Nationalism and its discontentsChallenge of national integration grows as political power becomes centralised and decision-making opaque
Nepal’s nationalism has currently become a shield for many things that are going wrong with our democracy. Resistance to India has strengthened PM Oli’s position by generating shallow emotional debates about railways and nationalism. It has shifted focus away from the real issues related to democracy and national interests.
There is a worrying trend about governance in Nepal. Political power is becoming more and more centralised and decision making is becoming more and more opaque. Whether this government is corrupt or not and whether it is promoting black marketeers or not have become an ideological issue because there is little evidence on the table.
If you are a Nepali Congress (NC) supporter or a Madheshi, then you ‘know’ that this government is the most corrupt and the most inefficient. But if you are a CPN-UML or a Maoist supporter, you believe that this government has taken a bold stance on Nepali nationalism and is going to deliver railroads with or without India on our side.
Politics of development
Personally, I have no doubt that Oli will jumpstart a lot of infrastructure projects. First of all, because it involves so much money that there will be a lot of kickbacks. Second, we have ready investors in cash-filled China and there are powerful forces that want money to flow out of China. Third, infrastructures, like the railroads, easily catch people’s imagination.
Since railroad has become a symbol of Nepali nationalism, it might be worthwhile to dwell a little more on the topic. “All that remains to be done,” Oli was reported saying, “is to scratch some dirt and lay the tracks.” It might be foolish to laugh at Oli on this, for if you look at the way the bureaucracy is functioning, Nepal might actually accomplish this. Newspaper reports in recent days indicate how the bureaucracy has been mobilised to follow up on agreements with China. Once the space is created, most of the work, like the Pokhara airport, will be carried out by the Chinese.
The railroad connection to China, however, has a flip side. Last week, we saw the image of a red train, loaded with Chinese goods, making its way to Nepal. Can we imagine a train loaded with Nepali goods making its way the other way round? Connectivity is like a double-edged sword. Our connectivity with China and India can help us, but it can also worsen our trade imbalance and benefit only a limited number of businesses and rent-seekers. If we do not set our development priorities right, we will only weaken our economic sovereignty.
Because there is so much money at stake, and because nobody can say no to infrastructure development, it will continue to remain the primary source of political instability and foreign intervention in Nepal. The reason the NC is so impatient to topple the government is not because it is sympathetic to the Madhesis or because it is towing an Indian line; it is clearly because a lot of money is at stake. We have seen the tussle over the National Reconstruction Authority, and now we are seeing a tussle over the fast-track to Tarai. In the future, we will see a tussle over Budhigandaki, Seti and countless other projects.
Then there is the question of Nepal’s overall development. There is a clear indication that every government in the near future that will fail to deliver services to the people, will fail to regulate the market, will fail to formulate and implement sound policies, and will fail to end economic inequality. This is because all political parties and leaders are trapped in a network of extractive practices. They will rarely have the ability to work against the interests of their benefactors and the contractors.
New forms of interference
Nepalis are quite familiar with Indian interference, so it is nothing new. What is new is the growing interest of China and the role of contractors in handling Nepal’s foreign policy.
Until the 2006 People’s Movement, the tectonic faultline in the Maoist parties was based on the perception of the key enemy. A group, represented by Baburam Bhattarai, thought that the feudal system was the biggest threat and was willing to work with India. Another group, represented by Mohan Baidya, perceived that Indian imperialism was a bigger threat and was willing to work with the monarchy. The Nepali monarchy, despite its linkages to influential Indian families, had antagonistic relations with India and was getting closer to China.
Now the Maoist parties are coming together despite their strong political differences. Of course, their common fear over transitional justice and antagonism toward India is understandable. But were these factors enough to bring them together, or was China a major factor? Several years ago, China had brought together Prachanda and former king Gyanendra for an initiative on Lumbini. During my personal conversation with a top Chinese communist party official in Beijing a few years ago, he said the group was genuine and he had lobbied with the chief ministers of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to develop the Lumbini circuit. In recent days, we learned how China played a role in sustaining the Oli government. If China is a major factor in Nepal’s internal politics, it will have long term implications on Nepal’s future.
What very few see is the way Nepal’s foreign policy itself is now being taken over by the contractors and agents of these infrastructure projects. Nepal’s foreign policy with China, largely, is in the hands of these contractors. For example, a few days ago Sujata Koirala said the NC should allow the UML to continue. Was this a purely political statement, or was her connections to Chinese contractors a reason for her position? Nepal’s foreign policy with India is more complex, but we know that when top politicians are not directly talking to each other, contractors and agents continue to play a significant role.
Internal security and national integration
Nepal needs to rescue its foreign policy and use it as a tool to strengthen the country’s economy, democracy, security, and sovereignty. Our current political course will be unable to handle internal security interests and the challenge of national integration.
For example, analysts are pointing out that fresh water will become the source of conflict in the next decade, and Nepal needs to seriously start thinking about that. Recent effects of climate change show that India will be severely water stressed in the next few years and large parts of Nepal, including the eastern Tarai, may also be severely affected. One of the best ways to manage fresh water is through reservoir style projects across the Himalayas and by closely working with India on management of water. Now that Nepal has formally approved a national security policy, it will be easier to move ahead on this issue. One of Nepal’s foreign policy priorities should be to work closely with India on issues related to Nepal’s own internal security.
Similarly, the current political course is only worsening the historical challenge of national integration. The problem is that of the state’s relationship with the Madhesis and the Janajatis, both in terms of the structural relations encoded in the constitution and the ethnic social relations between the people of hill origin and the Madhesis and Janajatis. Strong emotions and fears have led to a breakdown in communications between the antagonistic groups and PM Oli’s acerbic and judgmental comments have not helped.
Therefore, if we do not ensure decentralisation of power and transparency in decision-making, if we do not allow the public to have an oversight over politics, and if we do not ensure proper communication between conflicting political groupings, our efforts at development will continue to destabilise our politics. It means that without real democracy, sustained development will become near impossible.
A long-time journalist with trainings in liberal arts from Emory University, Khanal is former editor of The Himalayan Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org