The post-1990 era in Nepal, following the first people’s movement, has seen a surge of ‘independent citizens’ voices’. Press freedom and liberalization were among the remarkable changes the new democratic government brought. Hopes were high, and dreams were soaring.
But looking back after three decades at the years that followed, we can easily see the great divide that this phase has reinforced. Absence of an active royal family and the Panchayat elites did not automatically make Nepal a democratic haven. Economic liberalization became an opportunity for the select few business families to multiply their wealth through monopoly trading without putting the wealth into production or job creation. As of 2020, only 15 percent people are employed in industries. From three percent in 1992, it went up to 10 percent in 2000, and the graph has since been almost flat. Liberalization was hijacked by the nexus of wealthy businessmen and politicians, and nothing was done to strengthen the fundamentals of the economy.
As a result, Nepal’s economic state remains precarious, and almost 40 percent of GDP is dependent on remittance sent by youth working overseas in dangerous conditions.
Another big promise of the early nineties was of the democratic changes Nepali Society was expected to accommodate. We had INGOs and foreign-aided Nepalis penetrating the countryside with a missionary zeal. The change that was supposed to come from the grassroots was rather managed by those centered in Kathmandu who hardly had any connections to the grassroots.
As a result, we had an era of lost opportunities, misplaced priorities, unnervingly foolish initiatives, ineffective and inefficient wastage of precious funds, and a pilferage in the name of the oppressed and the poor.
In the 21st century, till now, Nepal has undergone major political shifts. The political revolution against the Kathmandu-centric power, leading to the removal of monarchy and heralding of a federal republic, brought yet another era of promise. But the reality bit back harder this time. And we are in the midst of an anarchy characterized by policy shortsightedness, cheap populism, and mediocre and uninspiring politicians.
As I write this column ruminating about the disappointing path of democracy in Nepal, votes are being counted in the US elections. America had elected Trump as its president four years back, and this time also, he is in a neck-and-neck struggle for the top post with Democrat Joe Biden. And, gauging by the social media, not surprisingly, the elections in the US have Nepali intelligentsia hooked.
This brings us to a major dichotomy that I believe Nepal is facing. Some months back, when Nabaraj BK, a boy from a so-called lower caste, was beaten to death by upper caste people in Rukum, it had taken more than a month for the Dalitlivesmatter hashtag to trend in social media. That too did not happen organically, but was inspired by George Floyd's murder in the US and the resultant protests the world over.
By the very nature of this era fueled by technology, it has become easier to get news from Florida and France than from your own village in rural Nepal. It has become easier to understand what the white male American is thinking than what goes on in a Dalit Nepali’s mind in Rukum. And because of this great divide, what runs in the people's minds is biased towards the big and the global.
Social media, media, and the intelligentsia are supposed to influence the polity for the society’s betterment. But till the time we have people with foreign degrees and no exposure to the harsh realities of hinterland Nepal as opinion builders and decision makers, this fundamental fault line in our democratic ecosystem cannot be wished away.
The politicians know they can take the media and the intelligentsia for a ride because the inputs of the intelligentsia aren't based on real insights from the ground but are rather pretentious preaching of self-righteous snobs or the ranting of the privileged ones. To strengthen democracy, we need to look for a way to bridge this divide. We have to find a way, through the education system, to build democracy for the bottom up. And this new silent revolution has to be led by the country’s youth.