Ten years ago, when outsiders looked at Nepal they saw the Himalayas, Gurkha soldiers, Buddhism and the Sherpas, without whom no mountaineering expedition was possible. As trite and inadequate those images were, they helped frame Nepal's complexity in easily comprehensible images. From backpackers on budget trips to elite mountaineers aiming to break records, Nepal was the place to be. Tourism was a valuable component of Brand Nepal.
In the ensuing years, while Nepal dug itself further and further into an ostrich-like position, other countries moved on to doing more business with one another. India, for instance, shrugged off its image as a country of snake charmers to one filled with cheap, hungry and smart software coders. China has formidably recast itself as the world's cheapest high-volume factory for just about anything. Ireland, long famous for sending away millions to work in London and Boston, has become a quiet economic powerhouse. And when people talk of Bangladesh these days, they increasingly speak not of floods and poverty but of a six-billion-dollar garment industry that has resulted in Dhaka's expanding skylines.
Amidst all these changes, the state of Nepal appears altogether intent on sending out wrong signals about its brand as a nation. On one hand it says that it wants to take advantage of globalisation. To that end, even without getting into the details of safety and logistical ease, it aspires to be a point of transit between China and India. But on the other hand, by repeatedly engaging in acts that earn negative publicity around the world, it tarnishes Nepal's image as a safe, secure and reliable place for tourism and business. True, the Maoist rebellion has not helped Nepal. But then hardly anyone mistakes the Maoists as advocates of free-market democracy. The trouble with the state is that it publicly claims to be a friend of globalisation and free-market democracy and then, step by step, goes on to do just the opposite. The result is that Nepal's credibility is compromised, long-term interests are hurt and the value of Brand Nepal is eroded.
As citizens we have to take the destruction of the nation's brand by the state seriously because, as Anholt-GMI Nations Brands Index puts it, "globalisation means that countries compete with one another for the attention, trust and respect of investors, tourists, consumers, donors, immigrants, media and the governments of other nations". If the attention we receive is only for curfews, censorship, violent demonstrations, whimsical actions of the state against businesses and skirmishes that leave people dead everyday, it's hard to rally around Brand Nepal. And with our brand not doing well in the global market, our collective chances of attracting more investments, getting better jobs, earning higher incomes and enjoying a higher quality of life in Nepal are significantly diminished. Patriotism alone, alas, does not put food on the table.
But like a scoundrel, the state takes refuge in patriotism as a remedy for all ills. In doing so, it fails to understand that in these open times patriotism is malleably portable. A Nepali can live in Queensland or Qatar and still love Nepal in her own way without anyone telling her how to do so. Instead, she is likely to be aghast at how the state's actions have led to Nepal's portrayal in the international media as a country that's spinning out of control. Negative global press is hardly compatible with the state's professed aspirations to take advantage of globalisation, which demands consistency, reliability and a lower cost of doing business.
If Nepal had diamonds or oil, the state could potentially live off such riches and not worry about free-market democracy for a long time. But in a resource-poor nation, the state can only live off others' handouts for so long while the country's brand value plummets for tourism and investments.