Murari Sharma: Perils to Oli’s dreams

Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli has stirred a mighty maelstrom by publicly sharing his daydreams that have drawn admiration and jeer in equal measures. Nietzsche has rightly said, ‘Not only the wisdom of centuries—also their madness breaks out in us.’

If you missed it, Oli’s several tall promises include these: He would buy a ship, replace river cross through ropes with suspension bridges and open the Kimathanka-Khandbari road in two years, have a railway link built between Nepal and China, and build the fast-track road and international airport with internal resources.

His supporters have profusely admired him for his enlightened vision. His opponents and political pundits have pilloried and jeered him for his romantic fantasies in view of the history of broken political promises. Undoubtedly, all of these projects are doable; however, they cannot be done within the time frame suggested by him, without serious prioritization, and without political stability.

Let us start with the ship. Buying or leasing a ship is neither impossible, nor a ridiculous idea. Several landlocked countries like Nepal maintain a fleet of commercial vessels. Some of them – such as Mongolia and Laos – are poor like us. Besides, Nepal had almost bought a ship – Narendralaxmi – decades ago. I had also applied for one of the vacancies announced by the shipping corporation that was supposed to manage the vessel.

Second, Nepal needs to build about 2,000 short and long span suspension bridges to phase out some 2,000 tuins.  According to one estimate, it costs 2.6 million rupees for the short span and 13 million for the long span each. In other words, an average suspension bridge costs 7.8 million rupees and 2,000 bridges 15.6 billion. To allocate this amount over two years is not beyond the capacity of Nepal, whose annual budget in 2016/17 is 1048.9 billion rupees.

Third, the 340 KM road linking Kimathanka at the Chinese border with Biratnagar is not impossible to realize in two years. Of the road, 225 KM-long tracks up to Num in Sankhuwasabha have been already opened. That leaves 115 KM track to be opened, and it can be done, though upgrading it for regular vehicular traffic may take much longer than two years.

Fourth, Prime Minister Oli has not specified any timeframe for the completion of the Kathmandu-Terai fast track and the second international airport. The fast track, once already opened with internal resources, requires upgrading to make it functional, and preliminary work on the airport could as well start quickly, though completion may take a long time.

But these projects would not be feasible without serious prioritization in resource allocation and without a drive for execution. First, helping the people affected by the 2015 earthquakes and restoring the destroyed infrastructure should obtain primacy over new projects. Second, the residual resources should be allocated to these priority projects, while reducing allotment somewhere else. But the 2016/17 budget does not inspire much confidence. The populist budget has created several new entitlements and sprinkled resources so thin to produce any concrete results in any sector. Certainly, there is an insipid dissonance between Oli’s words and action.

What is more, Oli can nudge his priority projects only if his government survives the endless political vagaries of Nepal. He heads a coalition government, which almost collapsed last month. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, leader of the UCPN (Maoist), the main coalition partner had almost pulled the rug from under Oli’s feet, at the suggestion of Sher Bahadur Deuba, leader of the Nepali Congress, the largest party in the Constituent Assembly. Deuba, after returning from a trip to India, had promised his support for Dahal if he were to pull down the Oli administration and form a new government under his leadership.

The 9-point agreement between Oli and Dahal, and allegedly a friendly help from China, saved the government. But the threat has not gone away. The threat comes from multiple sources. First, his own party colleagues who are unhappy with his style want to see his back. Second, Dahal is already restless to occupy Baluwatar. He has recently said that he would be prime minister soon after the new budget is presented. Third, Deuba would leave no stone unturned to topple Oli and become prime minister himself.

Fourth, India, which had opposed Oli’s election as premier, will use every arrow in its quiver to pull him down. Allegedly, India had advised Deuba to break the ruling coalition by offering to support Dahal for prime minister. Also allegedly, India has supported Madheshi parties to create mayhem in Nepal to destabilize the Oli government.

These parties have been protesting since September last year asking the government to address their demands in the new constitution. The amendment of the statute did not satisfy them allegedly at the behest of India. Recently, these parties have disregarded Oli’s repeated letters inviting them for renewed dialogue. The nature of some of their demands is such that Lee Kwan Yew had labeled as “obscurantist” for his country in 1965.

Lee had said, you do not uplift the poor and disadvantaged by lifting up a handful by giving them special rights. “If we delude people into believing that they are poor because there are no Malay rights or because opposition members oppose Malay rights, where are we going to end up?.. They, the Malay, have the right as Malaysian citizens to go up to the level of education and training that the more competitive societies, the non-Malay society, has produced. That is what must be done, is not it? Not to feed them with this obscurantist doctrine that all they have to do is get Malay rights for a few Malays and their problem has been resolved …”

If Malaysians had listened to him in 1965, the united Malaysia would perhaps have been a much more prosperous country. But they did not. Today, Singapore is richer than most advanced countries in the West, whereas Malaysia is much poorer. Anyway, the Madheshi non-cooperation remain an obstacle for Oli.

Despite knowing all these obstacles, why is Oli sharing his dreams publicly? Some have suggested that the testosterone-boosting drugs he is taking to treat his kidney problem might have given him a high, an impractical sense of optimism. Some have argued that he is distributing his dreams to make room for him in history in view of his own physical fragilities. Others have said he is seeking to improve the chances of his party in the upcoming elections, which are around two years down the road.

Anyway, in view of all this, Madhav Nepal, Oli’s rival and colleague in his party the CPN (UML), has rightly counseled Oli that he should restrain himself from sharing his dreams so publicly. That is how we have struck and should strike a balance between the wisdom and madness acquired over centuries.



The sword of Democles

Murari Sharma

Nepal’s leaders have excelled in one thing: Shamelessly changing government every few days and months. They were at work recently to bring down KP Oli’s government because it has been in power for too long — six months.  Well, the government has survived this time, but the menacing sword of Damocles may fall over its neck anytime.

If you have not paid attention, Nepal has had 24 governments in last 25 years, the longest one serving for three years. No other country in the world can outdo Nepal in claiming the dubious distinction of having so many changes in government in comparable time.

This time, Sher Bahadur Deuba, the leader of the Nepali Congress Party, had driven a wedge in the coalition by offering the Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal his support to become prime minister. A hastily drawn agreement between the CPN (UML) and the Maoists and a Chinese nudge saved the government.

However, the agreement is patently unsustainable. First, most provisions in the accord are impossible to implement in the agreed timeframe. Second, some provisions, such as providing immunity to the Maoists who have committed grave war crimes, will invite legal challenge and opposition from the national and international human rights community.

In other words, the Maoists will rebel again, and this agreement is will implode. There is no room for Pollyanna here.

Besides, the internal and external opponents of Prime Minister Oli will do everything to break the left coalition. Within the country, Oli faces opposition from his own party colleagues who aspire to replace him, such as Madhav Nepal. Sher Bahadur Deuba, eager to become prime minister, will endeavor again to pull down the incumbent government.

From outside, India will leave no stone unturned to topple Prime Minister Oli. It had openly used its influence to prevent Oli from becoming prime minister and to retain Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress in the first place. It colluded with Deuba to bring the Oli government down in the recent episode.

India is furious with Oli for three reasons. First, Oli pressed ahead with the promulgation of the new constitution on 20 September 2015 against India’s advice to the contrary. Second, he was severely critical of the undeclared 5-month-long economic blockade imposed by India to punish Nepal for its defiance. Third, after becoming prime minister, Oli signed new trade and transit treaties with China to reduce Nepal’s economic dependence on India.

India’s concerns have been further heightened by the revelation that the Oli government was saved this time by a nudge from China. India will not tolerate Nepal inviting greater Chinese influence in Kathmandu.

If the recent indications are any guide, India will go to any extent to pull the Oli government down. For instance, Nishikant Dube, a prominent member of parliament from the ruling party of India, has said in a parliamentary debate that Nepal has been threatening India by siding with China; therefore, India should punish Nepal and build a wall around on the common border, just like in its border with Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Similarly, in a blatantly undiplomatic step, the deputy chief of the Indian Embassy in Nepal, Binaya Kumar, has incited Madheshi leaders in a meeting at Rajbiraj to carry out Kathmandu-centered protests until their demands are met. India is now using the Madheshi parties for some time to destabilize Nepal.

If necessary, it will enlist the support of monarchist and even impose an economic blockade to throw Oli out. Therefore, the days of the Oli government could be numbered.

To be sure,  the government may last to the end of this parliament against all these odds. The mercurial Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal may decide to save the current coalition for political stability. The restless Nepali Congress Party may desist from propping up the Maoists once again after it has burnt its fingers this time. Similarly, the enraged India may take a pause and try to inveigle Oli to stop moving towards China.

Nonetheless, history suggests that such temperance will be in short supply. Nepali politicians that have been synonymous with dirty politics will not suddenly begin to follow the almost heretical path of principles. Their goal is power at any cost, never stability and progress of the country.

Political stability is absolutely essential for Nepal. The government needs to urgently help the victims of the 2015 earthquakes to build their houses and to rebuild the damaged infrastructure. It must pull the economy up that is on its knees due to the  5-month long Indian economic blockade. It ought to spur development activities hampered by the quake and the economic embargo, which have jointly contributed to decline of growth rate to 0.7 percent and a net reduction in per capita income first time in many years.

However, if experience is any guide, political leaders will not desist from destabilizing the government at the first available chance and India will not relent until it has its way in Kathmandu. Therefore, the sword of Damocles continues to hang over the Oli government’s head, leaving little room for it to keep its prolific promises made in its policy paper presented to the parliament recently.

Brexit: Cameron’s risky game

Murari Sharma

Brexiters are desperate. They are angry at everything and everyone that suggests that the British people should vote to remain in the European Union in the 23 June 2016 referendum. The recent victim of their desperation and ire has been no less a personage than the US President Barrack Obama himself.

President Obama was in London recently to wish the Queen her happy 90th birthday and help Prime Minister David Cameron win the referendum in which the British people will vote whether they want to remain in the EU or leave.

The Leave campaigners have sought to create a bubble that Britain outside the EU will be a prosperous paradise at the center of the universe, free from pesky European countries. But Obama punctured their bubble by announcing that Britain outside the EU will be less powerful, less secure, and less prosperous, and it will have to wait for five to 10 years to sign a trade agreement with the United States. That was shattering for the Leave campaign.

Boris Johnson, the leader of the Leave campaign and mayor of London, was so angry that he descended into an ad hominem. He said President Obama had anti-colonial mindset obtained from his Kenyan father. Although the reference was made to the removal of British Prime Minister Churchill’s from the Oval Office, the mayor was angry because of his intervention on behalf of the Remain campaign.

The anger has been on the rise, especially after the latest opinion polls have given a slight edge to the Remain campaign over the Leave campaign. In the latest Opinium/Observer polls, 42% opted to stay and 41% to leave. Before that, the Leave side was slightly ahead in a highly divided Britain. Such division also exists in the government. Prime Minister David Cameron, the chancellor, and the majority of cabinet members are campaigning to stay, whereas six ministers have been openly propping up the opposite camp.

Cameron is to blame for creating this crisis of choice, a risky game to keep his warring flocks together, which may destroy him. When a small, nationalist UK Independence Party, led by a flamboyant former banker Nigel Farage, cut into his party’s electoral territories, Cameron pushed the panic button of a referendum. The UKIP and a large segment of conservatives have never been able to digest the EU membership.

After promising the referendum, Cameron sought concessions from Brussels on issues of sovereignty, migration and welfare benefits, economic governance, and competitiveness. Other members of the EU have taken the demand as a sort of blackmail. While they have conceded some ground in paper, it is difficult at this stage to ascertain how many of the paper concessions will translate into reality, for all other 27 countries have to agree to any deal.

Among the concessions, two are notable. One, Britain would never be forced to join the euro. Two, it could trigger an emergency button if the migration from Europe and consequent burden on the welfare budget turned out to be unsustainable. For the Euro-skeptics, who want to have nothing to do with the EU, it was too little.

Although they have cited several reasons to justify Britain leaving the group, the Leave campaigners are propelled by political and emotional desire to free the country from Brussels’s shackles in all aspects. If the British people want to retain more control over sovereignty, no one can quarrel about that.

However, it will come at a huge price to the British economy and the British standing in the world. Britain will lose the free access to the European market. British products will be more expensive in Europe and British exports will suffer. Similarly, British consumers will have to pay much higher prices for product and services. Reduced competition will drive up the price.

Especially, the cost of construction, plumbing, electrification, etc. could increase three times if skilled people from the poorer members of the EU cannot come and work in Britain. For instance, I had to get my cabinet pulled out and fixed again by moving it a bit. A British proper carpenter demanded £120 for it, while an Eastern European did the job for £50.

What is more, Britain will not be free from EU regulations if it wants to enjoy free access to the continental market. That would mean all obligations and contributions, but without the seat at the table just like Norway and Switzerland. That is worse than the present situation.

Besides, Britain might get as good a deal as either Switzerland or Norway if the EU wants to send a strong signal to other prospective members that leaving the group is unconscionably damaging.

Britain will also lose its standing in the world. Britain with the EU backing would be perceived as much stronger power than Britain in isolation. The United States, with which Britain has special relations, will rather work closely with 27 European countries than with London. Ditto for other countries.

While such losses would be clear and deep, there will be no tangible benefits of leaving the EU. Controlling the border better has been the strong refrain of the Leave group. However, the migrants who want to come to Britain and are now alighting in Greece and Italy will head straight to Dover and Folkestone in their precarious boats. Calais will move to Kent.

If European migrants would have more difficulty in coming to the UK, then the UK citizens will have a difficult time to live and work in Europe. No palpable advantage here either.

At any rate, if the Remain side loses the referendum, its cheerleader, David Cameron, will lose his post. Forget the assurances from the likes of Johnson that the prime minister may continue regardless of the result. Kenneth Clarke has said it clearly that Cameron will not last. Johnson etching to become prime minister will immediately pounce on Cameron.

If the British people vote with their heart, Britain will be out of the EU on the 24 June, though it will have two years to make the transition. If the British vote with their brain, the country will become a stronger member of the EU on 24 June.

Thank god, Obama would not be president for long to put Johnson in an awkward position if he is elevated to the Tory leadership.