The season of liberal exuberanceDahal knows that Kathmandu’s libertarians love the announcement of game-changer proposals.
The winter of merriment began with the opening ceremony of Pokhara international airport. The powers that be left no stone unturned to make the inauguration memorable. Celebrations were worthy of the launch of the fanciest airport in the country built with a Chinese loan.
The political parties had mobilised their supporters to fill the venue. The sub-metropolitan government had declared a public holiday. The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal had arranged to have flowers showered over the ceremonies. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal arrived in a chartered aircraft. After declaring open the airfield, he proclaimed that now it was the turn of Nijgadh to get the green light.
Facilities at Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) are indeed insufficient for the ever-increasing traffic and cargo. Once a grazing ground, the airfield was built in the 1950s for the royalty, the nobility, their guests and high government officials. It was reconfigured in the 1970s for foreign tourists and international cargo; enlarged in the 1990s for commercial travellers and domestic commuters; and expanded further in the noughties to accommodate the labour exodus to West Asia and Malaysia. TIA can no longer handle the mix of all such categories with the available infrastructure.
The development of alternatives, however, has been ad hoc at best and outright whimsical at worst. It is still unclear whether Gautam Buddha International Airport will be able to generate enough revenue to service the loan that financed its construction. As long as it was a dream, Pokhara international airport looked alluring; the risk of its realisation turning into a nightmare looks very real.
Even if one were to ignore environment concerns, which should never be ignored in the first place, the technical, social and economic feasibilities of Nijgadh international airport in the proposed form appear to be slightly suspect. Perhaps a less ambitious airfield aimed at reducing congestion at TIA will suffice. But why dream small when lenders with geostrategic interests are ready to massage the ego of the ruling elite in peripheral countries with white elephants?
Premier Dahal knows that the libertarians of Kathmandu love the announcement of game-changer proposals with huge investments and long gestation periods, since it implies that the cost of the mega projects will have to be borne by future generations while the financial arrangements will begin to benefit them immediately. Starting his third innings at Baluwatar that he has termed to be his last, Premier Dahal desires nothing more than being accepted as a bona fide member of the ruling class.
Analogous to the chatterati and the twitterati, the social elite of Kathmandu can perhaps be neologised as the "liberalatti". The category consists of—but isn't limited to—limousine, latte, lentil, loitering and laidback varieties of liberals.
The limousine liberals were alarmed when Premier Dahal tried to institutionalise civilian control over the military in his first term in 2008 and celebrated joyously when he was forced to bow out of office in utter humiliation. They barely tolerated him in his second term when he resigned after conducting the first local elections under the controversial constitution. They have welcomed him with open arms this time around, maybe because he took the oath of office in the ethnonational dress of the dominant community.
Even though limousine liberals of Nepal prefer to be driven around in SUVs, they continue to moralise periodically as the high priests of civil society. As soon as the election results were out, some of them rustled up a statement expressing concern over "foreign influence" in government formation. Once the Nepali Congress succeeded in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the concerned citizens lapsed into deafening silence. The liberalatti know that ethnonational supremo Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli is actually in charge of ensuring political stability through a powerful remote control.
Relatively modern in outlook but no less ethnonational, the latte liberals of Kathmandu like to drive around in electric cars, breakfast on a serving of fresh fruits, egg whites, granola and asparagus; and then prepare impressive proposals for donor agencies to fund their freedom promotion and awareness generation projects.
Over a glass of wine or a cup of organic coffee with brown sugar and low-fat milk, latte liberals can easily persuade the executives of INGOs that they need more money to tell the world that Nepal must be prevented from going to the communists! Every time Premier Dahal comes to power, the prospects of funding for NGOs, most of them affiliated to the largest communist party in the country, increase substantially.
The group that can be called lentil liberals are often vegetarians or eat only fish and white meat. They like to cycle around the relatively safer streets of Jhamsikhel in expensive gear, and can hold forth on the merits of liberty, empowerment, gendered articulation, meritocracy, prosperity and climate change for hours. Like most liberals, the lentil variety too believes in liberty, but reject the notion of equality, inclusion and social justice altogether.
Lentil liberals are jubilant that the once fierce Prachanda has finally been domesticated into a meek conformist willing to mark Prithvi Jayanti as “unity day” rather than what it is—the day of ethnonational resurgence.
Premier Dahal has worthy colleagues. One of the first things Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane did was pay a visit to the Department of Passports under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Having once been a jingoist of “Buddha was born in Nepal” fame, he knows that symbolism matters more than substance in everyday politics. He was also seen ceremoniously cutting yogurt rather than a cake to celebrate the birthday of his spouse. Loitering liberals love such antics.
Astride noisy motorcycles and waving national flags, loitering liberals have replaced the notorious Mandales of the Panchayat era. The new group is even more energetic in denouncing those that don't agree with their Dai, Dajyu or Dijyu patrons.
The loiters are joyous that the Youth Communist League barely survives, and the Youth Force is still dormant even though the Maoists and the Marxist-Leninists are comrades-in-arm in government. They hope that together with Rajendra Lingden, their Rabi Dai will be successful in melting the hammer and sickle, and then moulding the molten iron into a Trishul of Hindutva to be used against federalism, inclusion and politics of dignity under the approving gaze of ethnonational chieftain Sharma Oli.
The last group of liberals to rejoice at the enthronement of Premier Dahal at Baluwatar—the date and time of his ceremonious entry into the official residence was duly determined by a Hindu astrologer—consists of hopeless optimists. Chances of success are rather slim, but the prospect of Premier Dahal discovering the virtue of remaining true to the spirit of a secular, democratic, federal and inclusive republic that he had envisioned in 2008 can't be ruled out completely.
History always repeats itself twice, observed Karl Marx and added, “The first as tragedy, then as farce.” The first term of Premier Dahal was indeed an unqualified tragedy. His second term was a pitiable farce. Will his third term end up being a pathetic pantomime under the sneering direction of ethnonational chieftain Sharma Oli? Some questions are best left for history to answer.