A story of two halvesDemocracy may have already lasted longer than the Panchayat rule did, but accountability remains a fiction.
In more than one sense, it was a significant milestone that we passed months ago but for some reason, it went entirely unnoticed by the commentariat, yours truly included. And perhaps it would have remained unremarked but for an observation by Bishwa Bandhu Thapa in a recent TV interview. He was being asked to comment on the ongoing border fracas between Nepal and India on the assumption that, as someone at the highest echelons of power around the time of the 1962 Indo-China War when India moved its troops into Kalapani, he would be able to provide additional illumination on the issue. Apart from the brusqueness of the interviewer, the conversation made for interesting viewing even if it revealed little that was not publicly known. It can be such a treat to hear someone who has both enjoyed a front-row seat to the making of Nepal’s modern political history and was partly responsible for it.
It was in the course of the interview that the nonagenarian Thapa, one of the key architects of the Panchayat System, almost off-handedly noted that the post-1990 democratic order had already exceeded the three decades of Panchayat rule. Of course, it is technically not quite accurate since there was this hiccup of the three-and-a-half-year-long Panchayat redux under King Gyanendra in the early 2000s. But we should be able to ignore that particular blip since it had the wholly fortunate result of getting rid of the monarchy itself. By that reckoning, the democracy restored in 1990 and reaffirmed even more strongly in 2006 has indeed outlasted the Panchayat period by almost a year now. Just that realisation should have called for a celebration—had there been much to celebrate about.
Against different rules for the elite
Speaking before the British parliament when American presidents used to be accorded such an honour, Barack Obama had paid tribute to what he called ‘notions of freedom’ embodied in the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the habeas corpus, and trial by jury, among other civic innovations in the centuries-long march to people power in the United Kingdom. Each step represented hard-won recognition of the right of the people to be free of the tyranny of privilege, whether represented in yesteryears by the supposed divine right of kings to rule or in more modern times in power gained in the guise of various ideologies, including the dictatorship of the proletariat. That these ‘notions of freedom’ should find favour the world over so rapidly indicate that the impulse for equality is a universal one regardless of where it first found expression.
Yet, one cannot help discern a certain proprietorial affinity to these ideals among the British. That perhaps explains the depth of anger against the breach of lockdown rules by Dominic Cummings, officially only an aide to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson but arguably the most powerful man in the UK today. Rather than follow recent precedents—the coronavirus adviser to the British government as well as Scotland’s chief medical officer having quit for similar infractions—both Cummings and his boss have taken to finding increasingly flaky justifications.
‘One rule for the elite…’ cries the simple message on placards that have commonly formed the backdrop of photos of Cummings since the current crisis began. The ellipsis leaves unsaid what is so painfully clear, and which forms the spirit against which the Magna Carta was signed more than 800 years ago. Members of Parliament (MPs) have complained of their inboxes being inundated ‘with irate emails from their fed up constituents’. Even the clergy has been uncharacteristically blunt in its criticism of Cummings for failing to express any contrition for breaking rules he himself drafted. With the ruling party in revolt, including a pointed resignation by a junior minister, and growing public disgust, there is huge political pressure seeking Cummings’ departure.
And, yet, another for the masses
Now contrast that with our own elite class. On the same day in mid-April that Prime Minister KP Oli was wondering if the spectacle of hundreds of migrants making their way home on foot had been orchestrated by the media, one of his ministers, Barshaman Pun, was in Bhaktapur arranging for hundreds of his constituents from Rolpa to go back home by bus. Pun was to be commended for listening to the suffering of his fellow Rolpalis even though it did seem patently unfair on those similarly stranded but hailing from districts without either a minister or such a proactive one. And, although it had been nearly a month since our lockdown started, perhaps because of the humanitarianism nature of Pun’s gesture, with the administration actively helping him, I do not remember anyone calling him out for breaking the rules.
Something else was happening at the time of the evacuation from Bhaktapur. One of the MPs from Bhaktapur at the scene, Mahesh Basnet, was soon ordered by Oli to head down to Janakpur on a mission to bring back an MP from a rival party in a bid to split it. Basnet was accompanied by another MP and former police chief Sarbendra Khanal. That failed attempt at ‘kidnapping’ an MP has boomeranged on Oli quite badly; the country is still suffering the repercussions.
In light of what has happened all around the world where lockdowns are in force, what is surprising is that there was no collective outrage at the brazen disregard by the trio of our own lockdown rules, which would typically entail a jail term of up to six months. Even if the two MPs can hide behind parliamentary immunity, Khanal, a private citizen by his own reckoning, certainly does not enjoy that same prerogative. That no charges have been filed and no one seems to have raked up the matter shows how far behind we are in organising as a citizenry on apolitical issues. More pertinently though, it is indicative of how used to we are to having different rules for the elite—whether under the monarchy or the communists.
Cummings had also been earlier reviled for trying to block the media he considered unfriendly towards the Johnson government from attending special Westminster briefings. That move was rightly condemned by the British media fraternity, including by those who would have benefitted from it. As the magazine The Economist observed: ‘Mr Cummings offended against a basic principle of a free society that the government can’t pick and choose who gets official press briefings…Government officials need to understand that they are accountable to the public that pays their salaries’.
That is one principle that never seems to have been really taken to heart by those who have come to power in Nepal. The interview of Oli’s referred to above where he lashed out at the media was a select one given only to government media outlets where journalists have been conditioned to pliancy towards political masters. Favouring the government media at times of trouble has been a strange strategy followed by governments over the years, whether the Nepali Congress or the communists. It had of course been perfected during Panchayat times by the king’s minions. It is perhaps because the transition from a monarchy to democracy has not been quite as complete as we had hoped that we forgot how long it has been since the king last wielded absolute power.
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