The eternal dream of self-governmentPeople keep hoping for self-determination. But when it arrives, leaders always seem to find a way to disappoint.
The multiple feelings of déjà vu were unexpectedly overwhelming. It happened while I was listening to the BBC on developments in Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko is currently on the back foot. While reporting on factory workers chanting ‘Leave’ to the face of the embattled president who had sought to bolster his position by speaking before what he thought would be a sympathetic audience, the BBC presenter commented on how tenuous his hold on power seemed to be. That was when the flood of memories from history, our own and beyond, came with a rush. Memories that reminded not only how such moments fervently embodied the hopes of a nation but also the sure-as-certain letdown that lay in store for the Belarusians.
This is not some kind of soothsaying on how the opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, would perform if and when Lukashenko were to quit. Like most reasonably well-informed people away from its immediate vicinity, all I know about Belarus is that it has been long ruled by an ‘elected’ strongman who has wrapped himself into a strong embrace with Russia. With my very limited knowledge about its politics, I had never even heard of Tikhanovskaya either. The above was only a personal reflection on how common similar hopeful moments have been in the last four decades or so—and how badly these generally end up.
Hope for democracy and equity
The first one I can remember is from when I was 13—the independence of Rhodesia (and gradual transition into Zimbabwe). The names that stuck in my mind were of Ian Smith, the last prime minister of Rhodesia, Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe. Nkomo is now almost forgotten and the reason I still remember him, besides being an imposing personality, was due to my wonderment in those days before instant information at how one pronounces his surname (it is en-Komo). For the next 40 years though, we learnt a lot about Mugabe, how he ran this resource-rich country into the ground before being ousted following years of discontent. Unfortunately, for a country that has suffered so much, the record of his successor has not been much better, having now spawned the human rights campaign, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter. Enough said.
In 1979, when I turned 14, we were able to witness history in the making. With the student unrest seeming to threaten the regime itself, king Birendra hurriedly announced a referendum on the Panchayat system. The political activism that had gone underground after the 1960 royal coup became possible again. Despite having barely any comprehension about politics apart from what I could imbibe from sitting in on adult conversations carried out in hushed tones in private circles, I began attending political events in Khula Manch. I was there when BP Koirala spoke for the first time in public after his deposal two decades earlier and still remember the shock many in the audience felt at first hearing the squeak his voice had become due to the throat cancer that was to ultimately consume him.
My route back from school had me change buses in the Ratna Park area and I would turn into Khula Manch from Bir Hospital en route to the mini-bus stop across the road from the head office of the-then Nepali Electricity Corporation. The speeches would take place in the late afternoons, and I would pause almost every day to listen. Over the months I must have heard most politicians worth his (do not recall any ‘her’) name speak in words we of the Panchayat generation had never heard before. Here we were cramming propaganda to get through the subject known simply as Panchayat, and there were all these legendary names calling the lie to what our textbook said. The multiparty side lost the following year in the plebiscite widely believed to have been rigged. Little were we to know how those who thundered against an unaccountable regime were to prove such big washouts when their own time came.
But there was time enough for that, a full decade. In the meantime, things shifted in favour of popular will here and there, notably, the Argentine one in 1982, the Filipino in 1986, and then the momentous dismemberment of the Soviet empire in 1989-90. We followed on the heels of the last with our own 1990 People’s Movement and saw the restoration of democracy after three decades. And, almost immediately came face-to-face with the inexplicable reality that politicians, whether from the revolutionary stream or otherwise, invariably belie the high hopes that propel them to power. Perhaps the only notable exception in recent decades has been Nelson Mandela’s South Africa but there, too, the downward slide began soon after his departure from the scene.
Only hope remains
For all the disappointments played out over and over again everywhere we look, hope does lie eternal since people continue to strive towards the ideal of a government responsive to its citizenry. The absolute certainty of better times once the current crisis blows over is driving the Belarusians at the moment. That feeling of heightened optimism is something we had the (mis)fortune of experiencing two times within a generation: in 1990 and 2006. The second time around at least our politicians appeared contrite and actually promised not to repeat their mistakes of the past in what they said would become a New Nepal.
Even if they had actually meant it at the time, the squabbling began soon after they were put back in power on the back of a popular mobilisation of the kind never before seen in Nepal’s history. Instead of focusing on drafting a constitution, we saw governments come and go in a repeat of the bad old 90s. It took close to a decade and a devastating earthquake for the new statute to be put in place.
The story with the majority government voted into office on the strength of fantastic promises of transforming the country has been no different, and the results were there for all to see even before the shameful past few months. A naked power struggle has consumed the ruling party at the time of a pandemic that not only is likely to devastate the economy but also lead to a huge loss of lives. Yet, for all the fire and brimstone emanating from both sides, neither has come up with any game plan on how best to take on the coronavirus threat. The last we heard was that the resolution to all these months of political wrangling that ensured the absence of any political leadership in the country would come in the form of a cabinet reshuffle. Talk of a damp squib.
The poet Sylvia Plath wrote: ‘If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed’. That, unfortunately, cannot apply to the relationship between people and their government. Expectations are always high and politicians almost always fail to deliver; it appears to be an unalterable truism of the human condition no matter how many times we opt for something else. The only constant is the human longing for freedom with dignity.
Mugabe started off as prime minister before graduating to the presidency and crafting a polity that ensured his re-election over and over again. The art of winning elections is what Lukashenko had perfected as well. That game plan has evolved over time and is in use across the globe. Given half the chance, there are many among our current crop of leaders who would have loved to be at the head of a similar political system. Not that template has not been tried out here as well, with the introduction of all kinds of laws that would subvert democracy by undermining the media and civil society. Thankfully, popular will is still strong enough in Nepal to have stymied most of those attempts.
That is why I get the shivers every time someone mentions the stability that would come with an executive presidency. The only comfort we in Nepal can take is that we will have the pleasure of booting out the rulers through the ballot box if things do not improve by the time elections come around. That is more than can be said for where Belarus is now.
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