The curse of tinpot heroesOur self-important politicos falsely believe they have made huge sacrifices for the country.
The tragicomedy of the Sunday evening at the Pratinidhi Sabha Bhavan in New Baneshwor had a reassuring ending. Since the outcome was expected, the play was enacted and watched with reciprocal boredom. When Speaker Agni Prasad Sapkota declared that the motion of the vote of confidence tabled by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Dubai had been endorsed by a majority, the announcement was received with a huge sigh of collective relief.
Parliamentarians of the Nepali Congress (NC) know their chairperson too well to expect anything new from their septuagenarian leader. At 75, Prime Minister Deuba is one of the last politicos of the Veterans' Generation of Nepal that were born before the overthrow of the Ranas in 1951 but grew up when the Shahs had begun to consolidate their stranglehold over the polity and society. They struggled against the authoritarian regime for almost three decades and were done with their life's work in 1990 with the restoration of multiparty democracy.
Compared to the grand old party that is the NC, stalwarts of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) as well as the Maoist Centre belong to what can best be termed as the Lost Generation. Even though born after the fall of Ranarchy in 1951 and before the beginning of the absolutist Shah regime in 1960, ambitious politicos of this generation were bewildered by the geopolitical compulsions of the Cold War, confused by the continuing backwardness of their country and enticed by the escapist promises of communism.
It took almost 30 years after 1990 for the Naxalite Jhapalis of the 1970s and the Maoists of the 1990s—most notable of them being the phalanx of former prime ministers such as Messrs Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Baburam Bhattarai and their fellow daydreamers—to realise that the promised dictatorship of the proletariat can't accommodate all aspirants for the supremo's position. There was little in this high-octane drama for the people in whose name all this playacting took place. Ousted prime minister Sharma Oli trusted fellow Bahuns, rewarded craven loyalists and was beholden to a preferred group of plutocrats. Prime Minister Deuba has begun on a similar note by picking prominent Chhetri colleagues.
The Veterans' claim to fame is based upon their suffering during the Rana or Shah Regime. Intermittently jailed for nine years by the Shahs, it's often forgotten that Deuba parachuted from the London School of Economics onto the top floor of national politics after the success of the People's Movement of 1990 in which he had played little or no role. His four terms as prime minister (1995-97, 2001-02, 2004-05, and 2017-18), each more inglorious than the previous ones, are enough to show that he lacks the imagination to chart a new course for the country. Deuba's first stint in Baluwatar is best remembered for the failure of his success (Mahakali Treaty), the success of his failure (Maoist insurgency) and the disgrace of his political expediencies (Pajero Kanda). His second term culminated with a creeping coup and the third one ended with a royal-military takeover. The fourth one was no less damaging—it almost decimated the oldest democratic party of the country from its base in Madhes.
The recently ousted prime minister consistently opposed republicanism, federalism and inclusion, but managed to hoodwink the electorate that he was the best suited person to protect these values! His first term in office will be best remembered for toxic ethno-nationalism and insistent anti-Madhesi tirade and the goat-tailed map of the second term will continue to mar Nepal-India relations for decades to come.
Dahal, by confronting the military without adequate political preparation, succeeded in re-establishing the primacy of the army in politics through the office of the president in the Katawal Kanda. Dahal himself hardly remembers having done anything remarkable in his second term other than prioritising local elections over the rehabilitation of Gorkha Earthquake survivors.
A common thread that binds these self-important politicos is their false belief that they have done enormous sacrifice for the betterment of the country. All such assertions, however, fly in the face of ground realities. While it's true that Deuba has spent considerable time behind bars, his contribution to public life after coming out of prison has been negligible if not entirely negative.
A 14-year jail term for manslaughter was Sharma Oli's sole claim to fame before he managed to wrangle the all-important home affairs portfolio in the short-lived Man Mohan Adhikari cabinet and succeeded in wrapping up all investigations into the death of Madan Bhandari and Jiwaraj Ashrit in a road accident.
Dahal probably thinks that once having had a price on his head is a higher sacrifice than that of the Tharus that were forcibly disappeared by the security forces in Bardia, the Dalits that were eliminated in fake encounters, and the Janajatis that fought ferociously to establish his party's revolutionary credentials.
Villainy and heroism are somewhat like the two sides of the same coin, and one never knows which flip will bring the evil side up. Deuba turned out to be an incompetent prime minister in every sense of the term. Sharma Oli was malevolent in the first term, and an unmitigated disaster in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic in the second term.
What most outsiders celebrate as the resilience of Nepalis is in fact a symptom of widespread hopelessness in society. The will to survive all adversities perhaps comes from a firm belief in the strength of the family—the oldest and the strongest institution of humanity. The social strength, however, turns into a major weakness of the political economy when it degenerates into nepotism and cronyism.
Religion is perhaps the second most important social institution after the family for most Nepalis irrespective of their ethnicity. Marx correctly intuited that religion was "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of the soulless conditions", and hence, "opium of the people". Caste is yet another curse that offers solace during adversity, but chains an individual to archaic practices at the same time. Sadly, hero-worship buttresses crumbling social practices even as it hinders innovations in political economy.
Over the last few days, the media has been awash with gratuitous advice for the fifth-term prime minister. The only advice he needs at this stage is to ignore all advice and concentrate on creating a legacy for posterity. Providence has given one last opportunity to Deuba to redeem himself in the all-seeing eyes of history.