At a time when Nepali politics is dominated by bad news, this piece will try to inject some cautious optimism by relying on the theory of positive deviance. I will focus on two politicians that have carved a meaningful space for themselves, despite the mess that threatens to continually engulf them.
Positive Deviance (PD) is an innovative approach to development that identifies particular “individuals and/or groups whose uncommon behaviours and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems that their peers, despite having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges” (positivedeviance.org). Even when things are bad, some people still flourish. PD seeks to identify these actors and their positive actions to replicate their successes, rather than focus only on the problems they face.
This approach gained prominence in the field of nutrition, when researchers proposed to address malnutrition by recognizing those parents and households where children were nourished despite facing the same challenges. By highlighting these success stories, and providing support for other families to replicate these strategies, development actors could facilitate home-grown solutions to serious problems. The PD website mentions an example from Nepal, where a mother of six is found to be restoring her son’s health by feeding him at regular intervals, and providing him a balanced diet. Her actions are then highlighted and shared widely to encourage others to emulate.
PD’s success in improving health outcomes has led to its emulation in business, education, and development more generally. PD could provide a powerful framework for community empowerment by “discovering successful behaviours and strategies and developing a plan of action to promote their adoption” (ibid.).
Having introduced this innovative approach, I now turn to the Nepali context to discuss two politicians to identify their positive deviance that sets the platform for others. I want to project this theory to our polity because the current debate on Nepali politics has been dictated primarily by the wrongs of the past, but prescriptions should also be guided by the good traits of deviant politicians.
Kamal Thapa stands apart from most politicians, both for the views he holds, and the way he holds them. Let me be perfectly clear that I disagree completely with his agenda. Kamal Thapa is a ‘hardcore’ royalist who wants to restore the monarchy, which he sees as the only way out of the political quagmire. His views are misguided, because the monarchy—the epitome of hereditary privilege, as if the nation were private property— presided over an unjust and unequal society for far too long in Nepal. Even if our democracy is not a functioning one yet, the symbolic gains of our Republic status are too valuable to meekly return to the status quo. However, my disagreement with his politics does not blind me to the reality that Kamal Thapa is one of very few politicians in Nepal who believes in an ideology and stands by it.
Most politicians who opposed the monarchy are proving to be not democrats but closet monarchs who want to establish their own figurative kingdoms, with themselves as kings. The lack of democratic values and the recurring arbitrary handovers of party mechanisms across the political spectrum prove that they opposed the figurehead monarch but not necessarily the overarching problematic system.
I disagree with his views, but nonetheless admire the determination with which Kamal Thapa pursues his principles. If we had a handful of democrats who believed in democracy—in its truest spirit—the same way Kamal Thapa unfortunately believes in the monarchy, perhaps our nation would not be facing this crisis today.
I hope he fails in his mission to restore monarchy, but concurrently wish upon our leaders to take a leaf from his page and be consistent in their beliefs, rather than simply pursue the proverbial Chair. Compromise is an essential part of politics, but most leaders embody the term ‘turncoat’ to the extent that they probably do not know their own positions. They adhere to no higher ideology than power and so compromise not their positions but their integrity. In today’s Nepali politics, coherence alone makes a politician a positive deviant.
Another positive deviant, perhaps a polar opposite to Kamal Thapa in terms of ideological stance, is Gagan Thapa. He rose to particular prominence in Jana Andolan II as a powerful voice against the old guard. In a political spectrum deeply divided across party lines, and often within it, Gagan Thapa’s ability to garner support from his political competitors sets him apart.
Martin Chautari recently hosted an interaction program to discuss the demise of the CA. Former CA members Gagan Thapa, Rabindra Adhikari (UML), Sarita Giri (Sadbhawana) and Lokendra Bista (UCPN-M) discussed their personal and institutional engagements around the momentous failure to draft a new constitution. While there was disagreement along party lines, each of these diverse characters emphasized at some point the crucial role Gagan played in trying to forge consensus and bring a meaningful constitution to life.
Gagan understands his audience and does his homework. This event was bound to attract a fairly academic crowd, given that Martin Chautari is a leading research institute, so he came to the program equipped with numbers and facts to back up his rhetoric. It helps that he is a gifted orator. The combination of powerful speech, grounded facts and infectious enthusiasm prove quite persuasive.
Gagan juxtaposes his rugged confidence with a deep sense of humility. He exudes the aura of a man who embraces self-reflection, and even a cursory investigation suggests his willingness to accept mistakes and refine positions. While most politicians are busy blaming others, Gagan usually begins by pointing fingers at himself and his party. Further, at a time when 50 year olds claim to be youth leaders with straight faces, Gagan stands tall to challenge them. Many young people that are engaging with the political system have either rejected it entirely or been co-opted by it, but he is fighting from within, despite his frustrations.
Kamal Thapa and Gagan Thapa are surely not perfect. Yet they embody some of core qualities that most of our politicians lack.
Despite these numerous qualities that set him apart as a positive deviant, Gagan’s story remains more of hope than achievement. Although he is a Central Committee member now, he is yet to figure prominently in the Congress core. His relatively clean image and his ability to build bridges across wired fences certainly express potential, and people have high hopes from him. However, people had similar expectations from Baburam Bhattarai. The PM has since failed spectacularly, and could not become a positive deviant when in power. Gagan Thapa will have to transform his potential into action if he is to be a positive deviant as a leader, and not just a representative of youthful vigor.
PD is not an elixir to all of society’s problems, and these politicians are not discussed here because they are perfect. In fact, they are certainly not perfect. Yet, they embody some core qualities that most of our politicians lack. It is unfortunate that traits like ideological coherence, oratory skills, factual analysis, and humility are in such short supply that those that employ them become positive deviants. Instead of summarily dismissing all politicians as incompetent, we must identify more actors across the political spectrum who, in their imperfection, nonetheless embody admirable, desirable qualities that should be highlighted, rewarded, and emulated.