Nepali Times
Strictly Business
Starting from scratch


Three out of four Nepalis today (those less than 35 years of age) know of no other system than the one under which they grew up and became adults- multiparty democracy. Yet the political parties remain unable to drum up wider public support for pro-democracy efforts. The netas make speeches, rally in Ratna Park, publish opinions, and beg foreign governments and international NGOs to help restore democracy in Nepal. It's time they borrowed ideas from the business world to identify and understand their customers, and then craft and deliver consistently clear messages to push for the results they want.

Their first task is to understand who their constituencies are and flesh out what they want. For historically entrenched reasons, the institution of monarchy can paint the entire nation as its constituency and get away with it. But no matter how national they think they are, the political parties do not enjoy a similar historical advantage. As such, their strategy must be different. They must stop trying to represent all Nepalis all the time.

Why? Doing so only makes them seen as representing everyone and therefore no one, making their pro-democracy messages spread too thin over abstract goals.

Who, for instance, does Girija Prasad Koirala represent? People of Biratnagar? The Koirala clan? The Nepalis in the villages? The Maoist victims? Various people will give different unhelpful answers. Unless the parties rework their image as forces fighting for the concrete interests of their constituencies-farmers who want market access for their vegetables, journalists who want to keep their FM radio jobs, people of Kapilbastu who want secure neighbourhoods or the urban middle-class that wants strike-free schools for children-and come together to repeatedly explain how those interests are best safeguarded within a democratic framework, their constant attempts at martyrdom on behalf of the generic Nepali janata will never make their pro-democracy messages stick in people's mind.

Nepalis tell pollsters that they want the civil war to end. For the parties, this presents an opportunity to start engaging the public to help end the war. Merely chanting, 'Give us a chance again and we'll show how' is not going to help. They need to seize the initiative to treat the end of the war as an urgent, difficult, yet achievable goal and then go about lining up resources in a persistently non-partisan manner. This is where genuine political leadership is required. Besides, such efforts will showcase their abilities to work together for straightforward national goals-helping them recast their image as solution-driven leaders rather than entitlement-seeking netas.

The public is hesitant to support the parties' bid for power lest it gives them another chance to loot the treasury. And the acts of corruption that took place in the 1990s remain much more vivid than the details of bigger crimes that went on earlier. That is why, playing the blame game or saying 'We are sorry' achieves little at this point. The clearest signal of change comes from replacing the corrupt with young and untainted Nepalis of different castes and backgrounds and allowing them to assume decision-making positions to shape the future. Or else, the parties risk being continually seen as clubs for quarrelling and corrupt old men who, despite the rhetoric, have no fresh agenda to address oppressive social conditions, urban and rural displacement, joblessness, decreasing opportunities for social mobility and the forces of globalisation that appear to make most Nepalis no more than janitors worldwide.

Knowing what the customers want and then relentlessly catering to their demands is what successful competitive businesses are about. Having failed to get what they wanted since October 2002, it's time the political parties started consulting their customers and then putting out believable messages as to why what they are selling is better than what the other side is peddling.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)