14 March, 2010

THE GLOBAL AND THE LOCAL: The baby and the bathwater


A high UN official got ticked off by Nepali civil society for using the word “boring”. It was a “boring argument,” he said, to blame UNMIN for the failure of the peace process. He went on to make a bold statement: “It basically means people are not doing their own work and looking around for somebody else to blame.”

This, I thought, was quite interesting (the opposite of “boring.”) Most of us have felt the same boredom as we watch 601 CA members vacillate between endless positions on federalism, ethnic and indigenous issues, Army integration, and the writing of the Constitution. The most boring thing of all, of course, is the blame game. A lot of blaming going on, with the Maoists now getting the worst of the flak. They are now apparently to blame for the way things are falling apart, according to recent media reports.

Just as no doubt UNMIN is to blame for not making a little questionaire and holding focus groups in local villages with its skeletal staff, saying: Maam, can you tell us how many AK-47s you are hiding in your cowshed? The mind boggles at the possibilities.

As anybody who’s been stuck in a traffic jam knows, the obstruction caused by large numbers of cars and motorcycles all trying to edge past is an incremental process that leads to a full stop. It’s hard to know who started it, and it is harder to know which of the dozens of rule-breakers to blame for the collective immobility. I imagine that the Maoists too are stuck in the same type of jam. Although people expected a lot from them there is not a lot they could do when everybody else is honking their horns and trying to edge past avoiding the most basic of courtseys.

A two-third majority hardly means Maoists could sail past with the Constitution writing process. Look at us — twenty-six million of us, and 601 of them, and they still hold us captive, proving the silent majority doesn’t have power to do a whole lot.

If the news is to be believed, even federalism is now up for question. A faction in the CPN-UML, if I’m not mistaken, seems to be rethinking federalism. I was recently in Biratnagar, Nepal’s industrial hub and the gateway to four countries. We could have powered up our industrial strength with areas like Biratnagar. Instead, what I found was the same dusty airport and the same bamboo shacks of decades ago. A painful sense of time being lost rises as I see the same men, undernourished and tired, driving the same rickshaws. This city could have been the hub of the breadbasket of Nepal — instead, it clearly harbours hungry people.

Without federalism, I cannot imagine Kathmandu giving up its grip on the tiny pie of power and funds. The pie, of course, is infinitely expandable — if Kathmandu is wise enough to give up control. Federalism would create government at the regional and local levels — admittedly, which may also be just as corrupt as the one that exists at the centre. But at least it would be one step towards local governance and decision making which now is out of reach of the communities.

Unfortunately, the same Maoists who had the bright idea of federating the country seem to have sunk the idea themselves by attaching it to ethnicity. Alas. What were they thinking? The Maoists again tripped up by not stopping the violence of their youth cadres and by sidetracking themselves from the concrete task of shaping an inclusive Constitution and by attaching themselves to the powderkeg of military power.

But let’s not think all has been derailed. Maoists need to be brought back into the fold, but whether old-style politicians of other parties are capable of this kind of inclusiveness remains to be seen. Maoist leaders have gone around making pronouncements of the “Sleeping Tiger” and I would imagine it would be wise to heed this. Being a Maoist leader at this point is probably not easy — no doubt the level of disillusionment from not just the people who voted for them, but also their own cadres, is dangerously high.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater — Maoists are still a powerful force who changed old-style politics and brought a breath of fresh air to the musty halls of power. If they were to think less of seizing the military and more about how to change the political system for the benefit of the people, they might be doing a whole lot more good. What Maoists did very effectively was to train a large number of people to think about social change in a radically different way. There is no reason why they can’t still be a powerful force in changing Nepali politics towards a more functional model, at the same time allowing themselves to be changed by the essential principles of liberal democracy.

The youth trained by Maoists are an immense asset to Nepal. Instead of thinking of them as opponents to democracy, they should be included into the nation-building process. The ten years lost by young people in the war should be compensated through educational programmes which allow them to catch up in degree-granting, adult education programmes. Employment programmes which tap their energy and enthusiasm should also be instituted -for instance, the National Development Service of King Mahendra which deployed thousands of young people to build rural infrastructure in the sixties could be a model. I remember my uncle flipping through his album, with photographs of him digging a water system. He always talked about this experience with pride. Why not institute similar programmes for lakhs of young people who’ve dedicated up to ten years of their lives to a new Nepal?

I was chatting recently with an aunt with a phenomenal memory. In her seventies, this lady finds card games and politics equally interesting. As she reeled off facts and anecdotes from decades ago, it became clear I was dealing with someone who took politics very personally. Despite her monarchial sympathies, she was impartial with her critiques of all the leaders, talking about the childrearing mistakes of queen Aishwarya, the mistakes of Girija Prasad Koirala (he humiliated Sher Bahadur, which was disrespectful to a prime minister of Nepal), and the mistakes of recent leaders with perceptive clarity. This was a lady who keeps track of all this boring day to day stuff. So I asked her: where do you see the future of Nepal?

She, like most of us, was pessimistic. If left to the hands of the current leaders, Nepal would soon end up in pieces. Then she said something surprising. “The only hope I see now,” she said, “is if somebody from some of the smaller Tarai-Madesh parties or some of the ethnic parties rises above the political infighting and takes the lead to remake the nation.” The nation, she said, had to go back to a model where we saw ourselves not as beggars asking for money, but as a country self-sufficient in rice, lentils, ghee, sugar and matches.

Was it a coincidence that I happened to turn on the TV the next day and saw Upendra Yadav, a former Maoist, saying something about large scale, non-violent change? I am certain I heard him utter the word ahimsa. Perhaps there is hope yet for Nepal’s politics.

Sushma Joshi


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