Nepali Times
State Of The State
Omens from Mars


With the end of Chhath, the month-long festivity that began with Dasain and continued with Tihar and Id has come to an end. This autumn interlude in the busy life of Nepal's largely peasant population is over. So is the political interval.

A weak monsoon means harvests will be hit in the tarai. The price of rice in the Valley has already begun to climb. The job-market is stagnant, and even for the lucky salaried few there is an erosion in real earnings due to inflation sparked by fuel price hikes. The Rastra Bank's national wholesale price index increased by 9.3 percent in mid-August.

The onion has become a metaphor for the complexities of life: you peel one layer at a time and sometimes you weep. The price of onions is also a barometer of public dissatisfaction: its price per kilo has crossed Rs 40 up from Rs 14 six months ago.

The looming winter power crisis and probably power price hike could be yet another woe for Nepal's urbanites. Electricity supply in the country increased dramatically after deregulation in 1990, and for a while power cuts were history. But because there has been no capacity augmentation in the past four years and existing projects are delayed, we are in for a cold dark winter.

The weak monsoon means the Kulekhani reservoir can't generate fullpower at peak hours. Now, more than ever before, NEA needs an experienced chief. But the royal government, as is its wont, has handed the reigns of the electricity authority to a rank outsider with no training or experience in the energy sector. Once more, loyalty has triumphed over ability. It looks like the competent people in this country aren't royal enough.

It's not just because of the power crisis that winter is looking bleak. The regime has thrust a meaningless municipal election upon an unwilling population. The purpose of these polls is still unclear. Since municipal voters constitute less than 15 percent of national electorate, even a successful conduct of these elections can't legitimise the October Four post-modern monarchy.

Then there is the systematic plan to muzzle the media which seems to be aimed at pre-empting criticism of the royal government. The Panchayat experience teaches us that you can gag the press all you want, but the word will still get out. With the internet, wild uncontrollable rumours will fly even faster: about the alleged property of the previous king in distant shores, peccadilloes of past, present, and future royals, and conspiracy theories. The government media's sagging credibility won't help quell the wildfire gossip when they spread.

The denial of space for lawful opposition is an indirect incentive for armed rebellion. In a country already in the grips of a raging insurgency, suppression of dissent is suicidal. If parliamentary parties are pushed further into a corner jaded mainstream leaders will be unable to control their increasingly militant cadre. Then the regime's hired hooligans will be no match against ideology-driven youngsters. As that confrontation spreads across towns Maoist control over the countryside will deepen further.

And the midst of all this, the chairman of the council of ministers is off for three weeks. Superstition is the hallmark of authoritarian rulers everywhere. In the absence of any rational explanation for the complacency of the present regime, it's safe to assume that the palace is taking comfort from the closeness of Mars to planet earth. The red planet is believed to be extremely inauspicious for commoners: it's an omen of destruction, death and defeat. But for rulers with right stars in their horoscope, Mars in Aries is said to be propitious. Mars began its flyby two months ago, there are four more months when it will be close to the Earth.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)