Nepali Times
Shut up, or shutdown


can't we have a five-day relay bandh in which people in each development region take a day off to demand the prime minister's resignation?

Is it not rather unfair of us to be condemning political parties for organising shutdowns, especially after how that sustained series of sit-ins and strikes interspersed with sloganeering rekindled our democratic consciousness just over a decade ago?

The ruling Nepali Congress, the senior partner of the alliance that awakened us from our three-decade slumber, likes to brag about its bandh-free record after the restoration of multiparty democracy.

However, that tells you only half the story. The Kangressis have never been out of power long enough to be itching to bring the country to a halt at the slightest provocation.

As for the argument (Editorial, "Realm of the senseless", #44) that no bandh in the last seven years has been successful in achieving its main objective, maybe not. But seven years is too short to reach such a profound conclusion on such a potent political instrument.

Let's face it. Without the spring shutdowns of 1990, could the country have dismantled the partyless edifice validated by a national referendum whose outcome even BP Koirala considered politically expedient not to question? Strikes are a time-tested formula for political fulfilment. Forget about new democracies like Bangladesh, where the opposition has been setting new records in testing the elasticity of bandhs without allowing the country to snap. In the world's sole surviving super power, Bill Clinton used shutdowns to mount a successful comeback from the brink of irrelevance after Republicans seized control of both house of Congress in 1994. Clinton's showdown with House Speaker Newt Gingrich over budget allocations brought the entire federal government to a standstill for days. The impact: polls showed that Clinton would easily have won a third term in office if the 22nd amendment to the US constitution hadn't stood in the way.

Let's look at it from the point of view of the UML and other left groups. They insist they are forced by circumstances to blend their street action with periodic bouts of forced inactivity. Given the current political scene, they may not be wrong. With sparks within the governing party often flying to the point of rendering the opposition irrelevant, members of the shadow cabinet know they can't afford to stay in the dark for too long. So opposition parties join hands to craft a strategy to obstruct the entire winter session of parliament demanding the prime minister's resignation over a tainted aircraft deal.

The prime minister, true to his party's legacy of democratic socialism, tells his opponents to use constitutional methods to oust him. But even before the opposition alliance can think of registering a no-confidence motion at the parliament secretariat, the prime minister issues a whip to ruling party MPs to vote in favour of the government on anything that comes up for a hand count.

Infuriated by this restriction on legislators' consciences, our comrades-freshly ditched by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party after the winter session is prorogued-fill Putali Sadak with mangled pieces of what used to be sidewalk railings to block the prime minister from entering his Singha Darbar office. The wily old man decides to test the will of the young and restless. Instead of helicoptering himself from Baluwatar to work (the way he likes to take those periodic day trips to Dharan) he chooses to drive straight through the barricades.

Now, you can't expect the agitated red brigade to pack up and go home. The stakes are obviously increased when half the UML central committee is taken into custody to watch the prime minister make a televised appeal for national consensus. True, a lot of people suffer from regular bandhs. However, this does not mean that they are in any better shape without them.

In deference to public opinion, however, organisers could perhaps try to fine-tune their action plan from next time. Remissions like the morning and evening curfew breaks might work. If organisers think it would be difficult to ensure that shopkeepers and consumers get back indoors in time, they might want to hold bandh-eve public hearings on ways of making the shutdowns as people-friendly as possible. Once residents from Dhoka Tole to Patan Dhoka realise that they can participate in this democratic exercise without having to miss the headlines of the afternoon papers, the door to greater public participation will have widened a bit.

If the duration of the protests matters so much, can't we conceptualise something like a five-day relay strike in which people in each development region take a day off to demand the prime minister's resignation? Depending on how this works, we could contemplate holding 14- and 75-day stoppages for greater zonal, district and national effect. No one disputes the fact that the country loses a lot of money during these strikes. But wasn't that the refrain of the Marich Man-era pratikar samiti? We refused to listen then, and aren't we glad? Nepalis knew they had to lose something to gain something of value, which is precisely what the UML is reminding us today. So don't bill the UML for all those smashed windows and torched cars that are the by-product of this great lesson in civic responsibility.
A better idea would be to charge the Kathmandu-based embassies in direct proportion to the support they gave us while we were learning how to paralyse a political system that wouldn't let the people open their mouth. After all, the 30-year panchayat-multi party debate was reduced to this: shut up or shutdown. The people have long spoken. Let's not try to destroy the language that forced the world to listen to us.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)