Nepalis cannot be hoodwinked by politiciansThe people today are literate, aware and mobile—the Oli government would do well to remember.
Democracy will not remain much longer if the culture of democratic practice, habits and mindset do not prevail. Democracy has come to Nepal only recently, and so its first generation of leaders who fought for democracy during much of their youth may be given the benefit of the doubt for mistaking democracy as nothing more than just a political system. But if they do not change their habits, their mindset and practice, merely holding elections every five years won’t bring true democracy. And without true democracy, common Nepalis may witness elections every so often but not the empowerment that they desperately seek to fare well in this highly competitive world.
Democracy came and went in many countries that gained independence from one European colonial power or another. And, while Cold War pressures must bear some blame, it is the first generation of leaders in most politically decolonised countries who are to blame for democracy’s demise. These leaders were self-centred, power-hungry, and possessed of an exaggerated sense of their indispensability because they had by their struggle led their countries to freedom. Many also refused to respect the long-existing cultural diversity of their country—of tribes, faiths, languages and regions—as these leaders themselves came either from the dominant class, caste or group, or had become elite by virtue of their first-class colonial education that taught them more about how to be like a European gentleman than their common countrymen.
When one sees the KP Oli-led government blundering its way into the future in a series of missteps that clearly show his and his second rank leaders’ cultural insensitivity and arrogance toward peoples and cultures not their own, one can’t help but think that their rhetoric of bikas—development—is after all meant for their own empowerment rather than that of Nepal’s diverse cultural groups and democratic institutions.
The Guthi Bill in Parliament is the most recent example of this cultural insensitivity and arrogance. And if you see it along with the Media Council Bill that came before it, you are compelled to think that there is a systemic, structural and ideological problem related to these parties and leaders in power right now. In both these cases, the government not only didn’t consult the stakeholders but drafted the bills without any consideration of the consequences these bills would unleash for culturally different people and democratic institutions. In the guthi case, the culturally alien leaders tried to bring the private land trusts that sustained the Newar culture of the Valley under its purview and control. If it was so concerned about the irregularities, even corruption or other undesirable things going on in the running of these centuries-old trusts, it could have called a gathering of these trustees and presented its misgivings and asked them to come up with solutions. Instead, the government led by its arrogant leaders drafted the bill on their own and sought to impose it on the centuries-old cultural groups of the Kathmandu valley.
The Media Bill suffered the same modus operandi. Media is the heart and soul of democracy. And the Nepali media scene is probably the most vibrant and fearless in all of South Asia. But free media doesn’t mean libellous media. However, instead of helping or pressuring the media to create its own mechanism of control and vetting through an independently appointed ombudsman committee, the government sought to extend its long hand to make the media dependent on its mercy and its leaders’ whims. No consultation with media stakeholders about how to resolve the disorder, wilfulness and libellous practices of a few of its unscrupulous journalists. Just another bill to control the media. Nary a thought was given to how it would impact the practice and culture of free media and democracy itself.
Now, in both the guthi and the media case, there is something interesting. In the media case, it’s not that the government had no regular contact with journalists. Not only are some government ministers and ruling party parliamentarians journalists (Nepali language as the mother tongue has made many journalists without any formal qualifications), but many Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) members themselves are ruling party loyalists. In the guthi case, as has been pointed out by more than one newspaper op-ed, many top leaders of the ruling party have married Kathmandu Newar women, whose culture this bill tried to crush by meddling with the centuries-old system. Thus, in both cases, you can say that the Oli government is the intimate enemy of both the media and Kathmandu’s Newars.
There are other controversies, such as the Public Service Commission fiat to remove affirmative action policy from the local level employee recruitment. All this shows that Mr Oli and his lieutenants are running the country in the old style of leaders of newly independent countries, despite their new rhetoric of bikas. But there is a clear difference between the old post-colonial leaders of the 1960s and Nepali leaders in power now. The people of the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa were mostly illiterate, with limited geographical mobility. But today’s Nepali people are both educated/aware and mobile. They have seen the world and understand a few things. So, Mr Oli and his comrades would do well to know that they are not indispensable. For Nepali people, democracy is indispensable. For Mr Oli, it would be better to walk humbly and deepen democracy as an institution by the practice of wider consultation and distribution of power and rights, rather than concentrating them in his hands.
Mishra is the department chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States.