Nepal’s inconseqential leaders

Murari Sharma

Presidential historians have suggested that Barack Obama has already become one of the most consequential American presidents. He introduced the Affordable Healthcare Act (aka Obama care) Democrat presidents had tried for 40 years, ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, concluded a nuclear treaty with Iran, and reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba, abandoning decades long American sanctions that had no international approval.

Obama is not one of the most successful American presidents. Yet he has shown how much a leader can accomplish in less than eight years.

Do the leaders of Nepal ever think of going down in history as someone of consequence? Maybe, they do at times of quiet contemplation. Some have left their footprints. Prithvi Narayan Shah unified Nepal. Bahadur Shah expanded it. Tribhuvan Bir Bikram Shah put his crown at stake to throw the Ranas out. BP Koirala brought multiparty democracy in Nepali hills and plains. Mahendra and Birendra Shah introduced and advanced economic development. Ganesh Man Singh and Girija Koirala led the people’s movements to restore the democratic rights of the Nepali people.

In the current crop of leaders also, there are many people who made great sacrifices as young men and women to remove the old political system and introduce a new one. Sushil Koirala devoted his life to democracy. KP Oli spent years in jail for his political belief. Pushpa Kamal Dahal waged an armed insurgency to introduce Maoist communism in the country. Yet why is it that the Nepali people feel that they have no leader?

The problem is, as it seems, there are only leaders of political parties in Nepal. There are no leaders of the Nepali people. Political leaders may start as a leader of the party or a ruling junta. Some graduate into being the leaders of their people; others remain leaders of their political parties only. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru started as the Indian Congress leaders but transformed themselves into national leaders. Lee Kwan-Yew and Mahathir Mohammad began their political career as leaders of their parties and became national leaders consequently.

Do not any of our political leaders want ever to become a national leader? I am sure they all want to be. But what is preventing them? Actually, a lot of factors.

In an article published in Harvard Business Review of 15 December 2014, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman have identified 10 traits of a successful leader: Strategic vision, customer (people) focus, fearless loyalty to the goal, culture of upward communication, persuasion, goal stretching, speed, candor, and ability to inspire and motivate through action.

In a Pew Research Center Survey, 84 percent respondents thought honesty was the most essential quality of a successful leader.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America, has said, “If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing.”

Now I leave it to our leaders to self-assess themselves as to what traits, given above, they have and what they do not.

We all know a sudden rush of enlightenment and impetus dawned on the Big Four to expedite the constitution writing process in the wake the massive, devastating earthquakes in April and May this year. The quake took nearly 10,000 lives, damaged nearly 7 billion dollars’ worth of private and public properties, and affected one-fourth of the 28 million Nepali people in one way or another.

But why the hurry now?

Let me start with the Big Four’s explanation. They have said the people expect the constitution completed soon and it is their obligation to bury their hatchet and get the work done quickly. No doubt, this is a compelling narrative, except that it is not true. Hit by the loss of their relatives and their homes, people expected help for recovery and relief, not a new constitution, which could wait for another couple of months.

Burying the hatchet, which had been pulled out for the last seven years, is indeed a commendable step. But this, few will believe, happened because the leaders were suddenly stricken by a sense of duty, which they seldom have been; it actually happened because the Maoists and other political parties wanted to join the government to have their hand in the huge reconstruction pie the development partners have promised in the donors conference.

In other words, the driving force behind the 16 point agreement among the major political parties is anything but political or constitution. Otherwise, why would they commit the fantastic forgery of fraudulent fiction that the draft constitution is within a matter of week or so after the tremor?

OK, I admit finding consensus on the contradictory worldviews on the constitution of different players was difficult. Kamal Thapa and his ilk want a Hindu state. Chitra Bahadur KC and his type have nothing to do with federalism. Mahant Thakur and Upendra Yadav want ethnic states. Even large chunks of the Nepali Congress and the UML do not agree with this fraud.

The sham of collecting public opinion on the draft and Pushpa Kamal Dahl’s pilgrimage to Delhi have brought new fissures or revived the old ones that were assumed covered. The idea of executive president has been revived again, because it is convenient to some parties and groups, but the support for Hindu state and fewer provinces which the majority wanted have been conveniently ignored. The guaranteed rights for food, education, treatment, employment, unemployment benefits, and pension and so on are fantasies that even the rich Scandinavian countries have not promised have found place in the draft constitution of one of the poorest countries in the world. This is what makes the draft a flagrant fraud.

If Nepal’s growth and prosperity were to be measured in terms of our leaders’ wealth and prosperity, our country would be one of the richest. Our leaders have obtained unprecedented prosperity since 1990.  If our leaders’ promise is the measure of our progress, we should be a rich country. Our leaders have promised the sky, not just now but for many decades in the past if not centuries. If they had delivered a tiny fraction of what they have promised, we would have been a middle-income country at least.

But what is happening really is this: The more our leaders are promising to make us rich and prosperous, the more they themselves are getting rich and prosperous and the people are getting poorer.

When he was seeking election for the first time, US President Barack Obama promised hope, an empty word, but delivered so many things to make American people better off in his less than 8 years in the White House, so far. Our leaders promised growth, food, health care, education, jobs, roads and drinking water for decades, but now they are promising empty hope in the new constitution.

Our leaders might have reasons to believe that the Nepali people grow in words, eat words, drink words, treat their ailment with words, work words, drive on words. What could be the reason to make them think so? Is it that Netra Chand was in Dubai when his supporters were torching vehicles in Kathmandu to enforce the strike called by him? Nepal is a paradise to be a leader.

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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.