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Dec 12, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Dr. Bhattarai's Popularity and lessons learned

Image Source: Wikimedia

When Dr. Bhattarai was elected the prime minister of the current coalition government, many people breathed a sigh of relief and raised their hopes high. His ardent supporters went crazy with joy and excitement. For a while it seemed Nepal had finally got it's messiah who had cures for all the ills of this nation, who could bring everyone together and get the country on track. Those few who thought it better to control their excitement and contain their expectations were labeled too cynical and pessimists. Some jubilant populace even initiated campaigns demanding the new Prime Minister be allowed to work. When the new Prime Minister decided to use a Nepal assembled Mustang as his vehicle and set a precedent for other politicians to follow the suit, general people’s excitement went up through the ceiling. The trend continued when Dr. Bhattarai declared government relief packages and other several populist moves. However, in the euphoria people forgot few small details, the generosity of PM was solely based on 'Other People's Money' rather than deep convictions for really helping the poor and whether a leader is good or evil has little bearing on a nation's well-being than the system and policies that are in place.

Only when the new PM's cabinet made history by being the largest one till date, designated convicts as ministers and convicted people as ministers and the media started reporting the gross discrepancy between PM's commitments and the reality- were the people shaken out of their illusion. The popularity of PM Bhattarai is declining with the same speed as it rose during early days of his premiership. The ardent and faithful are utterly disappointed, the skeptics are in glee with “I told you so” mood and the vast majority of the populace is as apathetic as ever. So, why did Nepal's “messiah” dash the hopes of so many of his fans? What proved the skeptics right? And how long will the Nepali idiom “Jun Jogi Aaye Pani Kanai Chireko” hold true?

It's the system

Centuries of patronization from the state, short lived experience with democracy, massive poverty and illiteracy resulting in the political discourse being overwhelmingly dominated by political parties and their puppet intellectuals and a decade long bloody communist uprising has turned majority of us into political romanticists. Discourses about development of any field predictably end with “lack of a genuine leader with a vision” and fantasy of a true patriotic leader with cure for all ills of our society is rampant. This person centric approach is confirmed by our interpretation of history too. Nepal's political system has too many heroes or villains rather than values and systems. Nepal's political and social institutions have been predominantly feudalistic in nature which allowed an individual/family/party to wield much influence in the society. Therefore, much of a society's progress has depended upon that leader's whim. In reality, however, the kind of political system a society adopts and the values and norms it upholds are much more instrumental in driving the society forward rather than the goodness or evilness or a political leader.

Dev Shumsher might have been a relatively liberal Rana Prime Minister but his generosity failed to extend beyond his term. King Birendra might have been a generous King but Nepal under his rule was no way better than Nepal under the rule of King Mahendra. The political leaders of parties like Nepali Congress and UML who have become the epitome of ineffective and corrupt leaders now were once the ideal revolutionaries whose sole purpose in life had been the nation's interest. Similarly, Maoists who waged a decade long war in the name of the poor are nowadays in constant controversies ranging from criminal activities to institutional corruption dashing out any hopes that they would provide a better alternative to the major political parties of pre-2006 era. 

International experiences illuminate us more about this principle. Citizens of democratic and liberal countries of Europe and North America can rationally hope that despite of any leader coming into power to be not outrageously corrupt unlike them, citizens of Pakistan and Bangladesh can be pretty much sure about corruption, ineffectiveness and controversies no matter who came into power. Similarly, it is also noteworthy that every country that has ever tried communism found a ruthless dictator who really hated free speech and dissenting views among other things. What chances are there that all the leaders of similar political and economic systems be equally ruthless unless the system itself made them to act that way?

Image Source: Nepalnews
In this context, Nepali citizens would really be better off in the longer run if they placed their hopes on having a good system rather than a good leader and it would be a folly on our part to assume a single leader through his/her personal choice would be able to change the system for better. That said, it is imperative that we venture beyond the usual rhetoric of blaming the system and figure out what actually is wrong with the system. We have had leaders competing with each other to promise us loftier dreams. From transforming Nepal to Switzerland, to making a Singapore out of it to generating 10000 Megawatts of electricity, we have heard it all. However, our political discourse has severely failed to address the “How” part of the question.  There is a dearth of opinion on the “how” part of the question except for some self contradictory ideas regarding the development of the country. On one hand, people are furious over the ineffectiveness and blatant hypocrisy of the political leaders and the ruin their actions have brought to the country whereas on the other hand, the mere suggestion that government should not be extensively involved in the economic activities as well as other aspects of people's lives raises many eyebrows and such suggestions are looked upon with ridicule. Suggesting people that if a nation wants to progress, it is essential to separate the government and the economy as far as possible draws many sighs of disbelief.

Constitution and Prosperity

The constitution is being written and hopefully will be completed this time. The kind of constitution we will have will set a system that will shape the politicians and the political behavior in the future, thereby determining in part what level of prosperity we will achieve. Hence, figuring out the what kind of system do we want to have in country-the one that bequeaths the politicians with extensive power to shape and influence our lives or the one that puts its faith in general people - is the best thing we can do for the sake of the country than getting overzealous about a leader or a political party for that matter.

-Surath Giri