Nepali Times
State Of The State
Let them eat cake


We have come a long way since the late 1980s on nearly all development parameters. Average life expectancy has gone up, infant mortality has dropped, literacy levels have climbed up and poverty in the countryside has decreased. Guess what, it all happened during the decade that the country was democratic.

People in Jumla and Kalikot complain about the price of food grains and the unavailability of salt, and there is a serious danger of the gains since 1990 being wiped out because of the Maoist blockades and conflict which is now claiming an average of 12 Nepali lives everyday, but monsoon-dependent subsistence agriculture survives. Remittance from abroad, mainly India, is keeping the economy afloat. While wrenching hunger is becoming common, actual cases of starvation are rare.

Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen's seminal formulation about famines being less catastrophic under democratic regimes is true for all times and in all countries. Once hunger is overcome, most of us want to live a life of dignity. Given a choice between serfdom with bread and hunger with honour, there is very little doubt what most of us would chose. But sections of the Nepali elite don't really worry about freedoms as long as they can have their cakes and eat them too. When the traditional Tharu homeland in the inner tarai was displaced to resettle royal favourites, some of King Mahendra's loyal subjects lost faith in his divinity. King Birendra's penchant for creating competitive urban nodes in the hills to balance the market towns of tarai never took off-Surkhet is still stagnating while Nepalganj bears a boomtown look. It wasted enormous human and material resources that could have been otherwise used for the development of more suitable spaces. King Gyanendra willed recently that Nepalganj should now be shifted back to Surkhet.

Einstein had uncharitable things to say about those who keep doing the same thing over and over again in the hope that next time it will give a different result. Perhaps the people prompting King Gyanendra to remain CEO of Nepal Inc should be reminded of this. King Mahendra set out to achieve in 10 years what others had taken centuries to do, and failed. King Birendra's dreams of taking Nepal to 'Asian standards' bombed badly. Both rulers relied on the cakes-without-liberty class of Kathmandu apartchiks who just passed on the blame for those two failures to the kings they served.

Democracy isn't just an ideal system, it is the only mechanism that works for the poor and marginalised. Despite corruption, chronic instability and widespread nepotism, democracy since 1990 had begun to deliver services where it was needed most. It was starting to change the balance of power and making leaders accountable. Given time, democracy's in-built self-correcting mechanisms would have made it work it better. Unfortunately, King Gyanendra wasn't prepared to wait.

It's simple, really. A hereditary head of state just can't be anything more than a symbolic figure in this day and age. A king can't also be chief executive. Even Lee Kuan Yew needed legitimacy that he had to earn by demonstrating accountability. There is no alternative to the restoration of sovereignty of the people. There never was, and it is getting late to acknowledge that October Fourth was a monumental blunder. The sooner this crisis of confidence between the king and the mainstream parties is resolved, the better it will be for both. And for the Nepali people.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)