Six Sins and Seven Virtues of New Nepal

Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam, At Rotary Club of Kathmandu Mid-town, 19 February 2010

After being abroad for 40 years, I returned home two years ago to what was being hyped as the “New Nepal”. I wondered: what is this New Nepal? How is it different from the Old Nepal which I had left behind?

During the past two years, I travelled extensively in different parts of Nepal, trying to rediscover my own country. Predictably, I found that compared to 4 decades ago, Nepal has changed in many ways, both good and bad. Here is my synthesis of what I have discovered about the good, bad and ugly dimensions of the “New Nepal”.

Taking a historical and comparative perspective, I find Nepal today to be at an important crossroads with many worrying signs but, on balance, even more hopeful trends. I have tried to summarize these into what I call the six sins and seven virtues of today’s Nepal:

First, the 6 sins:

  1. Hyper-politicization: More than any other country I know, everything in Nepal seems coloured by politics, and especially party politics. Nothing seems off-limit from political party influence. Student unions, teachers’ associations, trade unions, bar association, etc. seem all affiliated with one or the other parties. Political party affiliation or influence seems to be widespread, or assumed to be widespread, even among non-governmental organizations, professional associations, civil servants, and even the security forces.

People tend to question the objectivity of independent professionals, assuming that if not overtly, they must be covertly aligned with one party or the other.

There are serious consequences of this hyper-politicization. We see, for example, political pressure being put to grant permanent contracts to employees, regardless of whether or not the state or private enterprises can afford to do so, and the impact of such contracts on productivity.

We have seen thousands of civil servants getting automatic promotion, regardless of their merit and qualifications. At the behest of their party bosses, we see students and teachers unions making all kinds of political demands that are hardly related to any educational issues. Whenever governments or ministers change, we see them trying to hire people of their political affiliation and fire others even in technical and clerical positions.

It is clear that such hyper-politicization distorts national priorities, subverts rational decision-making, and erodes people’s faith in our institutions.

  1. Culture of Violence and Impunity: We used to say that Nepal was a peaceful country, the birth place of Guatam Buddha, where people lived in harmony. That has now become history. We now have a rampant culture of violence and impunity.

During the decade of conflict, gross violations of human rights and crimes against humanity were committed by both sides to the conflict. Yet there has not been a single conviction for crimes against humanity, either on the Maoist side or on the State side. Known perpetrators of heinous crimes walk free, even run and win in elections, are promoted to higher official positions, and continue to threaten their victims and other civilians.

It has been over 3 years since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed. But extortion, intimidation, physical action continues unabated. Kidnapping, beating, and criminal behavior continues to be justified as political activism. Indeed the glorification of violence as a legitimate, revolutionary method of political change, initially championed by the Maoists, has now been adopted by many other groups.

The police and other security organs of the state are unable to keep law and order because of political interference. Criminalization of politics and politicization of criminal acts has led to institutionalization of a culture of violence and impunity that will haunt Nepal for many years to come. I fear that this will create great disenchantment with democracy itself and might eventually invite an authoritarian response.

  1. Neglect of Economic Issues: In a country with so much poverty, unemployment, inequality and lack of basic services, it is astounding to see how little debate there is on economic issues in Nepal’s political discourse.

In most countries, elections are won or lost on economic issues. Not so in Nepal. Economic issues are often presented as after-thoughts in most of our political parties’ manifestos, and these are often presented in the form of catchy slogans rather than thoughtful plans.

In fact, Nepal’s obsession with politics leads to blatant denial of economic realities, as reflected in the almost automatic opposition by all party-affiliated activists of any attempt to raise the price of petroleum products, or other imported commodities, when such prices have risen all over the world, including in our neighbouring countries. This often leads to support for highly regressive subsidies in favour of vocal urban constituents rather than the rural poor, by political parties that claim to be pro-poor and progressive.

Our business community is also guilty of focusing on short-term gains rather than long-term, sustainable benefits. For example, private companies bribe government officials to protect their business and lobby against introduction of environment friendly technologies e.g. in transport and industry. Our vast hydro-power potential remains untapped and we remain in darkness because we are unable to provide the right investment incentives – no matter which party leads the government.

Following the end of conflict, and beginning of peace process, most post-conflict countries prepare ambitious reconstruction and development plans and mobilize substantial development assistance from the international community as integral part of the peace process. Not so in Nepal. All parties pay lip service to the importance of reconstruction and development, but no political party has done any serious home-work or assigned their political heavy-weights to work on such plans.

It is assumed that once we sort out our political problems, economics will take care of itself. This has rarely been the case in any post-conflict country. We cannot build a new and prosperous Nepal, unless we put economic issues at the front and centre of our political transformation.

  1. Passing the Buck: Rather than taking responsibility for our own actions or inaction, I find that we Nepalese tend to blame others and find scapegoats for our own weaknesses. Political parties tend to habitually invoke “conspiracies” by their favourite scapegoats whenever things do not go according to their wishes and plans. Blaming foreigners, donors, neighbours, “royalists” is a favourite hobby of many Nepalis. When it comes to conjuring up conspiracy theories, Nepalis seem to have very fertile imagination.
  2. Focusing on what divides us rather than what unites us: To gain support from certain communities and to radicalize them, the Maoists harped on how this country was sharply divided between feudals, royalists, capitalists, agents of foreigners and imperialist, dominant Hindu hill upper-caste people, all considered oppressors and pratigami on the one hand, and the oppressed and agragami forces, the peasants and proletariat, whose interest, they said, they championed.

By their definition, most people who are members of Rotary would be pratigami and exploiters, maybe even dalaal nokarshahi, and perfectly appropriate targets for their extortion drive. Far from being progressive, this divisive campaign is actually backward-looking. It focuses on rectifying the perceived as well as some real injustices of the past, rather than building a brighter future.

Much of the rationale behind the proposals for ethnicity-based federalism and identity politics arises out of this divisive, backward-looking perspective rather than trying to harness the richness of our wonderful diversity to bring prosperity for all in a forward looking framework.

  1. Cynicism as Nepal’s new religion: Arising from all of the above phenomena, Nepalis seem to have become extremely cynical, especially about their political parties, leaders, national institutions, and even about democracy itself. We have declared Nepal a secular country, but we seem to have adopted cynicism as our new national religion in which everybody believes.

It is especially sad to see young people becoming cynical. At a time when they should be full of hope, with a sense of purpose, and drive for excellence, we see far too many Nepali youth dispirited with cynicism. It is our national duty and obligation of all adult Nepalis to protect our youth from the epidemic of cynicism as well as foolishly radical activism, and infuse them with the spirit of optimism.

Despite these worrying concerns, I see in Nepal many hopeful trends that augur well for the country’s future.

Here are 7 virtues which I believe will be the saving grace for the New Nepal:

  1. Women’s empowerment and people’s awareness: When I travel around the country I am amazed to find how aware people are of what is going on in the country. The level of education is rising. People’s awareness about their rights is growing. The most inspiring example I have observed is the empowerment of women.

During my travels and interactions in many districts, I found women – not just young and educated ones, but even the middle-aged and still illiterate women – amazingly aware of their rights and the rights of their children; daring to speak up, lucid and fearless.

I have been particularly impressed with the Women’s Federations, their cooperatives and, especially, the Mothers’ Clubs and the Paralegal Women’s Groups. Listening to them, has convinced me that we need not worry about any form of authoritarianism taking deep roots in this country. They simply will not allow it or tolerate it for long.

  1. Thriving Mass Media: Ever since the 1990 people’s movement, Nepal’s independent mass media has been flourishing and thriving, and has generally defied attempts by the royal regime as well as by other political party regimes to intimidate and manipulate it. All points of views are expressed, with no holds barred.

Nepal has been a pioneer in community-based independent FM radio stations, and thanks to these and the penetration of other media, people all over the country now have access to diversity of viewpoints.

The freedom of press, of course, offers opportunity for propaganda, even hateful messages and sensational news. But it seems to be balanced by countervailing viewpoints. No future regime is likely to succeed in regimenting the Nepali people and snatching away the free spirit of the media. This will be a strong bulwark for a pluralistic democracy in Nepal.

  1. Real Progress in Human Development: Many Nepalis tend to make sweeping statements about how nothing good ever happened under previous regimes, and Nepal has not made any progress at all. The fact, however, is that while Nepal is not a shining example of exemplary progress, it is also not among the worst performers.

In terms of the Millennium Development Goals, Nepal is actually on track to achieve quite a few of the goals – such as reduction of child mortality, maternal mortality, access to drinking water supply, basic education, community forestry, etc.

Nepal’s development performance is much better than that of Afghanistan, Burma, Haiti and many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, while it is far behind the Asian economic tigers. Certainly the 10 year civil war retarded Nepal’s progress that was beginning to pick up momentum after democracy was established in 1990.

But even in the middle of the conflict, Nepal continued to make progress in human development. With peace and a more inclusive democracy, Nepal can be expected to regain and accelerate its development momentum.

  1. Vitality of Non-Governmental and Private Sector Development: There are many examples of impressive community-based development activities, private-sector led entrepreneurship, and NGO-led innovations in Nepal.

These range from micro-hydel projects, micro-finance schemes, telecommunications, tourism, education, health and other sectors. Our own Rotary Clubs offer many inspiring examples of civic activism. Many Nepali-led innovative development schemes have won prestigious international awards.

The new Nepal will have to find ways to promote more effective public-private partnerships, and not be overly state-dominated and centralized, allowing private enterprise and community-based developments to flourish with the state providing a conducive regulatory framework.

  1. Positive Potential of Non-resident Nepalis: While we lament the brain-drain of many educated Nepalis, and ordinary workers going abroad because of difficult economic circumstances at home, in the long-run Nepali diaspora is likely to be a powerful engine for Nepal’s development.

It is largely the remittances of Nepali workers abroad that sustained Nepal’s rural economy during the decade of conflict. Currently low-skilled Nepali labourers are exploited by both unscrupulous Nepali employment agencies and foreign employers. But if this sector were properly regulated and proactively promoted, the benefits to Nepal would far outweigh the disadvantages.

Non-resident Nepalis are not just sources of remittances; they can be innovators, investors and agents of social change in Nepal. As in several other countries like Ireland, Israel, India and elsewhere, we can imagine a day when NRNs will be a dynamic force for positive change in Nepal.

  1. Goodwill of International Community: Nepal is lucky to enjoy the friendship and support of many international development partners. Except in the imagination of our conspiracy theorists, Nepal has no external enemies and plenty of friends with tremendous goodwill.

If we Nepalis can put our house in order, and come up with some sensible, ambitious reconstruction and development plans, we can expect generous support and solidarity from the international community.

The fact that Nepal is between two of the world’s largest and fastest growing economies, can be harnessed for Nepal’s great benefit.

  1. Nepali Genius for Compromise and Co-existence: In Nepal’s villages and local communities the spirit of social harmony and solidarity is still very strong, despite divisive provocations fueled by opportunistic politicians and self-righteous “revolutionaries” of various types.

People seem to be able to distinguish between genuine desire for social justice, inclusion and the need for change, from xenophobic or ethnocentric excesses and political extremism.

At the national level too, even the much despised political parties have shown the maturity to compromise and co-exist, find a workable accommodation with their political rivals. While many negotiations verge on brinkmanship, and hardly anything happens on scheduled time, in the end things do get sorted out, and the worst-case scenarios are avoided.

Nepal’s peace process is a case in point. It has surprised many foreigners how Nepalis have managed to cobble together and improvise a process that defies many textbook prescriptions on conflict resolution.

Through our two relatively peaceful people’s movements, Nepali people have shown that they will not tolerate for long dictatorial and authoritarian regimes. While Nepal is obviously not immune to political extremism and out-dated ideologies, Nepalis seem to have perfected the art of compromise and co-existence in the spirit of live and let live.

I conclude from this analysis of our sins and virtues that the combined power of Nepal’s positive virtues far outweighs the curse of our sins. Though deeply distressing and frustrating at times, I believe many of Nepal’s weaknesses are passing phenomena of a difficult transitional period. The strengths of Nepal, on the other hand, appear to be lasting virtues.

As the level of education and sophistication of our people grows, and as democracy takes deep roots, the people of Nepal can be expected to shun and overcome our sins. We can then harness our profound positive virtues, and their combined multiplier effects, to build a New Nepal that will truly be sundara, shaanta, bishaal.