Everybody wants to be an autocratThe politicisation of crime is a relatively common affair in clientelism.
The lockdown has already begun to push the poor of the country into penury. Fear of famine and malnutrition looms large in Madhesh, which is saddled with higher population density, lower political awareness and an abysmal system of social support due to decades of discrimination and neglect.
The sheer boredom of staying at home is the major problem of the bourgeoisie in the Kathmandu Valley. They have the means to have everything they need—organic vegetables and fruits, fresh fish and lean meat, cottage cheese and alcoholic drinks—delivered at home in sanitised packets. It’s possible for the well-connected to get a pass for one’s off-roader—distribution of relief is the most convenient excuse—and go for a pleasure drive on empty streets.
Beyond a point, however, hedonism loses its appeal if one’s riches, reach and influence can’t be flaunted. Supremo KP Oli has given this select group exactly what it has been craving: an opportunity to display its collective conscience. The political charade being staged at Baluwatar is proving to be an excellent divertissement to soothe the psyche of the comfortable class experiencing ennui.
Everything that Oli has been doing since the Gorkha earthquake is consistent with his desire to be an ethnonational chieftain of what can be called ABCD (Aryan, Bahun, Chhetri and Dashnami) Nepalis. He needs to centralise power, remove constitutional restraints upon his authority and keep the possible opposition in confusion to do what he has been elected to do: maintain status quo, counter aspirations of the marginalised population and ensure political stability.
It may appear counterintuitive, but some form of autocracy in flawed democracies or hybrid regimes is the price a country has to pay if it wants to attain greatness. Trying to better one’s condition is a continuous process where one learns to learn from mistakes and yearns not to repeat them. Greatness, on the other hand, has no place for false starts and requires nothing less than ruthlessness.
Historian Lord Acton is (1834-1902) widely quoted as saying ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. However, the second sentence of the same epigram is even more telling: ‘Great men are almost always bad men’. There is little need to make the category gender-neutral for it has mostly been men that attained greatness through their appalling deeds.
The most powerful ruler in the world is undoubtedly President Xi Jinping. Xi controls the ruling ideology, presides over premier institutions, controls all instruments of the state and has no term limit. He doesn’t have the need to pretend being powerful. But even he had to refrain from telling the whole truth about the novel coronavirus outbreak to maintain his invincible image.
The position of the second most powerful person on the planet is less unambiguous. President Donald Trump’s claim that he wielded ‘total authority’ was rejected out of hand in no time. Unlike hybrid regimes, power is often defused, even in flawed democracies. However, that doesn’t deter ambitious individuals from acting as if they were kings.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed the biggest lockdown on the globe with all of four hours advance notice, precipitating one of the largest reverse migrations, involving at least 40 million people according to the World Bank, in human history. Efficacy of power, as Modi discovered in the wake of midnight demonetisation, is tested in its abuse. The herd follows its shepherd irrespective of the cost of compliance.
Trump prescribed the ingestion and injection of disinfectant to fight the novel coronavirus. Modi called upon his flock for a nine minute blackout at 9:00 PM. In comparison with leaders that practice majoritarian authoritarianism, Oli’s dictate to sing the national anthem at the appointed hour was relatively harmless.
Despite the rants of a section of ‘Modiots’ in Nepal, the ‘Oli-garchy’ in Kathmandu has been able to manage Islamophobia in the wake of the pandemic far better than its Indian counterpart. Even when Mohan Madhukar Bhagwat, the Sarsanghchalak of the Hindutva outfit Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has explicitly ordained that an entire community could not be blamed for the acts of a few—he probably had to do so to salvage India’s image abroad—the clamour of blaming Muslims in Indian media and intelligentsia continues unabated.
Much of the credit for countering incipient Islamophobia in Nepal goes to Chief Minister of Province 1 Sher Dhan Rai and Chief Minister of Province 2 Mohammad Lalbabu Raut who empowered their frontline fighters to manage the outbreak and politically faced Hindutva forces on their own.
Dr Sangita Mishra, the youthful medical superintendent of Koshi Hospital is helping the largest number of Covid-19 patients in Nepal recuperate. She has rightfully earned wide acclaim for providing the Quran to some of her charges in the hospital. Part of the praise will naturally accrue to the head of government too, especially in the Ummah marking a peaceful Ramadan in the middle of a pandemic.
Over the last two years of his second term in office, Supremo Oli has been exceedingly successful in doing what he had set out to do. He has bolstered his international image. The main opposition party has been reduced to being his political crutch to be used in emergencies. Madhesis have been politically sidelined. Janajatis have been silenced into submission.
Itis but natural that for a successful ethnonational leader of the hegemonic community to desire that he be elevated from the chair of ‘Oli-garchy’ to the throne of what can perhaps be called ‘Oliocracy’, a neologism coined for the Nepali version of elected autocracy.
When a controversial constitution, and not just some amendments in existing laws, was fast-tracked through the legislative parliament in 2015 discarding due process, no ABCD leader thought it necessary to raise the issue of prioritising relief to earthquake survivors instead. Now they are hoping that Supremo Oli resign on moral grounds. Irony too needs to put a facemask to protect itself from the ethnonational virus.
The allure of some form of autocracy is common to most Nepali leaders schooled in the tradition of Stalinism. Pushpa Kamal Dahal wanted to be a Nepali version of the Great Helmsman and gave up his dream only when confronted with a presidential coup.
Madhav Kumar Nepal always had the modest ambition of being a wily manipulator in the mould of Jiang Zemin. A former teacher, Jhala Nath Khanal aspired to be a leader with an iron fist in velvet gloves like Hu Jintao. By the time Baburam Bhattarai realised that he wanted to be the Nepali version of Deng Xiaoping, the putative Maoist named Prachanda had already transformed himself into an ardent revisionist. No analysis is needed to dismiss the politics of Nepali Congress chair Sher Bahadur Deuba as sheer opportunism.
The politicisation of crime is a relatively common affair in clientelism where politicos exercise their power to protect the guilty for private benefit. Criminalisation of politics occurs when a nexus between criminals, politicians, bureaucrats, businesses and intellectuals begins to dominate governance. Criminalisation of society is a concept that came into currency to describe the politics of post-USSR Russia.
Weaponisation of ethnonationalism is its chief characteristic. Sleeper cells in social media serve its interests at home and abroad. What has been called ‘liars for hire’ in the intelligentsia propagate its virtues. Unless the PEON decides to dump him, Supremo Oli has little need to fear his political challengers.
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Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of June 2, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 had spread to 213 countries and infected more than 6,321,836 people with 375,657 deaths. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 198,140 with 5,608 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 72,460 confirmed cases with 1,543 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 1,811 cases with eight deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.