Argument

An Earthquake Exposes Nepal’s Political Rot

The disaster could spur urgently needed democratization. But don't hold your breath.

Nepal demo cropped

Nepal is in the headlines this week — for all the wrong reasons. It’s not just the April 25 magnitude 7.8 earthquake, with an epicenter located 80 miles northwest of the overcrowded urban sprawl that is Kathmandu, that devastated the country and left more than 5,500 dead. It’s also the shambolic response of the country’s leaders.

For Nepal, one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Asia, this catastrophe has laid bare its political dysfunction. Many of those left homeless or injured have been waiting in vain for any form of government assistance. There were no pictures of political leaders visiting stricken citizens, no words of empathy or consolation. Nepalis had to content themselves instead with TV appearances of officials like Communication Minister Minendra Rijal, who merely acknowledged “some weaknesses in managing the relief operation.” While some foreign countries have already started supplying humanitarian assistance (albeit on a fairly limited scale), the corrupt government machinery is already reportedly seizing much of what they have brought.

In Kathmandu, dozens of people have been demonstrating outside parliament, demanding better distribution of help for those in need. In the village of Dolakha, locals smashed the windows of a local administrative building in protest. A New York Times reporter interviewing residents of a tent camp in Kathmandu noted broad anger at the government’s feeble response. The ineffectiveness of Kathmandu’s response to the earthquake — and the indignation it caused — help explain the bewildering spectacle of desperate villagers blocking convoys bringing relief supplies to victims. (The photo above, taken on April 29, shows police holding back people in Kathmandu protesting a lack of buses to bring them home to their villages.)

During its recent past, Nepal’s national tragedies — royal coups, a ten-year civil war, the slaughter of the entire royal family — have catalyzed change. Yet Nepal still remains a deeply fractured and failed society. Will the same thing happen now? Or could this earthquake lead to positive, long-lasting reform?

Nepal’s political problems are deeply rooted in the country’s history, shaped by centuries of entrenched feudalism and compounded by hundreds of years of British colonial rule of the subcontinent. After the British left India in 1947, Nepal briefly flirted with democracy. But then King Mahendra launched a military coup in 1960, got rid of representative institutions, and installed himself as the unchallenged ruler. A popular uprising in 1990, prompted by the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, succeeded in placing some constraints on the royal reign, the king’s eldest son and successor Birendra continued to wield considerable power. Capitalizing on the countryside’s endemic poverty, in 1996 Nepalese Maoists launched a civil war that lasted for a decade — at their peak they claimed to control roughly 80 percent of the country. And then in 2001, the crown prince went on a rampage and massacred nine members of his family, including the king and queen.

That tragedy prompted yearnings for fundamental change. In April 2006, one-third of Nepal’s 30 million people took to the streets for 19 days to depose the slain monarch’s brother Gyanendra, who became king and staged a coup in 2005. Soon after, Nepal became a republic. Gyanendra is now a citizen — a rich citizen, but a citizen nonetheless. He was seen in the streets right after the earthquake, taking stock of the situation, even as the elected political leaders were conspicuous by their absence.

Nepal has changed so much over the last two decades, yet it remains in desperate need of change. Perhaps the biggest question looming over Nepal’s fragile democracy is that of federalism, one of overwhelming importance in a place marked by an astonishing ethnic and cultural diversity.

There are the Khas, who form the ruling elite – a bit like Saddam Hussein’s Sunni supporters, who ruled Iraq even though they represented a small minority of the population. There are the Janajatis, who include the Sherpas of Everest fame and the various groups who make up the Gurkhas, sent by Nepal’s rulers to fight in foreign wars over the centuries. And then there are the Madhesis (like me), people from the southern plains who have a strong ethnic and cultural affinity with the Indians in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The Khas (Bahuns, Chhetris), the Janajatis (Sherpa, Tamang, Magar, Gurung, Rai, Limbu), and the Madhesis make up roughly 20, 30, and 30 percent of the population respectively. Another 10-15 percent of Nepalis are Dalits, who occupy the lowest rung in the Hindu caste system.

In 2008, two years after the war ended, Nepal got its first constituent assembly, an unwieldy beast, dominated by the Maoists, that boasted 601 members — bigger than the national legislatures in the United States or India. A second followed four years later. The assembly’s leaders claim to have reached agreement on all issues except the big one: the nature of Nepali federalism. In short, while the country’s diversity has many positive aspects, it has also become a major obstacle to political development. The continuing absence of a constitution has stymied further moves toward democracy. Nepal had its last popularly elected local governments two decades ago.

Corruption remains worrying. As recently as March, London threatened to cut its roughly $132 million aid budget unless Kathmandu improves its poor governance and fights “endemic” corruption. Few outside of Nepal picked up on the news. But the dismal response to the earthquake, including reports about the misappropriation of relief supplies, means that Kathmandu can no longer pretend the problem doesn’t exist. There are perhaps thousands of people who died because help never came, or came too late.

Right now, it’s imperative that Nepal’s friends do whatever they can to alleviate the immediate pain and suffering of the earthquake’s immediate victims. But once Nepalis have had time to catch our breath, perhaps we should then consider what all of us – Nepalis and non-Nepalis alike – can do to build a sustainable democracy.

PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images

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