Nepal's 'Golden Age'

Prime Minister Dahal does not have much to show for the first year in office during this third tenure

Next week, it will be one year since Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal became Prime Minister of Nepal for the third time after abandoning his decade-long effort to revolutionise the Nepali state through force of arms. 

Although the conflict ended, Dahal’s tenures have been marred by missteps, political interference, nepotism and allegations of rampant corruption. The coalition that he heads has squandered the mandate of elections. 

Governance is at a standstill, the economy is stagnant, and even by Nepali standards this has been an exceptionally scandal-ridden year with back-to-back exposés of corruption. 

No wonder the Prime Minister is said to be thinking of shuffling his Cabinet, with just one more year to go before his promised handover of prime ministership to Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress.

There are signs of trouble in high places. The prime minister’s political advisor and senior Maoist leader Haribol Gajurel, who has been known for his personal integrity, resigned last week citing “policy differences”.  It is an open secret at the PMO that the differences are with Prime Minister Dahal’s powerful daughter Ganga. 

The politicisation of crime and the criminalisation of politics is blurring the lines between those elected to govern and the human traffickers and gold smugglers implicated in recent scandals. The public is pouring scorn on politicians on the social web, saying that Nepal has now entered the ‘Golden Age’, or that Tribhuvan International Airport should be renamed ‘Suvarnabhumi’.

And it is that airport which offers proof that Nepalis are voting with their feet. Young men and women spent Rs24 billion last year to go study abroad – their student visas mostly facilitating permanent emigration. Even the fake refugee scandal proved how desperate Nepalis are to use any means possible to leave.

Nepalis now do not just migrate to the Gulf or Malaysia out of economic necessity, but also increasingly to Europe, North America and Australia for better opportunities. Young people desperate to earn a living would rather even go fight someone else’s war, as we have seen with Nepalis in the Russian Army killed and captured on the Ukraine front.

On Wednesday, Finance Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat said that Nepal’s economic indicators were “positive” and there were signs of recovery. We detect no such sign, in fact, all indicators point to a worsening crisis. Petroleum import makes up nearly 25% of the total import bill, and yet Mahat said recently the government could not promote electric transport because it would “lose revenue”.

In fact, revenue collection is much lower than projected for other reasons. The trade deficit has become unmanageable because of record-low exports. And the only reason the economy has not gone belly up is because of remittance inflows. Nepal’s foreign exchange reserves can pay for 10 months of imports and remittance inflows peaked at Rs136.97 billion in September-October, the highest ever for one month in history. 

But the most thriving sector is the shadow economy which is made up of illicit state-protected activities like gold smuggling, human trafficking and corruption.

Public disillusionment has grown to such an extent that many now throng to pro-monarchy rallies with slogans against republicanism and federalism. Fearful of the anti-establishment messaging through social media platforms, the government shut down TikTok, and this could be the first step in a more general crackdown against free expression. 

The coalition government is using the excuse of elections to the Upper Chamber to put off the winter session of Parliament since there will be strong opposition voices from the floor about impunity in recent prominent corruption scandals.

Parliament itself is supposed to debate an electoral reform bill, but the alpha males of the mainstream parties have already struck off the clause in it that would allow voting by mail. So pervasive is the fear of an anti-incumbent vote in the diaspora. 

Senior figures from the main established parties all neck-deep in muck, and even the opposition UML appears to be in I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine mode to protect each other from one scandal or the other. Nepal’s kleptocracy is populated by kakistocrats, and with all the plunder going on the question is if the country will survive till the next election in 2027.

In his second year in office, Dahal must launch a campaign on investments in infrastructure and manufacturing to create massive job creation, improve access to public services and guide policies for green growth. He must do this not only to protect his own political career but for the country he currently leads. 

Shristi Karki