Seeing like the oligarchy

  • The tunnel vision of KP Oli and Sushil Koirala seeks to impose order and definitiveness on a fluid reality
- Ajaya Bhadra Khanal
Seeing like the oligarchy

Feb 17, 2015-

In the 90s, James Scott wrote a book, Seeing Like a State, which highlighted the problem inherent in modernist projects of statebuilding. Now, as the euphoria of the 2006 Janaandolan finally settles, we come to our senses and face reality. A handful of political leaders are still squabbling over a new constitution. And wait, we elected a Constituent Assembly. Twice.

Within just a decade of the 2006 Janaandolan’s momentous changes, people have already begun to talk about an ‘oli-garchy’, which has now acquired additional meaning in the Nepali context and not just because Scott’s concept fits so well with this new phenomenon.

According to Scott, certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision. Such schematic visions can never fully understand the complexity at the ground level. This tunnel vision, which we can argue is held by people like CPN-UML Chairman KP Oli and Nepali Congress (NC) President Sushil Koirala, is violent because it seeks to impose order and definitiveness on a fluid reality. But the inability to do so is compounded by the psychological need to reduce uncertainty—people cannot live without knowing things in black and white. This has been well established in evolutionary theory and is part of the reason why politics fails.

Headfirst into the uncertain

According to Francis Fukuyama, “People develop mental models of how the world works and tend to stick to them, even in the face of contradictory evidence.” We could apply this to our own beliefs. For example, this piece itself tends to incline towards the belief that the ruling coalition’s plan to save the nation will only compound things further.

Postmodernism, as an epistemological movement, dared to accept things as they are, to live with uncertainty. In the political arena, we have a similar challenge. For example, federalism may be good for the country, or it may be bad. KP Oli may be good for the country, or he may be bad. We will never know, because it all depends on how we perceive our reality and how this affects our interests. Only a few people can live with this kind of uncertainty.

Nevertheless, we can point out why they are detrimental to our interests. First, the state as well as the constitution-writing process is controlled by a handful of political leaders. The judgment of these political leaders is questionable. The future Nepal imagined by the leaders who have power may be very different from the values, desires, and objections of subjects who cannot speak. As a result, the fate of 30 million Nepalis hangs in the balance.

It is, therefore, a question of what to believe. There is very little difference between the ‘faith’ inherent in religious dogma, and the ‘faith’ underlying the doggedness of political leaders. When ‘belief’ crosses over from the realm of individual freedom and is imposed upon society, there is very little that powerless people can do, other than silently suffer the consequences of such dogma.

The power to know

The constitution-drafting project is also a project of statebuilding. The modernist ideology pushed forward by leaders socialised during the heyday of high-modernist socialism will only try to order nature and society in a way that uses authoritarian state power on a populace that cannot resist such knowledge. The disjuncture between real life and politics cannot be emphasised more. Different kinds of fears and interests are mixed up. In this process, federalism began as a principle for empowerment while anti-federalism has ended up as a kind of ‘faith’ that will protect the nation.

Everybody in Nepal has an opinion. But what turns that opinion into knowledge is the element of power. Simply put, only those who have power ‘know’ and only their knowledge counts.

The next question, is a new constitution going to excite us? Personally, I don’t see anything exciting. A reliable indicator for things to come would be the way the current leaders of the coalition are running the state. What will excite the people is a system that lets these people shape their own destiny. Many ‘democrats’ would argue that the CA is the people. If an alien, like PK in the Aamir Khan film, were to come to Nepal and look at our CA, what would he see? The last CA was a rubber stamp. This CA is held hostage to the whims of a handful of political leaders who think they know best, but really don’t. Or maybe they know something we don’t. For example, Nepal could turn into Ukraine and the Madhes into Crimea. Or, the view that political stability comes not from political culture and constitutional checks and balances but from numbers.

The parties in power may blame the opposition for not allowing a conducive environment for development, but we know very well that the opposition has no say in how the government is being run, and the way it is run will not deliver anything to the people. The leaders of the current coalition have already demonstrated their inability to work with peoples and groups that are ‘different’ and have different needs. The state is using violence to re-order the state and society to fit with the ‘knowledge’ paradigm held by the ‘oli-garchy’.

What we want

What is more troubling is that this coalition is promoting a patronage network that cuts across politics, private sector, the bureaucracy, and criminal groups. Only members of those patronage networks protected by the oligarchy can receive state benefits or enjoy opportunities in the private sector, regulated by the state. A large chunk of the populace will always remain outside these patronage networks, the largest of which is the UML itself.

We want to see greater competition among political parties so they become more accountable to the people. We don’t want to see leaders without mass support becoming the country’s prime minister because they have control over their own party. We want to see the government daring to make its decisions transparent to the public. We want to see the Parliament work as a Parliament, not as a rubber stamp for a handful of political leaders who have all the control. We want ordinary people to get opportunities reserved for patronage networks. We want the right to prosperity handed over to the people, not reserved for a handful by a corrupt state. We want to live with pride and dignity, not in humiliation and low self-esteem.

Khanal is a long-time journalist and former editor of The Himalayan Times

Published: 18-02-2015 06:57

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