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!

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