Nepali Times
Guest Column
Chasing utopia


Will the high-minded notion of 'permanent peace' advocated by the seven parties and civil society only lead us to fool's gold? What about 'total democracy' and 'unconditional constituent assembly'? Are these ideals to motivate us, or dangerous delusions that might make us more vulnerable to those with malicious intent like the Maoists.

In the euphoria of Jana-Andolan II, of course, when the 'people' are being saluted internationally and civil society activists are patting themselves on the back, questioning these notions borders on heresy. War journalist Robert Kaplan who has also written on Nepal ('Who lost Nepal?', Wall Street Journal, 20 December 2005) cautions us against placing too much hope on democracy and the blind pursuit of peace.

In The Coming Anarchy, a collection of essays on topics ranging from peace, democracy, idealism, Kaplan points out that 'peace, as a primary goal, is dangerous because it implies that you will sacrifice any principle for the sake of it'.

Removals of the terrorist tag, red corner notices, and release of all Maoist prisoners in the face of increasing extortion, allowing political space to Maoist cadre even while the seven parties can't campaign locally look too much like appeasement. Are these dangerous craven actions by the government, or components of an elaborate strategy to convince the Maoists to join modern democratic practices? Preferably the latter but one hopes that leaders understand that the Maoists will sing any tune to attain complete control of the state.

Then there is the phrase 'total democracy'. It implies some utopian end-point and we Nepalis have the inside track. Sustainable democracy, however, is often the final layer in society's social, cultural, and economic evolution. Fareed Zakaria, in the Future of Freedom, Illiberal Democracies Here and Abroad offers some sobering numbers: countries with per capita incomes of less than $1,500 have a democratic life expectancy of just eight years and adds that a country's wealth has to be 'earned'. That is, prospects are grim for countries that rely heavily on natural resources (or foreign aid).

Processes such as elections, parliament, or in our case a constituent assembly (which will require elections) have not resulted in sustainable democracy. In particular, many third world countries have held elections only to have dictators legitimise autocratic power or governments unravel amidst bickering, corruption, and mismanagement. Others have fared even worse, descending into anarchy or civil war.

Consider the most recent casualty, East Timor, poster-child of United Nations nation-building success and touted by Kofi Annan as "a glowing example to the world community". Almost a year after the UN peacekeeping mission departed, security has unravelled. and the country is in chaos. It is our very own Ian Martin who has been dispatched there like a human rights version of James Bond.

Kaplan suggests that in many societies, an enlightened dictator or a hybrid government may be preferable or at least inevitable: Chile built much of its democratic infrastructure under an autocracy followed by what now appears to be a solidly anchored democracy. Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew created a prosperous society from a backwater state through a contract with Singaporeans that placed security, order, and economic growth over many rights taken for granted in other liberal societies.

Of course, the very thought of an enlightened leader in the mould of Lee Kwan Yew is unlikely to survive Nepali politics. Wild opposition, civil society and activist anguish, lack of strong hegemonic support and the need to deliver results quickly would undermine such a leader.

Without throwing cold water on prospects for democracy, the intellectual elite, media, activists, and politicians are predictably engaging in group-think about a utopian vision of democracy and peace for the masses even while knowing (or ignoring) that most Nepalis' needs are elemental, and sustainable democracy a difficult challenge. Then we have the Maoists who continue to affect the economy, education, security, and liberties.

We must hope that politics, as promised, will transform our society. We must, as a matter of prudence, keep our feet firmly on the ground.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)