Nepali Times Asian Paints
Here And There
The middle path


What's truly amazing about human society is the degree of dysfunction that people and institutions are prepared to tolerate.

Westerners assume any little crisis or collapse will bring things crashing down. Everyone else knows that life largely goes on, no matter what leaders, wannabe kings, and conquerors get up to.

Take Nepal at the moment. To all intents and purposes, there is no government in the country. There are political forces that engage from time to time with issues and problems, but there's little in the way of governance, leadership, vision, and thoughtful policy-making. The tyre burner in the street has as much influence as the politician in parliament.

To some, especially on the right side of the spectrum, this is disaster. All is unravelling, rightists proclaim. Nothing can function without a strong hand on the tiller; better that the hand be misguided or malignant, than the tiller be unmanned. The hard left feels much the same, craving like its rightward counterpart to be the hand inside the mailed fist. Hardier centrists, whether tending right or left, have a little more sophistication. They know that things can slide along for quite some time without firm guidance or a long view on how to get to a distant policy horizon. What the late PV Narasimha Rao, former Indian prime minister, used to practice, an apparently Hindu concept called \'masterly inaction\', got India well and truly on its way to today's miraculous economic growth. Faced with a series of hard choices, Rao made none of them and just waited for things to change of their own accord, stepping in only if necessary. Arguably, it worked.

At the moment, you'd think Nepal would be deep in economic freefall and descending into absolute anarchy. But bad as things are, they're not that bad, not yet anyway. There's a rickety shell of a civil service, a somewhat livelier civil society, and a whole network of families and other groups across the country that keep some things functioning in good times and bad. Politicians dither and blather and do dirty deals. Kings and their cohorts hatch empty plots. No one governs overtly, but it matters less than we might think.

Right now, the country is waltzing towards greater limbo as the June elections fade from the radar, Nepal's only natural resource, hydro, dries up, and people continue to queue up at foreign embassies to get themselves a job and a new life abroad. Small comfort might be sought in the notion that it's worse elsewhere. Much of Africa squirms and suffers through much greater dysfunction and higher levels of violence. The components of the former Soviet Union, and much of Russia, are gripped by authoritarianism, corruption, and frustration. Pakistan and Afghanistan become ever more chaotic and Taliban-ready. Nepal's stasis du jour seems mild by comparison.

That's not to argue that anyone can afford much more inaction. In this country, in this polity, doing nothing is far from the masterly option. There's too much poverty and need. There are no Narasimha Raos to plot the crafty-if inactive-course down the centre. Now more than ever, Nepal needs its centrists to stand up and start working, to get up from the chairs and out of the meeting rooms, to avoid the nightly bhoj, and forego the raksi, to resist the overwhelming urge to just do nothing.Nepal's dysfunctional functionality is nearing its limits.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)