When UCPN (Maoist) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, reacted initially, unable to accept the verdict of the people, I was once again reminded of the fact that politicians are part of society and reflect the way society functions. In most cases, Nepalis do not take defeat easily. We have fresh memories of people disputing wins at a game of cards at home during Tihar. We also have many memories of how we throw bottles at the stadium when our team loses or we pick a fight when we even lose a friendly corporate game. When tenders are won, those that do not get it do their best to get the tender cancelled. When examination results are out, we witness many instances of students and parents wanting the examination to be scrapped. When people are fired from their jobs, they gather and raise questions about the management, rather than accepting the decision. When courts give verdicts, we take to the streets against the decision. Accepting verdicts, and especially defeat, is something Nepali society needs to learn.
The UCPN (Maoist) can contribute to this need for societal change by accepting its defeat with humility. Nepali politics moved forward when the ex-king decided to abdicate his throne. Nepali society has also moved on as youths now aspire for jobs in Qatar, Malaysia or South Korea if not a job in an urban centre in India or Nepal. So it will be difficult to convince them to once again take up guns for an ideology that has failed to deliver. We need to learn from positive events that influence society.
Economics is key
The verdict of the people, as indicated by the ongoing vote counting process, is not only for a new constitution but also the need to push for development and economic growth. Like the ex-king during his direct rule, the UCPN (Maoist) did get enough opportunities to script the future of Nepal’s economic development. The reason both these forces were rejected was because they did not bring tangible benefits to the people. Economic opportunities were squandered as rent-seeking
was pushed through a stronger business-politics nexus. The culture of disruption, by using students or workers, brought about more frustration among the people. Like West Bengal in the 1980s during the Left Front rule, saddling between the ‘Red Book’ during the day and ‘Red Label’ at night, Nepal treaded a myopic growth path that was more focused on an individual than the nation as a whole.
Though constitution writing will remain a key issue, it will be important to see how the agenda of economic growth is pursued as a parallel exercise and not something to be thought of only after the constitution is written. There are a few fundamental issues to be addressed: What will be form of federal Nepal and how will fiscal and economic decentralisation take place? What will be the status of the right to own land? How will the right to own and operate enterprises be guaranteed? How will Nepal move towards a capitalist welfare state?
Socialism to capitalist welfare state
The biggest concern for many is, with the Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML at the helm of the government, will Nepal return to the pre-2001 status quo? The NC and UML have both towed a socialist line with no intention of bringing about reforms that will enhance competition and strengthen regulation. The UML functions more like an NGO and distributive economics has been its hallmark of operations. This time, people voted for them not to go back to the status quo but to push them out of their comfort zones and build an economy that is sustained through entrepreneurship and investment. Nepal needs to pursue a capitalist welfare state approach, where we reform to allow markets to function under good regulation and the state takes the responsibility of the welfare of the people who require their economic futures to be accelerated.
From aid dependency to investment friendly
The easiest thing for the new government will be to jet-set with a begging bowl to different countries and institutions, like their predecessor kings and leaders. But this has to change. The Acute Immune Dependency Syndrome (AIDS) of aid has killed entrepreneurship and the risk-taking abilities of Nepalis. Aspirations are limited to jobs in development business rather than playing the role of catalyst entrepreneurs in economic transformation. We need more investment—domestic and foreign—to create additional opportunities for jobs and entrepreneurship. We need to use the platform of a peaceful election and the writing of a new constitution to seek more money from investors. We need to change laws, regulations and more importantly, attitudes in pushing for investment. We should ensure that the new government develops a plan to tame their workers’ unions and probably disband politically affiliated labour unions. Ministers need to stop seeing an opportunity for a new junket in every visiting foreigner. Donor countries should also accept the fact that pouring in free money can tick off the boxes in their reports but bringing investment to Nepal will have a bigger impact.
Rearticulate the discourse
Nepal gets yet another opportunity to rearticulate the discourse and shape its economic future. We squandered the gains of 1990 in 1996. We squandered the opportunities that emerged in 2006 and then in 2008. We hope the NC or UML, whoever will lead the next government, will rise above petty politics and deliver. The UCPN (Maoist) have a great opportunity to ensure that they make the process accountable and perform in a manner that will change their fortunes in the next election. It is time to rise to the next level and unleash Nepal’s potential.