There exists a fascination with authoritarianism amongst many in Nepal’s civil society. In its benign form, the idea manifests itself as support for a constitutional monarchy, and in its malignant variety, it comes across as advocating a ‘benevolent’ dictatorship.
The adjective benign has been used to describe a constitutional monarchy because it, by definition, means restricted power. The word malignant is used to describe ‘benevolent’ dictatorship because the conviction that there exists such a thing and worse still, that such a system is desirable in Nepal is irresponsible, and disconcerting, especially when uttered by liberal ideologues.
Fanned by the incoherence of the current political drama, many are convinced that what Nepal really needs is one strong educated ruler rather than the bickering of the many democratically elected ones. Inefficiency and incompetent political leadership and bureaucracy are what bother them the most. They want to trade democratic discourse for swift action, and would compromise civil liberties for the good of the country. For them it doesn’t matter where this dictator comes from – the right or the left of the political and ideological spectrum, as long as he (it’s almost always a he) gives priority to national interest. A Nepali version, so to speak, of Singapore’s Lee Kyon Yew.
According to the proponents of such dictatorship, since the democratically created Constituent Assembly failed miserably, Nepal, perhaps, is not ready for democracy. Thus, they say, we need a “vanguard” to shepherd us in the ways of democratic citizenry. But until that training is complete we must follow, without questioning too much, his pre-defined national interest which will usher in an era of stability, unity, peace, and growth. Since we are not ready for democracy, we must go back to living under a dictatorship till we are actually ready for democracy.
What’s interesting is that none of them ever define what this much talked about national interest is, how it can be measured, or if there exists a singular narrative of this national interest at all. Of course, they also conveniently conceal the fact that their interests are aligned to what they believe to be the larger interest of all Nepalis. Most repulsive is their propensity to hold hard earned freedom hostage to the imaginary efficiency of authoritarianism.
No dictatorship, benevolent or otherwise, comes waving the flag of repression. All presume that they are working for the interest of the country. The initial euphoria of the royal coup was quickly substituted by fear and arbitrary application of law. Hitler’s rhetoric of the revival of the lost Aryan purity, or the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic were not dangerous on their own, it’s when they attracted mass appeal, and subsequently legitimacy, that these ideas became dangerous. The vile Col. Gadaffi declared himself “brother leader” of Libya and lived a good chunk of his life pretending he was a savior of sorts and ensuring everyone else played along. And he did lead his country unchallenged. Guiding a former kingdom into becoming a ‘Jamahariya’ - a state of the masses, punishing corrupt officials, redistributing oil wealth -albeit disproportionately, and rolling back Western influence; but to what end?
Many liberals, annoyed by this savior mentality, opposed Gyanendra Shah’s doomed attempt at governance, yet it seems they have a masochistic need to be told what to do. They would prefer to be directed by an educated and hopefully like minded person than involve themselves in the dirty task of public discourse and democratic citizenry. The process of democratization is long, complex, and frustrating, but dictatorships alter the course of establishing strong democratic institutions that may take years to rebuild. In Nepal, at its present historical precipice, an unwavering commitment to democracy is more necessary than ever before. Commit ourselves to the rule of law and democratic governance today and we set historic precedence for tomorrow.
At a time when Nepal has broken the chain of anachronistic governance, it’s ridiculous to assume that one person has the answers to all its problems. Nepal has never been this educated or young or full of promise, and to give the reign of governance to one ‘benevolent’ dictator is a dangerous prospect. This is the time for people to involve themselves in shaping the future of the country through art, music, discussion, entrepreneurship, politics; the ‘larger good of the country’ is in promoting liberty, not chocking it.
This ‘savior’ phenomenon is not unique to Nepal alone. A little internet research and its advocates can be found all over the globe - from the United States to Nigeria, though thankfully in a minority. In a May, 2010 article for the Express Tribune, Rubina Saigol exposes the misplaced belief in this oxymoronic title by looking at the four saviors in Pakistan’s history: Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, General Zia, and Pervez Musharraf. Of the last one she says, “…fourth savior was hailed and welcomed as a liberal democrat by a naïve civil society, a clueless donor community and a misguided intelligentsia.” A similar naivety lurks within the Nepali civil society.
What Nepal needs is an unwavering commitment to democracy. To give over the country´s reins to a ‘benevolent’ dictator is a dangerous prospect.
Our political leaders and parties are at the zenith of incompetence. They represent fixed short term interests, instead of a long term vision the Nepali people want to see. Their failure to produce a satisfactory document (or any document for that matter) in the four years they were given is a blot on our democratic aspiration. And it’s justifiably difficult to be optimistic about our political future. But the solution cannot be cowering in front of one person to guide this diverse country at such a historical period.
Make no mistake, most people supporting this idea of a ‘benevolent’ dictator pretend to be liberals; not radical Maoists or absolute monarchists. These are people who otherwise advocate a strong liberty of conciseness and association. The internet is littered with them, and they dole out their misplaced opinion to anyone who cares to listen. As citizens of an aspiring democracy, kudos to them for adding to the debate! However, what they say is nothing more than pseudo-intellectual blabber and people need to remind themselves of its false seduction.
The author was formally associated with Atlantic Council of the USA, South Asia Center, a think-tank based in Washington DC. He is currently working as a risk assessment analyst for Solaron Sustainability Services