Are our opinion writers being true to the big responsibility they hold? This is a tricky question for a columnist to broach. I now have the challenge to settle it without a hint of self-aggrandizing superiority.
As a columnist, I like to believe that op-ed columns influence how readers think about the issues discussed. But there are people who question whether editorials, columns, and op-eds, the output of arm-chair thinking as they like to call it, really matter. Some argue that people are so deeply invested in political affiliations and affected by personal experiences, they rarely change their stance. And, further, the political insiders who wield a disproportionate influence on policy outcomes hardly get influenced by mere columnists like us. But still, I am using this column to talk about the state of our op-eds, which, to a large scale, represent the state of our intelligentsia.
A case in point is a recent upsurge in pro-monarchy protests all over the country. As far as I know, preparations for them got under way long time ago. Influencers sympathetic to Hinduism and monarchy were being contacted all over the country, asked to be prepared for a ‘big show' in near future, and a strong effort at channelizing the dissent was underway.
The incident of Dolakha Bhimeshwar Mahadev idol's 'perspiring' was utilized to rake up the protests. There is a strong belief in Nepal that sweat beads appearing on that idol is a sign of some great upheaval in the country’s politics. It's a rare phenomenon, happening only once in decades. In the past, whenever that happened, the King used to carry out a Kshama Puja, seeking forgiveness from the god to be saved from the fury.
This definitely was the best setting to launch a protest in favor of monarchy. And the first protest was launched around a month back, a day after the 'sweat beads' appeared.
People are frustrated with the present state of affairs in Nepal. And they trust very few politicians. But do people then really trust the ex-king? If yes, what has swayed the opinion in his favor, in the past 14 years, from the time he had to submit to the democratic parties?
Not only had Gyanendra become unpopular because of his authoritative moves, his son, Crown Prince Paras's reckless behavior had also turned public sentiment against the monarchy. As it is, there was a large section of people who believed that Gyanendra and his family was somehow linked to the massacre that killed late King Birendra’s family.
But there has been an upsurge of opinions in national newspapers recently in favor of the monarchy. The beauty of op-eds is that they take a clear stand. That, there are arguments in favor of or against a particular issue, whether politics or policy related. But most of the opinions in our newspapers seem to disregard that even opinions have to be fact-based. And to ensure that is the duty of our editors.
Let's discuss something that has a strong correlation to the pro-monarchy rallies. Dec 15 this year marked the 60th anniversary of the coup by King Mahendra. On 15 Dec 1960, Mahendra had sacked Nepal's first parliament and democratically formed government, and jailed the towering leader, BP Koirala. Naturally, this season of the year is flooded with opinions about Mahendra, BP, Panchayat and the coup.
Let's now compare three pieces published recently in Nepali newspapers around this topic. An op-ed in Kantipur daily by Saurabh gave Koirala the title of ‘fifth Beatles’. A difficult read as always—given the writer’s penchant for splattering disjointed references threaded loosely to prove his point—the aim of this piece seems to be to dispute BP’s view as a ‘self-claimed towering figure’ in his autobiography, and to accuse the Congress of forever relying on the crutch of that biography. But Saurabh touches a low when he announces that Congress is a party born to be in the opposition as power is unlucky for it. 'Unlucky', that's right, you read it correct.
In the same daily, Shankar Tiwari wrote another op-ed which tried to establish that Mahendra was power hungry, struck with inferiority complex due to the ‘Super Human’ BP's personality and hence staged the coup. Better than Sourabh's astrological prowess, this article tried hard to re-establish the official line of Nepali Congress at a time support for monarchy has been rising from the ashes. But this piece also fails to quote credible sources for all the dramatic events from the bygone era that has been used to prove the points. The reader can either trust the writer blindly or assume the sources.
Another interesting take on the topic is by Raamesh Koirala, published in the Naya Patrika Nepali daily. In a long piece, written in a nonchalant tone, Koirala disregards the personality conflict theory, and tries to establish that the coup was a result of geopolitical compulsions. Having touched upon the matter-of-fact details of the era, he says BP couldn't prove himself to be a better choice than Mahendra for India and the US. But, in a zest to prove his point that nothing but Machiavellian calculations count in politics, he states that the Tribhuwan Highway was made more meandering and difficult as King Tribhuwan had sold out to India.
While these arguments seem plausible, and are a perfect pitch for a gossip conspiracy theory session, stating something without proof in a national newspaper, I believe, violates some sort of professional decency.
Why are we fretting over these details? After all, opinions are just opinions! This has been the attitude of our editors and writers alike, whenever I have tried to discuss these issues.
But democracy survives on informed decisions by the masses. And unless the opinion makers believe in the big onus that's on their shoulders, it will be near impossible to stop this downward spiral of decadence we face today.
As with most questions of human behavior, the evidence of opinion columns changing opinions is mixed. But there can be no doubt that ideas matter—that powerful messages conveyed in compelling ways can change the course of political debates, movements, and elections.
And of course op-eds matter. So much so that no newspaper is complete without them. But are our op-eds keeping up with the radical upsurge in the standards and expectations of our readers?