OPINION: In the name of merit

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - It needs emphasising that merit isn’t inherited with the DNA of a person despite claims to the contrary.

Irony took an overdose of sleeping pills in the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration when it requested the Public Service Commission (PSC) to fill vacant posts disregarding constitutional provisions of inclusion, all in the name of strengthening federalism and devolution.

The PSC went ahead and advertised to fill more than 9,000 vacancies at one go for the first time in nearly seven decades of its existence. On top of the sedative overdose at the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration, paradoxdoused itself with alcohol in the constitutional commission. Despite having three members from the Madhesi community for the first time in its history, no dissenting voice was heard from the Public Service Commission premises.

Meanwhile, some complainants have gone to court, where the merits of the case are still being debated. If the issue isn’t resolved soon, the exclusionary bureaucracy would receive booster doses of inoculation that resists all forms of affirmative action. It’s extremely unlikely that vacancies in such a large number will materialise any time soon. A generation of youngsters that could have benefitted from reservations stands to lose its last chance of entry into the public service.

A quick look at the ethnonational composition of the state is self-explanatory. President Bidhya Devi Bhandari is the commander-in-chief of the Nepal Army, which functions under its operational head Chief of the Army Staff Purna Chandra Thapa. Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli is the Supremo of the country by virtue of being the Chairperson of Nepal Communist Party (NCP) that has a two-thirds majority in the federal Parliament and controls all but one state government where it has an alliance partner as the Chief Minister.

The speaker of the Lower House is soft-spoken Krishna Bahadur Mahara. Chairperson of the Upper House is Ganesh Prasad Timilsina. The Supreme Court of the country is headed by Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana. The chief secretary of the government Lok Darshan Regmi heads the bureaucracy. The Central Bank of Nepal functions under the leadership of its governor Chiranjibi Nepal. And of course, the Chairperson of PSC is none other than Umesh Mainali, a former top bureaucrat himself.

Dinesh Thapaliya is the Chief Election Commissioner. Sarbendra Khanal is the Inspector General of Nepal Police. Shailendra Khanal wears the IGP insignia of the Armed Police Force. They have all risen through the ranks and are some of the best and brightest of the land. Many other names can be added to the list, but that would be superfluous. Suffice it to say that the state of Nepal is overwhelmingly dominated by the Hindu, Arya, Male and Nepali Speaking section of the population.

There is nothing exceptional with the role of honour except that all these deserving individuals come from the same ethnic group that has remained at the helms of the state for over two centuries. Realising that such an influential group needed a name to identify; drafters of the constitution delimited its composition in the statute itself: ‘Khas Arya means Kshetri, Brahmin, Thakuri, Sanyasi (Dashnami) community.’

 Systemic biases

Few would argue that meritocracy is not preferable to aristocracy or plutocracy in the appointment of public servants. The problem, however, lies with the definition of merit. No one knows what exactly denotes the personal quality that is a combination of intelligence, integrity and the ability to deliver.

The accepted definition of merit is often given in a simple equation--IQ plus dedication constitutes merit. One suspects that in countries like Nepal, IQ stands for Inheritance Quotient rather than its usual meaning. The legacy of social and cultural capital is often what impacts the selection process in a decisive manner.

For the early Shahs, the choice was easy. The Chieftain of Gorkha had clearly laid down the order of priority for recruitment into armed forces. The Bhardars (carriers of burden) came primarily from Tharghar (houses of legatee) families of Pandeys, Pantas, Aryals, Khanals, Boharas and Ranas. After the Kot Massacre, the centre of authority shifted from the Shah to the Kunwar--later exalted with the Ranaji surname by the puppet king--family. But the primary qualification for entry into the services of the Gorkhali Court remained almost the same: Absolute loyalty to the ruler of the day.

There was a brief interlude of democracy (1951-1960) when the division of spoils among honchos of political parties filled administrative posts. The PSC was often used to legitimise ad hoc appointments. Perhaps that was one of the reasons king Mahendra sacked many of them and packed the administration with his personal favourites after the royal-military coup in 1960

With the nationalisation of education in 1971 to produce homogenised subjects loyal to the king, doors opened for ambitious individuals of marginalised communities to benefit from hand-outs from the regime. Mere tokenism, however, failed to address deep-seated grievances.

Post-1990, there was hope that the restoration of democracy shall bring marginalised groups into the mainstream with honour and dignity. Equitability of outcome rather than merely an equality of opportunity were expected through affirmative action. However, the zeitgeist of the period dictated old school liberalism. The more things changed, the more they remained the same. The proportion of Bahuns in the bureaucracy actually went steadily up until 2006. Inclusion as the policy of the state is an outcome of the purple rhododendron revolution.

The reasons aren’t difficult to identify. As philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and others, have powerfully argued, the myth of meritocracy is a useful fiction to legitimise existing hierarchies. The social capital of a person is the sum total of contacts and connections in the corridors of power. The cultural capital is even more nebulous as familiar symbols, ideas, tastes and preferences are strategic resources of a certain group of people.

It may sound absurd to the uninitiated, but familiarity with the Swasthani Brata Kathaor Markandey Puran can prove to be the better indicator of success in PSC exams than immersion in the works of Nanda Lal Joshi or Prachand Pradhan, the guru and the professor of public administration respectively.

 Intentional ambiguity

At first glance, it’s difficult to find fault in the process of unprecedented vacancies. The functioning of the state and local government units was being hampered due to the unavailability of adequate officials. The Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration seized the opportunity inherent in the crisis and took the initiative to recruit staffers before provincial Public Service Commissions could be formed.

In order to maintain the ethnic purity of the administrative service, it was necessary to disassemble vacancies in such a way that a minimum number would fall into the inclusion quota. If the ploy succeeds, disaggregation will end up undermining the policy of inclusion in the same way as gerrymandering defeated the purpose of federalism by stripping away its essence while keeping the form intact.

Even though it is obvious, it needs emphasising that merit isn’t inherited with the DNA of a person despite claims to the contrary by nationalists and fascists of all hues. Parameters of competence are socially produced, culturally entrenched and politically enforced. The process has to be handled in the reverse order to create a sense of belongingness among all sections of the population in heterogeneous societies.

The State Affairs Committee of the federal Parliament has clearly identified ominous consequences of the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration’s exclusionary decisions and asked the Public Service Commission to rescind its vacancy notice. It’s now the Supreme Court’s turn to take the call. Whatever the decision of the court, political negotiations shall ultimately determine the fate of controversial vacancies as the clock ticks for the ruling dispensation and the nominal opposition.

Lal is a columnist and a commentator.

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  • Opinion: In the name of merit

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