetually in power, they injected the venom of ethnic politics in Nepali society. Now ethnic divisions have emerged as a significant threat to Nepal’s stability and even its existence as a sovereign nation. At a time when many other countries are struggling to emerge from ethnic crisis of their own, the Maoists have sown new seeds for ethnic conflict. As a result, their performance record is dismal. They failed to produce a new constitution, to provide security, to bring relief to victims of the insurgency, and to give a thrust to development. 

Currently, Maoist Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai is presiding over a dysfunctional government. Corruption is rampant, as nothing gets done without bribe. Law and order situation is precarious as the government has emboldened criminals by withdrawing 207 court cases against them. Drinking water taps are dry in many parts of Kathmandu. Load-shedding has gone up to 70 hours in a week, and rising. Whimsical expansion of roads without resources to rebuild them has made the capital a bowl of dust and diseases. 

The economy is in tatters. Inflation has skyrocketed, making basic items out of reach of ordinary people. Even middle income people are struggling to pay for their children’s education. Health services have become so expensive that a serious illness can ruin the entire family. Though agricultural products have become extremely expensive, farmers remain poor because middlemen are grabbing most of the profit. The government looks on, for these middlemen are their own cadres. Crony capitalism is flourishing and the gap between haves and have-nots is growing exponentially and fueling social discontent.

Ministers have made money left and right through bribes and other illegitimate means. Lucrative public positions are being auctioned off to the highest bidders. For instance, someone has been appointed as executive chairman of the Nepal Telecommunications Authority only days ago even though the chief secretary opposed the candidate because he did not meet the qualifications defined in the law. Most remarkably, many Maoists leaders, the self-proclaimed champions of the proletariat, have become fabulously rich overnight. 

Still, the ministers’ hunger for money continues to increase. Although Nepal has the second highest hydropower potential in the world, the Bhattarai government is bent on purchasing a diesel plant to pocket a huge commission, something Prachanda, when he was the prime minister, had tried but backed out due to popular opposition. They are also trying to sell the embassy building in London for a fraction of the market price. 

Appallingly, Bhattarai continues to stick to the chair even after failing to hold elections he announced for Nov 22. As the Interim Constitution has no provision for another election for the CA, political consensus is vital to remove the hurdles for the vote. But Bhattarai, rather than quitting on moral grounds, has announced another election for next April without any understanding with other political parties. 

Bhattarai has created a catch-22 situation. He has said he would quit as soon as a consensus candidate to replace him is agreed to. But neither he nor his party is willing to agree on any candidate other than himself or someone else from within the ruling coalition. This will compel President Yadav, who is the custodian of the constitution, to intervene. A verbal war has already started between the President and the prime minister. 

For his part, Maoist Chairman Prachanda has of late been at his mendacious best. He has promised premiership to about a dozen opposition leaders, though his first priority is to become prime minister himself and the second, to save Bhattarai or replace him with someone from his own party. He has tipped Mahantha Thakur for the post only recently, fully confident that other parties will not accept the proposal. 

It might look like Prachanda is doing Thakur a favor. But in reality, he is simply trying to expose Thakur and garner Madheshi support for himself. If it was not for his selfish conspiracy, Prachanda would have been the first to oppose Thakur or anyone from Madhesh for prime minister at a time when both the President and Vice-President are from Madhesh as well. But selfishness knows no reason or boundary.

The Maoists know they have done what they could to capture the state under the present circumstances. Going beyond will be impossible without President Yadav’s acquiescence, other political parties’ impotence, and neighboring countries’ support. They should also realize that they have no legitimate claim as the largest party until they become one in the next elections. Still, why are the Maoists behaving so bizarrely? 

Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi provides the clue. She says, “It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts who are subject to it.” The Maoists are afraid of going into elections just yet and they want to head the election government to use government machinery and resources to win the vote when it takes place. As the largest party in the dissolved CA, the Maoists have the most to lose if the vote goes against them. And their poor record in the CA and in government does not give them much hope. So they will stick to power as long as they can and engage in political and economic corruption. 

The Maoists have a tough road ahead. The CA failed to write a constitution on their charge, the republic proved a chaotic project, and economic and social transformation a mirage. The Maoists have only ethnic federalism to peddle in the next election. Since they know ethnic federalism is against their ideology and nearly 70 percent Nepalis do not like it, the Maoists find themselves lost in political wilderness.

All this does not mean that other political parties are free of blame or are without fear. They have contributed their fair share in the failure of the CA. They have misused and abused office, like the present parties in power, to their selfish and parochial interests when they ran the show or were part of it. And they would also like to head the election government to use government machinery and resources to their electoral advantage.

But there is no alternative to fresh elections to resolve the ongoing political crisis. Without political consensus the Interim Constitution cannot be amended and polls cannot be held. People’s patience with political parties is running out and President Yadav knows it. We hope the Maoists and other parties act before the President loses his patience.

Published on 2012-12-16 01:15:00

No Time for Squabble



What had started out as cold war has escalated into a hot war of verbal punches and counterpunches between President Ram Baran Yadav and his supporters on one side, and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and his supporters on the other. This is unfortunate. Both sides should step back from the brink and end the war to avoid a much greater disaster for the country. 

Both sides have made mistakes that led to the current situation. They must take responsibility for same and mend their ways. 

To start with, Prime Minister Bhattarai announced fresh elections for another constituent assembly without amending the Interim Constitution, which has no provision for them, just before the Constituent Assembly died on 27 May 2012. That was wrong. He could not hold the polls on 22 November as announced. As soon as the scheduled date passed without polls, he lost both the moral right and the mandate to govern, and waded into an area that is anything but moral or constitutional. 

The prime minister and his minions frivolously dragged the President over the coals with speculations that the President was going to stage a coup to dismiss the government. If they knew for sure, the prime minister should have raised the issue with the President and put an end to unnecessary speculation that pulled the President into unwarranted controversy. The prime minister failed in his responsibility to do so. 

In the Westminster system, the parliament notionally or actually elects the prime minister as its leader. The prime minister then decides the operational aspects of the parliament – when to convene, what to present and when, and when to close or dissolve. The Speaker only takes care of the procedural aspects of parliamentary business, the day-to-day administration. As the leader of parliament and government, the prime minister is primarily responsible for resolving political and constitutional crises. But Bhattarai has failed in this obligation. 

He has delegated the responsibility of negotiating with other parties and end the crises to his party chair. Delegating responsibility is not wrong, but assigning responsibility to a wrong person is. For negotiations, Bhattarai has relied on a man who enjoys zero credibility with opposition leaders and who has his own personal agenda to advance. If his negotiator fails to forge consensus with other leaders, the prime minister remains ultimately responsible for it. 

When the prime minister addressed the nation on the day the elections should have been held, people and pundits had expected that he would announce his resignation. It would have been the right thing to do for him, both morally and politically. But he touted his insignificant achievements, blamed the opposition for the political impasse, announced a new date for the vote, and made it clear that he had no intention of quitting. 

Unfortunately, none of his achievements was worth the media’s time. Management of Maoist combatants would have been a stellar achievement for a non-Maoist prime minister, but not for a Maoist prime minister, because Maoist recalcitrance was the reason that the issue was hanging fire in the first place. Heaping all the blame on opposition parties would have been fine if the prime minister had resigned on moral grounds at the end of his statement.

A leader who cannot solve the problems facing the nation forfeits his moral right to remain in his position. But what Bhattarai essentially told the people in his address was this: Folks, I proved incompetent in my job and failed to make opposition parties agree with me; but please overlook my incompetence and keep me in my job. He did not mention what he would do differently to strike agreement with other parties to make the freshly announced elections possible.

Let us assume for a moment that the President was an employer and the prime minister his employee. Why should the employer retain an employee who has failed to deliver or to outline how he is going to improve his performance in the future? The employer would be right to either fire the employee or give him one more chance to perform. He gave the employee one more chance. Some may quibble that the prime minister is not the President’s employee, but I am talking about the context and spirit, not the players. 

The President’s letter, giving the government seven days to build consensus, was that one more chance. Unfortunately, the prime minister fired back, describing the letter as unconstitutional, though he had to beat around the bush to make his point. He should rather have taken the letter in his stride and tried to forge consensus within the given time. Surprisingly, although he blamed his negotiator Prachanda, Bhattarai continues to rely on him to save the government. 

Most startlingly, the prime minister publicly pronounced that he would rather get killed than leave Baluwatar. He has been inciting his supporters to agitate. These are the most bizarre things I have ever heard from a sitting prime minister. 

Is the President’s letter unconstitutional? No, it is within the ambit of the Interim Constitution, as cited in it. 

That does not mean that the President has made no mistakes. He has. For instance, the Interim Constitution stipulates that the President work with and through the prime minister on policy matters. However, the President repeatedly bypassed the prime minister and engaged with party leaders, directly asking them to resolve the constitutional crisis. So much so that he even invited the party leaders to meet him by issuing a formal letter without inviting the prime minister. The President should not have done that, at least not formally. If Bhattarai smelled conspiracy against him in that step, he has ground to do so.

Moreover, under the Westminster system, consultations between a constitutional head of state and executive prime minister are not for public consumption. What happens between the queen of England and President of India and prime ministers of those respective countries seldom makes it to the news or public debate. However, Sheetal Niwas itself failed to appreciate and observe this decorum, and furthermore, to caution party leaders who met with the President to comply with this age-old practice. 

However gripping, the blame game will not end the constitutional crisis. Since no political consensus emerged within the given seven days, the President has extended the deadline. The prime minister and other political leaders must use this valuable time productively to find consensus. Negotiations will succeed only if each party thinks of not only what it wants but also what other parties are likely to accept. It is a time for reflection, flexibility, compromise, and relentless quest for an accord. 

Frankly, no party in Nepal occupies moral high ground. Nepali people know that their politicians are no holy saints who have renounced every worldly pleasures; they are in it for power and perquisites. Therefore, political leaders should stop blaming and demoralizing each other by using acrimonious and inflammatory rhetoric, which will only make consensus harder, for the next election. 

Elections are the inevitable solution to this constitutional crisis. Former Chief Election Commissioner Bhojraj Pokhrel has underlined, and the incumbent Election Commissioners agree with him, that they should be held constitutionally. The prime minister is mainly responsible for building consensus and amending the Interim Constitution to hold the polls he has unilaterally announced for April next year. 

If the prime minister fails to rise to that challenge within the timeframe given by the President, he must quit. Otherwise, the President, as custodian of the constitution, must step in to restore constitutionality under Plan A or Plan B. He does not have to share his Plan B now, as some leaders and pundits have demanded. Already a laggard, Nepal has no time to waste on endless political squabbles.

Published in Republica

Published on 2012-12-02 01:15:03