Looking back in BEWILDERMENT

The perplexity of Ram Sharan Mahat is palpable. He did everything according to the book of the Washington Consensus, and religiously followed every prescription of IMF-World Bank. The results weren't too unimpressive either. And yet the Maobaadi unleashed a violent revolution. Monarchists accused the democratic experiment of being an unmitigated disaster. Most of the direct beneficiaries of the free-market fundamentalism pursued by post-1990 governments lost no time in becoming their biggest critics as they saw the tide turning (so they thought) in favour of King Gyanendra. What went wrong? The question is indeed worthy of a tome that Mahat has tried to come up with.

Mahat is an important player in Nepali politics. His omissions cannot be attributed to ignorance. He has intentionally downplayed the idea and ideals of socialism in his book, which is ironic since his political party, the Nepali Congress, has won every election on the platform of democratic socialism and continues to publicly swear. Almost all the voters who elected Mahat to the Central Committee of Nepali Congress on 1 September 2005 in Kathmandu are fired by the ideals of egalitarianism, not the economic Darwinism advocated by the neoliberals that populate Kathmandu's cocktail circuit.

In democratic politics, Mahat began at the top. Upon his return from a UNDP job in the wake of the successful People's Movement of 1990, he fought and lost in the first parliamentary elections. Premier Girija Prasad Koirala appointed him to the powerful post of vice-chairman of National Planning Commission (NPC), an agency that should have played a leading role in the implementation of the party manifesto. But Mahat was still enamoured by the idea that socialism had 'failed'. Under him, the NPC became the focal point of the LPG (liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation) agenda served under the rubric of 'economic reforms'. The rest is history, of promises not kept and aspirations belied.

Surprisingly, the author does not seem to realise that the road not taken created the disillusionment leading to the division and downfall of his party. While the rise of the Maoist insurgency cannot be directly attributed to the distortions in the economic policies of the Nepali Congress, there is no denying the fact that a sizeable section of the population began to feel neglected by a government that seemed to be promoting the private sector at the cost of everything else. On second thought, the omissions in the book may not be so surprising after all. Mahat still harbours the illusion that the elected government had assumed office in 1991 "with an agenda for reforms". With that kind of understanding, it did not take him long to get into the good books of powerful diplomats and aid agency chiefs.

Known as a "donors' man" in the bureaucratic circuit, Mahat rose to be finance and then foreign minister. Within the party, he was the party president Girija Prasad Koirala's point man in dealing with professionals. Everywhere, he espoused free-market fundamentalism with the gusto of a convert. His book is a bewildered look at those eventful years when he hectored the hoi polloi on the virtues of privatisation, fell on all fours to get the one billion dollar Arun III hydropower project moving (it got cancelled by the World Bank, sowing bitterness in Mahat), and then saw his party disintegrating in front of his own eyes. Apparently something didn't work the way it was supposed to.

Polarised society

To understand the causes of failure, it is necessary to conduct a critical and reflective assessment of one's beliefs, aims and methods. What the author has done instead is package statistics in presentable prose, and tried to make the case that nothing was wrong in the way he stewarded the political economy of the country. With that kind of assumption, it is very difficult to come up with a convincing defence. And so, In Defence of Democracy reads like the report of an expensive consultant hired to produce an apologia for his clients. These pages are bristling with tables, charts, graphs, facts and figures but lack a coherent point of view beyond the usual platitudes about democracy and development.

In the first four chapters, the author takes a cursory look at the evolution of the political economy of Nepal. The result of the labours of the author as a leisurely scholar on a Hubert Humphrey fellowship in the United States, this section is a rough compilation of available information. The rest of the book does not follow from this beginning, and there is little attempt to interpret or link the events of post-unification policies of the Shah-Rana rulers of Nepal with later developments. Should a reader wish to begin the book from Part Two, her understanding is unlikely to be affected by missing what went ahead.

The second part of the book deals with "democracy and development". Here, the author rushes with the breathlessness of a youngster euphoric about his report card. Replete with colour plates, extensive quotes from official documents, and black-and-white photographs of development projects, this part is the meat in the sandwich, placed between the introductory first and concluding third parts that are there more to add volume than understanding.

This middle section is celebratory. Mahat gives himself a pat on the back for the goals achieved in the face of daunting challenges and stifling constraints. Contrary to the defamatory allegations of monarchists about the period when the political parties stewarded the country, the network of roads had doubled nationally between 1990 and 2002, when King Gyanendra took the first steps towards royal takeover which culminated in the putsch of February 2005. During those dozen years of democracy, unlike the claim of scornful critics of the political parties and their rule, there was development enough. Access to electricity quadrupled, the literacy rate went up from 40 to 54 percent, and access to improved drinking water nearly doubled. Life expectancy went up from 53 to 59. And all this achievement during a period when the government was battling a restive monarchy in Kathmandu. By the sixth year, ruthless Maoism had already begun to exact its toll in the countryside.

The report card is indeed something to be proud of, and one hopes that the author had spent more time in analysing the nuances of this victory of democracy, at a time when superannuated royalists are crawling out of the woodwork in Kathmandu for a last hurrah under King Gyanendra's umbrella. Most recently, even the Asian Development Bank has agreed that the proportion of absolute poor earning less than a dollar a day got nearly halved in the decade of democracy. Above everything else, this is one measure of economic development that should give most satisfaction to the leader of a political party. But the fact is that disparities increased manifold during this period as well, much to the shame of the socialist Nepali Congress and the communist CPN-UML. The middle section of Defence of Democracy provides important reading material to try and understand the democratic interregnum amidst Kathmandu's polarised political climate. It is a climate where donors and diplomats for a long time joined the Kathmandu valley elite classes in castigating and pummelling the hapless political leaders for their dozen years of alleged mismanagement of state. Well, it does turn out that they were wrong.

Assertion of democracy

The concluding section of the book is the weakest. The author seems to lack an understanding of processes that link the political economy with social, cultural and foreign policy issues. The arguments seem opinionated. The chapter on the legacy of exclusion and neglect glosses over the role that the government needs to play in mainstreaming the marginalised. This entire section reads like a compilation of the op-ed pieces which the author regularly contributes to Kathmandu's dailies. Mahat is nothing if not forthright when he brings up what he calls the "Arun III debacle", when the one billion dollar project was scuttled for a variety of reason. But Mahat sees only an international environmental conspiracy out to rob a poor country of its just rewards. One can go on and on, and that perhaps is the strength of this section — the topics are invariably provocative and the author is determined to show that he has an opinion and an answer to everything.

Published from India, the book is produced with the care that a work of this kind deserves. In a country where copyeditors are an unknown breed, someone has done a good job of polishing the work of the former finance and foreign minister to suit the taste of discerning readers of English, including members of the expatriate community who would be the first beneficiaries of this book (also because of the cover price that has been set).

As an observant reader commented, In Defence of Democracy is a self-defeating title. Democracy is valued more for what it is than what it does, or more often, doesn't. That's the quality of democracy which makes its enemies mad: they can't attack something that is strong enough to be left undefended. In addition, author Mahat would know, perhaps, that the real achievements of democracy are beyond quantification: the dalit who entered the temple, the janjati ethnic person who began to boast of his 5000 years of history, the madhesi from the plains who finally got to see their dhoti-clad representatives straddling the corridors of the Singha Darbar secretariat, and the women who secured reserved representation in village and district levels.

Even though they are not in the forefront of the ongoing movement for democracy, the dalit, janajati, madhesi and the women of Nepal are the ones whose appetite has been whetted by democracy; they would want more and will fight for their rights in the days to come. They are the real defenders of democracy, even if this fact may have missed King Gyanendra. Meanwhile, authors like Mahat will chronicle their travails and seek to appropriate the achievements. That's the advantage of having the ability to compile thick tomes in the language of the farangi. But perhaps this reviewer complains too much. Someone has to do the paperwork, better it is a person of Ram Sharan Mahat's accomplishments.

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Himal Southasian