Last week of the old year

Nepal’s obsolete politicians think that to govern means to rule over, not serve those who elected them.

Even by Nepali standards, politics the last week of the old year was on steroids. The missteps and scandals came thicker and faster than usual. 

Kathmandu mayor Balen Shah declared on Twitter that he would start dumping Kathmandu’s garbage inside the Singha Darbar. This was to punish uncooperative national politicians, who he said also needed to be thrown into the landfill site at Sisdole. 

Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha went walkabout in the departure hall of Kathmandu airport to talk to migrant workers leaving that day. Someone told him this would be a good social media photo-op to showcase a caring government, but it backfired. The migrant worker Shrestha decided to speak to just glared at him and cringed when the minister tried to tap him reassuringly on the shoulder. 

Summit Hotel in Lalitpur had for four decades been a leafy refuge for Nepalis and expats alike. Two years ago, it was bought by Nepal’s only self-declared dollar billionaire, and also a Nepali Congress (NC) member of parliament, to erect a pair of 17-story luxury hotel and apartment towers. It turns out he had not got a building permit nor done an EIA, and all the digging led to the collapse of neighbouring homes this week.

Nepal’s cybersphere has started leaking like a Melamchi pipe as crucial by-elections in Chitwan, Tanahu and Bara approach. This is an important test for the new RSP and the future of its chair Rabi Lamichhane. The defection of economist Swarnim Wagle from the NC to the RSP after accusing the conjugal kangresi leadership of “grand larceny” has turned Tanahu into the main electoral battleground. 

In the midst of all this, hospital tycoon Durga Prasai (he, of the ‘red rice’ fame) leaked a WhatsApp conversation with a RSP lawmaker asking for Rs20 million so he (the MP) could give the money to Lamichhane’s advisers to make him health minister. The RSP quickly suspended the lawmaker, who it turns out had more chequered dealings in Pokhara, and went into damage control mode. Meanwhile, Lamichhane made one of his needlessly distasteful remarks by saying he was willing to be sacrificed at Gadimai like hundreds of other buffaloes if anyone could prove he was taking money to make people ministers.

By current South Asian standards these are minor infractions. Many in Nepal’s executive, judiciary, legislative, and bureaucracy may all be on the take, but democracy has not derailed. The media can still say the army is bloated and commercialised, and the ex-brass rebuts with politely worded op-eds. Media outrage about the Home Ministry requiring birth registration of offspring of single mothers to be signed by a maternal uncle and not the mother prompted the ministry to quickly backtrack. 

Nepal’s democracy is work in progress, but it is vibrant and open. Democracy is a mechanism for rule of law by an inclusive elected leadership. It is supposed to empower citizens to bring change through participation so they can reward leaders who perform and punish throw out those who don’t. 

No other system of government guarantees the right to free expression of political preference. No other system promotes peaceful competition between different ideas.

There is a tendency to blame democracy, and not those who abuse it. We throw the baby out with the bathwater. Nepal’s obsolete politicians think that to govern means to rule over, not serve those who elected them. 

This is why despite living in an open society, human rights continue to be violated, tolerance is decreasing, Constitutional provisions for inclusion are not working as it should, central party leaders have made federalism dysfunctional. 

Speaking at a program on 10 April, former chief justice Kalyan Shrestha, former ambassador Nilamber Acharya and former house speaker Daman Nath Dhungana agreed that it was time to review the implementation of the Constitution. They blamed the political parties for governance failure that was leading to economic and socio-cultural breakdown.

State mechanism and democracy
Former chief justice Kalyan Shrestha, former ambassador Nilamber Acharya and former house speaker Daman Nath Dhungana at a program on 10 April.

“The only clauses in the constitution that have been implemented are the ones that directly benefit the political leaders,” Shrestha stated. “No decisions that deliver justice, development and rights have been taken.” 

Federalism is run by ‘centralists’, the concept of proportional representation is blatantly misused in elections, tickets for candidacies are bought and sold. Acharya feels it is time to review the whole process so that a majority party or the largest party forms a government. 

Although Dhungana wants the Constitution itself to be reviewed, we think the fault is not in the rules but in people breaking the rules. 

Nepalis have to be wary of the intolerant and authoritarian winds blowing from the South, and safeguard our hard-won freedoms. Despite the disillusionment with the political leadership, the electoral mechanism is throwing up alternative candidates and parties. And that is why the by-elections are so important.