Inoculating the masses against demagogic populismThe challenge for Nepali society is to work for a relatively peaceful transition.
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s political fate hangs in the balance. With Nepali Congress taking an oppositional stand, his status as the ethnonational chieftain stands challenged. Though nothing is ever certain in the game of politics, a vertical division in the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) appears to be a foregone conclusion. He is no longer the Supremo that once held sway over the polity and society of the country.
The decision of dissolving the Pratinidhi Sabha in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic is comparable to the declaration of promulgating a contested statute in the middle of Gorkha Earthquake aftershocks through the 16-point conspiracy. But five years after his phenomenal rise as the saviour of Khas-Arya pride, Oli has lost his charisma due to failures on all fronts.
The economy is in shambles. Allegations of corruption in high places are rife. Nepotism, favouritism and quid pro quo in political appointments have become the norm. The prime minister has fallen so low in public esteem that even nominations made upon the recommendations of the Constitutional Council have failed to escape scrutiny.
If details of court proceedings that have seeped into the public sphere are anything to go by, lawyers appear to have a very strong case for the restoration of the Pratinidhi Sabha. Such an eventuality may impel Oli to take even more desperate actions.
Among the three principal outside players in Nepali politics, it seems the Chinese were the first to lose confidence in the sincerity of the person they had helped become the chief of a fraternal communist party wedded to the Xi Jinping Thought. Oli consistently ratcheted up anti-India rhetoric to burnish his ultra-nationalist image. For some strange reasons, prominent interlocutors from the US seemed to admire the hilarity of a Third World strongman. But even they aren't too pleased with the absolute ineffectiveness of their favourite agent of political stability.
Perhaps Oli had anticipated that his bugbears in the South Block will help him come out of constitutional and political imbroglio due to the compulsions of the new Cold War simmering in South Asia. For now, all such hopes lie shattered. It seems Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali received nothing tangible in New Delhi except hackneyed promises of continued goodwill.
While New Delhi appears ready to give the prime minister a long rope, it doesn't seem to be too willing to pull him out of the bog. The goat-tailed map has closed many hospitable doors for several Nepali politicos including the jingoist-in-chief of Baluwatar.
Political, diplomatic and propaganda weights are being stacked up one by one against the tottering chieftain. If it were a normal person in his position, they would humbly make way for the constitutional search of a more suitable claimant. But demagogic politicos are of a different breed altogether. They plan to remain in power forever and inflict huge damage to the polity if they are made to leave against their will. The triumph of Trumpism despite his fall from grace is an illustrative case in point.
The most effective way of fighting demagoguery is to read early warning signals and expose a putative populist before one manages to arouse the raw passions of the dominant community. Unfortunately for Nepal, Oli succeeded in taking an entire country for a ride with his seemingly comical outbursts against Madhesis and Janajatis that pandered to the prejudices of the Khas-Arya ethnonational.
The Supremo didn't even hide his duplicity of having no faith in federalism, inclusion and plurality but aspiring to become the prime minister ostensibly to protect and promote a constitution that enshrined such provisions, though in a limited way. His decision to remove the 'Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal' from the official name wasn't a bolt from the blue; he had expressed his intentions earlier in unmistakable manner by deriding republicanism as a journey to the US in an oxcart.
Demagoguery and authoritarianism are inseparable. Oli began to concentrate all political and administrative authority in the residential Secretariat of the prime minister from the day he took office. He seldom cared to attend his official chamber at Singha Durbar. Party meetings were invariably held at Baluwatar. His health condition didn't come in the way of supposedly working '18 hours a day' as long as everyone paid obeisance to his person at his residence.
Be it the challenger to his position inside the party or a competitor from the opposition benches, Oli took immense pleasure in belittling all political opponents. The 'with us or against us' mindset of authoritarian populists holds immense appeal for the masses yearning for a strong leader in the times of uncertainty. He valued political processes so little that not just the office of the president, even the lower house of the Parliament was reduced to the level of being merely formalising institutions of all whimsical decisions.
Even when he sold hopes of piped gas to every kitchen, trans-Himalayan railway to the Gangetic plains or Nepali ships sailing to the high seas, his tone used to be flippant. The only time he sounded serious was when he claimed that Hindu sages had discovered the theory of gravitation before Newton or the authentic Rama of Hindu mythology was born in Nepal. Demagogues peddle supposed glories of the past which a disempowered populace is always eager to embrace.
Demagogues almost always harbour delusions of grandeur. Such a tendency invariably leads to misplaced priorities. Apart from being the only president in US history to be impeached twice, the only other thing President Trump will perhaps be remembered for is his slogan, 'Build That Wall!'.
Prime Minister Modi's enduring legacy will be the monumental folly of demonetisation and the colossal 'Statue of Unity' that was imported from China to be erected in Gujarat. The edifice complex of Oli expresses itself in the prioritisation of Dharahara over housing for the Gorkha Earthquake survivors and the erection of view towers on hilltops and in flatlands over building schools and hospitals.
Before he leaves, Prime Minister Oli is sure to squander scarce resources in order to leave what he probably believes will be his enduring legacy: a palace for the Prime Minister inside Baluwatar.
Demagogues have flexible moral values and decry or deploy political violence as it suits them. Whenever threatened, they are likely to unleash the fear and hatred of the dominant community against numerical as well as political minorities in an orgy of violence. Unlike Prime Minister Modi, Oli may not be capable of 'doing a Gujarat' on an entire country, but imitating Trump's Capitol incitement is a do-able option for a person completely unconcerned about the judgement of history.
Sooner rather than later, KP Sharma Oli will have to go. The challenge for Nepali society is to work for a relatively peaceful transition. It doesn't help that his main challengers aren't too well known for peaceful politics. Difficult as it may be to digest, violence is hardwired in the political proclivities of Nepalis.
The bigger challenge will be to create conditions where demagogic exhortations are countered with the appeal for peaceful politics and populist rhetoric is resisted with the promise of plurality and participation in public life. Vaccinating against the pandemic to ensure herd immunity is difficult enough, but to inoculate an entire society against demagogic populism is an impossible task that every generation has handled, with the media, academia and intelligentsia as front-liners.