Rome wasn’t built in a dayPolitics in Nepal is guided by interests, but winning elections will be increasingly hard unless benefits trickle down
It stands to reason that many Nepalis residing in the US—like all immigrants from across the globe—are not at ease. Anxiety started building when Donald Trump won the presidential election; fears peaked after Trump issued an executive order temporarily banning entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries and vetted refugees from all over the world.
Temporary calm has descended since federal judge James Robart blocked the enforcement of said executive order, and the appeals court rejected requests to suspend the federal judge’s ruling. Yet the uneasiness is still palpable, as Trump has made “non-whites over-conscious about their looks in the US”.
This apprehension has manifested itself in form, as a Green Card holder friend of mine wrote on Facebook: “We were always convinced that we wanted to eventually return to Nepal. The degree of certainty is greater than ever before.” Was he making a fleeting remark? Or was it an outpour following careful deliberation? I really don’t know. But such comments erupt whenever the US government tightens immigration laws. They then subside once normalcy returns.
What is different this time is the seriousness expressed by Trump in his endeavour to tighten the noose around illegal immigrants and deport anyone who potentially poses a threat to the US. If a report published in the Los Angeles Times is anything to go by, Trump is not only targeting “bad hombres”, but anyone “who lied on the forms”. This reference alludes to the federal employment forms which many illegal immigrants have filled, stating “they were legally allowed to work” in the US.
It must be recognised that a government is responsible for flushing out illegal immigrants and those who pose a threat to the country. Even the Nepali government identifies and rounds up illegal immigrants every now and then; for example, a Canadian citizen was deported last year due to his Twitter messages that were
construed as threatening to the ‘national unity’ of Nepal.
The only reason Trump’s move created uproar is his sheer disregard for the fact that the US is a nation built by immigrants. Many ‘whites’ in the US were once immigrants and refugees during the Second World War. They are aware of this. This is why the US has non-discriminatory constitutional laws—these laws were a building block that helped transform the country into a beacon of freedom and hope.
But the present leader—who won the election on a platform of nationalism—has started to play around with the democratic principles of the country. Perhaps this is the reason why legal and illegal immigrants in the US, like my friend, have started losing hope in the ‘land of opportunities’. The question now is whether these developments prompt him, and people like him, to return to their countries of origin.
Politics of patronage
Return of all US-based Nepalis would cause unemployment rates to shoot through the roof. However, many returning émigrés are willing to take a chance in Nepal if prevalent problems such as political instability, power shortage, lack of infrastructure, and the dust that envelops the Kathmandu Valley are addressed.
It is unfortunate that these problems have crippled Nepal for long. It is even more unfortunate that Nepali political leadership has not been able to address these issues. Perhaps this is a result of appointing people to various posts on the basis of political connection, rather than merit and competence.
Nepali politics has long revolved around personality and patronage, as opposed to policy debates and discussions on implementable programmes. This has promoted many to cast their votes on the basis of serving vested interests, like getting jobs, bagging contracts, or building small drinking water or irrigation projects that only support a small community. This is not how modern democracy is supposed to function.
Making Nepal ‘great’
Yet not all is doom and gloom in Nepal. Take the example of how the Kathmandu Valley has surprisingly eradicated power cuts in recent months. The credit for this goes to two people: Energy Minister Janardan Sharma and managing director of Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) Kulman Ghising (who was appointed by Sharma). Though Sharma, a leader of the CPN Maoist Centre, did have shortcomings in the past, he chose not to maintain the status quo in the energy sector after being appointed a minister. So, despite protests from senior NEA officials, he appointed Ghising. This choice has proved an astute one, as Ghising has shown himself to be an able manager; not only has he efficiently used the available stock of electricity to end crippling power cuts, he has also raised the bar for those who want to lead the state-owned power utility in the future.
This scenario is echoed by Health Minister Gagan Thapa, who has tried to reform the health sector since becoming a minister. Thapa has made a decision to bar government doctors from attending private clinics from 9am to 3pm effective from mid-March. This will help ordinary people gain access to better healthcare services at affordable prices, as many government doctors have been extorting money from gullible patients by calling them to private clinics where diagnosis and treatment costs are high.
And let’s not forget the CPN UML leader KP Sharma Oli, whose strong desire to become prime minister led to the promulgation of the new constitution in September 2015. Oli helped herald a new era in Nepali politics, although the demands of the Madhesis are yet to be addressed.
While politics in Nepal is still guided by interests, there is also growing awareness that winning elections will no longer be possible unless benefits trickle down to the masses. Perhaps the manner in which voters were swayed in the last two general elections has taught political leaders some lessons. And lessons like these are gradually laying the groundwork for the creation of a modern, merit-based society.
Now, if these politicians can put people’s interests above everything, problems related to three sets of elections—local, provincial and national—can also be solved in no time. These polls would set the stage for the country to embark on a long-overdue journey of attaining higher and sustained economic growth.
Nepal now has the potential to gear up for a higher trajectory of economic growth; the country is expected to add around 1,000 megawatts of electricity to the national grid in the next three to four years. This will benefit the employment generating manufacturing sector, whose contribution to the economy has been shrinking over the last several years. Recently, the government has also tried to facilitate entry of foreign investors in the hydropower sector by introducing a provision that allows state-owned power utility to purchase energy from foreign-funded projects in US dollars for a period of up to 10 years.
What’s more, construction of big projects, like the Gautam Buddha and Pokhara international airports and the 1,200MW Budhigandaki and 900MW Arun-3 hydropower projects, is gradually moving ahead. Lately, the government has also shown commitment to expedite implementation of 21 ‘national pride’ projects, ranging from hydropower and irrigation to airports, railways, highways and environment conservation. These projects could change the country’s face by attracting investment, creating jobs, providing better pay and increasing investment in the education and health sectors.
So Nepal has a plan to make itself ‘great’. All people need to do is play their roles by exerting pressure on the concerned authorities, keep the doors open for foreign investors, stop blaming the ‘boogieman’ for all national ills, and refrain from retreating inward. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Whether or not those living abroad want to take part in this endeavour is their choice.
Sharma is business bureau chief of The Kathmandu Post