Murari Sharma: Shiva Sharma’s Satu and Nepali Politics

As a child, I had read a story about Shiva Sharma who begged for a living. One day, a generous benefactor gave him a sizeable quantity of satu (roasted corn flour) in alms. Shiva Sharma came home and put the sac of satu at the foot-side of his Spartan bed. He lay down in his bed and began to think how he could sell part of the flour, make some money, invest in a farm, get rich, get married, have children and punish his children if they did not behave. When he motioned his leg how he was going to kick his misbehaving children, his leg hit the bag, and the satu was spilled on the dirty floor aborting his dream. Next day, he went to beg again.

In November 2013, Nepalese political leaders handed voters big pouches of satu full of empty dreams: A new constitution within a year, higher investment, higher growth, better education and health services, more jobs, higher income, more energy, more drinking and irrigating water, more roads. The voters have put the bag of flour near their bed and rewarded those with their votes who sounded more credible and who were not directly responsible for throwing their old sac to the floor last time. As you note, there is a slight variation in the Shiva Sharma story: Here the leaders, not the voters, kick the bag to the floor.

Nearly three months after the election, Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress has been elected prime minister by the Constituent Assembly. He has not been able to put together his cabinet because he would not cede the Home Ministry to his main coalition partner, the CPN (UML), and the UML would not join the NC-led government without the Home portfolio. Nepal’s case is not as bad as of Lebanon which took 11 months to form government, but that is small solace.

The NC has argued that when it supported Madhav Nepal of the UML, which was smaller than it, for prime minister, and given both the Home and Finance ministries to his party; therefore, the UML should reciprocate this time. That is logical. So is the UML argument that since both the president and the prime minister are from the NC, it should have the Home affairs.

The 7-point agreement between the NC and the CPN (UML), the largest and second largest in the CA II, to form coalition government, write the constitution within a year, and serve the public interest is in tatters before the ink has even dried. It now looks increasingly likely that political leaders will kick the sac of satu to the floor, as in the past, while they enrich themselves.

Most of the 601 members in the CA I got richer and more powerful. They pocketed the monthly salary, meeting allowance, housing allowance and other benefits as well as took foreign trips. Meanwhile, the voters suffered waiting for their leaders’ promise come true. Indeed, the Nepalese are more democratic and prosperous now than ever before. But if you put it in perspective, the picture changes completely.

For one thing, most of these improvements have become possible from the remittances the Nepali nationals send by selling their sweat and blood in alien lands, mostly working in appalling conditions. Second, all those countries that started the journey of development with Nepal – like South Korea and Singapore – have gone far ahead. Even Bhutan and Maldives that came along much later have superseded Nepal.

So there is no room for consolation. If the Nepali people have to be grateful to their leaders, it is only for issuing passports and for not preventing the youth from leaving the country for foreign employment.

Today, nearly three million Nepalese work in the Gulf, Malaysia and elsewhere, many of them in dangerously inhospitable weather of 50 C and awful conditions. The British newspaper Guardian reported that 400 Nepali laborers constructing the World Cup Stadium in Qatar died due to heat, exhaustion and poor health and safety conditions. The situation is similar across the Middle East. These workers send money home so their families can eat well, get medical treatment, send children to school, and support the national economy.

Sure, economic development takes time even if leaders do their best, which they have not. But they have not delivered what they could in the short-run, either. No new constitution in five years, though they promised it in 2008 within two years. No justice for the victims of the Maoist insurgency. No better education and healthcare. No local elections. No drinking water and electricity. In 2013, our leaders kicked down the old sac and handed us a new bag with tons of promises, the new constitution within a year, growth, jobs, drinking water, energy, etc. once again.

The Nepali people are tired of the shenanigans of petty minded and self-centered politicians. They want what their leaders have promised. They don’t understand why their leaders are wasting so much political capital for an extremely limited objective of bagging one ministry, however strategic it may be.

Both the NC and UML will do well by meeting half way for the country’s greater good. They will be rewarded handsomely for this in the next election. If they cannot trust each other with the Home Ministry in view of the expected local elections, then the ministry could be given to a small party in the coalition that poses no threat to either. Either way, the Home Ministry should not stand between the Nepali people and the stable government and new constitution.

The coalition of the NC and UML has had the potential to offer both. Together, they enjoy near two-thirds majority in the CA II for providing stable government and for approving the new constitution. They are also close on contentious issues like the number and nature of federal provinces as well as the form of government, which had prevented the CA I from writing the new constitution.

There is also a meeting of minds on federalism, as both want a small number of economically viable multi-identity provinces. The NC wants powerful prime minister and titular president, whereas the UML wants to divide executive powers between a popularly elected president a house elected prime minister, a la France. This is a small difference that could be easily reconciled.

The NC and UML have a critical choice to make now. If they want to emulate the UCPN (Maoist) in arrogance and irresponsibility in CA I, they should continue fighting over trivial matters and kick Shiva Sharma’s sac of satu to the floor. If they want to remain competitive in the next election, they should compromise and work together to deliver the new constitution and good government.

As such, the NC being the largest in the CA II has more responsibility to find modus vivendi with the UML and other parties. And the UML claiming almost equal strength should behave equally responsibly as well.

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