Off the Record 017: The fault in Rabindra Mishra
Issue 017 • 30 July 2021
It’s July 30, 2021, and you’re reading Off the Record, the weekly newsletter from The Record. We are an independent, ad-free, digital news publication out of Kathmandu, Nepal.
I’m Pranaya Rana, editor of The Record, and in this newsletter, we’ll stop, take a deep breath, and dive into one singular issue that defined the past week.
Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening from Kathmandu before the storm.
After declining steadily for a couple of weeks, daily cases are now rising once again in the country. This week, daily cases have hovered around the 2,300 mark, with 2,335 new cases on Thursday alone.
We should’ve seen this coming. The relaxation of most restrictions, especially in crowded urban centers like the Kathmandu Valley, without any precautionary measures was certain to lead to this exact situation. On Sunday, July 25, the three chief district officers of Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur decided to extend existing prohibitions by 10 days but these restrictions make little sense. Public movement is allowed unrestricted and public transport has already restarted. While restaurants are only allowed takeaway services, most eateries in the Valley are offering sit-down service. All shops are supposed to close down at 6pm, which again is an arbitrary time.
Subsequently, the Valley is showing a sharp rise in cases, with the Valley reporting 860 new cases on Thursday. The total number of active cases in the country currently stands at above 30,000, which is not alarming yet but could easily snowball if precautions are not taken.
The reproduction rate for the coronavirus in Nepal has also climbed steadily. After dropping below 1 on May 22, it climbed back up to above 1 on July 13. On July 27, Tuesday, the reproduction rate was 1.18. As long as the reproduction rate remains above 1, the virus is going to spread among the populace as the numbers mean that each infected person is effectively spreading the virus to 1.18 others.
There is some good news, though. Vaccines are fast incoming and vaccination campaigns are taking place across the country. Nepal is currently armed with 3.2 million doses of the Chinese Verocell vaccine and more than 1.5 million doses of the American Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Nepal has purchased 4 million doses of the Verocell vaccine, of which 3.2 million have arrived, while the J&J vaccines were donated by the United States via COVAX, the global vaccine-sharing body.
China has pledged another 1.6 million Verocell doses while Japan has also committed to provide 1.6 million doses of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine through COVAX. There is no real timeline on when either of these will arrive but they are expected soon. The Japanese donation will be of special significance as the AstraZeneca vaccines will finally provide relief to the 1.4 million elderly people who have received one dose of the vaccine but have been unable to receive the second due to a lack of the vaccine. The World Health Organization does not recommend mixing and matching vaccines.
So far, as of July 29, Thursday, Nepal had vaccinated over 3.6 million with at least one dose of a vaccine while just around 1.5 million have received both doses, or one full dose of the J&J single-shot vaccine. While these are decent numbers that are likely to increase in the days to come, more vaccines will be necessary, especially as the third wave is looming just over the horizon. The current pace of vaccinations will not be nearly enough.
Nepal needs more vaccines as soon as possible but there are numerous constraints. For one, Nepal doesn’t have the storage and logistics facilities required for mRNA vaccines like the ones developed by Pfizer and Moderna.
Many wealthy countries are deploying the vaccines like foreign policy tools, with similarly aligned countries more likely to receive them. This is what Narendra Modi had done with his ‘Vaccine Maitri’ campaign at the beginning of the year, only to fall flat on its face when the second wave overwhelmed India and his own compatriots were scrambling vaccines in short supply. For all the goodwill that Nepal purportedly has on the world stage, that has translated to little.
The United Kingdom’s reluctance to help has been especially galling. Our bilateral relationship goes back over two hundred years and Nepalis continue to fight for the British Crown as Gurkhas. Yet, when the UK announced a donation of 9 million vaccine doses on Wednesday, Nepal did not appear to figure on the list of countries receiving the vaccines. Four million doses will reportedly be given to Indonesia, Kenya, and Jamaica, among other countries while five million will be donated to various countries via COVAX. Nepal could receive these latter vaccines but COVAX has been a disappointment and it wouldn’t do any country any good to solely rely on that body.
It appears that for the most part, Nepal will have to go at it alone, purchasing vaccines whenever and wherever it can. In that regard at least, China and the US have been friends. China has donated over 1.8 million vaccines so far with more incoming, and that too without much begging. Of course, China has its own geopolitical interests in handing out vaccines but so does every other country. The United States, when it provided 1.5 million single-shot J&J doses, made a point of declaring, “We won’t trade shots in arms for political favors.” A pointed remark.
Sher Bahadur Deuba, two weeks after becoming prime minister, has still not appointed a Health Minister. Instead, he’s appointed Umesh Shrestha, a businessman who made his fortune in the education sector, as State Minister for Health. Shrestha, who is a Member of Parliament as part of proportional representation, is a well-known patron of the Nepali Congress and this appointment is seen as his just reward. A State Minister is not a full Cabinet member and receives a lower salary and fewer perks than a full minister.
Other Cabinet appointments have been delayed by bickering among the other coalition partners — the Janata Samajbadi Party and the Maoist Center. MPs from both parties are reportedly lobbying for ministerial portfolios and the party chiefs are facing difficulties deciding.
There’s not much to say here, except that we should strap in for more bickering, infighting, and lobbying to become ministers. At the end of the day, little will get done but a chosen few will see their party memberships pay off.
Nepal at the Olympics
As expected, none of the Nepali athletes made it very far into their respective sports, but many of them set national records. Teenagers Alexander Shah and Gaurika Singh both set national records for the 100m men’s and women’s freestyle swimming while Kalpana Pariyar set a national record in shooting. Judoka Soniya Bhatta lost her first fight 10-0 while Saraswati Chaudhary came in eighth place in the women’s 100m sprint heats.
Finally, we come to this week’s newsmaker and that is Rabindra Mishra, former BBC radio host, philanthropist, poet, and politician. This past week, everyone has been talking about Mishra, the current coordinator of the Bibeksheel Sajha Party. And so will I, but I hope to approach the controversy he’s generated in a slightly different manner. Without further ado, let’s get right into it.
The deep dive: The fault in Rabindra Mishra
Rabindra Mishra is an affable man. He is articulate and empathetic, but most of all, he is optimistic. In fact, when I spoke to him in November 2019, he claimed his party — initially Sajha Party, now Bibeksheel Sajha Party — would become the largest party in the country in the next federal elections. For a party that had yet to win a single seat at the federal level, that was — and is — a tall claim.
We spoke about many things but particularly about the possibility of ‘alternative politics’ in Nepal, as in an alternative to the mainstream Congress, UML, and Maoist parties. Mishra has consistently cast himself and his party as the alternative the country needs. I had asked him then about Baburam Bhattarai, former prime minister and former Maoist, who had also opened up a new party called Naya Shakti, quite literally ‘New Force’, on ambitions similar to Mishra’s. He had this to say about Bhattarai:
“Baburam ji is old wine in a new bottle. There is nothing new or alternative about him. We are the only real alternative for the people.”
So it is ironic that Mishra’s statements over the past week have been emblematic of the same criticism he leveled at Bhattarai — old wine in a new bottle. Mishra has come out swinging against federalism, advocating instead for a restructuring of the state, and in favor of a referendum to be held about Nepal’s secularism. He’s put up a document on his website, titled ‘Abolition of Federalism by Restructuring and Strengthening Local Bodies / Referendum on Secularism’. The document is subtitled ‘presented for discussion and debate’ as Mishra has taken pains to state that his new political stance is his own and does not reflect the standing of the Bibeksheel Sajha party.
In the opening section of the document, Mishra writes:
Immediately upon reading the title of this document, I am sure one section of the society will hit me back hard with numerous epithets: regressive, reactionary, feudal, rightist, anti-people and so on. They will also throw accusations that I do not understand progress, do not embrace change, I am politically naïve, do not understand Nepali society and its structural problems, and I wish to fish in troubled waters etc. There will also be others who will claim that a hypocrite has been unmasked. They will also share “I told you so” phrases etc.
Before throwing these words and phrases, I appeal to you to at least read this document once, which has been prepared by exercising the rights gifted by democracy and the Constitution of Nepal 2015, and where I have presented my opinion peacefully and with the commitment to abide by the same constitution. I will, of course, respect the fair criticisms that will follow thereafter.
So in the spirit of freedom of speech and respecting Mishra’s entreaty to not call him names before reading the document, I would like to offer some criticism without calling him a regressive, reactionary, feudal, rightist, anti-people, or a hypocrite.
Many of the issues that Mishra points out are fair criticisms of federalism. His primary points of contention are four — corruption at the local level; additional financial burdens on the state; threats to territorial integrity; and the erosion of state institutions.
First, let’s address corruption. Yes, there is corruption at the local level, especially when it comes to the election of construction company owners to local leadership positions. But Mishra writes as if local-level leadership in the past was free of corruption or any financial impropriety. During the Panchayat, village Panchas too extracted resources, finances, and labor from ordinary citizens. In the 20-year interregnum — from 1997 to 2017 — when Nepal had no local level representation, the national political parties formed ‘All-Party Mechanisms’ for district-level government. These mechanisms were simply a tool for the parties to maintain a level of control on local levels and share in the spoils. Krishna Raj Panta, in a paper titled ‘Decentralization of corruption and local public service delivery in Nepal’, writes:
All party mechanism (APM), under the chairmanship of the chief official is found to be more corrupt and problematic in some of the local jurisdictions in Nepal. Members of the APM, used to consensually engage in the misappropriation of local budget and holding monopolistic decision making power colluding with the officials. They try to select the projects of their interest and easier to misuse and for corruption or easier to get political incentives.
So corruption at the local level is not a unique character of the federal system; it is inherent to Nepali politics. The solution is not to toss out the entire system and go back to an idealized past where the ills of today didn’t exist (even though they did), but to move forward and attempt to reform the system and put in checks-and-balances, even at the local level, to rein in corruption.
Second, the additional financial burden on the state. Mishra states that the budget for the provincial and local levels can be better employed at the federal level. Mishra writes:
If federalism is abolished and the local bodies restructured and strengthened, and if additional measures are taken as per experts’ advice to reduce expenditures, many economists predict that out of the total 24 percent of national budget allocated to local and provincial levels, at least 10 percent can be saved.
The resources that can be saved by abolishing federalism can be provided to education and health – 5 percent each.
But the precise rationale behind federalism was that the federal (or central) state is incognizant of the needs of regions that are not just geographically but also socially and culturally distant from the Khas-Arya-dominated central level. Federalism provides provinces a chance to set their own agendas and do right by their own people. For just one example, while Kathmandu and Lalitpur have been debating the necessity of cycle lanes in the Valley, the Province 2 government gave out bicycles to young girls so they could get to school easier.
The five developmental regions of yesteryear did not work, neither did ‘decentralization’. We’ve tried these systems before and when they did not work over decades, we chose federalism. To advocate that we go back to a model of governance that’s been tried and found wanting would be, to use Mishra’s own words, old wine in a new bottle.
Furthermore, not even four years have passed since the 2017 local elections and it is still too early to say if the financial burden of federalism is too much for the country to bear. Numbers alone don’t account for savings. Provincial governments provide their own services to their citizens, cutting down the costs of having to travel to Kathmandu for everything. Adequate time and a proper study that takes into account the intangible yet still economically important benefits of federalism are necessary.
Moving on to Mishra’s third point — national security and territorial integrity. In my humble opinion, this particular section lacks the most merit. It is replete with hyperbolic, alarmist assumptions of what could happen, based on little-to-no ground reality.
“There will come a time of such a crisis that demands for multinational states will be raised in the first phase,” writes Mishra. “Once the demand for the multinational state is achieved, the second phase will be unleashed when another crisis will be used to raise the demands for federalism with the right to self-determination, ostensibly “to address the concerns of historically marginalized and oppressed” communities.”
This is a tired and frankly xenophobic sentiment that is still all-too-often leveled primarily at Madhesis. Mishra too points to Rajendra Mahato and his statement about “freedom for the multinational state.” For one, a ‘nation’ is a political concept that encompasses language, ethnicity, culture, and history, and many nations can exist within a titular state. This does not necessarily mean that the state will tear itself apart. In fact, there are dozens of countries across the world that can be considered ‘multinational states’, like India, the United States, and Canada. An ethnically diverse country like Nepal is already multinational, whether we formally state it as such or not.
Madhesis, for another, are sick and tired of having to repeat endlessly that they too are Nepalis, and are not advocating for a separate state.
Mishra goes on to push yet another discredited theory about how 1 million Indians could be pushed into Nepal to destabilize the country, and goes off on a tangent about India’s interest in Nepal’s water. While there are fair points to be made about the latter, the former is, at least to me, pure speculative fiction that is based on an inherent suspicion of Madhesis as disloyal citizens or not even Nepali citizens in the first place. Madhesis have fought movement after movement in order to assert their rights, their identity, and their place in the Nepali national consciousness. It does them all a grave disservice to cast such aspersions upon their integrity and their patriotism. Mishra’s response to this could be that he is casting aspersions upon India, not upon Madhesis in Nepal, but my counter-argument would be, why do you think that Madhesis will be so amenable to India’s overtures that they are willing to sell out their country? If you as a Khas-Arya man are patriotic and speaking in favor of the Nepali national interest, why do you think that Madhesis will not do the same?
Erosion of institutions
Finally, Mishra’s last argument against federalism — erosion of key institutions. The ‘institution’ that Mishra is referring to is the monarchy. Mishra’s argument is that the monarchs were able to stand up to foreign interests and preserve Nepal’s integrity. He cites numerous examples of the former monarchs not giving in to Indian bullying and how now, after the end of the monarchy, foreign ambassadors and chiefs of intelligence agencies brazenly disrespect our top leaders and compel them to kowtow. He’s not wrong about the last part, but that has less to do with the institution of the monarchy and more to do with the individual character of the leaders we have at the very top. KP Sharma Oli, for all his posturing as a nationalist, was very much beholden to India. That is not a fault of federalism, but a fault of KP Oli. BP Koirala was never a monarch and yet, he was able to converse with world leaders as equals. You don’t need to be a king to have self-respect.
Mishra levels similar allegations against the institution of the Presidency. But again, I say it is not the institution but one who occupies it that is to blame. President Bidya Devi Bhandari has done more damage to the institution of the Presidency than Ram Baran Yadav ever did.
Mishra believes that federalism was “foisted” upon the Nepali people by foreign interests and it is in the interest of these foreign interests to hollow out Nepali institutions. If we believe that federalism was forced upon us, then what of the two Constituent Assemblies that wrote the 2015 constitution that institutionalized federalism in the country? Were they not our chosen representatives? Was the first Constituent Assembly not the most diverse representative body in the entire history of Nepal?
We are a representative democracy, meaning that we have chosen people to represent us, however well or badly, and take decisions on our behalf. When these elected representatives take a decision, they are doing so with the mandate given to them by the people. This is the system we’ve agreed to. If we disagree with their decisions, we cannot simply fault the entire system but what we can do is vote them out the next time around.
I don’t disagree with Mishra that our current crop of top politicians is corrupt, venal, and hypocritical. They are, there’s no doubt about that. But we are talking about people, not the system. The federal system might not be the best option but it is the least worst option that we have at hand.
The second half of Mishra’s document concerns a referendum to decide if Nepal should remain secular or go back to being a Hindu state. I have already outlined the arguments for secularism in a previous newsletter. You can read that here.
Mishra alludes to “divisions” that have emerged since Nepal became secular but I have yet to see those divisions. He argues for “education” as a panacea for discrimination, even though prejudice and bigotry are just as present in the educated as they are in the illiterate. All have you to do is look at the educated classes in India and how caste discrimination remains a firm bedrock there.
Mishra also repeats the tired argument that secularism was imposed by outside actors, namely ‘Western’ nations. There has never been any real evidence from a reliable source, simply conspiracy theories spouted by radicals on talk shows.
I am not going to devote much space to this argument because it is exceedingly difficult to argue with a conspiracy.
If there is to be a referendum, so be it. But we must remember that our democracy is representative. A democracy in essence is not majority rule; it is also the protection of minorities.
And finally, the republic
The culmination of Mishra’s document is, finally, that the country needs the monarchy. I saw this coming at the very beginning of the document because as I have argued before, secularism is incompatible with the monarchy, and any demand to bring back the Hindu state is a demand to bring back the monarchy.
While Mishra does not explicitly advocate bringing back the monarchy, it is easy to read between the lines. His admiration for the monarchs is evident in the document. He appears to believe that the monarchy was homegrown while federalism, secularism, and the republic were all “imports”, that too forced upon the Nepali people. I do not buy that argument, as I am certain many others do not. Nepalis chose to get rid of an outdated institution. I heard the cries of “Gyane chor, desh chod” during the second Jana Andolan. If that wasn’t an indictment against the monarchy, I don’t know what is.
Perhaps I have given Rabindra Mishra’s document more attention than is necessary, but I believe that it is important to interrogate ideas and attempt to justify your own beliefs, if not to anyone else then to yourself.
Mishra opened himself up for criticism and I hope that he and his well-wishers will take these criticisms to heart. Even if they do not, it is always a useful exercise to revisit why we believe in the ideals that we do.
If you’ve stuck with me through this longer-than-usual newsletter, I thank you.
A toast to you, dear reader. Salud!
On The Record this week:
Marissa Taylor on the Kathmandu Valley’s chaotic vaccination drive
Nishant Dhungana on Biratnagar’s similarly chaotic vaccination drive
Sanjay Upadhya offers insight into his journey as a journalist and writer
Aishwarya Baidar on the indigenous Sardar women’s sustainable handicrafts
Happenings this week:
Saturday - Kalpana Pariyar set a national record in the 10m women’s shooting competition at the Tokyo Olympics with a score of 616.8. She, unfortunately, placed 43 out of 50 competitors. Similarly, judoka Soniya Bhatta lost to Russian Irina Dolgova in 1 minute and 16 seconds.
Sunday - Nepal national football team coach Abdullah Almutairi posted a cryptic note on social media threatening to resign because of All Nepal Football Association vice-president Pankaj Nembang. It is unclear if Almutairi, a Kuwaiti national, followed through with his threat.
Monday - The Election Commission awarded the official name and election symbol of the Janata Samajbadi Party to the faction led by Upendra Yadav and Baburam Bhattarai. With this decision, a split in the party, which was formed in April last year, is now imminent.
Tuesday - Alexander Shah set a new national record of 53.41 seconds in the 100m men’s freestyle at the Olympics but failed to proceed to the next round.
Wednesday - Gaurika Singh also set a new national record of 1 minute 0.11 seconds in the 100m women’s freestyle. She too did not proceed to the next round.
Thursday - A meeting of the senior leadership of the parties in the coalition government decided to share ministerial portfolios but could not agree on how many ministries would go to each party. The Congress and the Maoists have two ministers each and the Janata Samajbadi Party will be seeking its own share in the power arrangement.
Friday - The shortlist for this year’s Madan Puraskar, Nepal’s most prestigious literary award, was announced. On the list are Kalpa Grantha by Kumar Nagarkoti, Eklavya Ko Debre Haat by Giri Shreesh Magar, Nrityakshar Bigyan by Bhairab Bahadur Thapa, Ramite by Jason Kunwar, Kariya by Krishna Abiral, Filingo by Prabha Baral, Fulange by Lekhnath Chettri, Mokshabhumi by Keshav Dahal, and Limbuwan Ko Aitihasik Dastawej Sangraha by Bhagiraj Ingnam.
Read of the week
‘Why the Gurkhas are once staging a hunger strike in the heart of London’ — Tim I Gurung, author of the book Ayo Gorkhali, explains the history of the Gurkha protest movement in the UK and what the current protest is all about.
That’s all for this week. I shall see you Friday on the next edition of Off the Record.
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