Nepali Times Asian Paints
Guest Column
Of Foreign Hands and Grand Designs


For all the rhetoric to the contrary, Kathmandu lusts for external intervention. One only has to go to Patan's Bagalamukhi temple on Thursdays to appreciate this innate national belief in help from outside to set one's affairs right.

Intervention, both divine and foreign, have the same source. Bagalamukhi is one of the ten Tantrik goddesses, this one having the power of blocking energy flow. She is also called the Great Stupefier and is the patron deity of hatha yoga that stems normal breathing to move vital flows to higher spiritual planes. But is this what the politicians and litigants that throng the precincts on Thursdays after? What is really being sought from the goddess is not so much wisdom for self but active interference against one's adversaries, whether in the political or judicial arenas. One wonders what democratic criteria the goddess would apply if adversaries of opposite camps prayed for the same favour.

Appeals to powers more mundane to intercede on one's behalf have happened often in Nepali politics. The king's intervention using Article 127 of the constitution seems fine as long as it does not make the other guy prime minister. Resolving the quagmire is possible only by appealing to a higher power, the sovereign people through free and fair elections. But those who need to derive their legitimacy from popular support don't seem to want to do that without the rigging machine under their grip.

Like a 'just war', what is a 'good' intervention? What is the wider universal principle that justifies appealing to external agencies, other than 'it is good for me'? It helps to accept the fact that interventions are a way of life, righteous indignation notwithstanding. Brian Hodgeson did it to further the interests of the Raj, the Chinese Ambans did so for their emperors, while the French and the Japanese were always on the lookout for any opening to push their interests through. What makes Kathmandu cognoscenti believe that today's foreign ambassadors should be any different? They are after all paid by their governments to further primarily their country's interests. If they coincide with Nepal's, the envoy will be remembered for enlightened statesmanship and good diplomacy. If not, then it will be said that nations don't have permanent friends, only permanent interests.

Demonising retired diplomats and crediting ex-professors with transboundary powers is bad comedy, not serious analysis. The most devastatingly effective intervention regime human history has ever seen is the global market since the 1500s. Its aggressive expansion destroyed the Chinese, Mughal and other empires. Today, in the globalised world it passes death sentences on many cherished traditions. Governments of nations sitting as drivers of economic bulldozers have inherent advantage over those that are weakly marketised or pre-market. The only proven way to challenge this juggernaut is with effective market instruments of one's own as shown by recent Chinese history. Sloganeering and rallies may help keep the faithful together for a while but will not keep an intrusive market out for too long.

If external interventions are inevitable facts of life and if there are certain intrusions we do not like, where should our attention be focused? The temptation would be to attack the attacker, but a wiser course would be to focus on the conditions at home that encourage meddling.

One example is religious conversion banned by Nepali laws, but ineffective in preventing it or discouraging the committed proselytiser. It will merrily happen as long as orthodox Hinduism refuses to reform enough to embrace dalits and janjatis within their ecumenical fold. If Maoist violence and economic stagnation from political instability forced large numbers of Nepalis abroad, will not the role of host countries automatically increase in Nepali affairs? If Malaysia and the Gulf countries employ more Nepalis in their formal sector than Nepal herself, will they not-out of self-interest-be making suggestions about Nepal's politics and governance?

Foreign-aided development is another area where Nepal automatically invites intrusion. If external aid accounts for two-thirds of the overall development budget, conditionalities imposed should be no surprise. Sahujis cannot be blamed for trying to protect their investments, but our political-administrative machinery can be for surviving on short-term expediency. We have entered into many internationally enforceable contracts where procurement of goods and services in development projects invariably shifts the burden of risk away from international contractors and consultants onto the unsuspecting Nepali consumer.

Fulminations in the streets or the tabloids will not rectify the situation, nor stem the intervention. Those who fashionably decry conspiracy theories are as wrong as those who mutter of grand designs. There are conspiracies both in politics and business, but failure to provide go beyond fuzzy plots just exhibit grand mediocrity.

For grand design conspiracies to work, it first requires a grand mind not visible in Nepal or the neighbourhood. Second, such a non-existent grand mind would need an unbelievably grand control of every lever and knob, knowing just how and when to produce the right flap of butterfly wings in New Delhi to create a cloudburst over Singha Darbar.

The reality is that interests big and small all push their agendas, some with a two-day vision and some with two years. The ones with the longer view often come out winning, and to their more myopic rivals this would look like some sinister grand design. There is a simple explanation from political sociology for regular grand design alarms in Nepali polity: we adopted a multiparty system without a party culture of established procedures. Nepal's main parties come from an underground culture of loyalty to charismatic figures rather than ideas or institutions.

Such enclavist groups require some fear, an external threat, to keep the band of faithful within the prescribed boundary. In power, when they are the threat to ordinary citizens, much of their energy is spent in group infighting between rivals with mutual witchcraft accusations of defilement. Out of power, an external bogey is useful as a scapegoat explanation.

The solution to external intervention is a triad of better internal social justice, business efficiency and administrative integrity. If an active civil society and innovative business were to promote enlightened political and bureaucratic leadership, we could even intervene abroad through economic diplomacy. Otherwise, foreign intervention is an easy walkover.

Dipak Gyawali was water resources minister in the Chand government. This article is based on a talk at Nagarik Awaj on 17 June.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)