When leaders go rogueWhat remains of Oli is a megalomaniac besieged by his own comrades.
In a participatory democracy, the relationship between the ruler and the ruled is hinged upon a fine balance of power. Political leadership derives its legitimacy by not acting unilaterally but in concert. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt understood power in terms of ‘power with’ and not ‘power over’. For Arendt, ‘power with’ materialises only when all entities in a given structure are taken on equal footing. Meaning, it comes from the consent of people.
Alternatively, political leadership may derive its legitimacy through an unequal relationship between the ruler and the ruled. Naturally, this idea of power is inherently hierarchical; most world leaders, primarily dictators, have a penchant for it. Such kind of power facilitates the fulfilment of individual goals, but that fulfilment is often ephemeral. In parliamentary politics, political legitimacy comes from numerical strength. But legislators often go rogue thinking they are all-powerful. They forget that political leadership bereft of moral legitimacy is powerless.
In Nepal, the KP Oli-led administration has, since coming to power in February 2018, shown ample symptoms of being swayed by the hierarchical notion of power. Prime Minister Oli has often disregarded opinions of his party members, introduced laws that seek to muzzle dissent and intimidated as well as incarcerated those critical of the government. Though an elective representative for a fixed term, he seems to be under the impression that he commands unconditional recognition and respect—a presupposition which, knowingly or unknowingly, leads to the temptation to stay in power forever—a fallacy in a democratic polity.
It is difficult to resist temptation. Perhaps this explains why not just Oli but other members of his party, including former prime ministers, no less, are tempted by the desire to be on top. Yet, none enjoys the public’s trust. Sans the trust of the public, any leader’s desire to be powerful will just be an exercise in futility.
The political drama that unfolded for most of the last week, with several members of the party’s high command conspiring to unseat the prime minister in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, is a testament. More than two years since Oli took office, Nepal’s position in the latest Corruption Perception Index has worsened, falling to 124 from 122 in 2017. In the World Press Freedom Index, Nepal had fallen six places to 106 in 2018, while that position remained unchanged in 2019. What’s more, Oli raj has seen a sharp spike in police brutality. From vandalising hospital premises in Jumla during Dr Govinda KC’s protest to baton charging protestors demanding justice for Nirmala Pant to thrashing lockdown violators, examples abound. The prime minister has invited the wrath of the people owing to his own activities. But other leaders within the ruling party—elected legislators at that—have done little to ameliorate the situation.
While the number of people testing positive for Covid-19 is remarkably low, perhaps due to the early enforcement of a lockdown, the government has failed miserably on several other fronts. Leaders of the ruling party and the opposition alike failed to speak about the plight of migrants walking all their way back home. None of them have questioned the government on medical arrangements for the coronavirus, nor on the malfeasance involving the purchase of testing kits. All of the above concerns the public.
But the party secretariat members failed to make the powers that be accountable. They came out of the woodwork only after the two ordinances—one of which could have actually split their own party—had been introduced. Meaning, their chances of being the prime minister or party leader could have diminished. Had they not been so reticent previously, the top-brass of leaders could have commanded some confidence from the people.
Back in 2015, when KP Oli had refused to succumb to the Indian pressure of a blockade, he commanded moral legitimacy as a majority of Nepalis approved of his stance. At that time, he derived power from the normative consensus of a collective. In 2020, he has political legitimacy owing to the two-third majority in Parliament. But he has exhausted his moral legitimacy to the last bit, thanks to his cumulatively anti-democratic and unpopular decisions. What remains of Oli is just a megalomaniac guarding his last fortress besieged by his own comrades.
Oli’s temptation to rule rather than serve has brought him to where he is right now, hounded by his own comrades and forced to be on the back foot. As a leader, he has, by and large, lost moral standing to remain prime minister—a position where the role of ethics and integrity cannot be overstated. The prime minister is already too late to come out of the delusion that he is all too powerful. And Oli’s comrades should understand sooner than later that the need of the hour is gaining public trust rather than running the rat race towards Baluwatar.
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