Nepali Times Asian Paints
State Of The State
Sir Jeffrey’s mission


With his haughty tone, gruff manners and condescending attitude, Sir Jeffrey James appears to represent the quintessence of British colonialism. The towering stature and aquiline nose of the newly-appointed British special representative for Nepal gives him the persona of an imperious patriarch.

But what really completes the picture is Sir Jeffrey's barely-concealed contempt for politicos of the nether world. Small wonder then, that Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi heaved a sigh of relief when the time came for Sir Jeffrey to complete his term as British high commissioner in Nairobi.

The special rep is said to have special rapport with the top brass of Bretton Woods institutions. He is believed to have enthusiastically supported the agenda of the Washington Consensus in Africa, sometimes even overstepping diplomatic norms to promote them. That acquaintance and experience should come in handy for us in his new responsibility as the British special representative for Nepal.

Since no other country or institution has a co-ordinator for post-conflict relief, rehabilitation and re-construction in Kathmandu, the responsibility on Sir Jeffrey's shoulders is indeed onerous. But he will not go very far in his new role if he takes it up as just another errand of carrying out the white-man's burden.

Kathmandu isn't Kampala. If that is not obvious enough inside the "koi-hai" complex at Lainchaur, the special rep must remember that Nepal is one of only two countries in Asia that were never colonised. We Nepalis do not know enough to accept our ignorance, hence Sir Jeffrey must get rid of his know-it-all attitude if he is to succeed in his new assignment.

It is somewhat encouraging that the coordinator refers to himself in the lordly third person singular "one" rather than the royal plural "we". This detachment may come in handy, since an intermediary harbouring biases about party politics is unlikely to see the crises of Nepal in their proper perspective.

While it is true that elections in the past haven't succeeded in weeding out undesirable elements, it's fatal to presume that the remedy lies in contemplating some kind of a third world version of democracy with a limiting prefix. History has shown that democracies with qualifiers like 'basic' or 'guided' are dangerous delusions.
What we need is more democracy, not less. To ensure that there is a better representation of all communities and more participation by all classes in the governance of the country, Nepal has to forge ahead on the road of political pluralism. The pause caused by the royal take-over of 4 October has already outlived its utility.

Before we begin to contemplate structural changes in the system, the country must return to the status quo of a functioning constitution first. To move forward, it's necessary to turn around and face the front. Political exigency of the moment is restoration of people's sovereignty, not some fanciful tinkering with the statute based on biases from somewhere else in the world.

The real challenge lies in finding a common ground where peaceful politics and the unbridled ambitions of armed insurgents can coexist. Maoists must not be allowed to retreat to their lawless ways. But if the price to be paid for their accommodation is a curtailment of political liberty, the choice must be left upon us Nepalis. A donor coordinator cannot be a viceroy.

The fundamental problem in Nepal is institutionalised inequality. Graft is a symptom of widespread social corruption, not its primary cause. Treating the symptom may be tempting, but countering root causes of corruption needs long-term commitment. It needs political will, something that can't be dispensed by an outside consultant. If "one" gets too worked up about bribery, "one" wouldn't be able to pay enough attention to urgent post-insurgency relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

To derisively dismiss the Nepali administrative machinery is the done thing in Kathmandu's donor circles. It's not clear how immediate relief can be delivered to insurgency-hit districts without depending upon the functioning of that same bureaucracy. Steps to reform governance are necessary, but relief measures can't wait for that.

The special rep's good offices are more important for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of infrastructure destroyed by the Maoists. Here, his close familiarity with multilateral funding agencies and the London base may come to good use. Once these measures begin to be implemented, Sir Jeffrey will find a more receptive audience for his long-term plans of shoring up Nepal's armed forces, reforming bureaucracy and institutionalising good governance.

History exempted Nepal from the benefits of benign British colonialism, so we are yet to learn that nothing but pure beneficence inspires British officialdom. Kenyan journalists used to refer to Sir Jeffrey as a "straight-talking" high commissioner. What we need here is a sincere peace coordinator.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)