Sunday, August 26, 2012

In That Very Special Place

With a major section of the Nepali Congress in a tizzy over how leading party luminaries are being singled out for corruption conviction and sent to prison, Maila Baje recalls a remark Shailaja Acharya used to make.
As Nepal’s last real brush with democratic politics degenerated into a macabre street show, the Nepali Congress was singled out for wrecking an enterprise that had begun with such hope in early 1990. While most of the other Nepali Congress stalwarts were busy blaming the palace, the CPN-UML and the Maoists for subverting democracy, Shailaja had a different take.
The Nepali people had a right to be angry with the Nepali Congress, she said. And no, it was not just because the party had been in power for most of the 1990-2002 period. The public outcry was rooted in the great expectations the people had from the party.
Now, Shailaja’s words had an unnerving self-righteous tinge, quite imaginably even to some within her party. But consider the context. The panchas had squandered thirty years trying to prove their democratic credentials, when they could focused more on infrastructure building and promoting Nepal’s international persona.
The communists, who boldly called their system a dictatorship of the proletariat, were congenitally brutal. The head-hunters in Jhapa were merely forerunners of the mass murderers unleashing a ‘People’s War’.
Sure, the Nepali Congress, too, bombed bridges and tried to kill kings. But when the party claimed it did so in the name of democracy, that sort of ended the story. Countless leaders and supporters had braved incarceration and exile, while many made the ultimate sacrifice for the people. Lack of inner-party democracy did little to obscure the halo of democracy from the party. So when the Nepali Congress in 1990 promised to turn Nepal into another Singapore and Switzerland, the people could do little but take them seriously.
No such feeling exists for the party today. Few Nepalis see the Nepali Congress as any different from the bumbling tribe that comprises the political class. Time has been a great equalizer since April 2006, where the Maoists, mainstream parties and the monarchists are on the same plane.
If anything, in today’s sovereignty-is-under-siege ambience, Jang Bahadur Rana is remembered for having regained some of the territory Nepal had lost in the Sugauli Treaty. Chandra Shamsher is lauded for his role in securing the British Empire’s unequivocal recognition as a free and independent state as the Great Game waned.
Still, Shailaja’s remark carries relevance to our context if you are willing to listen a bit differently. The Nepali Congress, despite its tawdry record in office, continues to assert its specialness. (“We led three democratic revolutions… blah, blah, blah.”) And that puts off a lot of people.
So when Chirajibi Wagle, Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta, Govind Raj Joshi and Khum Bahadur Khadka are packed into prison for old cases of corruption, the people barely yawn. What they stole may seem chump change compared to the scale of the loot people of other parties (and, yes, the Nepali Congress) are perpetrating today. But your average person has no time for that.
The moral of the story: If the Nepali Congress wants to be treated like the other parties on matters of vice – or for that matter, virtue -- then maybe it should quit claiming to be so special.