Monday, December 23, 2013

Unearned victory

Everyone is contemplating the factors that carried the Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML to an impressive victory in the recent CA elections. The scale of the NC and UML’s victory has surprised not only political pundits, but also NC and UML cadres. The victory came despite the absence of fresh candidates and clear messages, and wavering political commitment towards empowerment and emancipation of Madheshis and ethnic minorities. 

The debate over whether people who voted for NC and UML actually subscribe to their liberal ideals will continue to play out over the months ahead. However, the most important question that everyone should be asking is: what led to the withering of the symbolic emphasis that voters placed on the need for radical change in the first CA elections? 

Long-standing socio-economic grievances, disputes among ethnic political parties, and security dilemmas brought about by weak and unaccountable system of governance are some factors that could have led to a more pragmatic move towards the center, leaving the bourgeois Maoist populists and ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ that hijacked and subsequently maligned the genuine need for ethnic empowerment and emancipation to fend for themselves.

The Maoists and ethnic parties failed miserably to gauge public intelligence. Their attempt at defeating NC and UML by stoking the same agendas—establishing an ethno-centric republic, building an inclusive society, administering equality and justice, etc—failed. They ignored the same issues when in power, grossly underestimating the public’s intelligence. However, the loss of Maoists and ethnic parties which are infested with ethnic entrepreneurs is by no means a death of the quest for “total equality.” It will come back to haunt NC and UML if the ideas of social justice and egalitarianism are not enshrined in the constitution. 

Having witnessed the defeat of Maoist and ethnic parties, people are now in the process of figuring out what a NC-led coalition government means for Nepal’s peace and stability. Since the current polity is one that the Maoists have defined, it will be extremely difficult if not impossible, for NC and UML to deviate from the Maoist interpretation of democracy. While the Maoist leaders have said that they will be “pragmatic and cooperative,” it would be naive to imagine that this group will abandon its basic ideology and play second fiddle to NC and UML. 

There simply is not enough evidence at this point to believe that two Brahmins—Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai—who failed to fulfill their political dreams under multiparty set-up and turned the country into killing fields will consume NC and UML’s “liberal democratic” bait hook, line and sinker! The second CA elections might have temporarily transformed the political landscape whereby moderate democrats will now replace radical ideologues and ethnic entrepreneurs, but it will not take very long for Dahal and ethnic entrepreneurs to mount a comeback if the root causes of Maoist insurgency and ethnic unrest are not adequately addressed.

The Maoists lost for a simple reason. Dahal and know-it-all Bhattarai believed that political manipulation, belligerent rhetoric and occasional violence were sufficient to endlessly sway public consciousness. Their inability to transform from a guerilla outfit to an open, viable political party that is capable of translating popular support into effective policies was the main reason behind their electoral debacle. 

While the Maoists lost because of their inability to actually transform, NC and UML won despite the absence of clear vision on how they would actually solve burning socioeconomic problems, growing insecurity, and wavering political commitment towards empowerment and emancipation of Madheshis and ethnic minorities. 

More than anything else, the victory of NC and UML is a result of incompetence on part of the Maoists and ethnic Madheshi parties, and that is where the problem lies. When the opposition’s victory is largely a result of an inability on part of the party in power to fulfill the aspirations of the people, there is a great risk of screw-ups. You tend to value things that you earn the hard way. 

If you look at the history of the people who have won big lotteries, most of them waste their newfound wealth on women and alcohol. Another classic example is of Nepali students and the diversity visa lottery winners in the United States. Students outperform their fellow citizens who have won the diversity visa lottery a large percentage. Students’ competitive edge comes from their conscious decision to be in the US and belief that hard work can conquer all obstacles.

The early signs of an unearned victory are already becoming visible. It’s been a month since the completion of CA elections, and major parties are yet to give full shape to the new CA. NC’s opposition to elections for President and Vice-President exposes its lack of seriousness towards democratic institution building. Selective preference of this nature will open the door for political perversions, which is the last thing we want at this juncture. NC’s political immaturity is also quite clear from the way it is engaged in appeasing the Maoists. 

Yes, you want them to be on board, but not through endless appeasement. The more you try to appease them, the more inflexible they will get. They would try to drag the political process down to a level so juvenile and debased that the infant democratic order could find itself in a dump. It would not take much after that to convince voters to vote them in. After all, if we look at our history, parties get back in power not because of their vision, good governance, and service delivery, but because of the incompetence and failure of those in power. 

Nepali people have, once again, given NC and UML a chance to prove their worth. It will become clear within a couple of weeks whether NC and UML’s learning curve continues to be hampered because of their self-inflicted mental block, or if these parties have actually learned from their mistakes. One will not have to wait too long. All you got to do is see the kind of people that will be nominated under proportional representation and brought in as cabinet members.

 If Girija Prasad Koirala’s protégés make a comeback, we can be pretty sure that the Maoists and ethnic entrepreneurs will have the last laugh. All that they will then have to do is keep riding the wave of people’s anger and wait for these drunken sailors to push the country into another political and constitutional abyss, which they are very much capable of doing. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Seize the opportunity

It’s been more than eight months since the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly (CA) that was supposed to promulgate a new constitution. In all these months, there has been little debate, if any, about the ways to tackle the actual issues such as whether the country should be divided into federal states along ethnic lines, an issue which caused the demise of the CA. Instead, politicians and talking heads continue to nauseate innocent civilians, with their eternal appetite for political nonsense, and their endless hypocritical posturing and rhetoric.

Five years of republicanism should have been enough to repair any damages to the nation and our collective psyche, or for that matter, chart out a new course. We are where we are because the leaderships of the major political parties have literally hijacked the deliberative democracy and forced citizens to live in a climate of political tribalism and loyalty oaths. A handful of politicians in major political parties have been acting like tribal chiefs who benefit from a mix of loyalties, earned respect, and well-wielded power.

The Maoists are not going to change unless they are forced to. They have been inconsistently consistent about their desire to capture the state, which may not be possible in a literal sense at this day and age, but it hardly matters. All they want is to remain in power for a long time. Will they succeed? Depends upon whether or not the opposition, which is intellectually exhausted and out of fresh ideas, is able to rebrand itself. Two shrewd and highly ambitious Brahmins (Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai) who prompted innocent citizens to take up the gun to fight against Indian hegemony, while they themselves were savoring Indian cuisine in government-owned guest houses in India, can go to any extent to remain politically relevant and in power. The sheer regurgitation of the phrase “democracy in peril” by the likes of Krishna Prasad Sitaula, Shekhar Koirala, and Ram Sharan Mahat that once justified joining hands with the Maoists as the only way out to save the democracy will not do the trick, when it comes to restoring people’s faith and defeating the Maoists.

Aung San Suu Kyi (in Myanmar) and Nelson Mandela (in South Africa) have proved that it is possible to bring an autocratic regime to its knees without joining hands with radicals or waging an armed struggle. It could be one of the two things. Either the likes of Sitaula under the tutelage of Girija Prasad Koirala failed to realize Maoist intentions, or figured out early on that given the party’s public approval, joining hands with the Maoists was the shortest possible route to get back to the corridors of power. The former makes them unintelligent, whereas the latter exhibits their dishonesty towards the ideals they claim to be fighting for. Either one is sufficient to render them unfit to lead today’s Nepal, with growing population of youth that is smart, ambitious and well-focused.

It is foolish on part of the NC and UML and other fringe parties to try and defeat the Maoists and other opportunistic forces through street protests and picketing. Instead of engaging in public nuisance, which will be returned in kind, if and when the Maoists are ejected from power, the opposition should agree to the best possible deal that they can get. The idea of the chief justice as the head of the election government is not that bad if you think about it logically. The current state of political gridlock is the result of endless political maneuvering so there is no point searching for a constitutionally correct path to end the crisis. The sitting chief justice can be asked to resign before he takes over to ensure neutrality of the judiciary. The opposition can bargain for the kind of people they would like to head the home and defense ministries if they suspect electoral fraud at the hands of the Maoists.

Once you have a government that you can agree on, build a broader democratic alliance, and bring the likes of Sashank Koirala and Gagan Thapa to the forefront. The UML can do the same by promoting cadres like Gokarna Bista and Yogesh Bhattarai. That way, even if you lose the upcoming election, it will not be a whitewash. You will still have a considerable political leverage that you can use to foil the Maoists attempt to sideline the major political parties and subvert the democratic process.

On May 24, 2010, I had written an opinion piece suggesting that the Constituent Assembly should be allowed to expire. Had we done that and put contentious issues that derailed the CA on the ballot, we would most probably have had a new constitution by now. Did endless harping on consensus get us anywhere? The NC and UML which like to project themselves as saviors of democracy, then, forgot the fact that in a democracy, office holders are supposed to be responsive to the needs and desires of their constituents.

The CA was extended without any debate whatsoever on the real issues, which dwindled the chances of having a new constitution in the first place. Pundits and talking heads bemoaned the lack of bipartisanship and endlessly regurgitated the need for cooperation, when in reality, there was no such possibility. Under the political obligations to please their masters, they failed to acknowledge the fact that Nepali politics, today, actually is beset with irreconcilable differences. What the Maoists want at the end of the day is drastically different from what NC, UML and other pro-parliamentary forces want. While the tools utilized (read innocent people) are the same, the end-goal is drastically different.

What Nepal needs, now, is fresh election, for both the parliament and local bodies, with contentious issues that led to the derailment of the CA on the ballot. We can choose to have a hundred rounds of CA elections, but unless we resolve the contentious issues, which is not going happen without referendum, the chances of having a new constitution are slim, if not nil. It is not that these issues cannot be solved through sincere discussions, but there is no desire among politicians to do so, as solutions will render many that have made political careers decrying socioeconomic and political marginalization jobless. Election is necessary not only to solve the existing mess but also to infuse some fresh blood into political parties that have become intellectually exhausted and have run out of fresh ideas. Do the right thing before it is too late!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Stuck in a quagmire

Baburam Bhattarai’s promise for a “forward-looking” constitution witnessed a tragic death with the demise of the Constituent Assembly. His promise for good governance is running out of gas with his signature populist “Hello Sarkar” programme turning into a black hole where public grievances are sucked in and vanish. His failure to take action against his Cabinet colleagues: Bhim Prasad Gautam and Mahendra for irregularities reveal his advocacy and conviction towards good governance. And what an absolute farce his promise for social justice has turned out to be! People, whose property were seized by the revolutionaries that he and his progressive colleagues trained to bring about socioeconomic transformation, are still waiting for the transfer of ownership. 

His claims that the bloody insurgency he and his fellow comrades waged was needed to wipe out nepotism and strengthen national sovereignty, too, have been proven false. The recent appointment of Chirak Shova Tuladhar, Bhattarai’s sister-in-law, as the Tribhuvan University’s dean of the Faculty of Science reveals his conviction towards eradicating nepotism and understanding his own ability to withstand external pressure. Given the fact that the Promised Land is nowhere in the sight, perpetual optimists who believed in Bhatarai’s honesty all along may want to ponder whether Bhatarai’s surrender to violence to get where he is now was an act of heroism or a shrewd political move to further his ambition. 

Was Bhattarai bound to fail? Absolutely. His playbook to remain in power is not very different from the one used by ideologues in the former Soviet Union and the one that is being currently used in Cuba and North Korea. Bhattarai believes in expanding the size and scope of the government so that people have a false sense of security. He is least concerned about the poor delivery of services. It may be hard for well-informed citizens to understand why he does not realise the fact that it is virtually impossible to run a welfare state when a big chunk of your budget comes from foreign aid and the bureaucracy responsible for running the welfare state is ill-trained and politically divided.  But here is what he is trying to achieve through his big government—a platform that allows construction of counterfactual propositions and arguments. Had I been given the required time and freedom to pursue all my well-intentioned and thought-out plans, the country would have been free from the shackles of poverty, dependency, and underdevelopment. The country would be in a different league altogether, where bargaining for equal bilateral treaties would be much easier. Can you see the brilliance behind the ballooning of the size and scope of the government? 

While Bhattarai exhibits unmatched political shrewdness, the opposition is utterly incompetent and delusional. The NC and UML leadership have no agenda whatsoever than to shamelessly pursue the struggle for power. The new boss of the NC, Sushil Koirala, has surrounded himself with a herd of Girija Prasad Koirala protégés, who are not only dishonest and corrupt, but also lack the imagination needed to outsmart the establishment that very well understands and manipulates the sensibilities of the general public. Koirala himself does not seem to realise the fact that his own claims and actions are at odds. He claims that the party stands for democracy but denounces the conviction of Khum Bahadur Khadka, who is regarded as one of the most corrupt politicians of the post-1990 era. It is quite understandable that seeing a protégé of your mentor be convicted for corruption is painful, but the kid-glove treatment to corruption and misrule eventually derails democracy. Your claim as a saviour of democracy becomes indefensible the very minute you try defending people convicted by the Supreme Court, whose approval rating is way higher than your party. 

The NC leadership’s incompetence becomes even more glaring, when leaders such as Sher Bahadur Deuba, come out in support for the reinstatement of the expired CA. This shows the lack of understanding of the importance of rule of law in democratic consolidation, which Deuba claims to have worked for all his adult life. Dishonesty runs even deeper. Leaders shamelessly flip-flop on their position and records. Recently, a former finance minister in Girija Prasak Koirala’s government after the Jana Andolan of 2006 that oversaw the transfer of funds accused the Maoists of being involved in corruption in the name of more than 6,000 “fake” Maoist combatants. It is not the Maoists, but him, who should be blamed and held accountable for the failure to carry out due diligence and plundering the state coffer. This claim of corruption at this juncture sounds like a well-calculated move to climb the ladder. With the former super stars of the NC already behind bars or on their way to the big house, there’s room for upward mobility. Who says Nepali politicians lack vision? 

Political tribalism, incompetence, and dishonesty run deep within political parties. Some argue that the Supreme Court derailed the constitution-making process by forcing the politicians to adhere to a deadline. But in reality, it was political tribalism at its best that derailed the process, which was supposed to be participatory and transparent. In order to further political ambitions, a handful of leaders acted like tribal chiefs that benefit from a mix of loyalties, earned respect, and well-wielded power. As a result, the democratic deliberation process of constitution-making was turned into something so hostile and filled with anger and rage that the CA members were doing little more than screaming at each other. The country would not have been better off on an endless journey of constitution-making. 

If Nepal is to get back on track and evolve as a modern society, judicial activism alone is not enough. There is another institution, which needs to follow the path taken by the judiciary, and that is the media. Increased media scrutiny of politicians’ actions and the support for rule of law is needed. Consensus is great, but in this day and age, whereby a household cannot be run on consensus indefinitely, it is useless to keep on harping on the idea. At present, representative politics is completely disconnected from people, which has tremendously increased the risk of a legitimacy crisis as well as a crisis of policy implementation. Unless the media takes a greater responsibility and forces politics to connect with people, which is not something that bosses of major political parties are interested in, consolidation of democracy is virtually impossible. As long as the current herd of politicians have the opportunity and power to decide on contentious issues, prospects of having a viable constitution will remain bleak. The media should push for a referendum under the leadership of a neutral figure to settle contentious issues of the new statute. Let people decide what they want.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

BRB, BIPPA & Beyond

Baburam Bhattarai’s ascendency to power has drawn mixed reactions. For foreigners without any stake in Nepal’s internal affairs, his Cinderella run from a battle-hardened radical ideologue to a democratically elected prime minister is a fascinating story. At home, the most cheerful is the middle class that has gotten utterly frustrated with the politicians who have been tirelessly fleecing from state coffers by extending their terms in office.

The bar of expectation on government’s deliveries has sunk so low that even the raids on sweet shops bring cheer. One thing is for sure: Bhattarai’s ascendency to power has brought desperate optimism in the middle class. It is basically a reflection of the fact that people have been through a lot in the last one and half decade, and now look forward to better times. They desperately want to believe that, under Bhattarai’s rule, life will be good—they want it, they need it, and above all, they think they deserve it.

Many seriously believe that he is the one who will dig us out of deep economic and insecurity hole we are in, even though in their hearts and minds, they know that desperate optimism cannot be the answer to our misery. The desperate optimists are pinning their hopes on populist rhetoric rather than reality. If you scrape away Bhattarai’s populist rhetoric, you will find a very different image of the man. First of all, he is one among many who raised arms against the inefficacies of the democratic system, which he himself is now manipulating to the core to remain in power. Remember how he justified the need for the largest cabinet in history by calling it coalition compulsion? And he is yet to confess he was naïve enough to believe and fight for establishing a radical communist state. Or was it a calculated strategy to carve a bigger political role for himself and his fellow comrades because the opportunity costs of doing so was extremely low? Don’t we, as a nation, deserve to know who he really is?

Bhattarai, for sure, is a shrewd politician. No one in the domestic politics knows better than Bhattarai how to sway public opinion. In dirt poor nations basking in the glory of communist ideology like ours, people always love “relief packages”. Instead of coming up with measures that would ensure market competition in the private sector, which would automatically ensure the prices of goods and services, Bhattarai does what his Red Book heroes did and continue to do in Cuba and North Korea—dole-out relief packages without being responsible for balancing the books. Window dressing of the problems of very serious nature can only lead to the crumbling of the state foundation. Does Bhattarai remember how fiscal irresponsibility, among other things, bankrupted the former communist states which then crumbled under their own weight?

Bhattarai knows very well that, in order for him to remain at the top of the ruling class, he will have to earn the trust of Madesis, middle-class Paharis and India. Dalits and ultra poor, whose sensibilities have been aroused to the maximum, are already with the Maoist party. Keeping the former happy is not a big deal. The ethnic entrepreneurs from the Tarai are only too happy to settle for plum ministerial berths instead of asking for large scale infrastructure and industrial investments that would create jobs and eventually uplift the state of downtrodden. Bhattarai has figured out that as long as they have an opportunity to buy gold, ethnic emancipation is going great guns. As far as the middle-class Paharis are concerned, small thing here and there, for example, raiding sweet shops and subsidizing liquid petroleum gas will keep them happy and content.

In a country where politicians are increasingly perceived as scoundrels, window dressing with austerity measures like riding Mustang will continue to be appreciated. Who cares whether there are revenue streams to pay for the so-called progressive programs? It is all about revealing grand intentions rather than showing how these grand intentions will actually be translated into sustainable practical actions and paid for. They are never audited. Listening to people’s plight will make their heart lighter but getting their plight addressed is what people are more interested in. Has anybody, including the media, actually looked into how many of the grievances made through “Hello Sarkar” actually been addressed?If it was not for India’s heavy lifting to get the Tarai-based ethnic parties back together, Bhattarai would not have become the prime minister, at least not now. For India, Bhattarai was the logical choice amongst the Maoists because of his unflinching willingness to tack their line. Plus, by promoting Bhattarai the Indian establishment seriously believes that the internal struggle within the Maoist party will reach a peak and cause a vertical split. For India, the Maoist party is too big and too unpredictable to handle and Bhattarai is their last best bet.

Through BIPPA, Bhattarai has scored brownie points with the biggest force that he needs on his side to remain in power and politically relevant in Nepal. On principle, there is nothing wrong in signing BIPPA. Without investment guarantee, none would like to invest in a country where brainwashed hotheads can randomly shut down operations of any industry. But in reality who are these people that are threat to investments in Nepal? They are none other than people who Bhattarai and the likes got into believing that foreign investment is actually a threat to native investment and indigenous entrepreneurship. It is altogether a different thing that these hotheads have gotten sophisticated in extorting money using ideology as a cover. Instead of tightening the grip on the people he himself once trained, Bhattarai has rather decided to pay to Indian investors from state’s coffer. Can anyone think of a better way of shifting the cost and avoiding intra-party backlash? See the brilliance!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Address ethnic grievances

Nepal´s politics is famous for ugly feuds for power and vertical splits. Virtually every political party suffers from factionalism. While the larger parties like Nepali Congress (NC), the United Marxist Leninist Party (UML), and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) are barely holding on, the Madhes-based parties are withering faster than anybody could have imagined a while ago.

One of the reasons why the factions within the larger parties do not dare to walk out from the parent party may have to do with already divided political space and political apathy that is out there. But when it comes to the Madhes-based parties, which either ballooned (read Madhesi Janadhikar forum) or was created (read Tarai Madhesh Democratic Party) to benefit from rising ethnic sentiments, there is nothing that glues politicians that deserted their previous party to join or form the Tarai based parties. In the case of major political parties like the NC, UML, UCPN (Maoist), ideology binds people together, albeit loosely. In the case of the Tarai-based parties, it is increasingly becoming clear that they flocking together was purely because of the perceived political opportunity.

The ongoing disintegration of the Tarai-based parties is more dangerous than many think. It would be quite naive to expect that ethnic uprising, which the nation witnessed in 2006 as a result of high level of marginalization in the society, will not take place again. As a matter of fact, with the seed of ethnic hatred already sown, half of the work toward instigating ethnic violence is already done. There is no reason to believe otherwise that the opportunists that deserted parties that they belonged to before the Tarai uprising to join or form the Tarai-based parties and who have now been walking away from them, will not further stoke ethnic divisions to mobilize support and use that support for instigating violence. Violent ethnic conflicts always serve ethnic-entrepreneurs. Muslim identities in Bosnia after Bosnian civil war became much stronger than they used to be.

Governments’ apathy towards creating equal opportunity has provided a space for ethnic-entrepreneurs to benefit from ethnic grievances. Fearon and Laitin (2011) looked at 139 civil wars during 1945–2008. They found 79, or 57 percent to be “ethnic” and another 24 or 17 percent to be mixed or what they call ambiguously “ethnic.” What is even more disturbing is that while 53 percent of the 17 civil wars breaking out in the years 1945–49 were ethnic, for the next six decades, the corresponding percentages are 74, 71, 67, 81, 83, and 100 (for 2000–08). These ethnic wars happened not just only because that the governments were insensitive but also because many saw an opportunity to benefit from ethnic violence.

Ethnic violence is more likely in the districts, where ethnic-entrepreneurs succeed in establishing their base. As followers gain access to local institutions through patronage networks that derive electoral gains from communal violence, the propensity of violence will further increase. Belonging to smaller political outfits will not bother them. In a country, where the majority government is unthinkable given the expansion of political representation in the name of inclusion, who needs a bigger party? Small is beautiful and profitable. The likes of Rajendra Mahato can vouch on that.

The real problem in Nepal is that while people belonging to marginalized ethnic groups want equality, those representing them want the marginalization to persist, as they are politically and personally benefiting from it. Hence, the real challenge is to defeat the agenda of the ethnic-entrepreneurs and foster a cohesive subnational community that can on its own generate progressive social policy capable of fostering equality among the citizens.

Even though the ethnic quest for equality is losing its luster because of the wrong people taking up of a very worthy agenda, it is moral responsibility of the ruling elites to work towards making citizens equal. The best place to start would be to introduce a policy that would reduce ethnic income gaps. Income gaps between ethnic groups stoke ethnic divisions. Such a policy was introduced in Malaysia after the race riots of 1969, which has on the whole worked well so far.

The government needs to act swiftly and introduce policies aimed at uplifting the status of ethnic minorities, or else with continued disintegration of regional parties, there will soon be too many ethnic-entrepreneurs resorting to violent means to achieve their political ambitions. In a country where the person that initiated a bloody conflict, which killed more than fourteen thousand people and displaced thousands can become a prime minister, is there really a reason for some ethnic zealot with political ambition to refrain from instigating violence

Monday, January 3, 2011

Will 2011 be any different?

With the end of a year also comes punditry from the usual suspects that people are often forced to consume. Getting predictions from them, who told us that the Maoists were for multi-party democracy and that the extension of Constituent Assembly (CA) would definitely fetch us a new constitution, is a bit obnoxious but that is the price we all have to pay for being citizens of an unaccountable nation. The one good thing about 2011’s predictions though is that pundits have been a lot more conservative. It is better to come across as an unintelligent person rather than to be proved wrong. Smart move, indeed!

In the absence of reliable predictions, most people are anxious to know what really is in store for the nation this year. But before moving to that, let us look at how 2010 was for certain groups of people. For Madhav Kumar Nepal and his cabinet members, the year could not have been any better. Likewise, for the 601 CA members, who were all for the extension of CA to continue their hard work (pun intended), 2010 was not a bad year either. Land sharks and ethnic entrepreneurs, too, did well for themselves in the past year. Rising land prices and degrading law and order situation provided them with an unthinkable opportunity to fleece both the state and innocent public. Politicians, land sharks, and ethnic entrepreneurs were clearly the winners of 2010 and will continue to remain so unless the existing structure is altered.

For many of the 601 CA members, the year 2010 might have been the luckiest year of their life. Why would they want 2011 to be any different? It is only the general public with fixed incomes and struggling due to rising inflation, rampant corruption and chronic power shortage who want the coming year to be different.

What about the media? Instead of reporting how the helpless Nepali citizens confronting a dysfunctional state felt about the past year and what their expectations are in the new year, the mainstream media did what it does best—fill the newspapers with predictions. Would not Nepal be better off if our journalists and pundits stopped predicting political events and politicians’ behavior and spent quality time analyzing why Nepali politicians behave the way they do and what we can actually do to correct their reckless behavior?

Politicians will not do anything different than what they did in 2010 unless the media and the general public exert pressure on them. Except for the peace assembly that forced the Maoists to end the blockade of the valley, public has been absorbing nonsense, nonstop. The more we put up with that, the more we will get it. The choice is ours. Instead of holding politicians accountable for false claims, the media often ends up regurgitating what politicians claim to be possible. If my memory serves me well, not a single newspaper analyzed the option of holding fresh election when the term of the CA was expiring last May. Instead of looking at the factors that caused inaction in the CA and sincerely analyzing whether or not it was actually possible to have a new constitution from the same set of actors, who appeared more interested in forwarding their own agendas through an extension, the mainstream media joined the political chorus. The prospects of democratic consolidation gets bleak when the media, instead of holding politicians accountable for inaction, helps them get rewarded for it.

Given the situation that the major political parties are in and the limited choice that India has at its disposal, the political stagnation that we witnessed in 2010 will continue to persist, at least till May 28th of 2011. The status-quo is not that bad for politicians as it does not stop the cabinet and 601 CA members from drawing their salaries. Neither does it affect local-level party cadres who are becoming amazingly astute and savvy in dividing commissions among themselves. It is the general public that wants a positive change. For almost half of the population that live on less than $2 a day, living in the most corrupt country in South Asia also means cutting down on basic needs. People have started taking extreme measures as the state is getting increasingly dysfunctional. Families are ending their lives for not being able to foot medical bills.

Citizens can make 2011 better than 2010 if they really want to. It is not going to happen on its own. For that to happen, people will have to do what they did to end the Maoists’ blockade of the valley last year. Unless people exert pressure on politicians and make it clear that nonsense in the name of democracy is unacceptable, there is very little chance that anything positive will happen in 2011. Pundits can, for sure, help people make 2011 better. As political winners and losers have already been picked, how about analyzing ways in which we can make winners act more responsibly and losers play by the rules of the game. Is that too much to ask for?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fight power outage

Recently, one of my friend’s younger brothers told me that he is working on finding an employment in Dubai through a manpower agent. I initially laughed it off as a joke as I thought the guy who was doing pretty well for himself running a computer training institute would not leave the country to do some odd job in the Gulf.

Besides, he was supposed to get married in a couple of days. But, as we chatted along, it became quite clear that he was quite serious about his decision to leave the country. I could not understand why someone who had decided to stay put while most of us left the hometown long ago wanted to leave all of a sudden.

Well, crippling power supply may be a mere inconvenience for well-to-do in Kathmandu and elsewhere in the country for which many have found solution in inverter and generator but for people like my friend’s brother, it is having a devastating impact on livelihood.

Many politicians, pundits, and bureaucrats have done well for themselves selling the dreams of changing the fate of the nation through hydro dollars. Does promise of transforming Nepal into Switzerland ring a bell? It’s been 20 years since we adopted free-market economy, and in all these years, what dream merchants have done is push the nation further into perpetual darkness. Isn’t 20 years a good time for us to see some positive results? Forget about benefiting from water resources financially, shouldn’t we be at least self-sufficient to meet our own energy needs by now?

The chances of benefiting from selling energy appear bleak. India, which is the primary and the biggest market for Nepal’s energy has already started building nuclear power plants. During the recent visit to India, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has agreed to build two European pressurized reactors of 1,650 megawatts each worth $9.3 billion. It appears that by the time we will be actually able to break the close nexus between hydro-mafia, politicians, and bureaucrats, which does not appear like it will happen anytime soon given the dysfunctional state of the country, and unleash our hydropower potential, India will be nuclear-powered. Even if it needed energy, it will be in a better position to bargain for cheaper price. By then, the so-called jingoists that are now opposing hydropower contracts to Indian companies will have been long gone. But by letting these jingoists have their way, we will have compromised the prospects of future generations benefiting from the economic gains made now through hydropower generation and energy sales.

While the hydro-mafia, politicians in power, bureaucrats, and jingoists stall the progress of the hydropower sector’s development in the country, lack of electricity, which could have been subsidized for poor from the energy sales to the neighboring countries, has hurt lower middle class and poor the most. If we look at the consequences of the energy poverty at the public level, it becomes evident that the lack of electricity is a main problem for poor health and educational outcomes. One of the main problems caused by energy poverty is indoor pollution.

Hundreds of thousands of girls and women of these households that are responsible for cooking suffer from respiratory problems that are caused by an inefficient biomass system used for cooking. Girls and women of a nation, which is only next to Brazil in water resources, certainly deserve a better deal. If these households have the access to subsidized energy, girls and women can use the time they save from collecting biomass fuel used for cooking for studies. The existing gender disparity in educational outcomes would bridge over time. Without a reliable access to electricity, health centers are often forced to treat patients in the dark and to rely on biomass and fuel generator to keep vaccines and medicines usable. For the rich, lack of regular supply of electricity might be a nuisance, but for the poor, to whom remaining healthy and getting decent education is the only way out of poverty, it is one of the major barriers.

In a country, where the government is unable to create jobs for its growing population, lack of secure energy access is limiting the opportunities of growth of the private sector and increasing their costs. For radicals that want to turn the nation into a welfare state, bleeding of the private sector is good news. As the private sector – the only hope for creating jobs for a growing population – fails, there will be more hotheads to recruit. Deep down, radicals and “ethnic-entrepreneurs” do not want the private sector to flourish because they very well know that robust private sector is an engine of growth.

Take India as an example where free market and strong private sector is changing the lives of Dalits, who happen to be at the rock bottom of the pyramid. A study led by Devesh Kapur at Pennsylvania University´s Centre for the Advanced Study of India, which quizzed Dalit households – more than 19,000 – in two clusters of villages in Azamgarh and Bulandshahar, two poor, backward districts in Uttar Pradesh state, clearly show that free market and strong private sector is benefiting Dalits. When asked to compare their material and social conditions now and in 1990 when economic reforms just started in India, Dalits have overwhelmingly reported substantial gain in material status as well as changes in a wide variety of social practices affecting Dalit well-being. Access to capital assets was found to have increased, consumption had become better, and relationship between the Dalits and other castes is undergoing subtle, but substantial changes.

In our case, why would the jingoists and ethnic entrepreneurs that are benefiting politically from the backwardness of Dalits and other ethnic groups care about the hemorrhaging in the private sector? While the jingoists and ethnic-entrepreneurs do not have interest in promoting the sector, the ones that credit themselves of introducing free-market economy in the country have personal interests that they think needs to be fulfilled along with the development of the sector. They are yet to realize what one-and-half decade of chasing personal gains has done to the party’s standing and their personal image. May be, they don’t care about it, as most of their siblings are settled abroad and do not intend to intend to join politics like the children of Indian politicians do. So, why invest in political capital building? Makes perfect sense!

One of the reasons why a selected few have been able to squander Nepal’s hydropower potential is because we let them. Power outage is forced upon citizens of one of the earth’s most water resources-rich nation because we as a nation accept it. People tend to accept unfavorable conditions more readily and this is precisely what greedy opportunists need in order to line their own pockets with the wealth that is supposed to benefit the people. We remain cheated because we are not protective of our fundamental human rights and realize that we deserve the best that life can offer.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mainstreaming the Maoists

Six months have already passed since the extension of the term of the constituent assembly (CA) and there has been very insignificant, if any, progress made in terms of drafting the new constitution. It is almost certain that the constitution will not be drafted even within the extended period. The new constitution will not be drafted for a very simple reason, and the reason is that there is no consensus among the major political parties of the ruling coalition and the Maoist party on major issues such as pluralism, federal, and economic development model to name a few. 

The ongoing contention over these issues is crucial, because the course of Nepali politics and fate of the politicians on either side of the divide will largely depend upon the kind of society we choose to be and the kind of economic model we embrace. For survival, the coalition members need a pluralistic society with an economic policy that equally promotes the development of all three sectors: Public, private, and cooperative.

On contrary, for the Maoists to thrive, regimented society with a state-led economy is a must. In many ways, the fight over the type of constitution each side wants is an existential battle that each side cannot afford to lose. And, that is where the problem lies. Unless there is a complete defeat or surrender of either side, Nepal is not going to have a new constitution, period! Even if it ended up having a new constitution, the chances of which are extremely slim, it will not be a long-lasting document. The status quo, however, is not only unsustainable but also dangerous. Existing unstable situation will further be aggravated by competitive populism, a dangerous permissiveness that tolerates criminalization of our polity and society and serious erosion of the legitimacy of the state. But breaking free from the status quo is not as simple as we would like it to be. The dysfunctional nature of the legislature and the state has its roots in the nature of our electoral process. The decision to run the circus of 601 people in the name of inclusion is where the problem started.

In a country, where political course of the country is shaped by not more than a dozen politicians, ushering inclusion was not that difficult. Unnecessary ballooning of the legislature has led to both reduced focus and effectiveness of the legislature and the government. What a poor country like Nepal needs is a smart and effective legislature and government that can introduce and implement policies and programs that are pro-people. Just to showcase inclusiveness, we have ended up creating a “loya jirga” (grand assembly) like institution that we see in tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In our case, it is even worse. The chiefs, unlike in Afghanistan and Pakistan, do not bother to show up in the “grand assembly” to solve contentious issues but direct followers to stall the progress.

The politicians belonging to the coalition prefer status quo because being in power helps them maximize their personal gain and minimize personal pain, even though the society at large loses, and is increasingly getting debilitated. The current coalition is an example of dangerously stable equilibrium. By not making any sincere effort toward promoting good governance, the current coalition is actually doing a disservice to its cause and is in a self-destructive mode. In the absence of good governance, the propertied and educated middle and upper classes that have great stakes in democracy, peace, and order will increasingly get disenchanted with the governance process and come to the dangerous conclusion that freedom and democracy are synonymous with chaos and anarchy.

At some point in time down the road, if the status quo continues, the support for authoritarianism that can bring order and peace to the society at any cost will swell, so that they can pursue their economic dreams. If and when that happens, all the bargains and backdoor dealings that have been going on to keep the current government in place will be worthless. In other words, the political parties that are supporting the current government, whose leader is more interested in jetting the globe rather than making a serious effort to solve the nation’s problems, are basically caught between the devil and the deep sea. The smartest way to come out of the current situation, which is self-defeating, is finding a right candidate that can effectively deal with the radical left and govern the nation at the same time.

The mainstreaming of the Maoist party is getting increasingly difficult not because they cannot be mainstreamed but because the path that the ruling coalition has embarked on is dead wrong. The Nepali Congress (NC), CPN-UML, and the Tarai based parties that have well adapted to Bihari-styled politics must take cues from the victory of Nitish Kumar, the incumbent chief minister of Bihar. By veering away from caste-based politics and making good governance his main agenda, Mr Kumar has virtually wiped out all his political competitors.

The only way to mainstream the Maoists is by defeating their agenda through good governance. Instead of trying to sell socialist rhetoric, NC, UML, and other major parties should focus on promoting good governance. The larger political problem for the Maoists and the fly in the ointment to their "socialist" mantra is that more and more Nepalis are today looking to government to help with the socioeconomic and law and order challenges facing the country. If the government can solve some of these problems, the Maoist party’s base will automatically deflate. Nothing can be dumber than competing with the Maoists in selling “progressive” dreams. We all know what happened in the last CA election, don’t we?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Time for course correction

Chickens of “consensus” politics have come home to roost. The manhandling of Finance Minister Surendra Pandey by the Maoist members of parliament is a preview of what the future holds for the politicians of the current coalition, who once endlessly harped on the need for consensus, if the outcomes of the political bargain do not go the Maoists’ way. The footage of the ultra-progressives (read the Maoists) manhandling the less-progressive (the minister from the less-progressive CPN-UML) is just a mouse-click away for the world to see. The timing could not have gotten any better. Pandey got roughed up at a time when the never-ending rounds of elections for the post of prime minister was providing the world a glimpse of how exactly a dysfunctional political system looks like.

As usual, each side is blaming the other for the incident. Anything new in that? Not really. The blame-game has been going on for a while now. Instead of trying to figure out who is at fault, it would be helpful if we spent our time and energy trying to understand why something as serious as this happened inside the parliament. It happened for a simple reason. And the reason is that as a nation, we allow politicians to run the country by cutting deals in the name of consensus. Nobody except the dealmakers actually know the terms and conditions of the deals. So, it is very easy for them to lie about them later. What makes this deal-based process even more complicated is that, for these dealmakers, pleasing their masters (Chinese for the Maoists and Indians for the current coalition members) is much more important and lies at the heart of anything they do or agree to than serving the nation’s interest and fulfilling people’s expectations.

Blaming the Maoists for insincerity at this point in time is completely absurd and unintelligent. The Maoists have been inconsistently consistent throughout about their motive behind joining the hands with the political parties. They wanted to use the opportunity to achieve their goal of establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. The rationalization of the Maoists’ intent to come overground came from the very politicians that now grouch about the Maoist motives, pundits who change their color faster than chameleons to remain politically-relevant and human right activists that are now nowhere to be seen when a people’s representative is manhandled in broad light inside the parliament. Hence, the wound that politicians of the Nepali Congress (NC) and the UML complain about is self-inflicted. The sooner they learn to live with it, the better off they will be.

The Maoists are now one of the dominant players of Nepali politics and there is logic to what they do. Every move of theirs is well-calculated and is meant to serve their political agenda. With India against their quest for power, the Maoists have no choice but to tilt the domestic political balance by coercing their political opponents. They want the opponents to be perceived as feeble and power-hungry who will eventually succumb to their bullying tactics. And there is precedence to what they believe in. On the other side, there is no political preparation to tackle the Maoists. All they have is the same old slogan of how big a threat the Maoists are for democracy, which gives them an opportunity to cash in on India’s soured relationship with the Maoists, both of which will not take the coalition very far.

Putting the blame on the Maoists will not serve any purpose when it comes to correcting the course that they are in. The NC and the UML should prove to the people, which they have not done so far, that they can effectively govern the nation and meet people’s expectations. The state’s reach has been shrinking with each passing day. Regurgitation of the same old stale slogan of democracy being in danger from the likes of Krishna Prasad Sitaula, who not very long ago used every argument that they could think of to justify how bringing the Maoists overground was good for democracy, makes the case that the coalition is trying to make against the Maoists look malicious and empty.

The ongoing small-scale confrontation between the major partners of the coalition and the Maoists will get bigger and more frequent in the days to come. This is just the beginning. The NC, with its new president, can be a game changer if it dares to get away from the influence of the likes of Sitaula that failed miserably to correctly assess the Maoists’ motives. It is time to play the game with the Maoists the way they do. Backdoor dealings with them should be completely stopped. Things as important as budget should be made public with or without the Maoist support. If they oppose, they are the ones that will be seen as obstructionist, and if they get physical, they should end up behind bars. Appeasing the Maoists so far has not gotten the nation anywhere, has it? It is high time that they be held accountable for their acts.

The moving of the political process forward should be done smartly. Staying put in a futile prime ministerial election process makes the NC look like a club of politically-immature jokers. Its obsession with the prime ministership is pushing Jhala Nath Khanal and his fellow comrades closer to Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Helping the UML retain its political base is as important as maintaining its own political space for the NC. The UML’s loss is the Maoists party´s gain. Hence, letting Khanal become the prime minister is politically more profitable for the NC than alienating him by endlessly bidding for Ram Chandra Poudel. Even if Poudel became the prime minister, there will absolutely nothing in this lame duck environment for him to achieve that will change the NC’s face and fate. So, why remain obsessed? Cut your losses by not appearing insensitive to Khanal’s desperation to become the prime minister.

Banking on India’s support and regurgitation of democracy-in-peril rhetoric may work for a while and help the coalition stay put in power for some time, but with China’s support, the Maoist party is hell-bent on tipping the balance. If and when the balance tips, India will have no choice but to reengage with the Maoists. Aung San Suu Kyi received Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1993 from the Indian government, but when the Indian government later on realized that the Burmese junta was not going to release Suu Kyi anytime soon, it started reengaging with the junta that put her under house arrest. Than Swe’s recent gala reception in India and the endless case made by India’s foreign policy experts, including Shyam Saran, about the necessity of becoming pragmatic when it came to dealing with Myanmar’s junta is an example of how far the Indian pendulum can swing with change in domestic political situation. Endless complaints about the Maoists’ anti-democratic acts have not made them change their ways, so it is time you change your ways and do things differently Mr Sushil Koirala. By opting for that, you would be doing a huge both to your party as well as the nation.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sacrificing animals

Every year, around Dashain, festival writings and ranting against animal sacrifice get a lot of coverage in media. From little known animal rights activist groups to amateur writers, many jump into anti-sacrifice bandwagon. As Dashain gets over, the noise dies down, gradually. It is really difficult to understand the real motives behind the dissent. Are these groups or individuals really passionate about animal rights or sponsored by external forces that aim to benefit from the portrayal of Hindu religion and culture in bad light or is it coming from anarchists that see progressiveness as everything that is against established norms and rules? Are these people really vegetarian that value life of other beings as their own or opportunists trying to seek some limelight as and when they can? In a country, where dreams are sold (remember “New Nepal” hoopla?) freely without any fear of being held accountable, being cynical at times is perfectly normal, isn’t it? 

Animal sacrifice is nothing new. It has been happening for centuries and in all the ancient religions of the world. The ritual of animal sacrifice is seen as a means of getting closer to the almighty. From the Hebrews to the Greeks and Romans and from the Aztecs to the Hindus, ritual killing of an animal has been part of a religion. Moral purists, atheists, opportunists, and limelight seekers question whether ritual killing of animals is right just because it has been practiced for generations? Do they have a point? Absolutely. But are they missing a larger picture? You bet!

What they conveniently forget is the objective behind the religious sacrifice. People sacrificing animals are not religious nuts. The objective of sacrifice is to express gratitude to the almighty. They truly and selflessly believe that by offering our life symbolically to the almighty by offering the sacrifice of an animal, they are in fact expressing their gratitude. Are they right? May be, may be not, but again, who are we to question someone else’s belief system? If their belief affords them comfort, they have all the right and freedom to believe in whatever they want to believe in. Besides, it is their constitutional right to practice their religion.

Sacrificing an animal as long as such animal is not endangered and protected by law would be the same as killing a chicken for McDonalds. As far as the method of killing is concerned, what is torture and what is not is again subjective. Some may believe gulping meat while advocating for animal rights to be more primitive, double standard, and culturally damaging than animal sacrifice practice itself. Are they wrong? Depends upon how you see it. Everyone has a different starting point, a different personality and differing degrees of faith. When it comes to beliefs, debating helps but it will eventually reach the "nihilist threshold." People have beliefs that they simply hold to be true for no other reason than trusting them to be right.

Those that make a hue and cry about animal sacrifice in Nepal somehow try to associate animal rights with killings only. Animal rights is not all about how you kill them. Animals like humans do have rights to live in a free environment. Millions of goats that were sacrificed during the recent Dashain must have enjoyed a better life and a less ignominious death than veal calves, geese, and battery hens that that are kept in cages that are little more than the size of a sheet of A4 paper in Western farms. Animal rights are violated everywhere, irrespective of developmental status.

Advocacy has become a lucrative profession in Nepal. The so-called human rights activists that demeaned the state’s right to defend itself against those that initiated violent bloody insurgency have now pigeon-holed themselves. They do not raise voice against the marauding raids of the Maoists, ethnic hustlers, and criminal gangs that have violated the rights of millions of Nepalis to live freely and pursue their dreams. Rights activist in Nepal have tremendously benefited at the cost of the liquidation of the state.

Populism doesn’t bring real change. For real and long lasting change to happen, there has to be a social and economic basis for it. It is important to understand that still approximately half of the population lives below the poverty line and is illiterate. The state, for them, is virtually non-existent. If they had faith in the state, Pushpa Kamal Dahal would not have had recruits to fight against the state, opportunity to parachute to the parliament, and get away even when he crawls to Kamal Thapa’s residence for votes to become the prime minister. Isn’t change, for which, approximately 14,000 people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands got uprooted visible? Nobody seems to be questioning if the promise for change was worth the sacrifice? The never-ending claims from both the extreme left and the right is nothing but the politics of grievances. But we rather take easy way out and question if the sacrifice of animals is worth it?

Animal sacrifice is not a good practice but it is not happening in vacuum. Belief system drives it. Bemoaning it is of little help and stopping it altogether is outright dangerous. When the state fails, religion and faith help. Already there is enough of bloodshed and anarchy in the country and taking off the religious and cultural lid altogether will make things even worse. Change should be gradual and calibrated, only then it is long-lasting. Indicator-less quest for change will be something like that of the current peace process. Nobody knows where it is going except for the United Nations Mission in Nepal. First of all, economic and social basis for change needs to be established. With education, prosperity, and economic development, people may be more willing to explore other ways to please gods and celebrate religious ceremonies. Till then, energy should be spent towards nation-building, not withering the glue that holds it together.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Two cheers for Nobel laureates

Every year, six Nobel prizes are awarded for outstanding contributions in the field of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, economics and peace. Except for a few controversies, for the most part, Nobel committees have done an excellent job in awarding deserving candidates. The decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the current United States President Barack Obama, and past US president and vice-president Jimmy Carter and Al Gore respectively drew some flak and prompted accusations of a left-wing bias. But when it comes to controversy, the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho for negotiating a ceasefire between North Vietnam and the United States in January 1973 is so far the most controversial one.

The Norwegian Nobel Committees deserve criticism to a certain degree for overlooking the contributions of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi of India, Václav Havel of Czech Republic, Ken Saro-Wiwa of Nigeria, Corazon Aquino of Philipinnes, Jose Figueres Ferrer of Costa Rica, Feng Shan Ho of China, Steve Biko of South Africa while jointly selecting Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 for their so-called efforts in making peace between Israel and Palestine. Peace between Palestine and Israel? It is as elusive as it can get.

Except for the prizes in economics, peace, and literature, often, common people cannot relate with things that recipients are awarded the prize for. Contributions in chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine are often hard for people without sufficient background in these subjects to comprehend. But this year, it is different. There have been pleasant surprises for many armchair Nobel enthusiasts, like myself. The committees, this year, have taken some bold selection decisions, which is sure to enhance the reputation of the Nobel Prize. By deciding to award the Literature Prize to Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru, the Swedish Academy that grants the Nobel Prize in Literature has shown that it is ready to shed its eurocentric image. The Swedish Academy that grants the Nobel Prize in Literature is often accused of eurocentrism.

The list cannot get any better. Among the 2010 Nobel Prize winners, if I were to pick the two most deserving winners, it would be Robert G Edwards for medicine and Liu Xiaobo for peace. It is not to suggest that other winners’ contribution is less important by any means. But the works of Edwards and Xiaobo have greater significance and far-reaching consequences. By spearheading Invitro Fertilization (IVF) creation, Professor Edwards have given a ray of hope to millions of infertile and sub-fertile couples that hope to have biological children of their own. Professor Edwards is the technological father of 4 million people that have been born through IVF procedure so far. They would not be here if it was not for Edwards’ breakthroughs.

In traditional patriarchal society like ours, where women’s status within the household and society is to a large extent attached to her ability to give birth to a child, Edwards’ work is even more relevant. It is not always a woman’s fault if she cannot give birth to a child. Male infertility, which is a reason for almost 50 percent cases of infertility, does not cross peoples’ mind when they see or meet childless couples. Women are the silent victims of male infertility and the state has done very little to address this problem. Professor Edwards’ work has and will help millions of women secure their status within the household and society. With the help of assisted reproductive technology, infertile and sub-fertile couples now have biological child of their own. His work has been crucial for human embryonic stem cell research, as the cells are obtained from embryos left over at infertility clinics. Millions of people suffering from dreadful diseases like Parkinson´s, Alzheimer´s and Lou Gehrig´s are pinning their hope on success of embryonic stem cell research.

Some ethicists from the Catholic Church have questioned the correctness of awarding Nobel Prize to Professor Edwards, whom they think essentially started “playing god.” But in their lopsided moral interpretations of Professor Edwards’ achievement, what they conveniently dodge is the joy and happiness that Edwards’ work brings to the life of sick and poor, toward whom they claim to have moral responsibility. The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, which awards the candidates for Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, by selecting Professor Edwards, has sent a strong message that the religious righteousness of some cannot hold scientific progress hostage. Professor Edwards’ selection is the victory against those that protect degenerate priests who prey on the sexual innocence of children but hound upon individual’s right to bear children.

If the award to Professor Edwards’ is a slap on the wrist of the so-called religious purists, jailed Chinese human rights and democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo’s selection is an answer to the existential question of what good human rights and democracy campaigners’ sacrifice have done? Xiaobo’s selection has recognized the sacrifice of human rights and democracy campaigners across the globe. Unlike our own radicals that pursued murderous path to what they claim was for establishing civilian supremacy, Xiaobo’s struggle is for peaceful political change and an era of expanded freedom and rights. Recognition of Xiaobo’s peaceful democratic struggle is a real tribute to the unsung heroes muzzled during the 1989 pro-democracy demonstration at Tiananmen Square and beyond.

There is also a subtle message for our own radicals that seek financial favors from their Chinese counterparts to get to power and use Chinese model to curtail our democratic rights. It might take time but the overthrow of an autocratic ideology or regime is imminent

Monday, September 27, 2010

Reinventing Nepali Congress

The 12th General Convention of the Nepali Congress (NC) can be regarded as a giant leap toward intra-party democracy, which, as a matter of fact, was long overdue. By reserving seats for women, Dalits, Madhesis, and indigenous people in the central committee, the NC has taken a stride toward reforming its image as a party dominated by pahadi Brahmins and Chettris.

It would be unfair to say that the groups that now have the privilege to represent themselves because of the policy of reservation were completely overlooked in the past. Ram Baran Yadav, Mahantha Thakur, Chitra Lekha Yadav, Bijay Gachchhedar and Jay Prakash Gupta are Madhesis who were at the helm of power both within the party and outside. It is altogether a different thing that their meteoric rise in the Nepali politics cannot be termed as merit-based. It is true that they did the initial leg-work required to get to the limelight but what is even truer is that Ram Baran Yadav, Chitra Lekha Yadav, Thakur, Gachchhedar and Gupta tremendously benefited from Girija Prasad Koirala’s benevolence.

It was a two-way street. The Tarai being the base of NC, Koirala needed Madhesi faces to cater to the base. But the condition was that they ought to be completely subservient. All of the aforementioned personalities fitted the bill. At least, till the late 1990s. Unlike the two Yadavs and Thakur, Gachchhedar and Gupta, who happen to be notoriously shrewd and opportunists, skimmed the system quite well to transform themselves from lightweights to heavyweights in the NC. The relationship, however, was perfectly symbiotic.

As long as corrupt and incompetent people who surrounded Koirala exhibited their unflinching support for him, he did not care about their incompetence or corrupt ways. By the time Koirala realized their actual intent, it was too late. They had already established themselves in Nepali politics. Turning a blind eye on wrongdoings of the followers proved to be costly for the NC. The party that people once looked up as a party of ideas and vision under B P Koirala’s able leadership has been completely reduced to a party of self-serving power mongers.

With Koirala gone, the NC is at a crossroads. The recently held general convention provided the NC with an opportunity to gain its lost ground and glory. How Sushil Koirala, the new president of NC, runs the party will largely determine whether or not the grand old party will be able to reinvent itself. Sushil’s lack of desire to enjoy power reflects his selflessness, which is rare in Nepali politics. He is the kind of man that Nepali people would like to see as party bosses. But in the political landscape full of opportunists, will his idealism be able to bring the much-needed transformation? Will his idealism triumph over opportunism, which is rampant within NC? The people that made Koirala sleepwalk toward the end of his life are now rooting for Sushil. His electoral victory was necessary for the likes of Krishna Prasad Sitaula to remain in circulation in Nepali politics. Sushil’s success as the NC’s president will largely depend on whether or not he will be able to ward off undue pressure from the likes of Sitaula.

There was quite a buzz about the emergence of new faces in the NC’s district-level elections. But will this translate victory into anything meaningful for the party? Of course, it is a good thing. Especially in a country, where almost 65 percent of the population is below 30 years of age, such change will have to be engineered. NC, for its own survival, needs to promote young leaders that better understand the aspirations of Nepali youth. The failure to do so has led to mass exodus of middle-class youth that are the actual believers of liberal democracy.

NC’s reinvention largely depends on reversal of this trend and its ability to better connect with them. However, for young, newly-elected district leaders and central committee members to focus on problems confronting the nation, they will first have to be assured of their political career. For the drive for hard work to come, these youngsters have to have faith over the leadership’s integrity and its commitment toward promoting hardworking and competent individuals. So far, the youngsters in the party have not exhibited that level of independence. The votes that Bhim Bahadur Tamang and Narahari Acharya garnered during the recent convention clearly show that the youngsters are not willing to break free from clientelism and risk their political career. Will Sushil be more willing to promote competence over clientelism?

Will Sushil be able to get out of the influence of the fat cats within the NC whose insensitivity toward problems of citizens and ideological decay sunk the party this low? His first major test will be the nomination of the central committee members. It will make clear whether Sushil is truly a selfless man ready to gamble his post for greater good of the party and the nation or an indecisive politician whose lack of confidence in solving problems made him to shy away from powerful positions in the cabinet. Sushil has a greater responsibility than any other past presidents of his party.

Today, multiparty democracy, whose existence is crucial for the survival of NC, is in real danger. He needs to find a clever way of mainstreaming the Maoists and prevent the CPN-UML and ethnic parties from falling into the Maoists’ trap. His ability to solve these problems and reinvent the party will largely depend upon whether or not he will be able to operate as an independent thinker and bring in new faces with new ideas onboard.