Murari Sharma: Quakes and leadership

As the government has failed to live up to the challenges generated by two major earthquakes and hundreds of aftershocks within days, which have killed nearly 10,000 people and destroyed thousands of homes, the quality of national leadership has come to sharp public focus in Nepal. All institutions are weak in the country, but the political class, strongest in power, is the weakest in performance. Why?

It will be instructive to draw some lessons from the political quake Britain have had recently.

On May 7, British politics suffered a major quake. The British people gave a simple majority to Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party in the general election, which was predicted to be dead heat resulting in a hung parliament. One day later, the leaders of the Labor Party and the Lib-Dem Party resigned. It was a brutal public verdict and a swift response from the losing parties.

No excuse, no maneuvering, no shifting the buck.

The cardinal rule is — you come, try, succeed and continue or you come, try, fail and disappear. David Cameron came, endeavored, succeeded and continued. For the Labor leader Ed Miliband and the Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg, it was “come, try, fail and disappear.” Sure, there have been some exceptions in British politics, but they are rare.

Even when you succeed, occasionally you may be forced out and banished into oblivion. Prime Minister Margret Thatcher resigned due to a rebellion in her ruling party. Once out of 10 Downing Street, she disappeared from politics and dementia did the rest. Prime Minister Tony Blair cleared the deck for deputy, Gordon Brown, and vanished from UK politics. Brown was nowhere when his party came second in the polls.

In addition, as policy differences across parties narrow, personality and debating skills have become important elements in politics. Maybe, there was a time when policy mattered more than anything else. Not anymore. Now that all mainstream parties have only marginal differences in their policies, personality and oratory play greater role.

Every Wednesday, at the Prime Minister’s Questions hour, in which the prime minister and opposition leader argue and debate different matters in the parliament, much of it unscripted, puts in display the two leaders’ persona and debating skills. Since the 2010 elections, the US style television debates among party leaders before the vote have also been introduced. Mostly uncommitted voters make up their mind based on who performs better in the PMQs and television debates. Tony Blair and David Cameron have proved that superb oratory, youthful vibrancy, handsome persona win election.

All these elements keep UK politics youthful, vibrant, creative and innovative. They create room for new blood and talents to emerge in the political parties and for a new crop of leaders to rise and lead in the country.

Contrast that to Nepal. Very few of our prime ministers since 1990 would have been premiers of Great Britain.

Start with Girija Koirala. Under the first criterion — come, try, succeed and continue — Koirala could have become prime minister the first time; though he did not lead his party, his party had emerged as the largest and his party president had lost the election. However, that would have been the end of his premiership ambition. The second criterion — ability to debate and command of issues—would have disqualified Koirala, who could hardly speak a correct full sentence.

Manmohan Adhikari would have held the exalted post under the first criterion — he was the putative leader of his party and his party had won the largest number of seats in the parliament — but probably not under the second. He too had difficulty debating, though not as much as Koirala.

Surya Bahadur Thapa and Lokendra Bahadur Chand would have failed in both criteria. Their party was not the largest in the parliament; and they were not excellent debaters.

Sher Bahadur Deuba would have failed to become premier as well. He was not main leader of his party, when he was given the high post. And he does not have the capacity to debate issues, for he was born with a speech defect.

What about Krishna Prasad Bhattarai? When he was president of his party during the first general election, he lost his own seat that disqualified him. He was not triumphant in the second general election, either. In the third general election, Girija Koirala, not Bhattarai, was party president. In addition, Bhattarai, though better than Koirala, was not an effective speaker.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal would have been prime minister. He was leader of his party, his party had secured the largest number of seats in the constituent assembly, and he is one of the best orators.

Madhav Nepal would have no chance at all. When he became prime minister, he was defeated in the general election and he was not leader of his party, even though he is an accomplished speaker.

Jhala Nath Khanal would have been in the same boat. Though he was leader of his party, his party was only the third largest in the constituent assembly. Though he is also a good debater, as the head of the third party, he would have found little chance to display his debating skills in the parliament.

Baburam Bhattarai too would not have been prime minister in the UK. Although he is a good debater, he was not leader of his political party when he became one. I do not need to even mention Khil Raj Regmi.

Sushil Koirala would certainly not have been British premier. Though he was his party’s president after Girija Koirala’s death, he is in precarious health and he can hardly speak. People hardly understand what he says.

That brings me to the issue of managing the aftermath of the massive earthquakes and devastation left by them in their wake in Nepal. Figuratively speaking, our leaders are like the date expired medicines — impotent to cure but harmful. They are like the castrated oxen that occupy the cows in estrus but cannot impregnate them.

Let me be clear — I have nothing against these leaders personally. I like most of them, who are nice individuals and sensible human beings. But that does not give them creativity, physical strength, verbal finesse, or managerial capacity they need to drive the country forward to a lofty destination.

You may say, age and health do not matter for politicians. They do. Though funny, Northcote Parkinson sums up it well: “Wanted- Prime Minister . . . Hours of work: 4 A.M. to 11.59 P.M. Candidates must be prepared to fight . . . will die for their country . . . will have to pass an examination in parliamentary procedure and will be liquidated should they fail to obtain 95% marks . . . will also be liquidated if they fail to gain 75% votes in a popularity poll. . .”

How can you expect Sushil Koirala and KP Oli, who are sick, to work 20 hours a day? How can Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai, who have blood in their hands, suddenly become angels? The mass suffering caused by the massive earthquake could be a revolution for them by another name or means against democracy.

So folks, before we blame our leaders for their incompetence, lack of drive or lack of empathy, let us blame ourselves for electing such people. If they have changed colors after the election, let us hold them to account in the coming polls. Meanwhile, let us join our forces to compel the government to respond to our imperatives.