Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince outlines, among other things, some prescriptions for a ruler to keep his subjects under his grip. He has some clear advice—a ruler has to be cruel to his subjects and not merciful, stingy not liberal, be feared not loved and when giving, he should give gradually and give just a few things at a time and impress on them that all they have comes from the ruler.
Much of what the sixteenth century political philosopher preached has become an anachronistic idea today. One might point to dictatorial states like North Korea as the regimes that continue to follow Machiavelli’s guidelines in letter and in spirit. As far as we in Nepal are concerned, twenty years of freedom, with a short hiatus in 2002 when King Gyanendra imposed a direct rule, may have conditioned us to believe that such political strategizing is a myth for Nepal. But, in retrospect, Nepali rulers—from the Rana era to the republican age today—have adopted Machiavellian policies in one form or another to rule over their ‘subjects.’
The secret of the Rana regime’s longevity was not merely their dictatorial ambition. What had held the regime in good stead for well over a century was their policy of ‘give but give gradually and give only a little at a time’ and maintaining the ‘image of cruelty and ferocity.’ They positioned themselves as ferocious beings, capable of any extreme action if the subjects defied their decree. They, however, did not necessarily impinge upon the basic fundamental human instincts. They allowed mobility across the nation (exception to those from the Tarai who needed a permit to come to Kathmandu until 1950). They allowed people to work, marry and have children. But they extracted taxes, and gave, when they did, only little in return.
‘You cannot have all the things at once’, they said. People were kept in deprivation, and hence, even when little of reform was offered, it would come as a great beacon of hope. So when Chandra Shumsher made education accessible to the common masses, when he first installed an electricity plant in Pharping, and abolished slavery, it seemed to the people that the state had done all that any administration could. To maintain their status as benign rulers, they created illusions of threat elsewhere. ‘We may be unkind to you, but we are not your enemies. Your enemies lie in the south, in the form of Islam and Christianity and firangis.’ They impressed on people that all was right with the country because they ruled from the palace. This worked well until 1950.
Except for the brief interregnum during BP Koirala’s prime ministership, the legacy was carried on well by King Mahendra. He adopted the policy that had worked well for over 100 years. He did give to his people, but only a little at a time. He introduced a wave of reforms—highways were constructed, industries and schools were built, land reform was floated, Muliki Ain was amended and social ills like untouchability and child marriage were outlawed. ‘But you have to conduct yourselves according to the system I have laid’, he would say. ‘Do anything but speak no evil of me and hear no evil about me and my system’. Mahendra, like the Ranas, was clever to locate enemies elsewhere, in India and in the western cultures. The system, thus laid, lasted for thirty years.
The situation changed a little after 1990. Now the people did not have to fear the rulers like before. And unlike in the past, the rulers stopped laying prohibitions on people’s liberty, but when it came to giving, the same old policy was implemented. The republican set up has not been able to break the continuum except that it never tires of saying yes to people’s demands.
Why do states follow such a policy of harsh miserliness when it comes to giving to the people? Machiavelli may have had his own explanation but when the state maintains parsimony, the rulers have a lot to gain. In a situation when people are deprived of vital needs for long, when the state offers even a little, their happiness and gratefulness is unlimited. People begin to revel in minor achievements, much like little children who jump with joy when electricity illuminates the house after long-hours of load shedding, forgetting how dark it was during the power cut and how dark things could become again.
And this keeps people from finding time, outside fending for their basic needs, to think, critique and debate political affairs. When people are forced to lead a life of deprivation and despair, receiving even what is fundamentally and rightfully theirs from the rulers makes them feel grateful towards them. This keeps the prospect of defiance and agitation at bay, for a short time though.
Take the case of the 1990’s reforms, which in reality caused very little change. People’s living standards remained constant, and the country still lacked adequate infrastructure. But just being granted basic freedom by the state satisfied the people who had learnt to live in the darkness of dictatorial rule. The post-republic rulers have been boasting of having abolished the monarchy and declaring the country a republic. And this has become their excuse, their saving grace, the dangling carrot for their inability to deliver even basic services.
When the people are forced into lives of deprivation, receiving even what is theirs makes them grateful to rulers.
One of the greatest achievements of this political tactic is that people in general are always engaged in some enterprise to feed their families. A common man will always have to think of how to educate his children, how to manage fertilizers for paddy plantation and so on; and thus, forced into having to think of the basic needs, people begin adopting the herd mentality and cling to general opinions. They become nostalgic and begin to crave for bygone era. The few who do condemn the state’s modus operandi are usually the informed middleclass, few in number, and thus unable to trigger sweeping political reforms. When majority of the country’s populace are kept engaged in trifles, the regime feels absolutely safe and threat-free.
It is in these Machiavellian and politically crafted situations that people begin to view even news like hungers strike against perks for ex-VIP as promises for reforms. When long overdue legal punishment against corrupt ministers of the yore is announced, people feel excited. When, bowing to public resentment, some ex-VIPs return their ‘perks’ (like state vehicles) to its rightful owner (the state), people feel it is a moment to celebrate.
This policy of ruling, however, as beneficial to the ruler as it may be, is dangerous and detrimental to the nation as a whole, causing it to rot instead of prospering as a true democracy. Worse still, it is this warped political situation that creates a conducive environment for dictatorial ambitions to step in. To borrow from Machiavelli again, “Men are so simple and yield so readily to the desires of the moment that he who will trick will always find another who will suffer to be tricked.”