Our broken politicsA leopard never changes its spots, and our political leaders have shown a similar inability to change.
When the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre) announced their alliance on the eve of the parliamentary elections in 2017, I for one had no illusions of what the combined might of these two parties would accomplish once in power. The feeling of foreboding only deepened after they completely decimated the other parties at the federal and provincial levels. Granted that the scale of the victory of what was to become the Nepal Communist Party was a result mainly due to the fecklessness of the Nepali Congress leadership, then in government, but also of the disarray the other political forces were in. And, of course, a gullible electorate taken in by the impossibly tall promises made by the country’s two major communist forces.
It certainly did not require any special inductive powers to reach the conclusion I had, since the same could have been said for any party. The record since 1990 spoke for itself. While floundering in the political wilderness in the years 2002 to 2006, the politicians might have been fully sincere when expressing contrition for past acts of commission and omission. The period since, however, has shown quite clearly that the redemption people had been made to believe in was strictly for effect only. The country has undergone historic changes, but as far as governance goes, people have not felt one iota of difference between what went before 2006 and what came after.
For some reason though the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) was able to convince enough people that it would be different. The scale of victory and the hubris that became immediately apparent should have raised alarm bells but a populace lulled into somnolence by visions of a glorious future went along for the ride. The result has been a shambles of a government that has failed in nearly every field, no matter what its spinmeisters would have us believe, starting with its deliberate and definitive undermining of the much-anticipated federalism exercise itself.
Presidential prime minister
During the constitution-drafting phase, the UML had stood in favour of a directly elected prime minister, an experiment that has been tried only once, and failed (in Israel). Just like the Maoists’ choice of a presidential system, the argument was that all of Nepal’s woes would be resolved once we had a chief executive directly elected by the people and not beholden to party politics that had been Nepal’s bane in the 1990s, and again in the years after 2008.
The constitution adopted a parliamentary system and along with it the compromise politics that is both its weakness and strength. But the NCP’s absolute dominance of the political sphere meant that until early this year, its leader and the country’s prime minister, KP Oli, has behaved exactly like a prime minister elected directly by popular vote would. He usurped power rapidly, not in order to make the business of government smooth but to be able to rule through fiat.
The arbitrary amendment to the rules of the National Trust for Nature Conservation to suit a patron’s business interests is just one example. What is quite inexplicable is the kind of dealings Oli manages to get involved in. Thus, he gave a direct order to scrap the bidding process for e-passports a day before the tenders are to be opened. The country is now in real danger of running out of passports in a few months just so that a crooked minister could seal his own side deal. One outstanding example of sheer incompetence, is the inability for nearly two years to issue driving licences—a driving licence, mind you, not developing hydropower—and only because of all manner of irregularities emanating from his own office in the procurement process.
Of the response to the pandemic, there is little left to be said except that in the face of this massive failing, the implicit strategy appears to be to aim for herd immunity, inconveniences and deaths along the way be damned. Only such an attitude can explain the complete silence to the many videos doing the rounds showing the plight of the hundreds of men, women and children, mainly from the Tarai but also from India, who are spending days and nights just for a PCR test to be allowed back to their rented premises in the capital. Or, to news from the Nepal-India border where thousands have lined up every day to cross over in order to keep the family hearth burning. It must take a fair degree of callousness to be able to ignore the desperation writ on the faces of those Nepalis as they plunge headlong back into a country that has become the global hotspot for Covid-19.
Oli has proved himself totally incapable of leading the country despite, or perhaps because of, all the power he has accumulated. Yet, like many deluded by their own inflated sense of self, he continues to be blinded to his own failings. He probably thinks he sounds like a sage but his vaunted way with words is making him out to be more of an ill-informed buffoon. The months since the coronavirus struck have been simply used up in reminding him that parliamentary politics is about striking the right balance within his own party and with the opposition. All the time spent sorting out his party’s affairs means less time spent looking out for the country—if he ever had the intent, that is.
And the alternatives?
A look at the other side of the aisle is equally disheartening with each party facing leadership squabbles of their own. I cannot imagine anyone but the diehard Nepali Congress supporters to still be keeping up with the never-ending drama. Perhaps the only exciting bit to come out of the ongoing boring bickering within the Nepali Congress was when women leaders questioned if they were never going to be considered for leadership positions. Otherwise, what a yawn!
The third-largest force in Parliament, the newly minted Janata Samajbadi Party, is yet to make its presence felt on the national stage. Having evolved from countless factions and diverse political backgrounds, the only thing holding it together appears to be their fear of being reduced to irrelevance. One can bet on a falling out soon enough under the weight of having just too many people who have tasted leadership and not ready to play second fiddle to anyone, even if it is for the sake of the country.
The other force that appears to be quite spent at present is the Rastriya Prajatantra Party. Until we learnt through press reports recently that the party had resolved its internal dispute over its election symbol, it is very likely that few in this world were even aware that such differences were holding the party hostage.
In the 12-point agreement of 2005, both the Maoists and the parliamentary parties expressed their commitment not to repeat mistakes of the past. Fifteen years later and with more or less the same cast of characters in and out of the revolving doors of power, at least we now know what it was—a load of crock. The only hope for the country is for a new group of leaders to lead a breakout in their respective parties and, crucially, change how politics is done. Otherwise, we will always be doomed to live in a present that looks more like the past.