Every Man For Himself

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One of the things that bemuses visitors to Nepal is the traffic. To get a license here drivers must pass a written exam on traffic rules and a practical driving test similar to those in the west, but they seem to forget everything they learned as soon as they get on the road.

Double and triple parking is common, and when faced with any slowdown or traffic jam, drivers going in both directions pull into the other lane to pass, without regard for oncoming vehicles. The predictable result is gridlock.

Our traffic mess is a perfect metaphor for Nepali politics. Every driver and every politician is out for himself, trying to get ahead regardless of the consequences, even when their individual actions cause greater problems. It’s not deliberately mean-spirited: the common welfare is simply never considered.

That’s how Nepali leaders are treating the opportunity of peace, elections, and a new order. There are one-issue parties, like those from the Tarai who want “one Madesh” (or not, depending on where in the Terai they are from). There are revenge-driven parties like the NC, which is sour-grapes towards a government they chose not to join. And there are the me-firsters, like the UML who went into a collective sulk when a social program they had championed appeared in the budget with a slightly different name.

Ordinary Nepalis are also forgetting the rules of civil behavior. Kathmandu is open for business today after two more “bandhs,” day-long strikes called for some narrow purpose. Yesterday it was the was the owners of clubs and dance bars that have been ordered by the new administration to close at 11 p.m. as part of a law and order push. The day before it was ethnic Newars enraged by a government decision not to pay for the animals they sacrifice during traditional holidays.

Whether or not you support the grievance behind any particular bandh, it’s obvious that having the capital shut down for 80-90 days a year hurts everyone. But the common welfare isn’t part of the equation for those calling and enforcing the strikes.

When the calculus of self-interest routinely outweighs the rights of others, you have an uncivil society. What’s so interesting about the development is that it’s truly un-Nepali. People in this small, poor country are naturally generous, helpful, and giving of themselves in many ways. Nepalis have traditionally pursued their own interests with a clear understanding of others’ needs too.

Some of the change is a result of the upheaval of entering the modern world. Old caste and social rules are vanishing; occupational choices are much more open now. And small-community social structures no longer hold when people move from the countryside to towns and cities.

But the main reason for the uncivil behavior isn’t some sort of breakdown of the old order. The reason is frustration and anger at the failure of leadership in Nepal. People have been promised development, roads, clean water, and schools, but the system has failed over and over again to deliver any of those things. That’s because the leaders have been looking after themselves instead of the country.

In the new Nepal, leaders who want to prosper will need to emulate the Three Musketeers’ altruism and unity, not the Three Stooges’ parody of the story, where Curley added, “And every man for himself!” to the famous motto.

With so many veteran politicians sitting on the sidelines after the last election, it’s surprising that the leaders haven’t gotten the message. But then, it often takes people more than one traffic citation to change their behavior.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.