When faith in the system failsIt is becoming difficult to describe what politicos actually do other than fulltime politicking.
Unable to make the instalment payments of two loans that he had taken for the marriage of his daughter, Ramdev Marik Dom, 45, of Chhinnamasta rural municipality in Saptari district committed suicide. It was one of the 19 deaths by desperation that are recorded everyday in Nepal. Since Ramdev was a Madheshi, even Dalit activists and organisations in Kathmandu failed to raise their voices to mobilise support for his family. The local government of Chhinnamasta has finally come to the rescue, and has decided to repay the loans and provide succour to his wife and two sons.
Despite the statement in his dying declaration, Prem Prasad Acharya, 36, of Suryodaya municipality in Ilam was no “ordinary citizen”. He was a thoroughbred HAMNS (Hindu, Aryan, Male and Nepali Speaker) from a comfortable family, had built a house of his own in Kathmandu, dabbled in the travel trade, travelled abroad for work, and invested his savings in an agri business. The prospects of his venture must have looked good for commercial banks to lend him considerable sums of money. Unfortunately, the timing of his enterprise turned out to be a difficult one.
The pandemic sucked the energy out of businesses everywhere. The corporate enterprises that he blames for not paying him on time in his last testimony must have been going through a rough patch themselves. The tax regime of Nepal is not for the faint-hearted, and is almost impossible to negotiate without professional assistance, which most small and medium enterprises find difficult to afford. There is an element of bitter truth in every accusation that Prem Prasad made before his self-immolation in front of the Parliament building. However, he did not need to die to prove an obvious point.
Almost everybody knows that the state, society and market forces of the country are constantly competing with each other in displaying which is more dysfunctional. In that sense, the self-sacrifice of the dejected entrepreneur may turn out to be meaningless. The task force that the government has formed to examine his various “demands” is unlikely to come up with anything more than a band-aid solution for the complex problem of political economy.
On a personal level, Prem Prasad has succeeded in drawing the attention of the guilt-ridden middle class to the plight of his family. Celebrated cardiologist and social media influencer Om Anil Murti managed to raise more than a million rupees through his page within a few days. A gofundme initiative by a Texan Nepali has also collected more contributions than it had first intended. There have been public protests in support of his cause. It is difficult to ascertain whether Mayor Balen Shah is a gadfly or a bungler, but he has blamed the state, of which he is part, for “extreme failure”.
In a democracy, even one as flawed as in Nepal, it is relatively safe and easy to blame the state which promises everything and delivers next to nothing. The alarming rise in the suicide rate—24.9 suicides per 100,000 people, which is said to be the seventh highest in the world—is yet to draw the attention of jingoistic chatterati that often set the agenda for the ethnonational politicos of the country.
The family is accepted as the fundamental group unit of society. Parts of the suicide note of Prem Prasad show that he was torn between self-set familial obligations and the indifference of the extended family towards his ambitions. The mismatch between growth in personal aspiration due to unrealistic expectations of the immediate family, and concurrent decrease in the capacity of social networks to absorb the shock in case of failure, puts tremendous pressure on ambitious individuals.
Once religion was, as Karl Marx had so acutely observed, “... the heart of the heartless world, and the soul of the soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” The personal achievement has since become the heart, public accolades the new soul, and exhibitionistic display the painkiller of depressed individuals. The Supreme Being no longer has the power it once had upon believers, and the clergy doesn't inspire the confidence of the laity anymore.
It is increasingly becoming difficult to describe what politicos actually do other than fulltime politicking. They make dodgy deals, cobble opportunistic alliances, and use every trick in the book to lay claim upon some public office. Gone are the days when a person could call upon a politico to have any grievance against a troublesome government employee addressed. Politicians are becoming economically powerful but socially irrelevant.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had once thundered: “Who is society? There is no such thing!” Tragic as it may seem, “such a thing” has since become the new normal where every person is on her own. In the cutthroat competition for material advancement, most relationships are merely transactional.
Prem Prasad names in his dying declaration that none of the bigwigs of business organisations such as “Chandra Prasad Dhakal of Global IME, Bhawani Rana of Udhyog Banijya, and Golchha Organisation” was willing to lend him an ear when he was in distress. The fate of the working class has become much worse as trade unions have turned into the playfield of aspiring politicos operating in cahoots with management. Peasants and overseas workers don't even have organisations to call their own.
Solidarity is no longer a virtue to be cherished. Facing failure is distressing enough, the searing pain of being alone in your struggle can easily lead to a complete breakdown. The market-based education system doesn't prepare individuals for inevitable setbacks that everyone has to face at some point of time in life.
Among the four legs of the scaffold—family, state, civil society and market—upon which an individual has to precariously balance oneself throughout life, businesses are the most businesslike entities. Familial bonds are based on love and affection. The state, at least in theory, is supposed to protect the weak and restrain the strong. Altruism is the core value of civil society activism. With profit as their primary motive, businesses function on the assumption that free market benefits everyone in the long run. In the long run, however, as John Maynard Keynes wrote perceptively, “We are all dead.”
When a business has to function in an environment of disintegrating families, predatory state and ethnonational civil society, it doesn't take long for the free market to turn into a free-for-all where the winner takes everything and losers have to perpetually struggle until they perish. Such a volatile environment attracts reckless operators—variously called gangster capitalists, crony capitalists or bandit capitalists—that vitiate the business environment for everyone else as they grow obscenely rich even in dirt poor countries.
Predictability of the marketplace can only be assured when the rule of law holds and fundamental freedoms are protected. Entrepreneurs are risk-takers and can deal with uncertainties, but even the most astute investor has to realistically assess entry, operation and exit costs in order to be able to price their product or service in a rational manner. When faith in the system breaks, people prefer to exit rather than raise their voice.