Political economy of patrimonialism


Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba was sworn in in July 2021 under highly unusual circumstances. The swearing-in ceremony only took place when President Bidya Devi Bhandari relented and rectified the letter of appointment in accordance with the verdict of the Supreme Court. This was a first indication of the tense relations to follow between heads of state and government.

Ejected from office by court order, shunned by some of his party colleagues, and disheartened by the collapse of his earthy strategy of state capture by twice disbanding the Pratinidhi Sabha, ethnonational supremo Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli had absented himself from the oath-ceremony of taking his successor. As well as being a display of crass warmongering, it was also an indicator that the new Leader of the Opposition was determined to overturn the workings of Parliament.

For someone who has spent his entire political career opposing communism, it must not be easy for Prime Minister Deuba to lead a coalition government made up overwhelmingly of former Marxists, former Leninists and fallen Maoists. Complacency remains the defining characteristic of left-wing politicians, even when they have dissolved the ideology that demands a complete suspension of disbelief from its adherents.

Premier Deuba is a serial incompetent himself. His tenure at the Home Office in the early 1990s is forgettable at best. During his first stint in Baluwatar at the head of a coalition as heavy as the current one, he had to initiate, promote and tolerate political corruption of an unprecedented kind. Over the years, he dissolved Parliament on flimsy grounds, accepted a humiliating impeachment and reappointment of an absolute king, then lead a government to hold controversial elections.

Weighed down by the internal contradictions of a disharmonious coalition, Prime Minister Deuba’s mere survival in power so far is his greatest achievement. In terms of delivery, we weren’t expecting much from him anyway. But he seems to have done a reasonable job of cleaning up the mess left by his conceited predecessor. Where he failed, once again, was in fulfilling one of the main duties of a head of government: to honestly attempt to untangle the intertwined knots of structural corruption. The network of repairers continues to pave its fifth term with credible allegations.

Cultural core

The roots of corruption run deep into the common practices and established norms of the dominant ‘Nepalese’ society. Despite the apparent defaults in some of his arguments, anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista captures the essence of the sordid endemic in four simple, everyday terms: bahunbaad, chakari, aafno manchhe and bhabi.

Bahunbaad’s proposal is slightly different from the traditional idea of Brahmanism which consists mainly of the supremacy of Brahman, the sanctity of the Vedas and the exclusive right of the Brahmins to interpret the holy scriptures. Bahunbaad goes beyond religious beliefs and encompasses political practices that allow the priest to anoint the potentate and help him – always him – rule the kingdom. In addition to their spiritual authority, the Bahuns thus acquire enormous bodily authority. There is a reason why the Bahuns dominate the Khas-Arya category of hegemonic ethnicity in the state and society of Nepal.

The concept of chakari is not just about the obsequiousness of a servant towards his master or the sycophancy of a favor-seeker towards a person in power. Even the model of patron-client relationship fails to fully capture the essence of the ritual display of the supplicant’s quasi-religious obligation to his lord, regardless of the response. Subservience implies powerlessness while chakari is a cultural practice that reinforces a person’s position in the social hierarchy.

Similarly, the signifier aafno manchhe encapsulates the idea of ​​nepotism, cronyism and favouritism; but its circle is wider than that of the direct benefactor-beneficiary relationship. In the custom of aafno manchhe, a quasi-tribal loyalty of the group to one another is assumed, unless otherwise stated. Gorkhali nobles and courtiers developed close ties with each other to overcome their insecurities in conquered territories where they did not understand the language of their serfs.

Belief in bhavi is sometimes translated by fate. Faith in the inevitability of fatal events in a person’s life is certainly part of bhavi. But fatalism has a tinge of resignation; faith in bhavi is doing one’s duty with the belief that its fruits will be reaped in the future – if not in this birth, at least in the next. The stoic demeanor of the Nepalese, often referred to as characteristic resilience, that amazes foreign visitors stems from the confidence that bhavi will ultimately deliver justice.

Structural corruption

Greed and glory are driving forces that draw ambitious warriors into exploring, expanding, and building the structure of empires. King Prithvi Narayan of Gorkha was no exception. Although the authenticity of Divyopadesh—the divine advice that the legendary warrior is supposed to have given to his courtiers—remains suspect, it reflects the state of mind of a conqueror concerned about the sustainability of a territory he built with audacity, courage and tenacity.

The divine decree denounces petty corruption as in “giving or accepting bribes”, but urges the institutionalization of the distribution of spoils among the nobles, courtiers, loyalists and foot soldiers of the kingdom in an equitable manner. As sacrilegious as it may seem, the seeds of the so-called “lootantra” is reflected in the way the patronage system was prescribed in the founding text of the Gorkhali Empire.

A usurper, Jung Bahadur Kunwar made no attempt to hide his intentions and used the full force of the Gorkhali army to amass a vast fortune for himself and his family. Jung’s contribution to “Lucknow Bundle” in the Nepali lexicon comes from the mercenary services that his troops rendered to the East India Company during the sack of Awadh. He set the example for his successors that immorality is good if framed in nationalistic terms. Exports of dubious authenticity and imports of re-exportable substances in suspicious quantities have reinforced the belief that “nationalist corruption” is not only acceptable but desirable for the health of the economy.

King Mahendra’s jhiti gunta boon to the people of specific areas of the Himalayan region was apparently intended to improve their living conditions. The real intention, however, was to encourage foreign trade. He corrupted an entire generation that was made to live beyond their means through suspicious dealings.

Critics who accuse the Federal Republic of a noticeable increase in corruption often forget that cleaning the Augean stable of systemic corruption is going to be a work of generations. Supremo Sharma Oli had started adding more dirt to the mud accumulated in public life. Unwieldy coalition implosion in Singh Durbar under any pretense – the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) publish, dismissal of Minister Renu Yadav, or the postponement of local elections – will hasten the return of “personalist” the authoritarianism of the father of the family.

Prime Minister Deuba is incompetent, therefore unable to inflict much damage on the body politic. All of his challengers are so adept at manipulating the political economy for partisan interests that any other governance arrangement at this stage is likely to prove detrimental to the health of democracy.

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