Hurtling towards disasterPolitics and discourse seem to have collapsed at multiple levels, rendering even simple solutions impossibly complex
When politics and discourse fail, a country goes to the dogs. That’s what seems to be happening in Nepal. Politics and discourse seem to have collapsed at multiple levels, and this failure has made even simple solutions impossibly complex. This collapse has manifested itself multiple times over recent weeks, resulting in violent deaths in Saptari. The beginning of these problems stemmed from the concoction of a constitution by three party bosses in their private chambers. The constitution was then rammed through the second Constituent Assembly. The CA had, for all intents and purposes, been turned into a parliament because of party whips. CA members refrained from holding open discussion and debate on individual clauses. Though over 90 percent of them voted by voice vote, they could hardly be called CA members; their parties had reduced them to parliament members whipped to follow party lines. And because the party bosses had given them tickets for the CA election and nominated them under the proportional system, they had to pledge fealty to the same bosses.
This failure of politics has persisted, as demonstrated through the Madhesi Morcha’s opposition to the constitution and the subsequent Madhes movement in which more than 50 people lost their lives. However, the seeds of this failure were evident during the first and second CAs, when many Madhesi leaders chose personal gain over the provision of worthy politics for their constituencies in particular and for the public in general.
In the first CA, Bijay Gachhadar and JP Gupta split the unified Madhesi Janadhikar Forum to get separate ministerial berths. After the second CA, many other Madhesi leaders made themselves parliamentarians under the proportional system despite losing in the first-past-the-post system. What’s more, they also made their wives members of parliament; these were women with little or no experience in politics. These actions were undertaken at the expense of genuinely devoted party members of diverse castes and communities who could have been instrumental in carrying their message among different sections of the population. Even Mahant Thakur, an otherwise spotless Madhesi politician, is accused of nepotism. His party’s failure to be inclusive in choosing its executive committee is well known. Such acts have diminished the stature of the Madhesi and Janajati politicians in the eyes of many of their constituents. They are now perceived as little better than the UML and the Nepali Congress politicians of hill caste origin, who at least try to dole out posts and positions to Madhesis and Janajatis, if only for their loyalty and submission.
Lack of powers of persuasion
The Madhesi Morcha fails in the realm of discourse as well. It has failed to convince common Madhesis and Janajatis that their issues and agenda would ultimately be beneficial for all. Many leaders of the Madhes-centric forces can’t explain even the basics of why they have been opposing the constitution or how it would perpetuate hill caste dominance in everything. They also fail to impress upon common people how the marginalised stand to benefit from the changes they are fighting for.
For example, I was watching a stalwart leader of the Morcha, Rajendra Mahato, on Kantipur Television’s Tough Talk. This appearance took place on the eve of the UML’s defiant campaign across the Madhes, which was challenged by the Morcha’s threat of disruption in retaliation for the UML’s obstruction of Parliament. The man, clad in a spotless dhoti-kurta, could hardly explain anything. Instead, he kept on stuttering and sputtering, raising his voice when logic and argument failed him. It was as if raising his voice would make up for the lack of calm, point-by-point elaboration of the issues at hand, and persuasive answers to sharp questions.
In frustration, I tweeted, “If this is how Madhesi leaders present their arguments, they need a boot camp on issues and rhetoric.” I also suggested that they should just memorise the media clippings of advocate Dipendra Jha and Nepal Madhes Foundation Executive Director Tula Narayan Shah and repeat them ad infinitum to drive their message home. Additionally, most interviews of other Madhesi leaders have seldom shown them to be articulate, knowledgeable about the intricacies of the issues, and historically and theoretically savvy in explaining things.
Politics is not just a matter of whose values and agenda are genuine, but also a matter of who is able to dress up the messenger, package the message and sell it successfully to the public. If the Madhesi politicians fail to convince their own constituencies, how can they compel opponents to submit to their demands—opponents who belong to privileged groups and who have a vested interest in perpetuating the current system of inequality?
Media and bureaucracy
The failure of politics and discourse extends to Nepal’s media and bureaucracy as well. When five people were killed under police fire in Saptari last week, it came to light that the Chief District Officer worked as a UML advisor while in service. He has also been a career bureaucrat. In a similar vein, the media—especially the Nepali language media—and government bodies are filled with party operatives from political parties’ sister organisations. For some years now, I have been wondering how certain parties receive so much positive media coverage, whereas prominent issues of the day get short shrift. At any given time, the major media websites carry more than one witticism and barb from, say, UML leaders, accompanied by something negative about the leaders of marginalised groups.
If journalists fight their organisational elections as sister organisations of political parties, like college students and youth groups, how are they going to be unbiased in their reporting? Nepal’s current struggle is for the linguistic and cultural rights of non-Nepali-speaking peoples. So how are Nepali language speakers, who are often members of parties’ sister organisations, going to report on the issues and concerns of the non-Nepali speaking public? These concerns and demands for justice and redress have become the Gordian Knot in Nepali politics. Does this call for a Hippocratic oath for Nepali media workers, with each journalist taking a vow to maintain political neutrality before getting licensed or receiving a job? How does a party-affiliated district level bureaucrat administer services to people who belong to a different party, as was the case in Saptari?
Problems of politics and discourse are deeply embedded in Nepali society. Instead of providing new solutions and beginnings, these problems have only aggravated the country’s troubles. And because of this failure of politics and discourse, Nepal seems to be hurtling towards disaster.