Where will Nepal go?

Murari Sharma

Confucius says only the wisest and stupidest men never change. Since we all pretend to be one of the wisest, we want others to change. So change becomes difficult.

Leading change is even more problematic. Mahatma Gandhi says, be the change that you want to see in the world. But do we want the inconvenience that change entails in us? Niccolo Machiavelli is right in saying, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

Institutionalizing change is the most challenging of all. It calls for accepting and internalizing new rules, values and institutions and submitting to them. It is difficult everywhere, because everyone wants to do it their way.

For instance, in Britain, Churchill could not accept that India could rule itself. He said, “Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters. All Indian leaders will be of low caliber and men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles.”

Only recently, the proposal to change the voting system for fairer representation, called the alternative voting system, failed.

In the United States, slave owners in the south went into civil war with the north to prevent the freedom of their human chattels. Republican lawmakers in the House of Representative have voted desperately to repeal the Affordable Care Act, alias Obamacare, which partially socialized healthcare, more than 50 times.

In Nepal’s neighborhood, India is still nostalgic about the old Bharatbarsh and China about the old Middle Kingdom when they ruled much of Asia. It is not the geography, it is the people who are nostalgic. No wonder, institutionalizing political change has proved incredibly onerous for the leaders of Nepal.

We had that problem in 1990. The party-less Panchayat system was removed and democracy was restored. Panchayat leaders were sidelined and democratic leaders occupied the central ground. But the new leaders soon proved to be somewhat refined Panchayati leaders in their attitude and behavior.

The problem of institutionalizing change became even more serious after 2006. When the monarchy was first suspended in 2006 and abolished in 2008, political leaders simply transformed themselves into new royalties in their attitude and behavior, only by far worse. Take for example, health tourism and perks.

The royal family obtained treatment for common diseases in Nepal, occasionally went to India for complicated cases and flew seldom to the advanced countries for medical care. Now our democratic leaders travel to wealthy countries at government expense even for minor checkups and minor ailments like gastritis. You know who I am talking about.

During the Panchayat days, only the king and his immediate relatives operated over the law and enjoyed perks from the state — allowances, security compliment, vehicles, fuel, secretariat, maintenance expenses, etc. Now every political leader of some stature has secured these elaborate and generous perks.

Marx says, human quest for progress is constant. That includes better healthcare, perks and opportunities. Therefore, our political leaders are making hay when the sun is shining. But this is what sets them apart from statesmen. Statesmen like Washington, Gandhi, Mandela, Lee, etc. made personal sacrifices for the benefits of their countries, rather than making the hay for themselves.

Although Nepali leaders might be blamed for their own self-centric behavior, we the voters should also partake of some of this phenomenon. We complain about the same leaders all the time but elect them again and again. We can make and break leaders if we looked beyond family, tribal, ideological loyalty in the polling booth and can change the political landscape. That is the beauty of democracy.

We witnessed that in the second election for the Constituent Assembly itself. In the first CA, the Maoists were the largest party and the Madheshis as the fourth force. But the voters did not like their goal and methods. So in the following polls, they reduced the former to the distant third place and voted many Madheshi leaders out.

Consequently, constitution writing is inching closer to the finish line. But significant obstacles remain, mainly related to the number and the demarcation of states.

The number is significant. The more states means higher administrative expenses, higher taxes on the public, lower resources for investment in developmental activities and slower growth. A prudent tradeoff is required between each ethnic group having its own state and ability to deliver growth through increased investment in development.

The Maoists have realized the resources imperative now and came down from their 14 states to six or seven states now, as proposed by the Nepali Congress and UML. But the Madheshi leaders, according to Lalbabu Yadav, the professor of Tribhuvan University, are confused. They first wanted one state for the entire terai, but the plain districts with Tharu and hill people’s majority wanted to be no part of such a state.

Now it is not clear what the Madheshi leaders, other than Bijaya Gachhedar, are demanding and protesting for. Gachhedar, who endorsed the six-state model with two states in the Terai, now wants one more state there. But the problem is the majority in Jhapa, Morang, Kailali and Kanchanpur, which will be affected, do not accept his proposal.

Other Madheshi leaders’ demands, as Professor Yadav claims, are hard to discern. Before the six-state model was floated, they wanted no hill district to be part of Madheshi states. Now that they have won a Madheshi districts-only state in the eastern plains, they want some hill districts to be included in it. But the people of these hill district vehemently oppose this idea.

Protests mainly in the hill districts and partly in the Madheshi districts sank the six-state model, paving the way for the seven-state model, which pacified the agitating districts. However, Gachhedar has stood against this latter model and walked away from the four-party framework that had agreed on the six-state model.

Madheshi leaders have been fomenting unrest in the plains. Since people did not respond to their call for agitation, they have announced 5.0 million compensation from the would-be Madheshi state if someone died in protests, to lure the young people into violence. Three things are notable about this cynical announcement.

First, the leaders who made the call would not send their own children to protest in the hope of receiving 5 million rupees. Would they? Second, this announcement is unlawful incitement to terrorism. In a  developed democratic country, these leaders would have been hauled to jail right away. Third, western democracies do not compensate for the death of protesters unless the court finds the state responsible for using excessive and unwarranted force.

But in Nepal, everything goes.

Where will Nepal go now? Hard to predict. If the protests continue and violence spreads, there will likely be no new constitution; the country will face civil war and even potential disintegration.

I hope this is not the direction Nepal will travel in the days ahead. But the situation in the country makes one thing absolutely clear: Our leaders are failing in leading and institutionalizing change. Only time will tell who earns the most blame.


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