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Saubhagya Shah: Susta Sellouts & Other Vertigos

Susta Sellouts And Other Vertigos

By Saubhagya Shah

Perhaps one of the biggest contemporary political mysteries must be this: the king who has pledged himself to holding multiparty elections within three years and transferring power to the elected representative is being opposed tooth and nail by an unlikely coalition of forces both within and outside the country. As if that was not odd enough, the same votaries of human rights, civil society, market economy and liberal democracy - local as well as alien - have now become the most willing bulwark for the Maoist party that began a violent campaign ten years ago explicitly to end multiparty democracy, establish a dictatorship of the communist party, dismantle the capitalistic economy and challenge Indian hegemony in Nepal. Surely there will be no human rights or press freedom - at least in its liberal form - in such a radical communist state? One is reminded of Bruce Lee’s predicament in an old martial arts movie in which he negotiated the treacherous hall of thousand mirrors: who is real and what is but an adversial shadow? While the politically savvy and the main contestants might know the inner logic of this apparent heaven and earth inversions, the recent spate of political gyrations continues to leave the silent masses clueless.

The King’s assumption of emergency powers last February in the midst of a decade-long crisis generated by the armed insurgency has polarized the major political formations into definite forms now. While the king finds himself more and more with the nationalist elements, many of the oppositional political parties have been drawn closer to the Maoists. This convergence appears to be both tactical as well as ideological. For example, the Nepali Congress, one of the main proponents of the Westminster model of governance, deleted constitutional monarchy from its party statute during the recent eleventh convention. A few short days before the party convention, however, the Nepali Congress president G.P. Koirala had sent shock waves in the political circles by disclosing that some of the most ardent advocates of republicanism within his own party were actually agent provocateurs on the king’s payroll and that republicanism was never a Nepali Congress agenda.

The growing pact between the Maoists and the opposition political parties is being cemented by the high profile activism of the civil society. Indeed, both the civil society leaders and the political parties have claimed that the recent unilateral cease-fire announced by the rebels was an indication of their influence with the Maoists. How to make sense of this unlikely maneuverings and the vertigo producing abrupt veerings and about turns of Nepali politics?

Nepali Politics

One tentative approach might be to look at it from the way the two competing forces articulate their claims. While the crown harks to its historical role as the nation’s founding institution and its territorial and ideological guardian, the political parties and the civil society combine draw upon the abstract notions of human rights and liberal democracy to press home their claims to power. In the increasingly acrimonious contest for supremacy in Nepal, these basic claims bestow their own sets of advantages and liabilities upon the claimants. While much of the monarchy’s legitimacy is internally constituted, this very fact can become a handicap in the new world order that does not look too kindly to any sovereign authority that is not explicitly created or at least patronized by the dominant global or regional powers. Ironically, the Nepali crown’s independent origin thus turns into its Achilles’ heel externally.

Since the political parties and the politically vocal civil society march under the banners of human rights and liberal democracy, they are assured of ideological and material sustenance from the dominant Euro-American axis. In a poor country, external assets of this kind becomes a major force in determining the outcome of local contests. The privilege of such patronage is, however, not without its ambiguities and obligations. First, it entails acknowledging the contingent Euro-American conceptions about the individual, market arrangements, and government configuration as absolute human universals across time and space. The acceptance of a particular cultural practice as human norm is not an insignificant price, at least intellectually. Second, despite the claim to universality, the TOR for the local adherents does not allow them to comment on the state of human rights, press freedom and democracy in the sponsoring nations or other traumatized areas like Palestine, Algeria or Kashmir in a truly internationalist fashion. If the tactic as well as the target are pre-selected from elsewhere, there can not be much of meaningful human agency or democracy in such engagements.

Foreign intervention does not come free, even when it is ostensibly in one’s favor. The enlightened nations are not in the habit of doing democracy missions abroad for purely philanthropic reasons: they do it only when it is profitable and they can drive attractive geopolitical, ideological or economic bargains. Given the apparent costs of calling up allies from abroad, the various forces fighting in Nepal should swallow some of their misplaced pride and come to an internal deal. After all, what kind of pride is it to ask outsiders to come and put you in power, a la Chalabi? From the national (not partisan) standpoint, it is more honorable to make concessions to your internal rivals than to indebt the country to external patrons. That way the initiative will remain within the nation and can be reapportioned later when the situation demands it. Once the issues and initiatives are taken outside the country, it is much harder to regain we are finding out with Kalapani and Koshi issues. Like many previous occasions when the country was distracted in internal feuds, the Susta area in the south is now about to slip out of our hands because none of the major protagonists in Nepal want to risk losing New Delhi’s patronage by being the first to voice their principled opposition to India’s illegal take-over of Nepali territory. Over the decades, territorial sellouts has been established as normal cost of doing politics in Nepal. The silent accomplices to foreign occupation must understand that the people need a sovereign turf to enjoy the blessings of human rights and democracy and that these ideals do not exist in context-free vacuum.


Harvard Ph.D. Saubhagya Shah teaches anthropology at Tribhuvan University, Nepal.


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