Book review: Someone had to tell the story…
Earlier this year, the government released the findings of the Nepal Living Standards Survey (NLSS) 2004. Nepal’s poverty had dropped by 11 percentage points between 1996 and 2004 while the disparities, especially in terms of gender, caste and ethnicity had widened. The royal takeover eclipsed the debate on the new poverty numbers —overshadowed as it was by the official rhetoric focused on demonising political parties as being good-for-nothing, self-centred, corrupt and uncaring — which showed that some real change had also begun in the 1990s.
Ram Sharan Mahat’s book ‘In Defence of Democracy…’ provides some explanations to why the poverty declined, especially in terms of the policies pursued by successive democratic governments. The Eighth Plan — first prepared by a democratic leadership—had poverty reduction (again for the first time) as one of three national objectives, the other two being broad-based growth and regional balance. Another major change was the shift in spending focus. As Mahat notes, the first budget after 1991 had earmarked almost 70 per cent of the outlay for rural areas and the bias stayed, for the right reasons.
Mahat served several stints as finance minister, in addition to heading the National Planning Commission and was involved in making some of those policies. This, perhaps, explains the one-sided analysis that often creeps into the text. One such section, for example, concerns the Arun III project. Mahat calls its cancellation a “national loss”, relying entirely on what used to be the official rhetoric of the day, rather that basing the assessment on post-Arun III developments—say, the entry of private sector. As another example, the landmark Supreme Court decision on the public’s right to know which originated from the Arun controversy does not find place in the text. The case challenged lack of transparency in government decisionmaking and was upheld by the court.
At times, the book also leaves the reader wanting more. The section on the finance and banking sector, for example, reads like the government’s annual Economic Survey —relying essentially on numbers, rather than analysis, to show progress. Mahat recounts the increase in the number of banks, banking assets and capital base for making his case, seemingly oblivious of the mismanagement that was taking place within the banking sector — and especially at the government-owned banks. There is also no word on some of the worst loans in Nepal’s banking history — also the making of the period.
The book does have an underlying message that democracy is messy but also the only self correcting system that provides space and voice for a diversity of actors. This message has become more important after February, and especially in light of some government decisions that seem headed back to the feudal past rather than toward inclusive democracy. One of the three part book dwells with Nepal’s feudal history, the underlying politics of power and the emergence of a Kathmandu Valley-centred ruling class that continues to suppress every attempt by the rest of Nepal to demand a share in governance.
Overall, ‘In Defence of Democracy…’ is a record of the trials and tribulations of successive democratically elected governments — mainly of the Nepali Congress party, which also served the longest in power. It also brings together otherwise scattered data on the achievements of democratic Nepal. Examples are road-building (almost 9,000kms built between 1990 and 2002) and access to drinking water, which had doubled in the same period. Other examples are the expansion of health service delivery units—and therefore access—and the resulting improvements in life expectancy, which rose from 53 to 59 years.
The book has many of the pieces of the puzzle needed to answer questions on what was achieved by Nepal in the 12 years of democracy. It also has some explanations—through omissions — to questions on why democracy was never really able to take firm root. It attempts to set the record straight — that the ‘parties were not as bad as they are projected to be’—and succeeds to some extent. However, there’s also the flip side. The book has useful information but its organisation does not make it easy for readers to glean what they are looking for. There are also sections, where opinion overtakes analysis — the politician Mahat not an impartial analyst speaks — and dilutes the overall message. Minus such slips, some typos and some photographs and stats that seem to have no reason to be where they are, the book does deserve a read. But it would cost you a bundle though.
(‘In Defence of Democracy — Dynamics and Faultlines of Nepal’s Political Economy,’ Ram Sharan Mahat, Adroit Publishers, 437 pages, Rs 675)