11-17 November 2016 #832

Tamashas over

Nepal’s rulers still swing from one extreme to another: either needling neighbours needlessly or kowtowing to them

Subhas Rai

Now that the three festivals, the tamasha of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Nepal and the US elections upset are over, the government can get back to running this country again. There is a whole host of pressing problems: having the Constitution up and running with necessary amendments acceptable to all, rushing urgent bills through Parliament, playing catch-up with lagging development and economic goals. 

The post-holiday and pre-winter season, however, will be dominated by the impeachment proceedings against CIAA Chief Lokman Singh Karki which was abruptly interrupted on 25 October. Headlines about Karki’s abuse of power in the media are not a ‘distraction’ as some have claimed. Karki epitomises a clear and present danger to the democratic project, and the mangled mechanism through which he was installed in office shows how easily the system can be twisted and expropriated. It must be said, the politicians only acted when the man they helped appoint CIAA Chief posed a threat to their own political existence.

Last year’s mishandling of the fast-track constitution, the recklessly confrontational manner in which both the Koirala and Oli coalitions thumbed their noses at India, and the ruinous blockade should have taught us all a lesson. But we didn’t learn it. 

Nepal’s rulers still swing from one extreme to another: either needling neighbours needlessly or kowtowing to them. They seem incapable of being attentive to the sensitivities of our giant neighbours while minimising interference. Macho hyper-nationalism is futile in a country whose economy is in a shambles, where citizens have no trust left in government. 

Last year, Nepal’s political leaders vanished in the weeks after the earthquake. The government spokesman was nowhere to be seen, there was very little coordination of international relief. When the government did speak, it was to render one gaffe after another that made Nepal an international laughing stock. Instead of thanking donors and couching statements positively to highlight relief that was really needed, the government came out looking mean spirited and uncaring.

To mask this prodigious incompetence the lame duck Koirala administration fast-tracked the constitution, and it was later promulgated without adequate consultation. Violence erupted in the Tarai, leaving at least 60 dead. Successive Nepali leaders visited India to reassure the Indians that Madhesi concerns would be addressed, and then came back and did just the opposite. India was miffed, and this turned to anger when Nepal’s leaders refused to put off promulgation by two weeks. 

Things spiralled out of control after that, with the Indian blockade that lasted five months. Prime Minister Oli, instead of trying to keep back channels of communications open with both New Delhi and Madhesi leaders fell back on grandstanding and leaning over backwards on China. Knowing fully well how it would rattle the Indians, he went ahead with largely symbolic moves to find alternatives to petroleum imports and trade and transit routes via China.

Whoever in New Delhi at the time was the architect of the blockade must be held responsible for a colossal blunder. India came across as a crude bully, reacting disproportionately to punish an entire people for the follies of a few in power. The blockade began to look like a siege, and the nationwide humanitarian disaster it unleashed was more destructive than the earthquake. 

We wrote in this space at this time last year: ‘Short of declaring war on a neighbour and bombing it, a siege like this is the easiest and cheapest way for one country to wreck another.’ The most sobering aspect of the blockade was the utter disinterest of the international community which refused to speak even about the suffering of ordinary Nepalis. 

This allowed Prime Minister Oli to convince many Nepalis that this was all India’s doing, and even deflect criticism of delays in earthquake relief by blaming it all on the blockade. The blockade increased the chasm between the mountains and plains, deeply polarising Nepali society.

Exactly one year later, President Mukherjee arrived in Nepal on what was billed as a fence-mending trip. Nepalis had not forgotten the blockade and the simmering anger was in open display on social media. But nowhere was the aftershock of the blockade more apparent than in the difference in the reception that Mukherjee got. Empty streets of Pokhara and Kathmandu contrasted sharply with the spontaneous cheering in Janakpur.

As we deal with a festival hangover, it is clear that the incompetence of Nepal’s politicians and the failure of the Indian establishment to understand the Nepali psyche have brought us back to square one.

Read also:

The siege, Editorial

A blockade is a blockade, Tsering Dolker Gurung

C'mon, Congress, Om Astha Rai

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