Nepali Times
State Of The State
Voices in the echo chamber


Nepal's power elite is a small, closed and incestuous circle. The size of intelligentsia is even smaller. Like in any other exclusive community, when intellectuals gather, they talk more about each other than anything else.

Conformism rules, agreement is sacred and dissent sacrilegious. That may be one of the reasons our scholars are seldom original. We repeat the received wisdom of the day in the name of exchange of ideas and applaud each other. Nepali academics don't aspire for the ivory tower, they'd rather live in an echo chamber.

In the early fifties, we imported academics from Assam, Banaras, Calcutta and Darjeeling. The state tried out the Soviet-model of a five-year-plan economy. King Mahendra had other plans, he wanted Narayanhiti to be Nepal's main temple. A land-and-climate theory of political economy was developed at the social science laboratories of US think-tanks. The Centre for Development and Administration at Tribhuvan University was where ideologues like Mohammad Mohsin and Pashupati Shamsher debated grassroot democracy. Maoism was bound to emerge as the alternative discourse.

After the oil shock of the 1970s, all these development plans went out the window. The 1980s were the years of post-modernity. Ethnic entrepreneurs came to the fore with the help of donor agencies. Gender emerged as the main challenge. Environmental concerns acquired respectability. In the 1990s, the agenda was democracy. Political reforms, human rights and social justice became the new buzzwords.

Had those concerns been genuinely pursued, probably Nepal would have been spared the trauma of violent and painful transition. Some influential donors had other plans. They gave us the slogan of \'Liberalisation, Privatisation, Globalisation' and \'Good Governance', which ended up de-legitimising popular politics. Peaceful politics and the mess of democracy were ridiculed beyond redemption. Spread of violent insurgency, ruthless counter-insurgency and eventual collapse of the state was then inevitable.

The intellectual enterprise of this decade had to then revolve around conflict resolution and peace building. Democracy was added to the list as an afterthought. Some Nepalis were fooled for some of the time with these manufactured agendas. But they soon realised that nobody was going to solve their problem. So they rose as one during April Uprising in 2006 and sidelined the monarchy, mainstreamed Maoists and chastised mainstream parties. One of the reasons behind severe criticism of the New Delhi pact between mainstream parties and Maoists was the fact that influential lenders, donors and expatriates had been kept out of the picture. It's now their turn to strike back.

Conflict resolution experts now masquerade as state restructuring specialists. Political leaders and civil society bigwigs are seldom taken to Nordic countries, Switzerland and South Africa for guided tours these days. The traffic is inbound. Political analysts, governance gurus and defence experts are back here to teach the Maoists and mainstream parties the nitty-gritty of managing our political transition.

The UN system in Kathmandu has a Constitutional Advisory Support Unit. Early this week, it invited a galaxy of political worthies for a midweek retreat at Godavari. With legislative parliament in forced recesses and the fate of alliance in suspense, even influential leaders had little to do in the capital.

Everyone from Bimalendra Nidhi, Chakra Banstola, Minendra Rijal and Shekhar Koirala of NC to Jhalanath Khanal of the UML and Om Gurung of the janjati movement were all there to listen to gratuitous advice of rank novices from abroad. It's the trend rather than content of the meet that deserves closer attention.

Predictions for 2008: the debate over parliamentary versus presidential system of governance is going to be the focus of intellectual exchanges, civil-military relations will be scrutinised closely by international researchers, and next year's mantra will be "systems of governance". With such weighty issues to talk about, there is no time to actually do anything.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)