POST-MAY 27 SCENARIO
In a Western folktale, an acorn falls on a chicken’s head. The chicken, who thinks that the sky was falling, informs other chickens about it, and they all decide to go to the king to tell the news. On the way, a fox meets with them, pretends to show them the way to the palace, takes them to his lair and devours them all. Well, the world ended for those chickens.
After the Supreme Court refused to acknowledge the Constituent Assembly’s authority to extend its term beyond Jeth 14, 2069, some politicians and partisan pundits have begun to warn that, if the constitution were not written by that time, a political apocalypse—perhaps a popular uprising—would hit Nepal. Will the sky indeed fall if the constitution is not written by that date?
These politicians and political pundits want to create mass hysteria to have their way in a rush. Propaganda and histrionics are integral to politics, as to theater, to create mass hysteria. They are used in superlatives to dramatize events, attract public attention and build the climax to win public support. In theater, they burnish the virtues of the hero and vilify the evil villain. In politics, you describe your side—party, leaders and yourself—in positive and the other side in negative superlatives.
The good thing about theater, the climax, once reached, ends with the approving burst of applause from the audience. However, in politics, it might catapult political thespians all the way to power and privilege from where they can decide our fate.
Oxford dictionary defines propaganda as “information, especially of a biased and misleading nature, to promote a political cause or point of view.” Propaganda works best in when you have a receptive audience, and highly politicized societies offer such audience. Hitler and his propaganda minister Goebbels knew that the punishing World War I reparations had made the Germans an extremely receptive audience.
Like the Germans between the great wars, the middle class Nepali society is highly politicized. They watch and comment on political drama endlessly, for they have time, resources and information to do it. Our politics, which is a smorgasbord of various genres of theater, offers the grist for the middle class mill.
The Maoists represent horror and gore. The Nepali Congress brings soporific family soap operas and the UML the blue drama. The Madheshi parties dish out sob stories full of complaints and the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party prudish stories. All these parties have own audiences and punditdoms from the middle class—cadres, opinion makers, bureaucrats, civil society, professionals, businesspeople, landowners, etc.
In contrast, the poor Nepalis have no time for politics. Poor farmers in villages rise at dawn, gather fodder for the cattle, milk the cow or buffalo, clean up the cattle shade, take care of children, and go to work in the field. They come back home dead tired. They still have to take care of the children and cattle in the evening and, as soon as they eat and clean, they hit the bed.
Rural wage earners have to get up early and go to work, and when they come back home, they would rather eat and go to bed than talk politics. Their counterparts in cities might join protests when they have nothing better to do, for fun or for a fee from the political parties that organize them. But that is mostly how far they go.
The poor outnumber the middle class in Nepal by far. While Nepal’s own estimate puts less than 25 percent people below the poverty line, thanks to the remittance that has uplifted the standards of living for three out of 10 families, multidimensional poverty index, developed by Oxford University, estimates that 64.7 percent Nepalis are still poor.
The poor’s lack of political engagement works against them. Politically active groups prevent implementation of irrigation, water supply and other projects, which benefit the poor, if such projects have been initiated by a rival group. For them, nothing is better than something done by the opponents even if that something benefits all. That makes our politics destructive.
Politics can be a force for good, as many countries—including Bangladesh, Bhutan and India’s Bihar—have shown. Ten years ago, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan had almost the same per capita income. More freedom and democracy have helped Bangladesh and Bhutan attract domestic and foreign investment, promote growth, and increase per capita income. In 2010, Bhutan had US $1,810 gross national income and Bangladesh US $700, according the World Bank. Even Bihar has more than doubled its per capita income in last 10 years.
Compare that to Nepal’s per capita income in 2010: US $440. Our growth and income have stagnated for over the last 15 years. The green shoots of responsible politics and uptick in economic trend which started with the restoration of democracy in 1990 ended with the advent of politics of destruction. The Maoists started their armed insurgency and other political parties engaged in squabble and corruption.
When destructive politics is put aside, Nepalis have done a lot together and can still do so. The suspension bridges in Baglung or community forestry have been success stories. But unfortunately, political parties seldom come together because of engrained opposition and endemic corruption. Their sister NGOs killed Arun III. The agreement with the Three Gorges, a Chinese company, to implement West Seti has barely survived.
The folks in my area in eastern Nepal are livid at the scrapping of Arun III and snail’s pace in development activities. For them, security and development are more important than a new constitution. Some even tell me that it makes no difference to them whether they have the current Interim Constitution, the 1990 constitution or even a Panchayati constitution.
But they need security and development. Insecurity disrupts their life, as they cannot go to work, send their children to school, visit a hospital for treatment, and travel to markets to buy seeds, fertilizer, salt and sugar. And a lack of development keeps them perennially poor and backward.
Although Nepal needs a new constitution to conclude the peace process, which seems to be making some progress of late, and give the country a basis for the allocation of power, countries can indeed move forward without a constitution or with all sorts of constitutions. The UK, one of the most advanced countries, does not have a written constitution. India has a democratic constitution, Singapore semi-democratic and China undemocratic, but all of them are making great strides in development.
Although Nepal needs a new constitution, countries can indeed move forward without a constitution or with all sorts of constitutions.
For security and development, the nation needs pro-people leaders, pro-service bureaucracy, and pro-customer businesses. A constitution only changes institutions and the allocation of power. It does not change behavior.
Still, some foxy politicians and pundits would like us to believe that the sky will fall if the constitution is not written by Jeth 14. They have also told us that everything will be honky-dory once the law of the land is promulgated. No. The sky will not fall because there will be the president, a caretaker government and public institutions. You need a common enemy or widely shared sentiment to trigger an uprising, which does not exist now. Not everything will be fine with a piece of paper named constitution, either, as we know from our own experience.
If possible, therefore, the Constituent Assembly must try to finish writing the constitution by Jeth 14. However, if some contentious issues remain unresolved, the assembly must make room for the next parliament to take them up and decide. This will give the Nepali people in general—not just the opinionated politicians and punditdom—the opportunity to tell through their ballot what they want. That will be more democratic than a date-expired assembly taking vital decisions in a rush.
The chickens in the western folktale should not have trusted the fox.