Pathology of an ultranationalist regimePopulism is enough to ensure stability in a country that takes pride in being an insecure nation-state rather than a confident state of multiple nations.
On February 15, 2018, KP Sharma Oli became the first elected prime minister under the controversial constitution of Nepal. Halfway through his term, he has failed to show that he deserves the office.
When he got into Baluwatar, Supremo Oli nearly commanded the magical two-thirds majority in Parliament. A significant section of the main opposition party identified more with the ethnonational chieftain than with its own politicos. Acutely aware of the ground reality, the leader of the opposition and the president of Nepali Congress had chosen to become a collaborator rather than a challenger of the government.
The Oliar media and intelligentsia had accepted the offer of embedment with the regime and discarded its duty of telling truth to power or holding authority to account. The international community had accepted the fait accompli with neither the will nor the power to loosen the Dragon's embrace upon the regime in Kathmandu.
Premier Girija Prasad Koirala had exercised the authority of the head of the state as well as the government in the aftermath of Rhododendron Revolution of 2006, but he had lacked the backing of the permanent establishment. The ruling elite of Kathmandu tolerated the political authority of the Koiralas from Morang, but consistently denied socio-cultural legitimacy upon the clan.
When Oli began his current term as prime minister, he was said to be the most powerful head of government since king Mahendra, who had chaired the Council of Ministers for a while after the royal-military coup in December 1960. Had he desired, he could have easily put the cart of governance on the dirt road to social justice, economic equity, political equality and diplomatic dignity. He chose instead to cultivate his constituency of ultranationalists. The inevitable outcome is for all to see.
The economy is in a tailspin. With the promised constitutional amendment in limbo, the Madhes-Pahad divide has deepened; the social discord has intensified. Politics is trapped in the quicksand of intraparty feuds of the ruling dispensation. The government has failed to handle the Covid-19 pandemic in a sensitive or sensible, let alone responsive and responsible, manner.
Despite close adherence of the ruling regime to Xi Jinping Thought, the country has seldom been so alone in the comity of nations. Even Venezuela and North Korea are yet to formally recognise the cartographic demonstration of Nepal's sovereignty over an area outside its political control. Failure on all fronts should have made the Supremo reflect, but he continues to confuse his detractors with diversionary tactics.
Democracy taking a nap
In an evaluation of the prevalent stasis, the Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal (JSP) was perhaps correct in its assessment in early August that Oli was ‘very weak, physically and mentally’. The former part of the scrutiny is a fact—the Supremo had a second kidney transplant just a few months ago. The later description about the mental condition is somewhat circumstantial but no less convincing in view of his public utterances.
Instead of using the criticism for course correction, the ruling regime unleashed its apologists in the 'asocial' media to mount a counter-attack from the flanks upon JSP leader Baburam Bhattarai. However, what the third biggest political group in Parliament seems to have chosen to ignore is the fact that there is a considered method in the apparent madness of the prime minister. The core constituency of the ruling regime is quite happy with a head of government that occasionally wakes up from a slumber and takes a potshot at imagined enemies.
These days, the idea of democratic deficit is all the rage among political pundits. It's easy to reel off prominent names that have been emitting the malodorous gas of decomposing democracies—Bolsonaro, Duterte, Erdoğan, Modi, Orbán and Trump are just a few notable examples. Supremo Oli is a progenitor as well as product of the ideological drift (change in the power of ideas from overuse and novel context) that swept the world after the financial crisis in 2008 and subsequent popularity of contextualised populism.
Karl Marx famously said that mode of production of material life conditioned the general process of social, political and intellectual life. Supremo Sharma Oli may not be a scholar in the academic sense of the term, but over a dozen years of prison time that he served till the 1980s has made him a keen observer of the absurdities of social reality in Nepal.
When the Marxist formulation is applied to a country where production of material life is almost entirely dependent upon subsistence agriculture and export of unskilled labour, it becomes relatively easy to identify the compulsions of the political economy. Consumers are content as long as the comprador bourgeoisie keeps the market amply supplied.
Voters want to be assuaged that their country is superior to all others in distinctive ways. Claims over the evolution of prince Siddhartha into the Buddha, sovereign control upon Mt Everest and the vacuous assertions of never having been colonised—even though the populace remained a serf of the loyal servants of its British masters for over a century—are some useful fictions when manufacturing national hubris.
Demagogic populism is enough to ensure political stability in a country that takes pride in being an insecure nation-state rather than a confident state of multiple nations. All that the practice of democracy requires then is that the periodic elections be held to produce a chieftain. The elected leader of the dominant ethnicity can then keep playing upon the fears of the majority that their primacy is in constant danger from 'others' inside and outside its territory.
In its essence, populism entails the politics of hope that the future is going to be better than the present. This is what the Maoists practised for a while in the early noughties when they promised a republican polity. Demagoguery is plain fear-mongering—something intrinsic to the nationalist rhetoric of the lapsed Marxists-Leninists and former Panchayat supporters. Put together, demagogic populism produces a regime that's dysfunctional due to its innate contradictions—doubt is inherent to demagoguery while hopes can't be realised without creating trust.
Despite assurances of idealists, democracies don't always produce responsible regimes. President Trump has been partially successful in transforming the most powerful country on the planet into a banana republic. He may ultimately lose the forthcoming polls, but he remains in the presidential race.
It will take years for the Indian economy to recover from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ill-thought demonetisation shock. His mishandling of the Covid-19 challenge has shaken the very core of Indian society. And yet, he commands an unprecedented 78 percent approval rating in his country. Such being the state of the state in the oldest and largest democracies of the world, it's pointless to worry too much about the ethnonational fiefdom of Supremo Oli.
Somewhat like a drug-induced high, demagoguery is the pathology of democracy that causes an incurable addiction to the rhetoric of the leader. Treatment requires persistent effort and relapses are common. Supremo Oli is the symptom rather than the cause of the epidemic of populism.