Kathmandu: ‘Enough is Enough!’ has been the slogan of the youth-led protests in various parts of Nepal held in the past few days. Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli has been testing their patience for months. The Nepal Communist Party co-chairman has always been famous for his outlandish claims. The prime minister of the landlocked country says he wants to have a fleet of ships bearing the Nepali flag on the high seas, and to pipe cooking gas into each Nepali home. He is also someone who can lecture you, for hours on end, on every topic under the sun, including the coronavirus. As Nepalis have a “natural, high immunity,” Oli claimed in his recent address to the parliament, “people need not much worry about COVID-19”.
An opposition parliamentarian later asked the prime minister, “Who says Nepalis have high immunity?’ “You just heard me. I said so,” Oli replied, to peals of laughter from the treasury benches.
To another question of where the government had spent the 10 billion Nepali rupees allocated to fight COVID-19, the prime minister responded that the focus right now should be on ‘fighting corona’ and not on ‘financial calculations.’
As the prime minister’s statements went viral on social media, the youth, frustrated with the forced confinement to their homes for three months in the name of corona control, started losing faith in the government. On the street, the buzz was that perhaps Oli was not the one who would see them out of the coronavirus crisis.
Carpets and other capers
Every day, Nepali broadsheets are filled with news of government incompetence in dealing with the pandemic. There have been lengthy delays in the procurement of testing and protective kits from abroad. Many of the imported kits have been substandard and purchased at significant mark-ups, the excess money undoubtedly going into the pockets of those who called the tender.
In the middle of a costly pandemic, the Nepali parliament decided to continue with the old provision of allowing NRs 40 million in discretionary spending to each lawmaker. This ‘constituency development fund’ is notoriously opaque and most of it ends up in the pockets of party cadres rather than in development of constituencies. Separately, the office of President Bidhya Devi Bhandari saw this as an opportune time to buy a carpet for NRs 10 million. There is also talk of a helicopter purchase. For her profligate ways the president is often derided in Nepal as the ‘new monarch’.
Enough is enough, the youth said. And so there have been youth-led protests right around the country. Among their chief demands: widespread testing for COVID-19, a proper accounting of the money spent on its control, better quarantine facilities, and investigation into alleged corruption cases.
Despite a clear case for youth outrage, many conspiracy theories are being peddled on the recent protests. Those close to the government have painted them as aimed at defaming the prime minister at a time he is valiantly “fighting the regional hegemon” next door to reclaim Nepali lands. These protests were supposedly being instigated by ‘foreigners’ (read: Indians) to foil such government attempts.
On June 13, as parliament was amending the constitution to legitimize a new Nepali map incorporating the 372 sq. km of territory in the Limpiadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani areas abutting India, the ‘Enough is Enough!’ Facebook group planned a massive rally near the government seat in Kathmandu. It was all too easy for some to see the protests on the day as an attempt to derail the constitution amendment. But Saturdays, the only weekly public holiday, have always been protest days.
To prove its point, the government arrested a youth activist who was unjustly blamed of ‘India linkages,’ as well as a clutch of foreigners who were supposedly trying to ‘instigate’ the protests.
Reaping the whirlwind
Had the government acted more judiciously, the protests may not have snowballed into a nationwide movement. Police had used force to disperse people on the first day of the protests on June 9, even though the protestors gathered near the prime minister’s residence were peaceful and maintaining social distance. The images of young peaceful protestors being hosed down and taken into custody acted as a spark for a broader conflagration.
With his country under an unprecedented health crisis, Oli’s attention seems solely focused on holding on to the twin posts of prime minister and Nepal Communist Party chairman. Having failed on all domestic fronts, the prime minister is intent on ensuring his political survival by painting himself as that rare Nepali leader who can stare down the ‘big brother’ next door and bring back the lost territories. His dogged stand in this endeavour, he reckons, will make people forget all his other failings. They won’t. The protesting youths are more discriminating.
In fact, when the Oli government on May 31 tabled the bill to amend the constitution to incorporate the disputed territories, the entire country had supported him. Some of the same youths who are protesting against him today had lauded his daring that day.
The problem is that Oli’s standing in the ruling party is so precarious, and his public image so marred by his domestic failings, that he cannot afford to be seen as backing down from his hard line against India.
But whipping up anti-India nationalism is proving inadequate to paper over Oli’s failures this time. The prime minister has been unable to lead a credible COVID-19 response, and been dismissive of the resulting criticism. The problems are multiple: Oli is surrounded by a corrupt clique; he cannot control the profligate ways of his president; incidents of caste-based violence are shooting up under him; and he appears incapable of thinking beyond self-serving power games.
The fact is that there is no conspiracy against his government. If anything, with his over-the-top statements and his unwillingness to listen to dissenting voices, Oli seems intent on self-sabotage.
Nepal today finds itself on the verge of a catastrophic explosion in the number of COVID-19 cases. With no innovative plan to revive the flagging economy and to stem mounting layoffs – the recent ‘normal time’ budget was a disappointment by all counts – the country is also staring at an imminent economic crisis.
The constitution-amendment process is now done and dusted, the disputed territories inscribed in the national charter. Kudos to the prime minister on his ability to muster political consensus on this. But a much bigger test for him is unfolding in the form of the mounting COVID-19 crisis, and the accompanying protests that are getting bigger by the day.
Biswas Baral is the editor of The Annapurna Express, a weekly newspaper published from Kathmandu. He tweets @biswasktm