Analysts are looking at the events of the past two weeks from all sorts of geopolitical and other angles. But they are missing a crucial point, i.e., what led to the political crisis and to the truce between prime minister KP Oli and his arch-nemesis in the party, Madhav Kumar Nepal. No, it has nothing to do with democracy, India or making the government more responsible in dealing with the rising number of covid cases.
The difference between Nepal and Oli didn't arise from the latter’s dictatorial tendencies and total disregard for party directives or mishandling of the corona pandemic. Nepal would have been no different if he were the PM. If one is to look closely, the present event is nothing but a repetition of what transpired in the past between KP Bhattarai and GP Koirala, and later between Koirala and Sher Bahadur Deuba. The real reason for their split (and all other splits of the past 30 years) has to do with our leaders’ Afno manche syndrome—the sense of power one derives from having their people, no matter how tarnished or corrupt or unqualified, appointed at almost all important government positions. This ‘my man syndrome’ is the reason Nepal is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and as a result, one of the most underdeveloped as well.
We are a nation of wrong hero worshippers. The politically biased mainstream media creates heroes for us and we idiots believe in the invented heroes’ sacrifices and greatness. The person who heavily politicized the bureaucracy immediately after the restoration of the multiparty democratic circus in the country 32 years ago, KP Bhattarai, is hailed as a Santa (Saint) leader. Conveniently ignored are Bhattarai’s filling of the bureaucracy and academia with Nepali Congress loyalists, and those buying their loyalty (to him) by bribing his secretaries.
His successor Koirala went a step further. Now one had to pledge his loyalty to him to get a good position. They got lucrative positions by rallying behind other leaders. The clique-ization of Nepali bureaucracy was complete. Even the academia and the security sector couldn't remain unaffected by the new “political” criteria on promotions. One’s loyalty to the prime minister, whether via family ties or proved through bribes and sycophancy, was what it took to make it big in Nepali bureaucracy, academia, media, security and even private businesses.
The ones who succeeded them, whether from the Congress or the UML, were no different. But by then clique-ization of the parties was complete too. Prime ministers lost their prerogative to choose the ministers themselves. They had to accommodate the demands of the cliques. This portfolio to this clique, that portfolio to that clique became the norm, and the most powerful position in the country became the weakest.
PM Oli didn't accommodate all the demands of the Prachanda clique and the Madhav Nepal clique, and appointed his people to important positions. That made other leaders fearful of losing their grip on the state and the party, thereby losing the source of their income—money, not morality, is what ensures success in politics everywhere but it's dirty money in Nepal that makes or breaks a leader.
In a way, PM Oli was exercising his right by appointing the people loyal to him to the positions he deemed fit, but leaders of other cliques saw that as a threat to their control of the state and the party. They were losing control and something had to be done. More than democracy or morality, they were driven by their own petty calculations to oust him so that they could fill the government apparatuses with their own people, and derive a sense of power from it. (Bikash Sangraula has done a better job than me in explaining the leaders’ perverse sense of power and the media’s misreading of the whole episode in his Republica columns.)
That led to the most bizarre act of the democracy circus: The Nepal clique and Jhalanath clique first flouted the party whip in failing to vote in favor of PM Oli in the parliament, and then threatened to resign en masse to support the other parties’ bid to form government. If you happen to be a foreigner reading this and are not clear what happened: it's like Bernie Sanders demanding Joe Biden that his loyalists and friends be given government portfolios, appointed the joint chief of staff and ambassadors and the head of various institutions, including the NIH and even Supreme Court judges. And Sanders threatening Biden he would bring the government down if he refused to meet his demands. That's exactly what happened in Nepal. And being a dysfunctional democracy, our prime minister had no option but to agree to meet various cliques’ demands to have their people appointed in all positions—from ministers to professors to inspectors in the Nepal Police. (In America, Biden would have sent Sanders to a psychiatrist.)
Panchayat was better than the present circus. At least you didn’t have to pay your way to a job. Apolitical ones too were appointed to positions that matched their qualifications—as long as they refrained from criticizing the state. But it's a different world now. A qualified professor with a degree from an Ivy League school and with an extensive teaching and research experience abroad was disqualified in favor of someone with no such experience and who just happened to be close to one of the cliques of one of the parties, not that long ago. (The same is true of the ambassadors. You have to be someone's daughter, mother-in-law, nephew, have a lot of money, or be loyal to your leader to represent the country abroad. )
If the cliques fight to have their man appointed to a teaching job, imagine what they do to have their people in key positions. Unless our leaders cure themselves of the 30-year-old Afno manche disease, the country will continue to be a mess and petty infighting like the one we just witnessed will continue to dominate headlines for a long time to come.
I don't know what others conclude from all this. For me personally, I get a good I-told-you-so moment. It just proves that Nepal was not and still is not ready for the western style multi-party democracy and Mahendra wasn't wrong to do away with it.
Meanwhile, if any of you wants a government/bureaucratic job in the next two years, profess your loyalty to the UML, then join a clique, then prove your loyalty to your leader by either doing their dirty jobs, flattery or the easiest route, by making a donation. There’s probably a rate card for all positions, so pay the amount to your clique and get a job.
Welcome to the bizarre democratic tyranny of the few—Republic of Nepal.