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Rulers only in name in Nepal

No political party has yet offered a counterview on how the country can be run.


Every now and then, a meme about tsundoku – a Japanese word that’s all about buying books and not getting around to reading them – pops up on my Facebook feed to make me feel guilty. One such book in my ever-increasing biblio-pile was Indian historian Upinder Singh’s Political Violence in Ancient India, an excellent treatise on how notions of kingship, the identification of the king with the state, and how various old texts define other ideas of statehood and monarchy that were constantly refined over a period of time. I finally picked it up a few weeks ago, just as thousands in Kathmandu came to the streets to protest the Guthi bill. “The anger of the subjects (prakrti-kopa, janapada-kopa) is something to be avoided at all costs,” Singh writes, quoting the ancient treatise Arthashastra, said to be written by Kautilya. “‘When [the king] is attacked, the subjects help a king who behaves justly but is suffering from a serious calamity; they remain indifferent to one who behaves unjustly and is suffering from a light calamity; but if they are disaffected, they destroy even a powerful king.”

Political protest would have had little place in an absolute monarchical system as was prevalent in ancient India, but the social contract that exists between a ruler and his subjects which eventually makes up the state is of deep concern to Kautilya. After all, what is a state? At its essentialist core, it is an intangible idea that runs on the citizens’ belief that the ruler(s) will protect their lives and their livelihoods, and in turn, the citizens provide legitimacy to the rule by allowing the rulers to extract taxes from them. It is because of the corrosion of this belief that an anti-king movement spiralled beyond Maoist-held areas to urban centres and brought about a republic.

Once upon a time, with the blockade, K P Oli’s vehement negation of India brought him rich dividends. But the tall electoral promises have not been fulfilled, and now the population is losing faith in this government. It is not that they haven’t attempted to “do things”; if anything, this government has been churning out laws and policies one after another. But the disaffection is so widespread that there is no credibility left. The government has lost the narrative to opposition within its own party (the actual opposition is in no better shape; the Nepali Congress has nothing better to do than heckle Oli in Parliament); it faces severe criticism on its (mis)handling of the federal question with its arbitrary laws on employment that run contrary to the constitution; and it is well on its way to losing the legitimacy to rule in the eyes of the citizens. All in all, it has been a year KP Oli would like to forget

Any strategist would argue it is not wise to initiate battle on two fronts at once; after all, that’s common sense. The Oli government has succeeded in opening not two, but several fronts. An intraparty conflict is brewing. It clashed with provinces on the issue of local government jobs. The Media Council Bill found it few friends among an influential section that could shape public opinion towards its ends. If that wasn’t enough, cable operators are now up in arms against the clean feed policy. Kathmandu residents simply refused to entertain any changes to the existing guthi system; farmers who come to the capital to buy fertilizers are met with the arrogance of public servants who say they came to Kathmandu to ‘see the drama’. It wants to levy a customs duty on books to encourage domestic knowledge production, but it has made no effort to reduce the politicisation of higher educational institutions. Unsurprisingly, only the contractors have been able to amend public procurement laws to their demands, removing all doubts about the corporate-political nexus that exists in Nepal today. On the foreign policy front, Oli’s mileage points have increased tremendously, but with little substance. Compare that with its few ‘victories’: it raised the parliamentarians’ constituency development funds, it increased the old-age allowance for senior citizens, and it raised salaries for public servants.

What’s extraordinary is that despite much legislation, the government has simply not been able to convey to citizens why it wants to introduce or amend the laws. Public displays of anger have forced the government to step back on several contentious issues. The ordinary citizen has refused to accept the changes proposed by the government, either because she does not trust the political establishment, or because the proposed changes affect the status quo, which stakeholders are unwilling to change. The government’s centralising tendencies are an anachronism in an infant republic struggling to find its feet, which has lost it the trust of those who voted for a smooth federal transition. Its first barrier is its own party, despite introducing budgetary policies that favour its members.

The electoral majority aside, the Oli administration had several other things going for it. No political party has yet offered a counterview on how the country can be run. The Maoists under Prachanda have capitulated to their fears and are happy to be co-opted by the state they once fought. Neither can we trust the opposition to do a better job at government; there is little hope in the post-Girija Prasad Koirala Nepali Congress. All attempts at ‘cleaning’ Nepali politics have failed with their own limited visions and compromises. There is a distinct lack of trust for all politicians in Nepal today, not because ‘sabai neta chor hun’, but because this distrust comes from experience and the opportunism of Nepali politics. And then, there is the bureaucratic reform that is essential to drive Nepal into the 21st century – but no political force wants to even talk about it.

At the end of the day, any state has to propel the citizen forward in a national narrative that holds out a vision for her, which is what the ‘Sambriddha Nepal, Sukhi Nepali’ idea attempted to do. While it was a reasonable narrative to begin a new government with, its deliverables have been zilch, and its recount value a mockery. If the Oli government would have been a little more sensitive to the aspirations of those who voted it to power, it would have understood the citizen cares little for day-to-day politics, but is instead concerned with her livelihood and security, and aspires for more. What we got was a slogan that promised lots, and delivered little.

The social contract that makes a state is frayed in Nepal; the tears had come long before the Oli government was elected, but this government has tugged on it from all ends to ensure the fabric now holds a gaping hole. The current administration should have attempted to restore the citizen’s basic trust in government by delivering on essential services with a focus on efficiency and inclusion as was the intent of the constitution-making process, but when it begins to concern itself with social media criticism like a wounded Twitter celebrity, you know where its priorities lie. Pragmatism should have been a cornerstone for a government that knew fissures existed in Nepali society; instead, its new symbol is a bulldozer that’s running amok. ‘The king’s welfare does not lie in what is pleasing to himself; his welfare lies in what is pleasing to his subjects,’ says the Arthashastra. While such utopic scenarios may be far from normal, our new elected kings would do well to remember their claims to power come from the citizen’s trust in them. Without that, a king is a king only in name.