October 28, 2013 Sujeev Shakya

Empty Promises

When I started reading the election manifestos of the political parties, I was quickly reminded of the articles I wrote nearly two decades ago as Nepal started to embrace the culture of a multi-party democracy. The long laundry list of promises remains very similar, with little indication on how the promises in the manifestos are going to be implemented.

The nature of these manifestoes can perhaps be attributed to the South Asian model of democracy, where political forces continuously promise the poverty-stricken masses populist carrots to come to power. Combined with greasing the palms of voters, one can gain political power and never bother what one promised for the next five years. In Nepal, tall promises can also be attributed to the way the country was governed under the feudal system. Former kings made many promises they did not keep, landlords did not keep their promises and neither did business owners. Sweet talk about raising wages along with the promise of benefits to labourers are as popular as promising your children things you know you can never deliver.

The rhetoric in the election manifestos across all parties is similar. There will be lots of freebies. If the political parties were given the resources, they would have perhaps liked citizens to stay at home on the state dole with free power, water, transportation, education, health and everything else under the sun.

Perhaps, the fundamental issue that prompts such attempts to provide state largesse is the way kings and royal families behaved in the past. The kings thought that they owned the whole country and therefore, could provide citizens with whatever the country had to offer. The political parties in our multi-party democracy and especially post the abolition of monarchy started behaving like erstwhile royals, thinking they could distribute wealth to the citizens.

This kind of thinking cannot only be observed in our political parties but also in government companies and public financial institutions. Chairmen and CEOs—even if they only hold a fraction of the shares—start behaving as if they own the institution and begin distributing generously. The feudal mindset of ownership, along with the fact that political forces perceive themselves as owners of national wealth, leads to political manifestos that no one can ever live up to.

The election manifestos also look at what can be done to keep the parties in power after the next five years. However, in Nepal, with no government lasting the full five year term in the past sixty years, the tendency to adopt a myopic view on everything has made long term strategic planning practically non-existent. In India, there are similar tendencies. The effort of political parties to provide farmers with free electricity has led to the uncontrolled pumping of groundwater. Now, depleting ground water levels are having a devastating impact on agriculture.

Similarly, the lack of understanding of the economy also leads parties to make claims they cannot deliver. For instance, even if the parties don’t do anything, the GDP will grow at 2.5 to 3 percent each year. However, the Nepali economy is based on remittances and the disposal of assets. Neither of these two factors is considered in the GDP computations. Both factors, though, have a continuous impact on the GDP. Therefore, the GDP will definitely grow. But none of the parties talk about how they will increase savings and investments. To achieve real economic growth, more investments are required and for that, not only domestic savings are needed, but international investments too. Lip service alone to make investments will not work. It is important to publicly debate what the action plan might look like.

While traditional and electronic media have long been holding political forces accountable for what they promised, political forces also need to account for their promises to a rising social media consumer base. The young generation of Nepalis demands more from the people who lead governments. For them, it is important what the state will do to create an environment for entrepreneurship. Furthermore, they want to know how the state will help create jobs by fostering an environment of investment that allows service industries and the tourism and IT sectors to boom. This new generation won’t be fooled easily.

Everyone is aware of the credibility level of the political parties in Nepal. Perhaps they could improve their standing by thinking long and hard about what promises they make and whether or not they will be able to live up to them. Those promises don’t have to be big. It would already be enough if a political party promised that they won’t use their unions, their students or their political organisations to organize bandas or strikes. A small commitment like this can bring about big change in Nepal. It is time to rearticulate the discourse of political promises.

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