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Quest for power

NOV 13 -

The first lesson in any political science course is that politics is the struggle for power. From a tea-shop owner to a business executive, from journalists to politicians,

from a rickshaw-puller to a migrant worker, ask anyone in Nepal their impressions of politics, and the refrain is common—sab satta ko khel ho, it is all a power-game. In itself, this is neither exceptionable nor wrong. Those who adopt a self-righteous tone, treating power struggle as amoral, have little understanding of politics.

A successful politician’s life in Nepal consists of a series of small conquests, with ambitions never entirely fulfilled. A district committee member wants to become the district party president. A constituency-in-charge wants a ticket to contest elections. A central committee member wants to become a party office-bearer. An MP’s aim is to become a minister. A minister is on the look-out for a more lucrative portfolio. Party leaders aim to head the government, and once they become the PM, all efforts are geared to ensure that the position does not slip away. At each step, the politician dispenses patronage, accumulates and distributes wealth, and consolidates power—the object is to enhance one’s bargaining position and strengthen claims for the next goal.

Seeking upward mobility is not unique to politics. All professionals aspire to do rise up the ladder. But what is different is the sheer unpredictability of political process. A bureaucrat

will get his promotion according to the rules of procedure. A few years on the city beat, and a staff reporter will be accommodated in the national political bureau. An assistant sales manager who meets targets will rise up in the corporate hierarchy.

But there are no guarantees for a neta. You do not get the party ticket again and again if you lose elections.

You may not become a central committee member if you are not in the good books of your leader. If you miss

becoming a minister one time, there is no way to tell whether your party will be in government next time or whether the cards will be stacked in your favour again. You have invested all your family’s resources, and taken debts to set up a party or win an election—earning it back in a limited time, by hook or crook, is necessary to survive.

Democracy allows such political ambitions to flourish, and its USP is that any citizen can aspire to lead the highest office of the land. Only in closed systems—a monarchy or a communist party oligarchy—can such ambitions be curtailed and tamed.

This prism helps explain Nepal’s political dynamics partially. But by any standards, Nepal is an extreme example. Everyone wants political power immediately, can adopt any means to attain that goal, and none of the contenders offer any explanation about what they will do after achieving power. An Indian diplomat, returning home after completing his term recently, told this writer, “This has to be the singularly most ambitious country I know. Every second politician here thinks he can become Prime Minister.” He would know, for all aspirants, at some point or other, land up in Lainchaur to solicit support.

Look around and this seems true. There are 15 contenders for PM-ship at the moment. Sushil Koirala, Sher Bahadur Deuba, and Ram Chandra Poudel are obvious candidates in NC. But there are second rung leaders who believe they have a chance since the three will never reach a consensus. Ram Sharan Mahat and Prakash Man Singh are known to harbour prime ministerial ambitions. In UML, K P Oli has made his ambitions public, Madhav Nepal believes only he can reconcile different interests and has the stature to hold polls, and even Jhalanath Khanal has told interlocutors that he is willing to take responsibility. In the fight amongst the big parties, leaders of smaller

forces now see a chance. Bijay Gachhedar has privately talked to Madhesi leaders to support him. Surya Bahadur Thapa and Mahant Thakur’s names are also in circulation. Given that the “neutral” PM idea has been floated, at least three former chief justices and two civil society figures have thrown their hat in the ring. All of this is happening even as the present incumbent of the office, Baburam Bhattarai, is adamant about not quitting.       

What is it that makes Nepali politicians want power so desperately, given that the PM of the next government will have a limited term with the sole mandate of holding elections? What is it that lends such a ruthless competitive edge to Nepali politics, making the rhetoric of consensus sound so hollow? What is it that has ensured that no PM in Nepal’s modern six-decade history has completed five years in office? What is it that made G P Koirala and K P Bhattarai, GPK and Deuba, Jhalanath Khanal and Madhav Nepal and Oli, dislike each other so much to dislodge their own party-led governments?

Explanations can range from the universal to the local. The philosopher, Bertrand Russell, argued in a book called “Power” that it was drive for power that was key to human nature, not material considerations as Marxists argued or sexuality as  Freudians espoused. “Of the infinite desires of man, the chief are the desires for power and glory…the fundamental concept in social science is power, in the same sense in which energy is the fundamental concept in physics,” he wrote.

When I posed the question to a minister recently, he said, “Look at our history and social character. Brothers have killed each other for power. A son has killed his entire family inside the

palace. A king married only to go on to murder his father-in-law to expand his territory. Daughters were bartered away for some land. See competition for power in that backdrop.”

Another senior leader says the explanation lies in the “resource crunch”. “A leader is not alone, but represents a certain constituency which he needs to cultivate. The only way to access state resources is through political power. For all their anti-establishment sentiment, people begin drifting away as soon as you are out of power.” Others have argued that it is because agitational politicians have not been able to transform themselves into responsible government leaders.  

But perhaps the explanation is simpler. All politicians, across countries, want power. The difference in Nepal, as a fellow journalist put it, is that everyone thinks they have a chance at achieving it. The rules of the game are not in place, the political structure is yet to be institutionalised, and equations would change drastically once a federal system is in place. If you can grab Baluwatar, the idea is to go for it. Men—and they are all men—with uncontrollable ambitions, and a yet to be evolved system that encourages such impulses, lie at the heart of Nepal’s political deadlock.  

Posted on: 2012-11-14 09:58


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