Nepali society and meritocracyThe question of Kulman Ghising’s reappointment shows how Nepalis actually value meritocracy.
The government’s apathy towards controlling the pandemic has led to people venting their anger against the state in many areas, whether it is directly connected to Covid-19 or not. One such area has been the question of whether to reappoint Kulman Ghising, the former managing director of Nepal Electricity Authority, the state-owned power utility.
Ghising has become the mascot, especially for young Nepalis, of change, fighting inefficiency and corruption, and turning around a loss-making utility into a profitable one. When he took charge, Nepal was reeling under 18 hours of power cuts a day, but then that problem became history. It was a great story of good management. He fought against the politicians and their cronies (who did rent-seek on the power cuts) and reassigned vendors and staff that did not perform. But the move by the government, or lack thereof, reflects the way society functions.
Jealousy and success
In families, businesses and institutions, we see that Nepali culture hardly revers success; rather, it sows seeds of discontentment. In Unleashing Nepal, I had shared the story of how king Mahendra asked Hrishikesh Shah to come back to Nepal, when he was on the verge to be appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations. That gave an opportunity for U Thant from Myanmar. Mahendra did not want someone to be more popular than him or become successful. Kulman’s case is not unique, even after the restoration of democracy. We have had ministers who were performing well being asked to resign. We have seen good people not been reappointed across opportunities both in civil service and in private sectors.
It begins with households. When people want to start a business, they do not look for a good lawyer or good advisor, they depend on the people they know through family or friends. They do not mind hiring tainted people for the job or people who they know had delivery issues in the past. In many family businesses, appointment in key positions become reasons for fights and splits. In the big NGO world of Nepal, we have heard enough stories of good people being booted out at Annual General Meetings. Businesses do not mind living with managers who the owners are making money on the side—they are not keen to hire better staff.
As a society that does not want to acknowledge success, jealousy does have a large impact. There are many personal reflections that one can think through. Nepalis, whether in the diaspora or back home, have not learnt how to revere success. When people are seen driving around in a nice car, the first thought that comes to the minds of many is jealousy, instead of being inspired to achieve a similar level of success. Similarly, we hardly hear of people having good things to say about others in personal conversations. A heady mix of sycophancy and jealousy has thrown the issue of merit out the window.
Baggage of culture
Many people attribute this behaviour to our culture where the caste system and ethnic divide runs deep. In the case of Kulman, there were many questions asked in the social media on would his fate have been different if he belonged to the mainstream ruling caste of Nepal. Much of our lives are dictated by rituals relating to past lives and future lives perfumed by people who somehow deemed it their right to dictate our lives based on the caste they were born into. A very tribalistic behaviour also pushes people to trust in one’s own ethnic group or caste, therefore putting the racial or cultural identity of a beneficiary way ahead of that person’s competency or knowledge. These behaviours are deeply rooted in the way we are brought up and what has been prescribed as the right social behaviour.
Selflessness and success
Much of our behaviour is also transactional; therefore, we hardly care about transformations. When societies generally live on give and take relationships, meritocracy does not really matter. One can only recognise success and merit if one is selfless. Success has a direct correlation with selflessness. Successful leaders in all spheres of life are generally not focused on their own lives and work towards the betterment of the world around them. A society that is transactional cannot understand this, as it is always in a rent-seeking mode. In the case of Ghising, no one could gain arbitrage on his success, therefore his success became a problem—his selfless drive became an issue.
Let us hope that the Kulman saga will make people reflect on their own personal lives and question oneself on the issue of meritocracy, selflessness and success.
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