Nepali Times
The power of positive negativism


Now that the international donor community has admonished us to dig into the root cause of poor governance and stem the branching out of a fabulously rich political class before expecting more cash, we must encourage the culture of candour that has trickled into the ruling elite's conversation lately.

Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat was among the first leaders to show how seriously they've sensed that honesty is the best foreign-aid policy. At the conclusion of the Nepal Development Forum, the honourable minister exhorted Nepalis to work harder towards ensuring good governance and ending corruption in order to preserve our moral right to seek international assistance.

Instead of mocking Mahat for prancing away the evening in Pokhara, let's try to delve into the circumstances surrounding this reaffirmation of the virtues of rectitude. Amid the swift succession of events Nepal hosted or attended over the last six months, we failed to grasp the gravity of what Mahat was up against. For every Bill Gates who chastises his government for being stingy with foreign aid, a Paul O'Neil cites how poor countries have received trillions of dollars over the decades with precious little to show for it. It is in such a highly polarised atmosphere that Nepal has had to move around cap in hand.

At the NDF, Mahat was held accountable for high-sounding pledges his predecessor made in Paris two years ago before slinking away to the defence and agriculture ministries. Of course, Mahat could have prepared himself better for the inquisition by memorising the contents of the sectoral files. But he's hardly had the chance to be a full-time finance minister this time. Check his schedule for the six months preceding the NDF: lead the delegation to the UN General Assembly, deliver some of the SAARC summit invitations, chair the SAARC council of ministers meeting, and make sure Colin Powell got that envelope before his aircraft took off. For a man under so much stress in a ministry that's not even his, it is remarkable that Mahat is still available to warn tax evaders to pay up or else.

In the political plane, Mahat's boss, too, has become quite straightforward lately. Responding to critics of his jumbo cabinet, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba asserted that his herd wasn't that elephantine. Actually, his council of ministers contains only four more people than his predecessor's. And Girija Prasad Koirala was the party president, too. But when Deuba realised how few people understood that a bloated cabinet also brought along massive management hassles, he decided to become brutally truthful: he needed all those ministers to keep things quiet on the Congress parliamentary party front while the two elders continued their skirmishes. (One hopes the prime minister soon comes out with an equally apt explanation for why he needs 40-plus advisers and assistants as well.)

Deuba must have inherited part of this frankness from his one-time mentor Koirala. Remember what GP had said was wrong with Nepal's post-1990 leadership? Kangresis and comrades were so fixated on overthrowing the panchayat system that they had forgotten to work out their own strategy for governance. In another moment of heartfelt reflection two years ago, Koirala said the multiparty constitution should have retained some of the good parts of the panchayat regime.

He said the Maoist problem might have been contained had the zonal commissioners not been thrown out with the system. That way, his clear implication was, senior security officials in the districts would have been spared the humiliation of taking their marching orders from Chief District Officers. Koirala's assertion that his party's 113 members in parliament amounted to nothing drew strong criticism from politicians and political scientists. The latter questioned his commitment to the principles of parliamentary democracy while sections of the former wondered whether his mental faculties were as strong as when they had last heard him speak. But all these critics missed the fact that the Kangresi patriarch was speaking from experience.

It is important to remember that Koirala felt compelled to step down as prime minister last July while he still had a majority of Congress MPs on his side. Moreover, he was well on his way to reconciliation with the opposition parties that had boycotted the entire winter session of parliament demanding he quit. While Koirala was recording his resignation speech, many opposition leaders were checking their watches and wondering why he was running late for the all-important meeting he had convened to harmonise their 14- and 22-point covenants.

Ever since he became a serious contender for prime minister, Nepali Congress general secretary Sushil Koirala, too, has developed a fair degree of forthrightness. During the peace talks with the Maoists and after the deployment of the military, his refrain has been consistent: no Kangresi prime minister before Deuba had received such widespread support from the party. Granted, that claim may not match the fiery public speeches Sushil has been delivering lately.

But once you become familiar with the power of positive negativism, you'll understand how shadowy signature campaigns within the party can help the prime minister advance the Kangresi agenda, especially at a time when the main opposition party is busy healing its own wounds.

It's a harsh fact of life that politics and its practitioners are considered congenital prevaricators almost everywhere on this planet. But if you look hard enough, you can find grains of truth in the most pungent packs of lies. With leading Kangresis having recognised the cash value of candour, we can probably expect a larger proportion of the billions in NDF pledges to be disbursed this time.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)