Varindra Tarzie Vittachi was Sri Lanka’s best known and one of Asia’s most respected journalists in the 1960s and 70s. A brilliant communicator and a witty story-teller, he mocked everything sanctimonious, including the progressive-sounding rhetoric of Asia’s post-colonial leaders and intellectuals whom he called “The Brown Sahib”. When he served as a senior UNICEF official in the 1980s, he had a sign hanging in front of his office that read: “Everything is About Something Else”. Nepal’s current political discourse reminds me of Vittachi’s motto.
Here we have radical Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoists propounding an ideology that failed everywhere in the world, asking us to believe that they have a secret formula that will produce a miracle of a prosperous and egalitarian society in Nepal.
We have leaders of certain regional parties and ethnic groups who ask us to believe that dividing up the country in a certain federal configuration will end all historical injustices. All their arguments are backed up with analysis of current and past injustices. None that I have seen make a convincing case as to how carving out the country in a different way would produce a better future. It is as if a “New Nepal” will be born if we atone for the old sins of our ancestors, without the need to propose any credible futuristic alternative that will enable our restless youth to take full advantage of the forces of globalization to build a brighter future for themselves and their children.
On the other hand, we have political parties reciting their liberal-democratic faith that sounds rather hollow and stale, and fails to inspire much excitement. The fact that these parties too have a poor record of internal democracy, and their uncharismatic leaders are seen as prepared to make all kinds of compromises for power and perks, further tarnishes their image.
Stoking flames of ultra-nationalism, invoking conspiracy theories, blaming foreign powers, yet seeking their support to further one’s causes seem to be a standard practice of political parties in Nepal. In a highly polarized political setting, there is little room for neutral individuals or organizations as even the civil society and the media are divided. Nobody believes that anyone can be truly neutral. This cynical presumption that everybody is partisan, in one way or the other, now extends to international organizations, NGOs and INGOs, and diplomatic missions.
I empathize with our international friends who have to make difficult judgment calls in this situation. A recent case in point is the draft United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) to guide the work of UN agencies in Nepal. The UNDAF proposes a rights-based approach to development, and uses vulnerability analysis to identify the structural causes of discrimination and exclusion leading to unequal access to economic opportunity and political participation by different population groups. It proposes that tackling such discrimination and exclusion should be the central focus of UN cooperation in the next five years.
On the surface, this all seems perfectly reasonable, not only in terms of the UN’s global mandate but also as the document quotes, consistent with Nepal’s own policies as enunciated in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Interim Constitution.
It therefore came as a surprise and shock to the UN Country Team that in the final review of the document, after it had already been cleared by many sectoral ministries and the National Planning Commission, the Foreign Ministry apparently rejected it proposing all kinds of changes that seemed to question the central premise of the whole UNDAF.
As someone who personally contributed to formulating UN’s human rights-based approach to development cooperation and the MDGs, I readily empathized with the shock and frustration of the UN Resident Coordinator. So I asked to see the original draft and the changes proposed by MOFA to better understand what must have led to this seeming reversal of the government position. After studying the document with the track changes, I conveyed my quick feedback to the RC in which I said I personally disagreed with many of the changes proposed by MOFA, but agreed with some of the underlying concerns behind their position.
We are now beginning to see some predictable commentary about the UNDAF saga. True to Vittachi’s motto of “Everything is About Something Else”, in Nepal’s highly polarized political atmosphere, some pundits have offered a plausible sounding ad hominem opinion that conservative Hill Bahun bureaucrats have conspired to sabotage a progressive UN proposal. But as an old UN hand, I can say with total confidence that if the UNDAF track changes were shared with any diplomat from any of the Group of 77 countries involved in negotiations at the UN General Assembly’s Second or Third Committees, he or she would largely agree with MOFA’s position. This would include diplomats from a cross section of countries ranging from democratic to autocratic and in-between. For example, it would include India as well as Pakistan, China as well as South Africa, Myanmar as well as Egypt and Brazil.
As a human rights-oriented development professional, I personally found it frustrating but learned the hard way how at the UN, no self-respecting diplomat would voluntarily allow a document to pass that suggested that his/her country had “pervasive” discrimination, “persistent” inequalities, a “culture of impunity” or that the country “needed to comply with its international obligations” or “improve its human rights record”, even if such wording is commonly used in domestic political discourse. But there are certain tricks of the trade in diplomatic parlance whereby the same diplomat might happily agree to “the need for further strengthening compliance” or acknowledge room for “additional measures” to improve certain shortcomings. Far from being a cunning Bahun’s prejudiced approach, this would be a standard diplomatic practice whether such a diplomat was a Dhimal or Dhital, a Khan or Khadka, a Shrestha or Sharma.
Knowing that in Nepal’s highly polarized political circumstances, where antagonistic groups are likely to interpret the intentions of the international community to suit their own agenda, a pertinent question is what kind of public position should diplomats take on issues that are domestically highly divisive. This depends partly on whether you want to make a righteous point or you wish to make a real difference. For those who want to make a real difference, Nepal offers a fertile ground where one can find many practical ways to design progressive programs to meet people’s basic needs and to help develop local and national capacity that can empower underprivileged groups, without falling into rhetorical landmines.
It is important for our international friends to understand that there is a certain populist tendency to frame Nepal’s complex problems into simple monochromatic black and white.
This does not mean the UN system or other donors should be shy about advocating for universally agreed principles of democracy, pluralism, non-violence, human rights, equity and social justice. But a certain prudence is warranted when it comes to taking positions on issues like federalism, which is not a universal value or norm, and even on a Convention like ILO-169 which has not been ratified by the vast majority of UN’s member states.
It is important for our international friends to understand that there is a certain populist tendency these days to frame Nepal’s complex problems into simple monochromatic black and white—that this country is divided between agragami and pratigami; the forces of change and status quo; those who seek to empower the poor and the marginalized and those who want to retain the privileges of the “traditional elite”; that some of us stand for Dalits, Janajatis, Madhesis, women and other under-privileged groups, and others overtly or covertly wish to perpetuate the privileges of the Hill Bahun-Chhetri upper class.
If the realities were that simple and straightforward, the choice for our international friends would be quite simple. Who in this day and age would choose to take the side of the forces of status quo, the traditional elite and the upper class instead of the underdogs, when supporting the righteous bandwagon of the “golden team” of proletarians and pluri-nationalists will put you on the right side of history? But remember, how everything can indeed be about something else, and we can all risk being nouveau-Stalins’ “useful idiots”.