Oli must now learn to partner with the well-wishers of democracy with whom he’s wasted time, fighting.
Party insiders say Prime Minister KP Oli is softening and has adopted a more conciliatory tone after experiencing a series of recoils. He was forced to withdraw bills that sought to curtail fundamental rights. He has apologised for bumbling on the pesticide residue episode along with admitting mistakes in the Melamchi delay and sugar imports policy.
Oli has tried to appease his party, the nationalists and foreign powers. For example, as relations with China slowed down, Oli sought to reset relations with India. He assented to an official meeting with India’s intelligence agency. And he appointed Yogesh Bhattarai as part of a deal with the party opposition.
Is Oli’s softening stance a good sign?
Not so much.
Oli’s growing power is not just a risk to democratic culture and the civil society, it is also a threat to political elites who want to have a say in the affairs of the state.
Since he came to power, Oli has been fighting a two-pronged battle. One with the political elites—from inside and outside the country—who are interested in extracting wealth and privileges from the Nepali state. The other with the well-wishers of democracy, or, with democracy itself.
While his soft stance means conciliation with the political elites, it does not yet reflect a settlement with the well-wishers of democracy and development.
Battle with the political elites
Like in any developing country, Nepal has three political classes. The first type, the political elites, steal from the state and the people in collusion with the private sector. These elites are crucial for the stability of the political system; they support the democratic system only as long as they can continue to extract wealth and power.
The second type, the intermediate classes, number about 40 percent of the masses. This class sells its soul to the political elites in return for patronage and privileges. The second happiest of the lot, they benefit the most from the federal system, which has decentralised the opportunities for extraction.
The third type is the ordinary citizens who cast their votes once in a while, motivated by individually rational choices that often end up in collectively irrational outcomes. The elites seek to satisfy and control the ordinary folk by redistributing wealth through welfare schemes and pork-barrel politics that focus on the constituency. These practices may benefit politicians and even attract votes. But they can also harm the national interests and dampen economic growth.
Currently, Oli battles for survival with the political elites, which include those inside his own party, the political opposition, and interests that lie abroad. On the surface, this fight appears to be political but is linked to the extraction of wealth, accumulation of power, and protection of strategic interests.
For example, Oli’s clash with Pushpa Kamal Dahal is striking as it is linked to hidden interests. It is no wonder that in recent months, media houses loyal to the two have been exposing and attacking corruption, crony businesses, and the leaders’ meetings with foreign powers.
While trying to negotiate with the political elites, Oli is trying to become stronger by courting reactionary political movements. Recent political changes in Nepal threaten traditional elites, who have responded by launching social movements that amplify nationalism and Hindu religious identity. They construct ethnicity, diversity, and Christianity as existential threats. Oli’s regime, appears to be moving closer to these movements, forcing Prachanda and the former Maoists to cry foul.
The democratic battle
At the other front, Oli is also contesting with democracy. His government launched legislation to curtail the democratic space and control the people, generating backlash. Oli wants political control. He wants to operate with impunity, bypassing democratic checks and balances. He has moved to make cabinet decisions immune to parliamentary oversight and corruption control.
In a developing economy like Nepal, a degree of authoritarianism can help unleash growth. This, however, poses many problems.
If we opt authoritarianism for the sake of economic development, we will have to sacrifice our freedoms. Second, there is no guarantee that authoritarianism will deliver. As we’ve seen, Oli’s premiership has failed to impose a rule of law in the market and has benefitted capitalist cronies close to the PM’s circle.
A military-style command and control approach has not worked so well for him. In the military system, a word by the commander is enough to get things done. In politics, getting things done is an art which requires much more than a privileged position.
Authoritarianism, in this condition, will mean that a small group of people will become wealthier while the country as a whole will be trapped in a vicious cycle of growing inequality and social unrest. Such unrest will be instigated by elites deprived of the opportunity to extract wealth. These elites are normally able to capture public sentiments and ride on a wave of populist rebellion.
If he means well for the country, Oli must learn to partner with the well-wishers of democracy. He’s already wasted a lot of time fighting with them. It is now time for reconciliation.
Author: Ajaya Bhadra Khanal
Photo: Prabhat Jha
This article first appeared in The Kathmandu Post on August 12, 2019.