Political economy of patrimonialismDeuba has failed in making an honest attempt to disentangle the interwoven knots of structural corruption.
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba took the oath of office in July 2021 under very unusual circumstances. The swearing-in ceremony was held only when President Bidya Devi Bhandari relented and rectified the letter of appointment in line with the verdict of the Supreme Court. It was an early indication of the strained relationship to follow between the heads of state and government.
Ejected from office upon the orders of the judiciary, rejected by some of his party colleagues, and dejected at the collapse of his truculent strategy of capturing the state by dissolving the Pratinidhi Sabha twice, ethnonational supremo Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli had absented himself from the oath-taking ceremony of his successor. Apart from being a display of uncouth bellicosity, it was also an indicator that the new leader of the Opposition was determined to subvert the functioning of Parliament.
For a person that has spent his entire political career opposing communism, it must not be easy for Premier Deuba to head a coalition government overwhelmingly made up of erstwhile Marxists, former Leninists and lapsed Maoists. Self-righteousness remains the defining characteristic of leftwing politicos even when they have disbanded the ideology that requires a complete suspension of disbelief from its adherents.
Premier Deuba is a serial incompetent himself. His term in the Home Ministry in the early-1990s is forgettable at best. In his first stint at Baluwatar at the head of a coalition as unwieldy as the present one, he had to initiate, promote and tolerate political corruption of an unprecedented kind. Over the years, he went on to dissolve Parliament on flimsy grounds, accept a humiliating dismissal and re-appointment from an absolute king and then head a government to conduct controversial elections.
Weighed down by the internal contradictions of a disharmonious coalition, the mere survival of Premier Deuba in office so far is his biggest achievement. In terms of delivery, not much was expected from him anyway. But he seems to have done a reasonable job of clearing the mess left by his vainglorious predecessor. Where he has failed, once again, is in performing one of the primary duties of a head of government—making an honest attempt to disentangle the interwoven knots of structural corruption. The web of fixers continues to tar his fifth term in office with credible allegations.
The roots of corruption go deep into prevalent practices and established norms of mainstream "Nepali" society. Despite apparent flaws in some of his arguments, anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista captures the essence of endemic sleaze in four simple and everyday terms: bahunbaad, chakari, aafno manchhe and bhabi.
The proposition of bahunbaad is slightly different from the traditional idea of Brahmanism which consists primarily of the supremacy of Brahman, the sanctity of the Vedas and the sole right of Brahmans in interpreting the holy scriptures. Bahunbaad goes beyond religious beliefs and encompasses political practices that empower the priest to anoint the potentate and assist him—always him—in ruling over the realm. In addition to their spiritual authority, Bahuns thus acquire enormous corporeal authority. There is a reason Bahuns dominate the Khas-Arya category of hegemonic ethnicity in the state and society of Nepal.
The concept of chakari isn't just about the obsequiousness of a servant towards his master or the sycophancy of a favour seeker towards a person in power. Even the template of the patron-client relationship fails to fully capture the essence of the ritual display of the quasi-religious obligation of the supplicant towards his lord irrespective of the response. Servility implies powerlessness whereas chakari is a cultural practice that enforces the position of a person in the social hierarchy.
Similarly, the aafno manchhe signifier encapsulates the idea of nepotism, cronyism and favouritism; but its circle is wider than that of the direct benefactor-beneficiary relationship. In the custom of aafno manchhe, an almost tribal loyalty of the group towards each other is assumed unless established otherwise. The Gorkhali nobles and courtiers developed close bonds among themselves to overcome their insecurities in the conquered territories where they didn't understand the language of their serfs.
The belief in bhavi is sometimes translated as destiny. Faith in the inevitability of fated events to happen in a person's life is certainly a part of bhavi. But fatalism carries a tinge of resignation; faith in bhavi is doing one's duty with the conviction that its fruits will be reaped in the future—if not in this birth, then in the next. The stoical behaviour of Nepalis, often termed as their characteristic resilience, that astounds foreign visitors comes from the confidence that bhavi will ultimately deliver justice.
Greed and glory are impelling forces that lure ambitious warriors into exploring, expanding and erecting the structure of empires. King Prithvi Narayan of Gorkha was no exception. Even though the authenticity of Divyopadesh—the divine counsel that the legendary warrior is believed to have delivered to his courtiers—remains suspect, it correctly reflects the mindset of a conqueror worried about the longevity of a territory that he had put together with audacity, courage and tenacity.
The divine decree decries petty corruption as in "giving or taking bribes" but urges the institutionalisation of the division of spoils among nobles, courtiers, loyalists and foot soldiers of the realm in an equitable manner. Sacrilegious as it may sound, the seeds of the so-called "loottantra" can be found in the way the system of patronage has been prescribed in the founding text of the Gorkhali Empire.
A usurper, Jung Bahadur Kunwar didn't even attempt to hide his intentions and employed the entire strength of the Gorkhali military into amassing a vast fortune for himself and his family. Jung's contribution of "Lucknow Loot" into the Nepali lexicon comes from the mercenary services his troops rendered to the East India Company in the sack of Awadh. He set an example for his successors that immorality is good if it is couched in nationalistic terms. Exports of dubious authenticity and imports of re-exportable substances in suspicious quantities have strengthened the belief that "nationalist corruption" is not only acceptable but desirable for the health of the economy.
King Mahendra's jhiti gunta benefaction to the people of specified areas in the Himalayan region was ostensibly meant to improve their living conditions. The real intention, however, was to encourage overseas trade. It corrupted an entire generation that was lured into living beyond its means through suspicious transactions.
Critics that blame the federal republic for a perceptible rise in corruption often forget that cleaning the Augean stable of systemic corruption is going to be a work of generations. Supremo Sharma Oli had begun to add more filth to the accumulated muck in public life. The implosion of the unwieldy coalition in Singh Durbar under any pretext—the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) issue, dismissal of Minister Renu Yadav, or the rescheduling of local elections—will precipitate the return of "personalistic" authoritarianism of the paterfamilias.
Premier Deuba is incompetent, hence incapable of inflicting much damage to the body politic. All his challengers are so adept at manipulating the political economy for partisan interests that any other arrangement of governance at this stage is likely to prove injurious to the health of democracy.