It is once more that time of year when Nepalis eat, drink, and make merry in family reunions. Dasain is what binds the Nepali world, together with our shared history and culture. The festival has transcended religion to become a time for society and the nation to unite in common celebration, and revive our collective hope for the future.
Dasain is said to have its origins in a proto-Hindu harvest festival, the myths about the victory of good over evil and the goddess impaling a water buffalo came much later. With the monsoon over, paddy fields turn from green to gold, the clouds start blowing from west to east again, there is a nip in the air, and the hills are deep green. The snow mountains come out, shiny with new snow.
In recent years, as more and more Nepalis travel overseas for work, study or to emigrate, the diaspora Dasain is a stark reminder of how family members endure prolonged periods of separation. With more than 15% of Nepal’s population living and working abroad, the flights into Kathmandu are full of Nepalis coming home for the festival. Kathmandu itself empties out as people go home to their ancestral villages.
Dasain has always had an escapist character. It is a time when people can forget their daily struggle against unemployment, inflation, shortages, corruption and the lack of basic services. Those problems can wait, while we re-establish family ties, and perhaps even reaffirm a hope for the future, holding out in the belief that things will get better. However dark the clouds are, the sun will come out — Dasain gives us a booster shot of optimism.
But, we have to admit, the weeks leading up to Dasain this year did not give us much reason to hope. Ruling party hotheads attacked and beat up self-styled royalist Gyanendra Shahi for having ridiculed Minister of Civil Aviation and Tourism Yogesh Bhattarai. Police just stood by. Minendra Rijal of the Nepali Congress was roughed up by NCP goondas in Tanahu. NCP co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal regularly threatens the opposition in his public speeches, while Information Minister Gokul Banskota does not even try to hide his disdain for a free press.
But perhaps nothing indicates the state of impunity and lawlessness in this country more than the rape charge against House Speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara this week. Prime Minister Oli and Dahal probably realised how seriously this would affect the NCP’s public image, and acted swiftly to instruct Mahara to tender a written resignation, which he did reluctantly and in ambivalent language. Predictably, the woman who accused the speaker of unspeakable crime has been ‘persuaded’ to retract her complaint.
The Prime Minister seems to be fully aware of the level of disillusionment among Nepalis about the party to which they gave a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Oli himself is having serious health issues, the government had failed in service delivery, it has a dismal record of non-performance, and Nepalis every day negotiate infrastructure that is in a dangerous state of disrepair.
None of that had particularly worried the prime minister’s office, but the Mahara scandal appears to have seriously rattled the NCP, and forced it into crisis mode. By taking prompt action to force the Speaker out, Oli is showing belated decisiveness. The government shutting down for holidays will provide Oli some respite, but ultimately the prime minister will be tempted to reshuffle his cabinet — an age-old method for Nepal’s rulers to buy time to defuse a crisis.
This time, things may have gone a bit too far for a reshuffle to resolve. The rot goes to the top. When tycoons have access to Oli’s parlour at Baluwatar or his hospital bed in Singapore, one has to question how much the collusion between contractors and the government is hurting the country. Roads never get repaired, bridges never get built, national pride projects are a national shame.
Nearly half-way through its tenure in office, Prime Minister Oli will have to do some serious thinking over the holidays. How is he going to make up for lost time and get this government machinery cranked up? If he has not been able to govern and perform in the past two years, it is unlikely he can get anything done.
Oli is probably banking on the visit to Kathmandu by Chinese President Xi Jiping later this month to lift his stature and nationalist credentials. There will probably some grandiose announcement, perhaps of the trans-Himalayan railway.
Being the wily politician that he is, Oli will not have to be told that people are looking for immediate and tangible hope that tomorrow will be better than today. This Dasain, most Nepalis will be trying not to think about tomorrow.
Dangerous driving, Kunda Dixit
Four-year itch, Editorial