Apathetic and Impassive: The Nepali State in Crises
The response of the Nepali state, and that of the donors and development partners, to the Covid-19 pandemic has been abysmal. Even after the pandemic led to lockdowns where all aspects of socio‑economic life were affected, the government was all for collecting taxes by opening up the economy at the urging of the business community against public health warnings. The most egregious failing has been the failure to independently secure the vaccines against Covid-19. Along with the economic and social costs of the pandemic, Nepal seems to be entering another phase of political instability.
These seemingly incongruous developments and failings in the wake of the 2015 constitutional assembly‑drafted federal constitution and an overwhelming-majority government in power can be interpreted and understood meaningfully if the longue durée structures and processes that (re)produce these governments and ruling elites are understood properly. If any change in Nepal is accounted for, they have been precipitated by existential crises, be they the poverty of Gorkhali kings and the ruling elites leading to imperialistic Gorkha expansion (beginning c. 1740s), internal power struggles such as replacing of the Rana potentates with the similarly disposed Shah kings (1951) or the Maoist insurgency (1996), rushed drafting of the long-promised, long-delayed constitution promulgated in the shadow of the earthquake (2015), or the latest political developments overshadowing the pandemic (2019).
Evidently, these developments did (do) not occur in isolation even though the political leaders would like to believe they made their own history. Like any other society, Nepal has not remained immune to external influence at any time in history; instead, it has been cajoled into (re)acting to external events all the time, like all other societies. If the expansion of the tiny Gorkha principality was ‘triggered’ by the expansionist policies of the British East India company, it was also stopped by it; the overthrow of the Rana oligarchy was obviously an effect of the end of British colonialism in South Asia; the end of the Panchayat regime was effected by the end of the Cold War whose throwback was the Maoist insurgency whereas the end of the monarchy was the result of hard political realities of immediate neighbourhood and internal contradictions; in hindsight, even the 2015 constitution could be said to have been foisted upon unwilling political participants by historical circumstances in which they found themselves. By attempting to build a longue durée narrative but through recent ‘events’, this paper will interrogate the state’s responses during recent disasters, specifically the 2015 earthquake and the Covid-19 pandemic, but also explore the larger political, cultural, economic, and wider regional contexts and argue that while the form and shape of the Nepali state has changed in its 250-year history, its nature and character has basically remained the same as are the structures and processes: an essentially exploitative, extractive rent-seeking state for self‑enrichment of select elites who are also abetted by international systems and actors. While examining the inertia of the state, apathy of the rulers, and impassivity of the elites during this Covid‑19 pandemic, the paper will also try to explain this kind of behaviour as an outcome of the recidivistic character of the Nepali state.