Murari Sharma: This is what Chanakya would have said

Are you happy with the progress happening in Nepal? Most probably, you are not. I am not happy either. My unhappiness, like yours, is related to the lethargy, instability, lack of direction, corruption, etc. that we witness day in day out in the government. Yet, the country has been moving on spontaneously, with or without government intervention. It would be good if the new government becomes a positive force change. 

The country is on the cusp of having a new government. General elections for the federal and seven provincial legislatures have just been finished, and the left coalition of the CPN (UML) and CPN (Maoist Center) has won shy of a two-thirds majority in the federal parliament and comfortable majority in six out of seven states. Though differences remain among political parties regarding the election of the upper federal chamber, it will be sorted out one way or another. Therefore, it is time to focus on the future.

Already, the contours of the future have been spelled out in the victors’ election manifestos. For the future, the contours have already been drawn. The alliance members have promised heaven in their election manifestos. If the left coalition delivers only on half of its pledges, Nepal will have a successful economic take-off in the next five years. 

As many elements for the take-off are already there, the country is waiting for a big push to launch it. When I was growing up, I had to walk for three days to reach Dharan, the nearest motor head for my village in Bhojpur. My village had no piped water and electricity. My town, Dingla, had no college. Traveling and working abroad was a big deal. Going to the Terai involved the risk of malaria.

Now, those things have changed. You can travel to Dingla by sports utility vehicles (jeep), at least during the dry season. My village has electricity and piped water and my hometown has a college. Malaria has been eradicated in the plains. Now almost every house in my village has someone working or studying overseas.

On the national level, poverty has declined significantly and standards of living have improved. The people living below the poverty line was 41. 5 percent in 1984/85, 49 percent in 1991/92, and 25 percent in 2015. Income, education, and health services have improved, pushing the longevity to 69 years average (WHO, 2015).

Yet, there is wide dissatisfaction among my friends and compatriots about the country’s performance, especially in the post-1990 period. The country has been waiting for the big push for quite some time, but governments one after another have failed to deliver it. While the failure has been apparent in myriad areas of national life, it is nowhere as pronounced as in enduring political instability, rampant corruption, and anemic economic growth. 

In the post-1990 period, Nepal has suffered political instability as never before. Sure, you cannot and should not expect the panchayat era political stability because democracy is a managed chaos. Every few years, you have elections to change the government, but Nepal’s has been chaotic chaos, not organized chaos. 

No majority government has run its full 5-year course. The majority government of the Nepali Congress collapsed due to the factional fights during the first and the third parliament. The second parliament, as well as the first and second constituent assembly, were hung houses with the attendant frequent changes in government. In addition, we had the decade-long bloody insurgency launched by the Maoists in 1996 and the abolition of the monarchy in 2008, both of which rocked the country to its core. No wonder why from 1990 to date, we have had 24 prime ministers, excluding the cabinets presided over by King Gyanendra twice, and 10 from 2006 alone. 

Such political instability has promoted and nurtured a culture of rampant corruption. Corruption had been around during the panchayat era as well, but it had been limited. Only the royal family could engage in corruption without fear. Now it has been institutionalized and accepted as never before. The institutionalization of corruption is so deep that political bosses have been openly auctioning off public posts and contracts to the highest bidders. They have been appointing people, as ministers and members of anti-corruption bodies, who have been publicly known as corrupt. 

Now corruption has evolved as a badge of honor and basis for state reward. Pushpa Kamal Dahal has become prime minister twice despite touting his own corruption publicly in his 2002 video. Khum Bahadur Khadka and Jay Prakash Gupta received hero’s welcome when they were released from jail at the end of their sentence for corruption. 

As a result, Nepal’s best corruption perception index score has been 90 in 2004 and the worst 154 in 2011, while the rest of the years have been around 125. This is shameful.

Both the political instability and the rampant corruption have cursed economic growth. No prime minister has had long enough time to see his vision implemented for five years. Consequently, the growth rate has suffered over time as well as in relation to other countries. According to the CEIC (a Euromoney Institutional Investor Company), from 1965 to 2016, Nepal’s growth has crossed 7.5 percent thrice, twice before 1990 and only once in the post-1990 period, which does not speak well of the success of democratic governments to deliver economic growth. 

Similarly, Nepal’s economic growth has been lackluster in relation to other countries as well in the post-1990 period. China grew by double digits until it has decelerated in the last few years. India grew close to double digits in the same period. Bangladesh, the sick man of South Asia, has grown by around 7 percent a year in the post-1990 period overall and at around 13.7 percent on average in the 2007-17 period. Bhutan has done much better than us as well.

Despite these ailments in the public sector, people have been taking private initiatives to push the country forward when the government has not worked as an obstruction. For instance, after the government relaxed restrictions on passports and foreign exchange, people have been going abroad for employment and studies, sending back remittances, and bringing back skills, which have contributed to Nepal’s growth.

The remittances have mitigated poverty and kept its balance of payment favorable. The skills have contributed to employment and productivity and unlocked entrepreneurship. Private schools, colleges, clinics, and hospitals have cropped across the country. Growing cash crops has come into vogue. Building local feeder roads have become an obsession, and most people have access to mobile phones, and most towns have Internet connections.

In other words, things are happening in Nepal, though the contribution to them from the government is minimal. Everyone in my village now wears shoes and flip-flops, travels by road, and send their children to school. Of course, the condition should have been much better. I only hope the next government, elected under the new constitution, will be a positive force for political stability and economic growth and an impediment to corruption. 

We, ordinary people, should continue expressing our dissatisfaction, so the king (ruler) would, as Chanakya has said, lose no time when the opportunity waited for arrives. The left alliance should seize the opportunity.

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Murari Sharma: What next?

Elections are meant to give one victory and the other defeat. But sometimes, victory and defeat get into your head, and you end up destroying yourself immediately or in the near future. The victor needs to heed the Hindu precept: A wise person should not be arrogant in victory and diffident in defeat.

In the just-held general elections, this is what Nepal needs in the victory of the left alliance and the defeat of the democratic alliance.

The general election is over. Though the votes still being counted, people have already spoken and the picture has become clear.  The left alliance, mainly of the CPN (UML) and the CPN (Maoist Center), is on the way to a comfortable majority in the parliament and in six provinces out of seven.

Elections are won or lost based on several tangible and intangible things. They include ideology, the performance of the outgoing government, the length of the outgoing party in power, external factors such as war, foreign relations and strength of the opponent and internal factors such as the message and unity of a political party.

Krishna Adhikari,  a Nepali Congress Party supporter and my nephew, has rightly identified reasons why the NCP slid from the first position in the last general election to the third position in the general election whose vote counting is still going on. Because the list is already exhaustive, I do not think anything else needs to be added to it. But it would be illustrative to set it in context and highlight some of the reasons.

Adhikari says the NCP has lost the election not only because the CPN (UML) formed an electoral alliance with the Maoists but also because of 10 other reasons, as follows:

  1. False allegation against the retired Chief Justice Sushila Karki
  2. Injustice meted out to DIG Navaraj Silwal
  3. Higher priority to the panel over the party
  4. Zero organizational work
  5. Zero ideological education
  6. Growing crowd of opportunists, venal and disloyal party activists
  7. Prevalence of thug culture in the party and inertia of committed workers
  8. Lack of interest among the party leaders to understand people’s aspirations
  9. Failure to reach long-term and populist programs to people
  10. Incompetent, ignorant and arrogant leadership

All these points are valid. The only three other things I wish to add and explain are as follows:

  1. The jumbo cabinet as the symbol of misuse and corruption
  2. Lack of vision in the NCP leadership
  3. Inability to speak out when India imposed an economic blockade causing hardships for people.

However, it would be incorrect to say that the left alliance won the election only due to the NCP’s weaknesses. The UML has been the best-organized party at the grassroots, and its alliance with the Maoist Center gave it added strength.  But what helped the left alliance foremost were KP Oli’s vision and his standing up to India.

You need a dream and the determination to realize it and go beyond.  When he was prime minister for nearly a year at the head of the CPN (UML) and the CPN (Maoist Center), Oli had shared his vision: Road and rail network with China, use of Chinese ports for transit, tuin-free Nepal in two years, piped gas in every kitchen, and a ship Nepal can call its own.

Oli’s opponents and political pundits associated with them had ridiculed Oli. They had gone to the extent of labeling him as insane, who should be taken to Ranchi mental sanatorium. Even some of his party colleagues had thought he had lost his marbles.  But I had defended Oli in these pages at that time. I had written then that what he said were within the realm of possibility for Nepal.

For instance, the ship. I had applied for a job when Nepal had leased a ship and named it Narendra Laxmi when I was looking for a job as a young man.  If Oli promised to have another Narendra Laxmi after 40 years of the first Narendra Laxmi, how was it insanity? It was lack of vision of his opponents and political pundits associated with them.

Increased connectivity with China is feasible and should be promoted. A Chinese technical team has already visited Nepal and found the increased road and rail links possible. They will increase trade and economic cooperation between the two countries. They could at least be insurance against any obstruction of supplies from the south. If the cost is comparative to and from the Indian ports, such links will make Chinese ports viable as transit points for Nepal as well.

The piped gas to every kitchen is expensive and time-consuming but not impossible. In the UK kitchens, the gas comes from Russia and Ukraine through pipes. For the cost conscious people, pipe-delivered gas is much cheaper than the bullet-delivered in the long run.  If Oli can control only a small portion of leakage from the public coffers, he will have more resources than he needs to make Nepal tuin-free in the next 3 to 5 years, if not in two years.

But the NCP leadership forgot what Poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota has written: You must have the goal of touching the moon. It forgot how John F Kennedy dreamed in 1961 of sending a man to the moon and in 1969, the United States landed a man there. When Kennedy said it, it had sounded as incredible and insane as KP Oli’s dreams.  

Indeed, Oli might have taken an insane risk by calling the Indian economic blockade of 2015-16 as such. India, the hegemon in South Asia, is a decisive influence in Nepal due Indian dominance of Nepal’s economic, cultural and political factors. While the pussy-footed NCP leaders blamed a few Madheshi activists for it to remain in the good books of New Delhi, Oli called a spade a spade.

I am not suggesting that we should have adversarial relations with India. We need close, friendly and cooperative relations with the rest of the world, especially with our immediate neighbors. But such relations should be based on mutual respect. But the Nepali people elect their leaders to serve them and their national interest, not someone else’s.

This time, the Nepali people have rewarded Oli with a victory considering his dream and his guts to stand up to India on their behalf. Now the ball is in Oli’s court.  Now he needs to do two things: One, remember what Poet Lekha Nath Paudel has said: The tree that bears fruit is always bent. He must show humility and magnanimity in victory because he needs cooperation from other parties to realize his dream.

Two, he must avoid corrupt transactional politics and continue with his transformational politics, which he had started with his patience and push to promulgate the new constitution in 2015, defying the pressure from different quarters.  It will do him and the Nepali people good.  The Nepali people will see some progress and Oli and his party will not be pulverized in five years, as the NCP has been this time.

By the way, this is not an application to Oli for a job. I am beyond that stage. I will be pleased if Oli keeps the promises he has made to the people before this general election.

 

 

 

Murari Sharma: This General Election will have Lasting Impact

Nepal has held the general election in several districts on 26 November and will have it in the rest of the country on 7 December 2017.  While one would like to believe all general elections are equally important for a country, that is not always the case. Like this one.

Because of its timing, political alignments, and potential for reshaping politics for the years to come, this general election is one of the most significant ones for Nepal in its democratic history.

This general election is taking place at a critical time in the country’s history. This is the first election for the normal parliament after the country went republic in 2008. Both the 2008 and 2013 elections were for the constituent assembly to write a new constitution, not for a normal parliament.

Therefore, this election, being held under the new constitution for the first time, marks the end the political transition started in 2006 and beginning of a new political era. This election heralds the end of a unitary state and the beginning of a federal country for the first time.

In this election, we have seen the kind of political alignment that we had never witnessed in the country. The main left-parties, the CPN (UML) and CPN (Maoist Center), have formed a coalition and indicated that it could lead to their merger after the general elections. Similarly, the Nepali Congress Party has aligned itself with the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party and to some extent with the Rashtriya Janata Party.

To remain relevant, smaller independent parties have formed their own coalition. They need to meet the minimum threshold — at least one directly elected member of parliament and 3 percent votes — to appoint members from the proportional representation category. Out of 275 seats, 110 will come from proportional representation.

This election will possibly shape Nepal’s future political course. First, the emerging political alliances indicate that they could evolve into two grand coalitions or two loosely organized political parties, leading a two-party state, like in Britain and the United States. It will inject some degree of stability in the political arena, which has been highly unstable and volatile most of the time since 1990, especially after 2006.

Second, the federal structure will make or break the country. If the political leaders make necessary compromises and accommodation to hold the country together, the country will follow the footsteps of India and other federal states, which had highly troubled past. For starters, India used to have a number of secessionist movements, in Punjab, Tamilnadu, and eastern states.

There will also be enough autonomy for states to pursue their own course within the federal structure and stay together, as again in India, Nigeria, South Africa, etc. 

If the political leaders fuel the fire of identity politics, which has become visible and vituperative after 2006 more than ever before, the country may fall apart. Ethiopia, Sudan, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, most Central Asian countries have gone down this route and become independent from the larger entities. Provincial structures, mechanisms, and resources will help secession efforts, unless stamped down, as in Catalonia.

Third, neighboring countries — India and China — have deep strategic interests in Nepal, which they are trying to pursue by changing their approach in the new context. Both rivals fear that one could Nepal and its territory against the other.

Previously, China used the Palace, leaders sympathetic to it,  and economic assistance to safeguard its interest. India used political fraternity as well as economic and cultural diplomacy/strong-arm-tactics, as necessary, to shape Nepali politics and policies in its favor.

But in the post-2006 scenario, the previous balance has been upset. For instance, the monarchy is gone. The identity politics in Nepal has fractured the old alliance-influence structures, and federalism has created its own challenges and opportunities for Nepal’s neighbors to influence its politics and policies.

China, worried about Tibet and other minority regions seeking autonomy or secession, has taken steps to increase engagement with Nepal. It has agreed to provide transit facilities for Nepal’s third-country trade, strengthened its contacts and assistance to the Nepal army, proposed closer road and rail links between the two countries, and increased investment in Nepal.

In other words, it has taken important steps to prevent Indian influence in Nepal from increasing in the new context.

India, on the other hand, has tried to keep its overwhelming influence unabated. While it has continued nurturing the old political fraternity and using economic and cultural diplomacy/strong-arm-tactics and economic and cultural leverage, it has also tried its best to impose its desire to have only one state in the Nepal Terai, which abuts India and which has people readily identifying as Nepalis of Indian origin.

The origin thing is spurious at best, but it seems to have been working as an effective propaganda tool.

For example, India tried to impose its desire to have only one state in the entire plains of Nepal by sending its Foreign Secretary to prevent the promulgation of the new constitution in 2015, used its diplomats to stir unrest in the plains demanding one-Terai, one state demand, and imposed  an economic blockade when the Nepali leaders did not bow to its wish.

Any election can produce leaders that could change their countries or the world, but only some are designed to be that way. For instance, the normal elections produced leaders who have destroyed/shaken the system from within, such as Hitler, Gorbachev,  Trump, and Modi. But Nepal’s current election belongs in the latter class, such as the first post-independence elections in various countries or the first post-apartheid election in South Africa.

However, the media and most political pundits have not focused on the historical significance of this general election. They seem interested more in which-party-will-win-and-which-will-lose-game. This speculative game makes an interesting reading, like a romantic story. But at the broader and deeper level, this election will determine the course of Nepal’s political and economic future, including the influence of its neighbors in the process.

So this election is way more important than other elections. It is not an election just for the normal transfer or reaffirmation of power. It will define how the power is structured and used in Nepal and whether Nepal remains territorially as we know it.