Rameshwar Khanal, a former finance secretary who became a prominent member of the Naya Shakti, took the usual course of castigating political parties as being full of people interested only in sowing divisions and perpetuating conflicts. But Khanal didn’t stop there. He also had some harsh words for voters – as in, us – who he said were easily influenced by money.
Khanal’s remarks came in response to questions as to why he chose to leave the Naya Shakti, led by former Maoist chief ideologue Baburam Bhattarai. The interviewer admitted that Khanal spoke after much cajoling, and the interview centered on Naya Shakti and Dr. Bhattarai. Still, his indictment rang true across the political spectrum.
Why are our leaders who and what they are? Because of the people?
That patronage (i.e., corruption) would be the elixir of a restored multiparty democracy was a key talking point of the panchas throughout the dying days of the partyless system. The other side had a ready retort. The autocratic panchas would pocket 90 percent of what they stole, whereas democrats would keep, at most, a tenth of the loot after spending the bulk on greasing the wheels of democracy.
But, then, multiparty democracy would raise corruption to unprecedented – and perhaps unsustainable –levels, the panchas argued. Since the same percentages would hold, the counterargument went, pilferage associated with patronage was far superior morally and ethically. At least there would be value for money.
By the mid-term election campaign in 1994, Nepali Congress candidates could be heard complaining about how expensive it had become to mobilize workers and supporters. A fare of aloo-chiura and water had long given way to chicken and beer to fuel the machine from one stop to the next, and you still couldn’t be sure.
The conspicuous cost of patronage may or may not have consumed Nepal’s second experiment with multiparty democracy. Yet today’s politicians have decided to carefully shun its most egregious excesses and become more creative in the acquisition and disposal of resources.
For one thing, political representation has been increased for every significant articulation of grievances. One effect has been the mutual tolerance exhibited by politicians and the people. Our leaders have defined their project as a perpetual work in progress, where periodic knocks are papered over by multi-pointed agreements. The people, having subliminally accepted that this is the best they are going to get, have reserved the right to oppose without being outright obnoxious.
Consider where we are today. Before the Madhesi alliance withdrew its support from the government, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal fortified his flank by inducting Rastriya Prajantatra Party (RPP) president Kamal Thapa as his senior deputy. The Madhesi parties barely got to contemplate why the revolutionary Dahal would award the federalism portfolio to Thapa, a vocal advocate of going back to Hindu statehood and monarchy, two of three pillars of New Nepal.
The Election Commission then ordered the RPP to drop those two agendas from its charter if it wanted to contest the elections. As Thapa threatened to resign on the eve of Dahal’s crucial trip to China, the other deputy prime minister, Bimalendra Nidhi grumbled that he couldn’t play second fiddle to Thapa, who tabled a constitutional amendment proposal to restore Hindu statehood.
As the agitating Madhesi alliance began thinking about rethinking its approach to the Dahal government, a key Madhesi leader Bijay Kumar Gachchaddar pondered returning to the Nepali Congress. (A party, in the laconic words of leader of the opposition, Khadga Prasad Oli, that is a buffalo that can barely carry the load of a goat.)
Before you could grapple with this snarl, a hardline Hindu man of the cloth became the leader of the most populous Indian state, which adjoins a large part of our southern border. The operative question then became: did Thapa and his party deliberately keep the monarchy out of the latest amendment proposal? The ongoing or planned visits by the head of the US military’s Pacific Command, the Chinese defense minister and the Indian army chief have heightened the geo-strategic dimensions of our national existence.
Perhaps the blame game between politicians and people should gather pace. After all, it’s the easiest way to make sense of our sensibilities.