State and People: Who is Socialist?

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Every politician in Nepal seems to be a fierce socialist these days! In the last few days, two Nepali Congress (NC) leaders told us that they are the true socialists as opposed the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist (CPNM), which also claims to be a socialist. And there are myriads of other parties in between them – also socialists. NC President GP Koirala said, “The fusion of democracy and communism is socialism, which Nepali Congress has adhered to” [1] and asked us to be fearful of the fusion of democracy and communism talked by Prime Minister Prachanda. NC Vice-President Gopal Man Shrestha said, “Maoists have not given any new program to the people. Their policies and programs look like the old wine in a new bottle”[2]. I wonder why NC and CPNM perpetuated a decade long armed conflict if both stood for the same principles. This begs a little investigation on what these politicians were doing all these years to advance socialism, which they proclaim to believe in.

Since the issues of social equality and economic fairness are the key tenants of socialism, it should not be difficult to find who believes in it. NC ruled Nepal for 16 years starting from 1990 and ending in August 2008 excluding those 9 months of UML rule and 14 months of rule by Gyanendra. If NC was a socialist party, Nepal would have made improvements in social equality and reduced the gap between the rich and the poor during its reign. However, an Asian Development Bank study reported that Neapl’s Gini Index, which measures the economic disparity between the rich and poor, grew the fastest among all the 60 countries they studied [3]. Therefore, if NC says it is socialist, it must be the worst socialist in the face of this planet! Further, saying that “I believe in socialism” only in occasions like BP’s Birthday and Ganeshman’s Memorial Day but escalating inequality when ruling is like saying “I am a vegetarian except when I am eating.” To be fair, let us compare the budget speeches of 2006 and 2007 by NC’s Dr. Ram Sharan Mahat and of 2008 by CPNM’s Dr. Baburam Bhattarai.

In 2006, Dr. Mahat’s budget spoke of a “new momentum”, “new opportunities”, “industrial peace” and “investment climate” but never mentioned of “socialism” or even “social justice.” Dr. Mahat used the word social 12 times in his budget, all in six phrases: “social sector”, “dialogue among social forces”, “social rehabilitation of handicapped”, “promotion for the physical, mental, social and psychological development of the children”, “Several infrastructures for social and economic development were ready [before the king took over]”, and “The nation today is heading towards economic and social transformation” [4]. One place he used this word to sound like social justice was when he said “Socially excluded and oppressed group of people and those in the geographical region excluded from mainstream of development want a fair share in the services and facilities given by the state.” Here, the qualification, “given by the state”, is worth noting for it clearly tells that NC does not stand for a broader issues of social equality and economic equality. How about the injustices perpetrated by the private citizens or the wealth, privileges and rights stolen from the people by non-state actors? There is no evidence to substantiate that NC was inspired by socialism, social equality, or social justice. Forget about NC using such a telling term like socialism when they very well know that it will alienate their imperial backer, USA, for the latter considers it a “discredited ideology”; even terms like “sustainable development” and “progressive” are “dirty” in USA. The greatest socialist vision of NC could be found in the clause that says, “Arrangements will be made to require private schools to enroll at the rate of one student per 50 students from among the children of Dalit, conflict victim and martyrs with scholarship according to the concept of public private partnership. I hope this program will enable about 20,000 children to get educated” [4]. If this statement was mine, I would be ashamed to call myself a socialist.

Interestingly enough the use of word social went down in both numbers and scope in Dr. Mahat’s 2007 budget [5]. This makes me wonder, who might have stopped NC from standing for social justice, social equality, and socialism when they were in power? The answer just illuminates from Koirala’s statement: “socialism, which Nepali Congress has adhered to”. This means, in NC’s definition, whatever NC adhered to amounted to socialism, be it privatization of pre-school to post-secondary education, mass sell-off of public corporations to individuals, “NGOization” of essential services, or devastation of public institutions. NC’s youth leader Gagan Thapa succinctly describes the attitude of NC leadership in saying: “Instead of guided by an ideology, NC has been running with a tradition of some slogans, some thoughtless words, some donation and aid, and some borrowed notable quotes” [6].

In contrast, the budget speech of Dr. Bhattarai proclaims that his policies are geared to deliver “social justice”, “social inclusiveness”, and “social security”, and to build “social infrastructure” and “socialism-oriented industrial capitalism” [7]. He talked of protecting the poor and marginalized while building technologically advanced country. He used the word social in forty places, socialism twice, and pro-proletariat once. Whereas the previous budgets could never use socialism as their inspiration and aspiration, Maoists have been able to stand with the word socialism and remain proud about it.

Dr. Bhattarai further spelled that “all the Nepali people, particularly those who are excluded from the fruits of development, segregated, downtrodden and poor, are expecting … speedy economic growth and social justice. … this budget has started a strong beginning in the direction” [7]. The use of term social justice is highly symbolic in a sense that it acknowledges that there is social injustice today; a matter NC could not acknowledge in its official state document thus far. Whereas the new budget says, “The budget has placed reasonable priority towards expanding the benefits of economic development to the suppressed classes, ethnicities, region, and gender and also guaranteeing social security to the senior citizens, differently abled, widows, Dalits and endangered ethnicities.”

For the first time in Nepal, the issues of social justice are not just raised in words but some visible budgetary measures have been taken to address them as well. There is noticeable vision in Dr. Bhattarai’s statement: “I have made efforts to maintain an appropriate balance between economic growth and social justice through cooperatives movement, massive employment creation program and village-oriented development campaign.” There is a sufficient dose of socialist flare in this. This is a significant departure from NC’s “improve investment climate” type vision. Everyone in Nepal knows that Nepal has a great “climate” to do agriculture but “worst state of agricultural infrastructure”. NC focused too much energy in chasing donors and industrialists to boast what “climate” it can provide while forgetting to do the real ground work. It is like negotiating with the NGOs on who will bring the most rain for the rice paddies while forgetting to put the ditches and dikes on the ground.

This time around, there is some indication that the focus has shifted in the “preparation of the ground” as opposed to fixing the “climate”. There is a clear focus on education, organization, and discipline – the three founding pillars of a prosperous society in my view. The focus on education and welfare complimentarily build the intellectual capital of the society. The focus on cooperative endeavors and village-oriented development are part of building organization. The very same efforts, combined with social security, are the ones to bring stability and discipline in the society by instilling compassion, hope, and optimism. Maoists are giving focus on electricity and education before IT, which actually makes sense. Similarly, they are simultaneously targeting infrastructure and agricultural productivity. It is like saying, “If the goal is to eat, create both hand and the mouth together. Do not create just the hand or just the mouth as they are both meaningless by themselves in relationship to the goal.” This is contrary to the approach of NC, which made an “IT climate” by setting up “IT Parks” but did not realize that it requires uninterrupted electricity and educated human-power to succeed. NC made “investment climate” for polluting rubber and paper industries in a country where there was neither rubber plant nor was surplus hay, and therefore no comparative advantage. No wonder there was anything but failure to show for in all those years of ruling by NC. Since it is impossible for any one country to excel in all fields, you must target the development of art, science and technology, in areas where Nepal has natural comparative advantage. National priority on any sector should be assigned based on the degree of comparative advantage. That CPNM has prioritized agriculture, tourism, herbal-medicine, and IT in top priority areas respectively, it actually looks like they know how to do some homework on economy.

Presented in less than three weeks after formation of the new government, this budget is commendable. The current focus on literacy, education, health-and-hygiene at the village level, agriculture, infrastructure, electricity, and tourism are properly thought out. Considering the over-fragmentation of farmland and dependence of more than two-third population on agriculture, development of cooperative approach of agriculture was overdue. Cooperation is needed to make the sector economically viable and marketable. However, the helm of the endeavor of developing cooperatives had always been in the hand of people who were principally against any socialist mode of production. Past governments intended to see the failure of cooperative endeavors so that they could justify the privatization of everything, including fundamental tool of empowerment like education.

Although decried by some as “same old” and some as “reckless”, the programs on children, social security and youth employment are bold and appreciable. It sets a positive trend in more progressive delivery of social service by taking into account the economic disparity, difference in lifespan, and level of existing social exclusions, among different groups. We can find many good elements of post-industrial societies in this budget. These bold and forward looking moves were necessary to inspire and engage a broad spectrum of society in the endeavor of nation building. Ending subsidy to foreign oil and beginning of the ventures to produce electricity from Nepal’s own renewable resources was also long overdue. For Nepal has only two neighbors that are the largest and the second largest in the world and one is blocked by the Himalayas, Nepal is really between the rock and the hard place. Therefore, any endeavor of reducing dependence on essential commodity to a foreign country is commendable. Only this way, Nepal can reduce its dependence on a single country for the bloodline of its economy. For any specific good or service, more countries we can buy from and sell to, the more independent we become.

Having said many words in defense of this budget as being socialist, progressive, and inspiring compared to those from the past, I must also say that the budget can benefit from further work. To inspire curiosity, I would like to give the following homework to PM Prachanda and Minister Bhattarai! They have to formulate a development policy to organize national efforts into core priority areas in the order of importance. They also have to develop aid management policy such that all aid can be channeled to the same desirable destiny of building a responsible and cohesive society, strengthening public institutions at community levels and national level, and promoting a path of knowledge, nobility, and innovation. The aid management strategy is sorely required if Nepal is to manage the NGOs rather than NGOs managing Nepal. Amidst great mottos like “cooperative in every village and storage in every home”, I would have liked to see, “simplicity in material and sophistication in mind” to indicate that we want to build a sustainable society and knowledge economy of the future. An urgent work is required to draw upon the diaspora talent to develop Nepal’s foundation on education, research, science and technology. Although it is easier said than done, it would be appropriate for Nepal to harness the knowledge, skills, and capabilities from abroad. Since health has been a priority, I would have loved to see a national water-quality laboratory for an example. A futuristic Nepal must furnish special reward to those communities which can become self-sufficient in energy while living with modern amenities like schools, clinic, libraries, telecommunication, computing, and Internet for all. Such self-sufficiency will lead to a kind of Nepal that will be morally, intellectually, and materially capable to withstand foreign dominance and attract intellectuals from abroad. Special emphasis in inculcating developments of participatory and fair rules in institutions and a culture of playing by the rules would help Nepal attract a lot of accolade and tangible support from grassroots people and institutions around the world. Trying to move to a society that adheres to rules would be needed for productivity enhancement and corruption management.

In sum, only that political entity is socialist which adopts programs and policies that gradually reduce human inequalities that were artificially created. It can achieve by gradually eliminating the inequality in opportunities to develop the potential of every member of the society. To do that, we must be proud socialists and accept the fact that another individual may become as successful as or better than “me” when creating equal opportunities for all. Although never attainable, it is a virtue of our strength to not be afraid of our own fellow citizens and create an equitable environment for all of us to compete and mutually prosper. We must be inspired by honorable ideals that may never be attainable rather than having meager standards that barely take us from one election to another. We must say no to moral bankruptcy, intellectual stunting, and attachment to the most fashionable ideology of the day. We must stand for an ideal of a society that stands much taller than any one of us and espouses vision and inspiration to not only our own community and country but also to the entire world and humanity. To all those friends who mock socialism as an unattainable ideal, I would like to say, “Although 100% score in all subjects is unattainable, the goal of any aspiring student is always that 100%. The student may be satisfied with 90% or even 80% if that was one of the better scores.”

 

References:

[1] Koirala Slams PM’s Remarks, Kantipur Online, September 18, 2008 [click here]
[2] It is Foolish to think that Snake, Scorpion, and Frog will Live Together – Gopal Man Shrestha, Janapukar.com, September 17, 2008 [click here]
[3] Inequality in Asia, Key Indicators 2007 Special Chapter Highlights, Asian Development Bank, [click here]
[4] Budget Speech 2006-2007 – Dr Ram Sharan Mahat, Ministry of Finance, July 2006, [click here]
[5] Budget Speech 2007-2008 – Dr Ram Sharan Mahat, Ministry of Finance, July 2007, [click here]
[6] Party cannot Run with Same Old Leadership – Gagan Thapa, Janapukar.com, August 31, 2008, [click here]
[7] Budget Speech 2008-2009 – Dr Baburam Bhattarai, Ministry of Finance, September 17, 2008; [click here]

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