It’s time to start learning MandarinWhen the layperson on the street cares more about the MCC Compact than the pandemic response, it is clear that the status quo is changing—again.
Perhaps unhappy with the performance of ‘full-bright, half-bright and quarter-bright’ intelligentsia in soliciting support for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) in Nepal, its Resident Country Director took it upon himself to sell the controversial Compact as 'a data-driven model to increase Nepal’s economic growth'.
The problem, however, isn't with the pivot per se. The prospect of a huge grant outlay is so alluring that every sensible professional wants to get onto the bandwagon. Foreign aid continues to fascinate the ruling clique in Kathmandu. Its levers in the media and intelligentsia are also large and strong. It's just that the load at the other end of the handspike is already bulky and getting heavier by the day.
Despite the possible extension of the deadline for its parliamentary ratification, the MCC Compact is going to be a hard sell even for Supremo KP Sharma Oli. Nominally, the Nepali Congress is the main opposition in Parliament. Ethnonational solidarity has reduced the party to the level of a subordinate entity of the ruling regime. All that the opposition leader Sher Bahadur Deuba can do is opine in favour of the controversial compact in public.
For the person on the street, it seems that the two top politicos of the country might as well be talking to the Great Wall of China. At least that's the impression one gets from casual conversations in the Kathmandu Valley. A few anecdotal examples should suffice to illustrate the point.
By mid-May, the lockdown had begun to have a diminishing effect. The decision of the government to loosen up was a recognition of reality rather than a laxity. The owner of a welding workshop appeared more worried about the consequences of the MCC Compact upon the sovereignty of the country than the economic impact of the pandemic. Supremo Oli's assurances had no meaning for him.
Public transport was still off the road in early June. A taxi driver was using the letter that he had received from a hospital for transporting a patient as legitimate permission to ferry passengers. An unusually talkative person, he spent an entire ride explaining how the MCC Compact was an integral part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy aimed at encircling the Peoples' Republic of China. He had more faith in the conclusions of the ruling party than the denial of the foreign minister.
A Belayati—colloquialism for an Englishman—was the iconic foreigner till the early-1960s so much so that the hall where the government entertained guests of the state in Singha Durbar was named Belayati Baithak. It was in use until the Gorkha Earthquakes damaged the building and some priceless trophies were reported stolen.
When engagement with the US increased in the wake of the intensification of the Cold War and Peace Corps volunteers began to serve in far-flung villages, the average Joe or an ordinary Jane became an Amrikane in the mountains and Ammerki in Madhesh. Between the Treaty of Sugauli of 1816 and the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the ruling elite in Nepal considered Anglo-Americans as the guarantor of Nepal's integrity and sovereignty. The impact of its sponsorship of the powerful clique in Kathmandu upon the life and livelihood of commoners was mostly exploitative.
The Ranas contributed Gurkha soldiers to the Sepoy Mutiny, World War I and World War II and benefitted immensely from their association with the victors. Families of soldiers wept in silence as the mid-mountains were denuded of its able-bodied men. The British remained dormant between 1951 and 1960 when they concentrated upon maintaining Gurkha recruits. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip graced Kathmandu with an imperial visit soon after the royal-military coup, and the British became the patrons of the Shah regime.
According to some estimates, the net per capita income between 1965-89, the mature years of the Panchayat era, grew at only 0.6 percent per annum, with most of its benefit accruing to the Shah-Rana cousins, their loyal courtiers, craven cronies and what BP Koirala called the bhuifutta barg (comprador bourgeoisie) feasting on foreign aid.
The poor in the Tarai bore the brunt of Anglo-American connivance in the excesses of the regime. Tharus were almost decimated from Bhitri-Madhes in the name of malaria eradication. The pauperisation of the peasantry in the southern plains continued unabated under the compulsory saving scheme and the forced contribution of labour to the so-called Back to the Village National Campaign. Massive deforestation and state-sponsored population transfer transformed the demographic character of the entire Tarai-Madhes.
Rampant poverty till the mid-1980s was made bearable by the absence of extreme inequality of income in the countryside. Colour television raised aspirations. Democratic representation provided an opportunity for the expression of grievances. But the insistence of the Washington Consensus on wholesale adoption of free-market fundamentalism turned economic growth into a milch cow for the rich and powerful.
Immorality in public life is often an outcome of huge inequality in a society. By the mid-1990s, all hopes for benefitting from the aid industry of the Cold War era had disappeared. The Anglo-American project of keeping Nepal safe from communism through aid and development had spectacularly failed.
Even though it proved to be somewhat transitory, the Maoist insurgency changed power relations in the country, as diplomatic assets of the West—the upper class and highly educated males—became their liabilities. Rise in average income due to remittances, particularly from West Asia, made promises of foreign aid redundant.
Geostrategic competition for spheres of influence is normal. Even when stakes are comparatively low in resource-poor countries such as Nepal, big powers vie with each other in keeping malleable regimes in good humour. Backroom manoeuvring and the manipulation of levers to bring or keep a small country under the thumb of an imperial or colonial power is as old as the history of organised societies.
It's difficult to put a date to the decline of the Anglo-American hegemony. Perhaps it began when the secret pupils of the Central Intelligence Agency hit out at their mentors in angst and brought the Twin Towers crashing down. Since then, the $2 trillion Afghanistan War has failed to restore the invincibility of the US in the eyes of the world.
The financial crisis of 2008 made everyone look towards China for growth and stability. President Donald Trump's 'America First' has signalled the US’s withdrawal from the centre stage of global affairs. By contrast, Xi Jinping has shown the confidence and chutzpah of an assertive power—even after the pandemic. It's but natural that the vanguard of the Khas-Arya hope for the Chinese hand to ensure the stability of the regime.
The appellation of wolf-warrior diplomacy sounds fancy, but the Chinese have always been aggressive in protecting, promoting and pushing their national interest in the name of peace, stability and development. No matter what US officials hope, it seems increasingly unlikely that the MCC Compact will see the light of the day without modifications. It may even have to wait until projects identified under the Belt and Road Initiative are operationalised.
With Indian influence on the wane and Anglo-Americans almost out of the picture, Xi Jinping Thought is likely to reign supreme for now. Principles of participatory democracy and the politics of inclusion have little or no place in the new world order of the Beijing Consensus.
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