I vividly remember the eve of democracy day celebrations on a February 1990 Saturday, my activist friends busy taking pictures and joining the swelling force to let the King restore multiparty democracy. I was just working as a Trainee at Soaltee that time, undergoing my Chartered Accountancy course and looking ahead to a free Nepal that will also look at embracing free markets and bring about an era of economic growth that will let Nepal emerge from its historic cohabitation with poverty. Reform oriented leaders wanted their parties to throw out the Fabian theories and pursue market oriented reforms. The restoration of democracy and the subsequent first elected government, did give the required impetus to liberalize its currency, get away from the licensing regime and allow foreign investments. The economy started looking upbeat, exports surged and Nepal achieved a historic 8% growth rate.
The politicians then decided that we have to remain a poor country and growth is not good for us. They then started internal squabbles like in the early 1950s and let Nepal get the rare distinction of being close to Italy in terms of average tenure of Prime Ministers and government. The private sector suddenly realized that doing away with protectionism was bad and liberalization meant they had to be competitive. They frantically started hobnobbing with the powers to be like they used to do with the palace and people close to the palace. No wonder, the business community were the first ones to put up banners welcoming the then King Gyanendra’s intervention in form a direct rule. Then we had good hearted Samaritans in form of donors who brought in lots of funding to convert political parties into NGOs and let labor union leaders ride four wheel drive vehicles. The political uncertainty backed by a pseudo-militant labor force along with the politics of disruption and closing down just killed the initial euphoria. The competition within the political parties was on closing down the country rather than keeping the economy open for a longer period of time. The short lived governments also gave people the opportunity in trying to figure out ways and means to made money. Rumors of bank licensing processes becoming money spinners to down payment for allotment of government jobs became fodder for vernacular press. Headline news on ministers spending excessive amounts on their junkets and auction notices of properties of individuals who have not paid loans stopped deterring pride of concerned individuals. We continued the practice like in the old days of the kings of measuring the success of the visits based on how much one got in their begging bowl. Begging for infrastructure projects or other projects remained hallmark of our foreign policy and the success of the visit of a Prime Minister to India or China was measured on how much he could fill the begging bowl. Rather than trying to work out strategies to garner the nation’s natural and human resources, we continued to resort to the easier way of begging. No leader or citizen thought this was against the national pride, rather it became a way of life.
The ten years of conflict added further woes as the country not only lost billions of dollars in infrastructure breakdown and lost opportunities, but one of the biggest traits of Nepalis – Trust, started to erode. Conversations inside buses or teashops became difficult as suspicion rather than brotherhood started to rule. Further emphasis in class and ethnic divides mooted by socialist thinkers who don’t have any space in their own country to practice the dharma of division, found Nepal a fertile ground to develop concepts of ethnicity, federalism and
social inclusion. Like development, economic growth, peace and reconciliation and many other words imposed on Nepal, more words continued to be imposed creating a business environment that has many risks. The freedom we earned to create an environment of economic
growth got converted to creating an environment where we talked and worked towards doom freely.
Twenty years later on the eve of democracy day, however, the slim chances of hope do remain similar to the ones that were there twenty years ago. A nation that transformed from a authoritarian kingdom to a republic with a constituent assembly in place within short span of time gives hope to a country that can probably find solutions to some of the key issues in the political puzzle. What is also visible as a change is that people are saying that let politics and peace get resolved in its own way and let economic development take place as a parallel exercise. This is really good
news. If we look at the examples of Rwanda and Uganda trying to get their economy right despite their political differences provides enough impetus for Nepalis to get hopeful of positive transformation.
The key elements that we need to start getting right is our thinking paradigm. We have to continuously work on our image that Nepal is beyond 3Ms – Maoist, Mountains and Massacre to the outside world. It is the 40th largest populated country in the world with more than half the population under 25. It is bestowed with natural resources that countries in Sub-Saharan Africa envy. Across the border it has a market of 300 million people, the size of United States and add Bangladesh, then it is 450 million people. With 150 million tourists getting out of China and India by 2020, we cannot think of a better market than our neighbors. With Nepalis migrating in large numbers and globalization aided by communication, we need to start to think of redefining what is Nepal – Is not Nepal where Nepalis are?
Apart from changing of thinking paradigm from small to big, we need to get a few things right. From harping on to people’s rights we need to start to think what our responsibility is. If we want holidays on each of our festivals as our right, what is our responsibility towards building an efficient economy? If we want a society that is genuinely progressive, how do we build a society around merit rather than a society based on nepotism and favorism? If we are to build
a foundation of a better country, what is it that we are doing to promote basic civic sense in people?Economies are build around people and money cannot buy everything. If our attitude can bring about the necessary change in which we perceive freedom, society, rights and responsibilities than the same rupee can go a longer mile. Perhaps, that is what the foundations of a capitalist welfare state apart from a market oriented economy are. Hope all of us will learn from our own dismal performance in the past.