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All worked up by works in progress

By Maila Baje
If reality is a work in progress, our polity surely encapsulates the perpetuity of the process. With too many experiments going on at the same time – in parallel as well as in conflict – every appearance of arrival only advances our destination.
After plodding on for a dozen years, the assorted architects of our collective destiny finally seemed to have reached an equilibrium. On the bedrock of republicanism, secularism and federalism, Nepalis could find their equipoise. Sure, the Constituent Assembly turned out to be a Pandora’s Box – and twice. We’re still not sure what came out of it or what’s still inside. But the lid was shut. Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli has a hard time keeping it shut.
Oli heads a unified communist party that predominates that end of the spectrum as well as a government that enjoys two-thirds majority support in the elected legislature. Yet those you’d expect to be hailing this relief from fractiousness of the past see in Oli a single successor to the dozen ‘potentates’ that replaced the maligned monarchy.
The practical dimensions of federalism have provided the first validation of critics of this variant of devolution and decentralization. Provinces are still named numerically, as in the Rana era. Provincial officials complain of poor compensation and lack of conveyance. Centre-state conflicts have been largely in check because the people haven’t begun speaking yet.
Early on, secularism energized the faithful. After an initial victory run, Christianity seems to be on the defensive, if you read foreign Christian publications. Hinduism was never this ebullient even when Nepal was the world’s only official Hindu state. Where we have bucked the global trend is in the placidity of our Muslim brethren. In term of inclusion and representation, we have come out ahead numerically. That should count for something when we don’t have any other yardstick over the short to medium term.
Yet the Oli government is besieged. The Supreme Court tends to reverse almost every decision it makes. And that’s even before we have a permanent chief justice. Civil society tends to act as if nothing has changed since the final decade of the partyless Panchayat system. A prominent media house changes its key editors in a decision tenuously linked to the supposed appointment of a senior Indian management executive and we begin debating how that affair might affect our national destiny. An activist medical doctor with a penchant for Gandhian deprivation of nutrition chooses a remote district to make his valiant stand against the government. And the government and the doctor’s supporters both act as if the sky is about to fall.
Oli & Co. should be enthused by the new respectability their ideology, at least its socialist variant, is commanding among millennials in the West. Instead, our elected comrades are being demonized as crude incarnations of Stalin, Mao, Beria and Kang.
The roots of this apathy lay in the amorphousness of the April 2006 Uprising. For all outward appearances, it was a massive popular uprising. The principal trigger was the people’s desire to see the monarchy shed its authoritarianism and the Maoist rebels come into the mainstream. Beyond that, it was a blank canvas. Diverse interests drove their own narratives which easily set the national agenda.
The external dimensions of the distortion were starker. By the end of it all, the Chinese – who backed the monarchy against the Maoists until the last moment – welcomed the new constitution in 2015. The Indians, who set the ball rolling through the 12-Point Agreement on their soil, couldn’t come out with anything more than a tepid acknowledgement of the change in Nepal.
The Americans, Europeans and, yes, the Russians couldn’t be expected to relinquish the ground they invested in so carefully since 1950. For some further afield, our landmark elections were not representative enough. Others don’t see enough new rights upheld. Still others have their fingers firmly on the pulse to detect the outbreak of Cold War 2.0, if it hasn’t already. How could Nepal not be part of this Second Coming?
The Indians and Chinese want to turn their contest over Nepal into a neighborhood brawl. When they try to split the difference, others far afield are naturally agitated. What they lack in geographical proximity, they more than make up through money and other instruments.
Like us, the external players don’t like what Nepal has become. Again, like us, they don’t know what they want it to become. A work in progress by definition embodies eventual achievement of clearly defined and implemented initiatives. Equally, it can be an undertaking subject to the vagaries of attitudes, intentions and resources. With perplexity so entrenched in the internal and external environment, how can we not be so worked up?

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