Torments of an ideological vacuumDoctrinal vacuity could have survived political scrutiny had Oli been able to deliver the development that he has been peddling.
It's possible that the differences inside the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) over the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) loan proposals had nothing to do with the parting of ways between their two chairs. But considering that most rumours in Kathmandu often turn out to be true, foreign influence in the intensification of conflict of personalities can't be dismissed out of hand.
The spectre of a new Cold War between the People's Republic of China and the United States has raised fresh fears of smouldering conflicts throughout the world. Widespread conflicts usually begin in the name of ideologies of the political economy. The contest for a sphere of influence then becomes scorchingly hot in incompetently governed countries.
The last Cold War was largely fought and won in the Asian theatre. It flashed out in Korea, intensified in Vietnam and all but ended in Afghanistan when a prolonged military engagement in hostile terrain sapped the energy of the Soviet Union. On December 31, 1991, the USSR disintegrated and the dichotomy between the market economy and state-centric socialism collapsed.
Since the contest of ideologies had been decisive, there was no place for a fusion of ideas to produce a more humane worldview. Free choice, of a consumer in the marketplace and a voter in the majoritarian democracy, had won the war of the day. It was, to twist a Shakespearean expression, the small choice between rotten apples.
The victory of the dominant principle of political economy was marked with an apt badge of honour—The End of History? Despite the question mark, a hint of triumphalism in the formulation was unmistakable. After every war, winners get to dictate the terms. Henceforth, the state would have to limit itself to being an enabler and a facilitator for the transnational investors and their compradors in host countries.
Having been firmly in the Western camp for well over three decades since the late-1950s, Nepal didn't have to move further rightwards after the restoration of parliamentary democracy in April 1990. In fact, initially, the movement in policy direction was slightly leftwards.
The interim government of Krishna Prasad Bhattarai inducted Devendra Raj Pandey in the Cabinet as the finance minister. Pandey had earlier served as the permanent secretary and resigned on moral grounds when asked to close his eyes towards institutionalised corruption in the monarchical government. He was, and perhaps continues to be, what ideologues of the left as well as right often dismiss as a mere technocrat—a development economist.
Conceptualised at the London School of Economics, W Arthur Lewis is credited to have given birth to the discipline of development economics with his path-breaking article first published in 1954 and its subsequent application when he served as the economic advisor to Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana soon after its independence. The first and only black person to have won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, Sir Arthur Lewis continues to be cited reverentially by development economists everywhere. However, only a few hardcore economists take his theories seriously anymore.
Even Nepal's experiment with the mix of democratic practices and development economics didn't survive the zeitgeist of liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation that was being hawked by bilateral donors and multilateral lenders alike. With Mahesh Acharya as the Finance Minister and Ram Sharan Mahat as the Vice-Chairman of National Planning Commission, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala swallowed the agenda of free-market fundamentalism hook, line and sinker.
Along with nationality and democracy, socialism had been one of the three founding faiths of the Nepali Congress. Once the party embraced the ideology of the free-market, even pronouncing the term 'socialism' became an embarrassment. Democracy was soon reduced to the level of electoral charade and a game of numbers. The NC then became the Nepali version of the Grand Old Party—socially conservative, culturally regressive, economically a free-market fundamentalist and a vocal supporter of the US worldview on global forums.
The metamorphosis of the beast of burden into a pachyderm failed to attract new adherents. Remnants of the ancien régime preferred to stick to the royalist parties such as the Rastriya Prajatantra Party. Culturally regressive neo-nationalists coalesced around what was then called Communist Party of Nepal (UML), a party that wanted to reinforce ethnonationalism by restoring the primacy of national dress, national language, national animal, national flower and all other jingoistic symbols.
Ideologically bankrupt, Congress was left with nothing—no slogan, no symbol and no leadership—to sell itself in the marketplace of seeking political support. By the late-1990s, it had no innovative economist, sociologist or political scientist in its ranks to pull the party up from the intellectual abyss. Acharya and Mahat had failed to devise practical strategies of attracting foreign investment. Though excellent professionals capable of mouthing the latest buzzwords, and adept at formulating logframes, Prithvi Raj Ligal and Shankar Sharma had been unsuccessful in preparing a proper roadmap for the mobilisation of external and internal resources.
The profit sector flourished under the Congress regime like never before in its history. Nepal became self-sufficient in the production of alcohol, cigarettes and noodles and began to import large quantities of food grains to feed itself. Glittering malls sprouted in the middle of crumbling dwellings. Remittances soared, but so did the import bill of petroleum products and non-essential goods.
By the early 2000s, the political economy of the country had become the hotbed of amoral cartels, cabals, charlatans and criminals. The Maoists walked into the ideological vacuum with their vacuous promises of creating a 'New Nepal'. They were soon to encounter their nemesis—the 'White Shirts'—a loose coalition of NGO-entrepreneurs, self-employed professionals, small-time builders, big-time brokers and sundry other operators of the profit sector that were invested in the continuation of the status quo. The promised revolution was over even before it had properly begun.
The unsettling mix of fear, uncertainty and hopelessness created widespread anxiety in the wake of the Gorkha earthquakes. The time was ripe for the emergence of populists with no commitment to any political philosophy or governance agenda. The Chair of the CPN-UML, KP Oli, was in an enviable position in 2015 as the dominant partner of the coalition government.
The UML Chair was not in the Council of Ministers, hence he couldn't be held responsible for its failures. But could exercise tremendous authority over all the instruments of the state by virtue of being the supreme leader of a party in power. The aftermath of the Gorkha earthquakes was Oli’s finest hour. The fact that he lacked any political conviction became his chief advantage as monarchists like Kamal Thapa and Maoists such as Pushpa Kamal Dahal carried him upon their shoulders into Singha Durbar.
Ideological vacuity could have survived political scrutiny had Supremo Sharma Oli been able to deliver the development that he had been promising without a pause for the last five years. With no political commitments to hold principle political parties together, the invitation is out to geopolitical contenders to come up with ideological adhesives. In addition to the raging pandemic, the political maelstrom is likely to make 2021 an interesting year, in the negative sense of the phrase.