Does Nepal await another popular revolt?The federal government has failed on many fronts. Yet, there seems to be a dearth of organised public anger against these failures.
The classical theory of change suggests that any desired transformation can only be achieved through three inevitable steps, namely unfreeze, change and refreeze. The task of unfreezing the adherence to the status quo in a few hundred ruling elites, across ideologies, is proving to be the most arduous task of all. Therefore, the chances of transforming Nepal’s political system and public delivery mechanism through incremental reform appear increasingly slimmer. Lamentations don’t help; what is needed is a structured call for quality in governance and change. While the delivery of good governance from the state has historically remained pathetic, the indifference among masses is as responsible in constraining the growth and prosperity of the country. This has never allowed the country’s growth to hit an optimal level.
On Sunday, Dr Govinda KC ended his latest fast-unto-death protest, or satyagraha, after an agreement signed with the government to address his demands, mainly, related to reform in the country's medical education system. But had Nepal been an accountable democracy, he need not have struggled for years for simple demands like making medical education more accessible geographically and accessible to the people from the lower economic strata, and to stop corrupt practices surrounding the affiliation of medical colleges by the universities, among others. Unfortunately, not only has the Nepali state failed to do so on its own, but the successive governments failed to even honour the agreements they had reached with Dr KC, accompanying each of his previous satyagrahas. The fate of the recent agreement also may not be any different.
The Covid-19 infection rate among the tested crossed the 25 percent mark and the total number of proven infections broke the psychological ceiling of 100,000 last week. But the federal government, instead of assuaging and facilitating the people to overcome fear and contain the infection, is effectively indulging in fear-mongering on the one hand and terribly failing to implement containment and cure protocols on the other. ‘The government can do nothing to contain the virus’, Prime Minister KP Oli reportedly told his ministers last Thursday. Initially, he had dismissed the impending scale of threats projected by the scientists and public health experts. Government officials are also terrorising the public with confusing information.
For example, the spokesperson in the Ministry of Health, while highlighting the achievements of the five-month-long lockdown claimed that the country increased intensive care unit (ICU) beds from 900 in March to 2,600 by the end of September and provisioned ventilators from 80 to 900. But just after two days, when patients in the ICU reached 321 and the occupied number of ventilators was 77, the same spokesperson declared that the ICU beds and ventilators were no longer available to the patients in hospitals of ‘convenient’ locations, whereas, almost 70 percent of ICU beds and 80 percent of ventilators are within the Kathmandu Valley where about 60 percent of the infected population is concentrated. The central government has miserably failed to enforce the social distancing and health safety rules, including in the public transports. It has also failed to take along the provincial and local governments so as to enable them to meaningfully contribute to the containment measures.
Each and every country in the world is now keenly committed to salvaging their respective economies affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. But Nepal for the past one and a half months is without a standalone finance minister, since Yubaraj Khatiwada resigned. When he was immediately appointed as an advisor to the prime minister, general perception, despite his miserable performance while in the post, was that he would function as the de facto finance minister. But now, amidst all this, Khatiwada has now been appointed as Nepal’s ambassador to the United States. Such an ad-hoc approach of the government in managing the economy at the time of this unprecedented national crisis only shows its lack of ability to identify and tackle important national priorities.
The media is inundated with barbaric stories of rape in every corner of the country. This certainly has several socio-economic dimensions that need to be addressed to control this menace. But the present government has completely turned a blind eye towards widespread political patronage of criminals and the ever-increasing sense of impunity perpetrators seem to feel. In the meantime, victims have very limited access to justice, cultivating Nepal’s image as a ‘horrible rapist nation’. These issues have failed to be part of the pressing political agenda.
Despite all the problems the government has been unable to counter, the organised public anger that should have been pressurising the government is virtually non-existent. The course correction of nonperforming or underperforming governments would be impossible without citizens’ recourse to public pressure, protest, revolt and even revolution. But this possibility looks very distant in Nepal. To borrow the term from Karl Marx himself, the rise of the lumpenproletariat class in Nepal has only facilitated the extractive political class to dedicate themselves in fulfilling petty vested interests without interference and fear of retribution.
In his classic book, Democracy in America (1835), French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville said, ‘In order that men remain civilised or become so, the art of associating must be developed and perfected among them in the same ratio as equality of conditions increases’. He also contended that for citizens without ‘the taste to unite in political goals, their independence would run great risks’. The Nepali conscience yet seems to be acquainted with this particular ‘taste’, thus, exacerbating the inequality between the ruler and the ruled.
Nevertheless, it is beyond question that Nepal would be able to unshackle herself from the suffocating status quo without weeding out the current set of self-indulgent and extractive political class without a bold and ethical democratic revolution. A contingent question, then, is: How proximate is yet another popular revolt in Nepal that can effectively reset the existing sociopolitical order? The Covid-19 pandemic can perhaps be the best eye-opener for the citizens-in-slumber.