Young Turks not getting their turn

A citizen’s campaign to defeat all elder prime ministers in forthcoming elections is going viral in the Nepali cybersphere

The ‘Let’s Defeat Ex-Prime Ministers’ movement is gaining traction, and reaction from the ageing leaders of the political parties shows that they are worried.

But can we expect the Young Turks in the main parties to behave any better?

One of the more charismatic members of the younger breed of politicians is Gagan Thapa. But even he is nearing 50. In televised Parliament proceedings, he usually gives fiery speeches.

Even though his Nepali Congress (NC) is leading the 5-party coalition, Thapa had been critical of the government. He is in the dissident group opposed to the NC contesting the elections in an alliance with the Maoists.

But these days, when Gagan Thapa speaks in Parliament, for example on the possibility of Nepal soon being blacklisted internationally for money laundering, his voice is muted.

As General Secretary of the NC, Thapa wanted answers on Maoist Finance Minister Janardan Sharma secretly including a corporate middleman in the budget drafting process. But by reinstating Sharma, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba ignored and demeaned his own party colleague.

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Since then, Gagan Thapa has not spoken up about the scandal. This is very unlike him, and probably indicates his trepidation about being refused a ticket for elections three months away.

When more independent-minded Gagan Thapa, Biswaprakash Sharma and Dhanraj Gurung were elected to senior NC posts last year, there was optimism that Nepal’s foremost democratic party would now see fresh direction.

Many thought the superannuated old guard would now be swept away and under Gagan Thapa’s leadership the party and country would turn a new leaf  through better governance and transparency.

Alas. We have not seen much of Thapa’s influence on the NC’s functioning. In fact, Prime Minister Deuba prefers to take advice from Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal rather than his own party general secretary.

These days, Thapa and other NC dissidents look spent and fatigued. In fact, there is more passion and energy among untethered candidates.

Deuba is now 76. He is prime minister for the fifth time. He has teamed up with Dahal, and spends most of his time these days giving plum constituencies to his Maoist partners than to the NC’s own leaders like Gagan Thapa.

Deuba’s coalition is sinking deeper in a quagmire of corruption and impunity. As a young democrat, Deuba once defied the Panchayat system and did not compromise on principles. Seeing what he is up to now, one wonder what it was all for.

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The track record of the NC’s ‘younger’ leaders is making us rethink the wisdom of passing the torch to a new generation of leaders. Just because a politician is young does not seem to guarantee that they will be for reform.

Age does not have anything to do with governance ability. Elders have got a bad reputation because of the septuagenarians who have messed up the country, but we have plenty of examples of corrupt, greedy leaders who are young.

Instead of expecting youth leadership to be a cure-all for all our ills, we should be on the lookout for competent, honest leaders with a wealth of experience in governance — even if they are long in the tooth.

In fact some of the best prime ministers this country has ever had were nearly 80 when they held office: Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Manmohan Adhikari.

This does not mean that youth leaders in all the parties and among independents should wait till they also get old. It is understandable that when aged politicians exhibit chronic incompetence even when they were repeatedly given the chance at leadership positions, Nepalis will hanker for a generational change. But being young should not be the sole criteria for being elevated to a leadership position.

The grizzled leaders are not going to just hand over the baton to younger leaders. The youth have to show that they have what it takes. After all, Deuba was 49 when he became prime minister for the first time in 1995, by challenging the leadership of ageing Girija Prasad Koirala.

Besides Gagan Thapa, there are Shankar Pokhrel, Ram Kumari Jhankri, Gokarna Bista and Barshaman Pun, and many others in the main parties who show promise.

But at the rate we are going, when these politicians get to leadership positions, they will no longer be young. And leaders like Gagan Thapa will then be challenged by 30 something leaders telling them to step aside.

Arjun Dhakal

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