Palanquin bearers of the SupremoIn every conflict of interest between humane concerns and jingoism couched as nationalism, the latter always wins.
Supremo Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli recently gave a gentle rap on the knuckles of Nepali journalists. In an interaction with honchos of the business community, he claimed that Nepali editors lacked the heart and mind to praise good deeds of the government. The Nepali press dutifully reported his grievances.
The achievements of the government that he cited in his outbursts were mostly of a municipal nature. About his tall promises of the past—trans-Himalayan railways and introducing shipping through Nepal’s rivers to the Ganges—he lied that the work had already begun. The biggest achievement of this government is that it has managed to escape all criticism despite doing almost nothing positive for the past two years.
Even when critical of the government or the Nepal Communist Party, the Nepali media treats the Supremo with kid gloves. In the hue and cry over the award and extension of the land-lease to Yeti Holdings, journalists chose to downplay his possible role in the sordid affair.
The most recent example is that of the election of the Speaker. It was clear from the beginning that he was using Deputy Speaker Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe as a pawn on the chessboard to settle some scores with his alter ego Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Once bargains had been made and contested issues settled, the incumbent dutifully resigned at the instruction of a party to which she had ceased to belong by virtue of her non-partisan post.
The Supremo has got so used to being praised by the press that he gets irritated when some journalists decide to do what they are expected to do and begin to doubt his benefits rather than give him the benefit of the doubt as a matter of course. The English media in Nepal played down frustrations of the prime minister as a matter of routine. A few Nepali journalists, however, were mighty miffed. Even an editor friendly towards the regime came out with a scathing criticism terming Premier Sharma Oli’s politics as the road to Stalinism.
The international image of non-partisanship notwithstanding, the Nepali Service of the BBC has the same character as that of the local media. It barely hides its ethnonational sympathies behind the patina of the balance trap. It posted what it termed as the responses of some editors to the prime minister’s allegations. The fact that such baseless accusations were considered worthy of seeking reactions says more about the state of the Nepali media than somewhat predictable rejoinders.
The views expressed by illustrious editors were baffling, to say the least. The opinion of the government-owned newspaper can be dismissed as inevitably defensive. Other editors lured into the debate for balance didn’t cover themselves with glory.
‘He took a stand against India during the blockade. At that time, there was no media that did not support him,’ claimed Yubaraj Ghimire without realising the fallacy of his assumptions. Even when a country is at war, the primary duty of a journalist is to keep asking questions. Ethnonational proclivities of the veteran editor are too well-known in Madhes to need substantiation, but it’s precisely the ‘urge to support when needed’ that makes the government expect it at all times.
‘It's been 13 years since I became the editor of Naya Patrika. To this day, I have not seen any prime minister thanking the media while leaving office,’ declared the youthful editor Krishnajwala Devkota. His memory had evidently played tricks on him during the interview. While exiting office in 2016 to evade being ousted with a no-confidence motion, he had profusely thanked the media.
Among all the politicians belonging to the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxists-Leninists) after 1990, Sharma Oli emerged as the most colourful personality of the decade and managed to keep the press in good humour. When he realised that the media needed somebody from the communist ranks to denounce the Maoists, he presented himself as the harshest critic of the armed insurgency.
Once he lost the elections to the first-ever Constituent Assembly of the country in 2008, he began to oppose everything that the Purple Revolution had promised—republic, federalism, proportionate inclusion and positive discrimination—and managed to establish himself as the protector of the old order. Terrified at the prospect of Madhesis, Janjatis and Dalits asserting themselves, the permanent establishment of Nepal (PEON) made him its hero.
The rest is the story of the unstoppable emergence of Sharma Oli as the ethnonational chieftain of the constitutionally-created Khas-Arya category of the people of Nepal. Along with other losers of the first Constituent Assembly election, such as Sushil Koirala and Krishna Sitaula of the Nepali Congress, Sharma Oli succeeded in getting a majoritarian constitution in 2015 and established himself as the protector of the national interest.
The classic palanquin has a comfortable box carried on two bamboo poles by at least four bearers. Its smaller version often has a single pole and the tiny litter can sit two at most. Despite the claims of Hindutva fanatics, pushpak bimans (flowery aircraft) remained in myths and palanquins were the most ubiquitous mode of transport for brides, grooms and the local elite till the middle of the last century in the Ganga plains.
In a famous poem titled Palanquin Bearers, poet Sarojini Naidu, once named the nightingale of India, sings: ‘Lightly, O lightly we glide and we sing, / We bear her along like a pearl on a string.’ That is exactly how the Nepali media carried its ethnonational chieftain to victory—like a pearl on a string—with a near two-thirds majority in the federal Parliament and almost total dominance over local and provincial governments.
A palanquin ride, however, has its pitfalls. When bearers change shoulders, the box shakes. That can sometimes irritate the passenger. The Supremo is perhaps infuriated that the Nepali press hasn’t yet become as submissive as the Godi media in India despite its unquestionable loyalty to the saviour of the majoritarian order. His denials of truth are artful. He manages to use divertissement with considerable skill and consistency. He doesn’t shy away from disseminating lies. He can sell dreams to hard-nosed realists. He continues to be at the top of everything, and considers it his right to demand unquestioned loyalty from the press.
Many journalists have checked themselves since Supremo Sharma Oli publicly voiced his gripe. They probably discovered that they do have their heart intact, but it isn't always in the right place. It hardly ever beats for any community outside their ethnonational group. In every conflict of interest between humane concerns and jingoism couched as nationalism, the latter always wins.
Humbert Wolfe laments in an epigram: ‘You cannot hope to bribe or twist, / thank God! the British journalist. / But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, / there's no occasion to.’ Supremo Sharma Oli can count on the suspension of disbelief by nationalist journalists.
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