The Prime Minister’s speech on Constitution Day highlighted several challenges to Nepal’s democratic transition.
As the President made her way to Tundikhel on Friday, motorists caught in traffic honked in protest. People who wanted to observe the pomp in Tundikhel were kept outside by opaque zinc barriers. Madhesis, women and indigenous groups, meanwhile, expressed concerns about the constitution in their own ways.
Inside the barricade, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli spoke to the people. His speech highlighted the gaps between the people and their aspirations, as well as several other issues with our democracy.
The prime minister is aware of people’s expectations and his inability to deliver so far. He said two and a half centuries of history could not be changed in two and a half years.
Dreams and narratives built around nationalism were the two major tools for gaining power. Both of them can cause self-harm. While the use of dreams has put Oli under pressure and forced him to become defensive, nationalism has moved in different directions. An offshoot of this movement is promoting Hinduism and monarchy, posing a political threat to PM Oli.
Second, the prime minister attempted to portray the constitution day as the greatest Nepali festival and a day of unity. He did not want the day to be limited to ceremonies but tried to touch the hearts of the people and wished people celebrated the day genuinely, without any coercion.
However, the ruling regime ended up trying to impose the celebrations. If it could, it would have even intervened to alter people’s feelings. Prime Minister Oli, in his speech, said he was different from the past dictators, but his government’s actions show that he is easily heading into that direction.
The President’s Office has been instrumental in driving the process of de-democratization. In the name of security and dignity of the office, institutions in power are trying to elevate the office, increasing the distance between the people and democratic institutions. Not only is it directly linked to crony capitalism, but it is also directly involved in the political settlement processes within the Nepal Communist Party.
Similarly, as the Nepal Communist Party moves closer to socialism with Chinese characteristics—it is holding a series of interactions with the Chinese Communist Party—the ideological differences among Nepal’s political parties will have far-reaching consequences.
The very need to insist on the frame of festival and unity is to realize that such an interpretation is contested, not only by women, Madhesis and indigenous groups but also by a large section of the population. Imposing the constitution is different from implementing it, which is even more removed from practicing the spirit of democracy as enshrined in the constitution.
Third, Oli felt the need to defend his performance to achieve the goal of ‘Happy Nepali, Prosperous Nepal.’ He also outlined bureaucratic and technical approaches to achieving results. Among others, he touted the performance of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority as an achievement. However, CIAA’s anti-corruption initiatives are skewed, biased and designed to terrorize the political opposition and the bureaucracy.
Oli’s claims and statistics will be measured against people’s everyday experiences. Experience is the only real benchmark, and by that standards, the prime minister may be in big trouble. One example is awarding a state honor to a doctor for providing services during Oli’s ‘private’ medical visit. Or Minister Yogesh Bhattarai’s flight delay incident highlighting the ‘rule of men,’ a trait associated with the Panchayat era.
At times, Oli sounded like he was giving a farewell speech. ‘You believed us… I would like to say thank you and… express gratitude… for allowing me to serve for one more time.’ Then he went on to talk about living a bonus life—a phrase often used by the Maoists to refer to life after a near-death experience and devoted entirely to serving the people. Maoists who’ve returned from near-death experiences have gone on to become the most self-centered and corrupt politicians; a phenomenon widely discussed and debated among former Maoists.
Sixth, he was critical of youths with ‘leisure time,’ ‘whose energy is spent more on fruitless debates in social media…than on creative outputs.’ He concluded by saying that the time for political revolutions and political movements had ended and the only remaining task was to distribute the fruits of democracy to the people.
This claim is also problematic. The internal mechanisms of Oli’s politics, including the dynamics within his party, will make it difficult for the government to deliver the fruits of democracy. One reason is the rise of crony capitalists around the prime minister with close ties to foreign private and political interests. They are not allowing a fair playing field in the Nepali market, facilitating the accumulation of wealth by a limited number of business families. One example is Huaxin Cement, which is being facilitated directly by the Prime Minister’s Office. Another reason is the opportunities offered to the political support base to steal money through provincial and local governments. Such corruption is forcing the government to adopt distributive policies, the intent of which is to appease the people.
However, the government’s distributive policies are uncontrolled, wasteful, and hijacked by the political base. Instead of being aimed at growth and development, public policies and public expenditure are intended to capture rent and steal money from the state.
Parliamentary oversight is absent. Nepali Congress, the main opposition, is incompetent and party to the government-led corruption. Congress does not hold any promise for Nepal’s democracy and development unless drastic changes take place in the party.
Author: Ajaya Bhadra Khanal
This article first appeared in The Kathmandu Post on September 23, 2019.