From clout to routThe Cabinet’s decision to grant Rs5 million to Sujata Koirala, perhaps one of the richest persons in Nepal, highlights the malaise in Nepali society: the role of pahunch (access) in subverting the principles of governance.
The Cabinet’s decision to grant Rs5 million to Sujata Koirala, perhaps one of the richest persons in Nepal, highlights the malaise in Nepali society: the role of pahunch (access) in subverting the principles of governance.
The term pahunch has become a common refrain in Nepali parlance, so much so that a core value of a democratic society has acquired a stigma that few can dare to efface—not even Gagan Thapa, who expressed his helplessness in the face of the discretionary powers of the stalwarts who control and dispense public resources as if they were their own.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal also expressed his helplessness. “She is the daughter of Girija Prasad Koirala,” he said. “And I received a direct request from Sher Bahadur Deuba himself. What could I do?” It basically sums up Prachanda and the state of our democracy.
The network effect
Pahunch is a simple term that symbolises what is wrong with our leaders and political parties, and where our country is heading.
In a democracy, access to resources and opportunities is based on merit and rule of law. In Nepal, access signifies a roundabout way of getting the same, but one that requires a social transaction with those who control these resources and opportunities. They are our masters, and the possibility of gaining access to things we want depends on us accepting them as our patrons and doing what they want. If we could ‘drain the swamp’, these politicians would be the first ones to find themselves out of a job. But it is not so simple.
I realised the significance of the term pahunch in Kailali, where a VDC secretary described how the government allocates the budget. At the VDC level, they normally follow the procedures and draw a list of projects. They can push these proposal up to the Ilaka level in the district. Getting further than that requires pahunch.
You can gain pahunch through two simple means. Serving your patron through thick and thin, ignoring his indiscretions regarding internal party democracy, and remaining his (it is always a he) loyal servant. Or, if you lack patience, simply offer him money that he cannot resist. After all, he needs money to retain his power.
There are multiple sources of pahunch, and our prime minister has his own ways.
In a recent interview, he lamented how no prime minister can serve a full term and why the country needs a directly elected prime minister. But his case serves to show why it will be difficult for our country to embark on a path of democracy.
Prachanda’s party is in disarray, and it will take decades for the party, if it is managed properly, to reach its previous heights. At the district levels, the CPN (Maoist Centre) is disorganised. It has neither the base of party workers like the CPN-UML, nor the mass support enjoyed by the Nepali Congress.
The UML, torn between communism and democracy, now has almost 30 years of “democratic” experience. During the period, it has developed the most loyal and disciplined party base and the strongest employees’ union. The party does not need to be in government to run the government. Their employees’ unions can hold every ministry or public enterprise to ransom, including the exchequer.
The UML has a vast network of NGOs and active members who pay a levy to the party. In fact, the UML is the most organised and the richest party of Nepal. Now that they are in power, Prachanda and his henchman are dreaming of the same. But party workers are sceptical. Their expert in running the state-Baburam Bhattarai—is lost in the wilderness and they have nobody else who has a sense of how to run a state.
Prachanda’s conundrum of how to survive in a democracy has led him to fumble in three directions. The first path encourages him to stay close to power so that he can attract party workers and opportunities to earn money. The keyword, in this case, is pahunch. He wants to keep a hold on public resources so that everybody will have to go to him for opportunities. Unfortunately, there are other more powerful overlords like Sher Bahadur Deuba.
The second strategy is to try to maintain international support from both China and India. In order to bolster his pahunch, he has to keep both of them happy. The UML castrated the Maoists by partnering with India, and withstood Indian pressure by partnering with China. Prachanda has mixed luck, for however hard he may try, he will always remain a close ally of the Chinese and never become a trusted ally of the Indians.
Prachanda’s third strategy is to strengthen the party base and gain popularity by delivering services to the people. The Maoists look at the UML and are filled with envy. The UML has a popular vote base because of their social welfare programmes. Remember all the allowances? They are still the most popular public policy measure among the populace. The Maoists have been racking their brains to emulate the UML, but their radical cooperative programme failed due to “lack of consciousness” and Prachanda is mulling over another such magical formula.
In the absence of such a magical formula, the party will need to democratise and strengthen its organisational base. However, Prachanda faces some daunting challenges. The Maoist party will not be able to strengthen internal party democracy because of its history, and because Prachanda will not be willing to let go of his power or his trusted aides.
The Maoists had a chain of command system where the commanders were appointed by Prachanda. Now, the party is finding it difficult to adopt electoral processes within the party because of this system of seniority. Party workers who are “juniors” find it difficult to contest elections with the seniors. And Prachanda refuses to change the party despite the need to compete with other parties.
For the political leaders, serving the people and serving democracy are tantamount to a sacrifice. If they focus on their own interests and the maintenance of their own political power, they cannot serve their country. If they focus on the country and its people, then they cannot retain control of power or their own leadership role.
It is perhaps a quirk of fate that Prachanda is facing a Buddhist dilemma: to worship or not to worship the remarkable phenomenon of pahunch, the supreme principle that drives Nepali democracy.