Nepali Times
State Of The State
A flailing state


The envoys are back after consultations. The dust is settling in Kathmandu. Everyone, including donors, are waiting and watching. The parachutists have come and gone. In cyberspace, international activist and rights groups have been in combative mood and it is there that once more there is alarmist talk of Nepal turning into a 'failed state'.

Again we are obliged to use this space to debunk the myth of the failed state. Proponents of the status quo insist that the centre can't hold if it isn't propped up pronto from outside. Those opposed insist that patting it will push the state towards the precipice. In the confusion, the inherent contradiction in the expression 'failed state' is lost entirely: whatever has failed isn't a state anymore. A 'failed state' is an oxymoron.

A state begins to flail when it loses its capacity to provithe second stage, its ability to enforce the rule of law is weakened. Further deterioration leads non-state actors (insurgents, extremists or the mafia depending on which country you're in) to become too powerful to be subdued by the coercive arm of the state. Direct or indirect intervention by the international community then becomes inevitable as the conflict threatens to spill over.

If groups challenging the state have cross-border links, as the Maoists undoubtedly do, they imperil regional stability. Like it or not Nepal is now a global headache, and hence the to-ing and fro-ing of ambassadors. We have very little control over the response of our neighbours and friends. But we need not worry too much about the intensity of their interference. Foreign governments are guided and restrained by their own self-interest. In all likelihood, their interests will be limited to waiting and watching us flail.

Humanitarian assistance and human rights issues will most probably remain the central concern of every donor. They are answerable not to us but to their constituencies back home who don't yet understand the nature of the conflict in some boondock. Such assistance has to be cautiously welcomed.

Chances of intervention measures succeeding are often the second most important consideration. No government or international agency wants to bloody its nose in confronting belligerents like the Taliban, Tigers or Maoists. No country wants an Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Somalia type quagmire.

The third factor influencing the decision to act is the capacity of oppositional forces inside the country itself. None of the velvet and orange revolutions in eastern Europe or central Asia would have succeeded if effort hadn't gone into building competing political forces. Unfortunately, other than the state the political forces capable of meeting the Maoist challenge here are now almost absent. Unless the NC, UML or others succeed in persuading the rebels to come above ground it is unlikely that any of them will get enduring international support.

If experiences of other failing states are anything to go by, the time may come when meddling embassies may be asked to close shop. And if things get any worse, most of them will be only too happy to oblige. But the ones that remain will probably want to be heard. Similarly, leaders of political parties cooling their heels at home are daydreaming if they are relying on international pressure.

Diplomacy has many dimensions, but democracy promotion in a war-wracked is not one of them. Whether we like it or not, the international community is much more worried about Comrade Prachanda's next move than Comrade Madhab's health.

In a world gone global, Nepal cannot claim unrestrained sovreignty to writhe in agony but we need not fear undue outside interference either. All hopes of quick relief courtesy donors, loaners, and sundry do-gooders bear no relation to ground realities.

The good news is that the state is unlikely to fail. The bad news is that we will continue to flail as long as we don't realise the futility of looking outside to fix the rot within.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)