20-26 January 2017 #842

Bhagbanda politics

Things start falling apart when the centre cannot hold because it is too busy dividing up the spoils.

Diwakar Chettri

As the country is allowed to drift, governance decays, state authority declines and service delivery suffers. But the top leaders of the main parties are completely comfortable to let things slide. They are so cosy with the division of the spoils of bhagbanda status quo politics that they don’t want to make any sudden moves. That would upset the apple cart.

The people, for their part, are so used to the government not doing much that they don’t expect anything from the state. Individuals, families, communities go about their daily lives relying on the informal sector, undocumented transactions, and the parallel economy. The people want the government to leave them alone, and the government for its part seems to be perfectly happy with that arrangement.

The political parties are in no particular hurry to have elections because they are profiting so much from dividing up the state coffers, nominations and positions among themselves. Ambassadors are appointed based on the relative parliamentary strength of the parties. The KU vice-chancellor and the NRA CEO are selected on bhagbanda basis. Not being accountable suits politicians fine. Why risk an election if things are so hunky dory? Things aren’t that bad, we’re still some ways off from the edge of the cliff, so why make any precipitous moves? Everything, therefore, is in wait-and-watch mode.

The parties appear to have spent all their energy in the past month haggling over the constitutional amendment, announcement of elections and the impeachment of the suspended CIAA chief.  They had wanted to sort this out in a package deal, but their stands cancelled each other out which is why politics is now in a state of rigor mortis.

Politicians are using the lull to recharge their batteries. The Prime Minister even found time for a junket to Abu Dhabi. Most politicians are busy travelling to their home constituencies, and are behaving as if they are already on election campaign mode. Competition is hotting up among the political parties to grab the holy grail of Nepal’s elections: the Tarai which now has more than half of Nepal’s population. No surprise, therefore, that politicians are fanning out across the plains addressing rallies, strategising with local cadre, trying to understand the mood of the Madhes.

The conclusion of the mainstream parties after these trips seems to be that the Madhesi party leaders who were trounced in the 2013 elections are still not held in high regard. They detect a divide between the Madhesi people and the leaders of the Madhes-oriented parties, and see an opportunity to exploit the simmering distrust. The party that can restore linkages between hills and plains will have the upper hand, not the one that tries to divide the regions.  

For their part, the Madhesi parties have concluded that their electoral future can only be assured by keeping the federalism pot at boiling point. It is in their interest to stoke Madhesi animosity against Pahades. Last year’s violent agitation radicalised young Madhesis, and they feel that level of anger needs to be maintained for their political survival. 

The mainstream parties also sense that many people in the Madhes towns, particularly Birganj and westwards, do not have the stomach for another prolonged agitation. The economy of the Tarai border towns suffered due to the Blockade, so even Madhes based parties have softened their rhetoric of late. The four main parties see the demographics shifting with disproportionate out-migration of young men from the eastern Tarai. Hill settlers of the plains may therefore form a larger proportion of voter turnout on election day than they would otherwise.

The other wildcard is the Hindu votebank. A recent report in this paper from Janakpur suggested a strong backing for the RPP, and even for a return to a constitutional monarchy among the middle class and traders. If this translates into votes at the ballot box, it will be at the cost of support for the other parties.

The politicians may be doubtful about a lot of things, but of one thing they are certain: they must conduct elections in 2017 even if they don’t really want it. According to the constitutional rulebook, there should be three elections: local, provincial and voting for the federal parliament by 18 January 2018. For now, though, the top leaders seem to have shelved the idea of local elections because of intractable differences over provincial boundaries, their demarcation and rearranging electoral constituencies. 

Holding federal elections will be the fig leaf that the parties need to demonstrate to the public that they are not against polls per se. This would prolong the political transition, but that doesn’t worry wheeling-dealing netas who benefit so much from extending bhagbanda politics.

Read also:

The end of diplomacy, Kanak Mani Dixit

A happier New Year, Editorial

21 January 2018, Editorial

Federalism is the talk of the town in the Tarai, Kristina Shperlik

The end of Karkistocracy, Binita Dahal

Head we lose, Tails we lose, Editorial

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