Who is left to be Left in Nepal?

  • Nepal adopts a middle path by merging liberalism and socialism with welfare capitalism, so a ‘communist take-over’ is fanciful
- SUMAN KHADKA

Nov 27, 2017-The Constitution of Nepal, 2015 declares the state to be an independent, indivisible, sovereign, secular, inclusive, democratic, socialism oriented, federal democratic republic. 

Considering that the Constitution and major political establishments lean ‘Left’ (the UML and the Maoist Centre are communists, Nepali Congress is democratic socialist), while emerging parties, Bibeksheel Sajha and Naya Shakti advocate social democracy, how fair is it to call the recent alliance, only between the UML and the MC, a Left Alliance? Moreover, politics globally has moved towards the centre by merging liberalism and socialism with welfare capitalism. This has ensured freedom of markets as well as social rights through welfare state arrangements, the basic tenets of which are irreversible in advanced economies. The ideological war, especially between the grand theories, is hence over, and even if the parties and opinion makers squabble over rhetoric, in practice, Nepal too adopts the middle path. So fear or desire for a ‘communist take-over’ is rather fanciful. 

Bowing to the inevitable

Bibeksheel Sajha, which adopts this centre line, rightly argues that since the basic ideological and political parameters are set, it is time to focus on its implementation and use it as a springboard for development and to root out corruption, which has become so pervasive that traditional parties think they have a right to defraud the state. 

More importantly, because the middle path is inevitable, the Left versus Right discourse in Nepal needs to go beyond the rhetoric of private versus public and find its nuances specified within the Centre. This could be traditional left leaning such as Scandinavian social democracy, or market friendly partnership tilted towards the ‘Third Way’ (New Left or new forms of social democracy), which are fluid systems that override the traditional state versus market divide. According to Giddens, the way forward is to borrow from both neo-liberal and social democratic orientations to shape new politics that is both business-friendly and socially empathetic while avoiding the dogmatic extremes of unconditional deference to market forces or uncritical endorsement of the welfare state. Australia uses this model well, whether to provide child care services (government may fund private providers) or health care (it has publicly funded universal health care system, MediCare, paid for by taxpayers based on their financial ability; it also has a rebate system if you use private services). 

What does this mean for Nepal?  I have argued before that in the short-term, Nepal’s specific features require improvisation on Third Way models by not only utilising the market but also the NGO sector to deliver social services by developing effective public-private-NGO partnerships. While I personally advocate for a welfare state, I believe that Nepal needs to adopt a more diverse regime by utilising strengths of the private sector and the NGOs in a coordinated manner on the path to a full welfare state. My argument is simple. The Nepali Left thinks its responsibility ends by making the ‘government’ provide social services, quality be damned. But the reality is that these services are of such low quality that not even the poor want it, and they would rather toil away in the Gulf so that their children can go to private schools. So, while a stronger state in social services provision would be desirable, seeing how difficult 

it is to change the character of the state, and because currently private and NGO sectors are providing a lifeline and social mobility, the quickest way of making 

the biggest impact is by expanding their space. The government on the other hand should focus on coordinating and regulating the ‘overall welfare regime’. The benchmark for policy making should be that each Nepali child receives a relatively similar quality of education immediately, not after a ten-year reform programme. Such education should be publicly funded or subsidised regardless of who is providing it. The state is ultimately responsible, but it can delegate management responsibilities. NGOs may have their own problems, but they are the most pro-poor in Nepal and need to be incorporated into the delivery of public services. A unified mixed system of these three providers through one financial framework and capping of profit would make an innovative experiment in Nepal. Schools like Budhanilkantha, Gandaki Boarding or Army schools also provide good home-grown models that should be adapted for the mass.

For the good of the poor

The idiosyncrasy of Nepal is that, the ‘Left’ routinely utilises the private sector and the NGOs while promoting the state, only to extract from it, letting neither the market nor the state flourish. And the same goes for the market, which exploits both the state and the people (see the case of private medical colleges). The elephants in the room must be acknowledged. Our problem is more about reining in the state and the market, as both are exploitative, than about deciding which ideology to follow. And, the sooner those with anti-NGO opinions come to recognise the benefits of NGOs the better. 

A ‘socialism’ leaning state should at least do more for the poor. While all parties support social security, there is less clarity on its scale and modality. Significant poverty reduction needs a massive cash transfer programme, not what we have today. And, the question of how this can be achieved is critical. For example, should such a programme be universal or targeted? How can the poor be identified? How can we pay for such a programme? Is it to be conditional or unconditional? Unlike what its opponents argue, cash transfers help economic growth instead of creating dependency, as people are set free from the clutches of deprivation to use transfers in economically useful activities. Cash transfers to the poor is the backbone of every advanced capitalist economy (it might be the least generous, but even the US has food stamps for the poor). Social assistance has also seen significant growth across 

the developing world. Nepal’s poverty is solvable if identification of the poor, cash transfers, employment and taxation go hand in hand. 

Sadly, I don’t see radical programmes or strategies from any political party, just their usual selling of dreams. We need to move away from abstract theories to mid-level and micro theories that solve specific problems. If the modalities and specificities did not matter, there would have been no furore about ‘Obama Care’. So, yes, a worldview is important, but this should be discussed in the context of a specific service. 

Leaning towards the ‘Left’ feels right due to its ideals of equality and social justice, but the reality is that our socialism is like a tip without an iceberg. The ‘Janata Awas’ programme initiated by the UML, and its two characters Dharmush and Suntali have done more to establish the cause of dignified housing than any other parties, socialist or not. We need to first meet the basic needs of our citizens. For this, our existing welfare model needs to be overhauled. The new leaders of Nepal must think outside of the box and take radically bold strategies. They must be problem solvers and managers and act in the manner Kulman Ghising did while he solved the ‘load shedding problem of Nepal’. Above all, they need ethics and integrity. 

- Khadka writes on social policy and child rights issues 

Published: 27-11-2017 07:42

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