Distractions of their own makingWhat Prime Minister KP Oli and his challenger, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, seem to have forgotten is the sorry state Nepal is in, caught between a killer pandemic and a disastrous monsoon.
As I had alluded to in one of my earlier columns, there are those who, having come to power, readily succumb to the ‘great man’s disease’. That is when a politician assumes that winning an election has somehow conferred on him (and, it is mostly a him) god-like omniscience. That is clearly the affliction of our prime minister, KP Oli, who has throughout both his prime ministerial stints taken to launching into impromptu lectures without consideration of the audience, including at times providing ‘scientific’ advice to a room full of scientists. His performance in Parliament in early June when he asserted that a supposed Nepali exceptionalism resulting from our geography and food habits have made us resistant to viruses, corona or otherwise, is a classic instance to prove true the old saying: ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’.
Oli is not the only leader who has tried to explain this world now being shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic. Angela Merkel was likewise guilty early on. The difference, of course, was that unlike the ridicule heaped on Oli for stringing together bits and pieces of what he has read and heard into a ‘theory’ of his own, the German chancellor was universally praised for her sound knowledge of how the virus spreads and also for her ability to use that understanding to explain the various steps the lockdown would undergo in her country. Merkel was not relying only on her own scientific background (she has a doctorate in chemistry, after all) but instead being fully aware of what she does not know, she consults with experts all the time before opening her mouth.
It was thus a pleasant surprise to learn that on Tuesday, when he had called in a host of public health and other experts for a chat, our prime minister decided to shut his trap for a change and instead listened to what those with a better handle on the coronavirus had to say. That is a role Oli certainly is not used to and was something that appeared to take the conferees off-guard as well. This changeover can only be an admission by Oli that things are not going right with his government’s handling of the pandemic, a fact obvious to anyone save his devoted lackeys.
Among the latter is the Minister for Health, Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal, who had declared that the government has outperformed ‘powerful countries’ and that all those criticising this record must have clouded vision. It turns out that it was he himself who suffered from faulty sight since less than a week later, Dhakal had to go on record to warn of a ‘catastrophic situation’ in the Kathmandu Valley with the rise in infections. That both propositions cannot be true at the same time seems to have been lost on the minister, who went even further to say: ‘If something sparks in Kathmandu, that will lead to an explosion in villages and small towns’.
Underscoring Dhakal’s point, on the same day, the Health Ministry also warned those above 60 and children under 12 to stay at home in densely populated areas like Kathmandu. There was also a half-hearted crackdown on those venturing outside without masks, with fines of Rs100 imposed on the errant. The messaging from the authorities has always been mixed, however, as seen in a timely photo collage in Kantipur, which showed the flagrant disregard of the mask rule by the high and mighty, starting with the prime minister himself.
It cannot be that these individuals who rule over our lives and who are supposed to act like role models have not grasped the elementary fact that no matter what kind of quackery people like Oli may peddle, each and every one of us is susceptible to the Covid-19 virus and there is no knowing who the carrier could be. Considering how close it has hit the Indian establishment, with the home minister there himself hospitalised, it is most likely only a matter of time before our own leadership is felled one by one. Unless this laissez-faire attitude among the top political, bureaucratic and security brass changes, the fight against the current pandemic will be an uphill one, with a lockdown followed by an easing followed by another lockdown, then another easing and so on, in a continuous cycle. Different towns have already gone into lockdown mode, and that is a situation other places are likely to be forced into before long.
The tragedy is that during all the time the nation has been grappling with this public health menace, the political leadership’s attention has been somewhere else. In early May, after the political crisis precipitated out of the blue by Oli’s introduction of two unnecessary ordinances had abated, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali heaved more than a sigh of relief when he said: ‘We were under a lot of tension since our mind had been diverted for the last two weeks or so. No one can justify our infighting at the time we are facing corona. The environment has now been created for us to concentrate on our main mission’.
Little did Gyawali or anyone else know that the venality of our politicians is such that even three months later, that tussle between a prime minister with the stubbornness of a bull and a challenger, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, with the tenacity of a bulldog would continue to hold the country hostage to their personal whims. Just the juxtaposition of news about Covid-19’s rampage across the country and images of an unnaturally high death toll due to floods and landslides this monsoon alongside the by-now tedious update on which politico met whom and where and for how long, day after day, should have shamed both into reaching some kind of compromise. That is, if shame were a quality that could be associated with either.
I do not think it has been commented on, but so caught up has the government and the ruling party been in this battle of attrition (of our country, not of their seemingly endless energy) that even little humane gestures have been completely forgotten. I am referring to the usually pro-forma notes of condolence that would be put out by both the heads of state and government over the loss of lives following the natural calamities that strike us every year. So far, we have not heard a squeak or seen a tweet or press release from either. That probably has everything to do with the entire focus of these two staunch allies being on this perennial squabble within the Nepal Communist Party, into which the president has willingly let herself be drawn. Even the kings of yore would have perfunctory messages of grief, even if it was actually their secretariat that did so in their name. Surely, reaching out to people in pain cannot be beneath the comrade duo at the highest levels of government.