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.