Nepali Times
Plain Speaking
Bizarre but banal


This country borders on the bizarre. Sample a few recent events.

For years now, no official PM delegation has left the country without journalist Rishi Dhamala. The fact that he had been charged of abetting a Tarai armed group was a minor irritant this time round. His minister-patrons in the government, particularly Sujata Koirala, got into the act and pressurised the Home Ministry to withdraw the case so that he could travel. Madhesi ministers insisted that if Dhamala could get away without the conclusion of his judicial process, why should the two Madhesi journalists involved in the case languish in jail? They were freed too. The executive used its discretionary powers willy-nilly, just to get Mr Dhamala to accompany Mr Nepal to Uncle Sam.

The Federation of Nepalese Journalists organised a meeting in Janakpur. The FNJ president, Umesh Sah, published a story in his paper calling the meeting 'historic'. Another paper, Janakpur Today, criticized Sah's claim, accused FNJ of spreading rumours, and argued better meetings were organised in the past. FNJ - the organisation meant to protect freedom of expression and defend newspapers against political vandalism - reacted by burning copies of Janakpur Today.

Bijay Gachhadar (ex-NC, did not want either CA elections or republic till early last year) and Sanjay Sah (contractor from Janakpur with a dubious reputation) are in charge of the country's infrastructure as ministers of physical works. Mrigendra Yadav (active royalist, among the biggest feudal lords of the eastern Tarai) is the minister responsible for Nepal's agriculture. Ram Chandra Kushahawa (former NC, joined Madhesi politics only in late 2007, lost elections) runs the education system. The 'Madhes' has unprecedented access to power in this government - but this cast of characters illustrates how little that means.

Every few weeks, the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction goes through a ritual. It invites a dozen or so donor and embassy representatives, desperate to spend money and carve a niche for themselves, to discuss the 'discharge' question. A few Maoist representatives usually stroll in and face the rest, as they chat about rehabilitation of the disqualified. Noone knows who is supposed to be negotiating what. Peace Ministry officials look at the donors, the donors look at the Maoists, and the Maoists keep nodding. Either the government or the Maoists then conveniently shifts the goalposts. The donors - as if on cue - scurry off to prepare yet another 'package' that will be mutually acceptable. Everyone goes round and round the peace tree until they all fall down.

Dhamala's case reflects how the state encourages impunity, makes a mockery of the rule of law, and the penchant of the executive for acting arbitrarily in favour of the powerful. The Janakpur case illustrates the degeneration and pettiness of 'civil society', and the insistence on one's own truth as the only truth. The background of Madhesi ministers highlights how a movement for rights and dignity has been co-opted by old elites who had nothing to do with the movement but are adept at navigating Kathmandu's power politics. And the farcical negotiations on the peace process are representative of how actors see it as a tool to derive political advantage, with noone really interested in ending the transition.

It also shows how assumptions that are often made in liberal democracies do not quite work in practice.

In Nepal, institutions do not follow the rules but the whims and fancies of those in power. Civil society and media, for all their self-righteousness, are not independent actors occupying public space, but thoroughly compromised forces replicating the behavioural traits of political actors. The spirit of the electoral mandate need not be respected. It can in fact be subverted to suit existing elites. And perhaps that is why they are at the forefront of defending 'democracy' as it exists now, as it existed in the 1990s - it allows them to use its loopholes to maintain their hegemony.

The big challenge for the CA was to take systemic flaws and individual frailties into account, devise a system that would change the incentive structure of political actors, and make democracy more meaningful for those on the margins. If current events are any indication, that does not seem likely anymore.

Enjoy Dasain, ruminate, and drink to the absurd times we live in.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)