Reason fails during times of public frustration and when emotions rule. A critical mass of intellectuals should be there to tell right from wrong and to make right arguments
Anyone critically following views and opinions peddled by media in Nepal, including social media and major news media, must have sensed this. The information landscape is flooded with half-information and misinformation. Emotion prevails. Reason has taken the backstage. It is easy during such times to lose foresight and context. The costs of decisions made during periods of half-information can be very high and irrevocable.
The question I raise here is not about the government. In a democracy, governments come and go. In any case, we have judged governments fairly after they go or after they have been toppled. Future will judge K P Sharma Oli’s government—the policies it has tried to bring and implement, the controversial bills and the way he is governing the country, everything will be evaluated. Or the Oli government may crumble because of its own burden of incompetence, or through machinations (this has happened several times in Nepal). We need not worry about this at the moment. Stakes are high on other fronts.
Larger public debate on vital public concerns has become hostage to emotions or so-called progressive thinking. There is no uniformity of voice even on issues that are harmful to all of us. Take, for example, our response to violence unleashed by Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplav.’ Some of us, who said in the past that Nepal has had enough of violence, have started to say, ‘So what if Biplav is bombing! We need to heed to his demands. So what if he kills people? His demands are political in nature and should be addressed politically.’
We have never cared to ask and know what political demands he has, or whether he has any of them at all.
The reality is that Biplav is trying to push Nepal into another phase of needless conflict. He kills people, he shuts down schools or sets fire on them if they refuse to be extorted by his outfit. And yet, he claims he is fighting for the people. If Biplav has any issues, it is with his former commander Pushpa Kamal Dahal. He has seen Dahal rise to power and comfort, while he is left behind. He is angry with Dahal but he is trying to hold the country hostage. Nobody has come up with a rational solution on Biplav violence except perhaps Gagan Thapa who, in an interview with Onlinekhabar on July 19, made a strong case for building a political consensus and a common stand on how to resolve Biplav threat.
Flogging a dead horse
Nepal’s intellectual lobby, particularly the section that wants to be known as progressive, has this strange fondness for ascribing every bit of current anomaly to the rulers who have been dead for several years. According to this narrative, Nepal is in trouble today because of Prithvi Narayan Shah’s unification campaign or because of King Mahendra. In this narrative, nationalists are the target for slings and arrows. According to this line of thinking, the cause of current chaos in governance is nationalism. Unemployment, poverty and corruption, this narrative says, exist because of nationalists.
The real problem, even a common man can tell, is that none of the post-1990 governments succeeded to deliver much. For ten years, there was a bloody conflict. Another ten years went by in resolving transitional political issues (some of them have not been resolved yet). In four years since constitution promulgation, Nepal should have, for sure, charted a clear direction for the future. It has not been able to do so. And we know who are mainly responsible for this—Nepali Congress in the 1990s, Maoists in 2008-2012 and, now, the government of KP Oli.
But according to those promoting false narratives, all these ills are because there lived King Mahendra and Prithvi Narayan Shah at one time. To blame the rulers who lived and worked in one specific circumstance for the governance failure today is disingenuous. But there is excessive indulgence toward this thinking among majority of Nepal’s ‘newspaper’ intellectuals.
False story on federalism
Nepal adopted the current model of federalism after a long and intense debate over whether federal system was needed for the country and whether we would be able to sustain it. We all had our convictions and opinions, in favor or against it. I have had reservations on federalism but now that it is a fait accompli, I believe we must work to sustain it because its failure will lead to another chaos.
Unfortunately, today’s bestselling narrative is that the government is deliberately failing federalism. This is false. It’s not yet time to ascertain whether federalism has failed or succeeded. The time to analyze who failed it, if it fails, will come later. If federalism is failing, it is mainly because we have leaders who lived and loved being at the helm of a unitary system, who still think that once they are elected, they do not have to become accountable. This is what we, the media and opinion makers, need to expose. We are instead saying Panchayat rule has returned.
Solution to the problems we face with regard to implementation of federalization exercise lies in giving sufficient time for the federal practice to take roots. Creating new provinces is invitation to fresh problems. But this is precisely what former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and his followers are advocating. The solution he offers is creating four more provinces, which essentially means increasing to what are already significant challenges to making federalism succeed. Troublingly, in lack of arguments to counter this wrong prescription, it has started to find takers.
The news is that Nepali Congress is building alliance with Madhes-based parties to launch anti-government protests and one main agenda will be constitution amendment, as if lack of amendment is the cause of bad governance, corruption and unaccountability. If and when Congress rallies for constitution amendment, we should be there to ask how constitution has hindered implementation of federalization process, why it needs to be tampered every two to three years and how it will solve our problems.
A small misstep can destabilize the whole system. The actors who want to capitalize on such missteps are waiting for this to happen: Biplav who wants violence, royalists who want to undo secularism and republic, and Bhattarai and his followers who want to redo (or undo) federalism.
But we cannot allow this country to become a laboratory to test one particular governance system and replace it before it matures, every decade.
Reason to unite
When vital issues are left to speculation and emotions, rather than informed debates and discussions, when we fail to see the distinction between the state and the government, we tend to take decisions based on resentment or frustration with certain individuals rather than institutions. Admit it or not, public resentment against monarchy in 2006 was less the result of resentment against monarchy as an institution. Rather, it was more against doings of King Gyanendra and his son. We overthrew monarchy largely because of these two persons.
We should not take a decision or make an argument against the current system just because some of us might dislike KP Oli, Sher Bahadur Deuba or Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
Therefore, we, the rationalists, should stand united at this moment because the government is irresponsible, people are angry and frustrated and reason is failing. At such times, a critical mass of intellectuals should always be there to argue, to tell right from wrong, and to make arguments, which will be judged well by posterity.
One parameter of judging our rationality could be by looking back to what we had to say during the period of extreme instability following the 2006 change. The affliction of government change every nine months must be ended, we said. Nepali streets have become the theater of chaos with protests and rallies and therefore general strikes and disruptive activities should be outlawed. We demanded abrogation of trade unionism in government bureaucracy and private companies. And above all, we said, we must reign in chhadatantra (anarchy). Now we are opposing the measures to regulate online and electronic media, ban porn and violent games, without considering the effects of their free flow. And there is a tendency of giving communal color to incidents happening in the community.
A month ago, a video that should have been the subject of fury, went viral. In the video, Oli and Sher Bahadur Deuba are conversing in parliament. They exchange acrimonies. So you tease my wife?” Oli says to Deuba. “Whose wife?” Deuba asks back. “She is mine.” “If you tease her again, I will break your bones,” Oli says to Deuba. This is a fake video, yet many common people have taken it for real.
More recently, I saw a picture on Facebook of a man attaching a placard with the photo of PM on his back. The man apparently was in pro-Rabi Lamichhane protest. The placard reads: “Incompetent PM Oli, I wish your early departure to heaven.”
When irrationalists spread propaganda, it is the government which has to speak the truth, which has to inform the people regularly and credibly of what is happening, what it wants to do and why the citizens do not have to fear. Or when the government makes mistakes, the opposition party in the parliament has to point out exactly what those mistakes are and how they should be avoided. None of this is happening. The government takes decisions, and there are interpretations and misinterpretations on which public opinion is built. This, in turn, leads to making of flawed narratives.
So the rationalists as well as the nationalists need to stand together for giving direction, to find the rationale behind every good or bad thing happening. Social media populism has killed our creativity and even patience. We tend to make views without understanding the contexts. We need to stand together to remind each other of what is right and wrong, where to speak and what to speak about and to guard ourselves against falling into populism trap.
We the rationalists need to become the messengers who inform the people and larger international community what exactly is happening, who are at fault, and how things can be fixed.
Let us not become the quiet witnesses of the phenomenon which will leave us with deep regrets later for our inaction when we could do something about it. Rationalist thinkers and writers should stand as watchdogs, irrespective of which party is in the government. We should be there to say what is wrong and what is right whoever is at the helm—Dahal, Oli, Nepal, Deuba, or whoever.
We should not allow the issues of greater national importance to be hijacked by the group of irresponsible intellectuals or the populist media.
A group of Nepal’s opinion makers has always found it convenient to gloss over truths and manufacture falsehoods. At the face of open intervention on Nepal’s constitution making process, they cursed Nepal and Nepali leaders. Back then, as now, the rationalists and nationalists were blamed. They are at it again. At difficult times, rationalists get side-lined and the pied-pipers rally the crowds and misinform. We cannot let this happen. Rationalists of Nepal, unite.