If it were fiction, Nepal’s saga would be labelled post-apocalyptic. For much of its recent history, the West romanticized Nepal as some La La Land; an abode to shiny, happy people holding hands. All that changed beginning in 1996 when a violent “Maoist” insurgency swept the country. The world was astonished to learn that grave social injustices and deep economic inequities belied the ubiquitous Nepali smile.
A nascent, “democratic” polity failed to deliver and it chose to fight a deadly war of attrition instead. Nepal descended into deeper chaos when the heir apparent to the 240-year old Nepali crown gunned his family down—including the reigning king—prompting the world to write the nation off as yet another “failed state”.
But twenty years and as many governments later, Nepal surprised everyone again. It resurfaced as the world’s youngest, secular republic. Democracy prevailed where none would have expected it to. In Cabals and Cartels, Rajib Upadhya takes us on a roller-coaster ride, rich in insight and innuendo, meshing extraordinary personal and professional experiences with an elegant historical narrative. His book is as much a celebration of the Nepali spirit that has weathered more than its fair share of trauma, as it is a cautionary tale of broken promises and foregone opportunities; of a political class bedevilled by its own worst instincts; of duplicitous friendships; and of grim economic prospects pinned down in its potentials by collusion and graft.
Upadhya’s canvass is wide: from politics and democracy to governance, institutions, foreign aid and development; from contemporary history and anthropology to conflict and peace; from economic reforms to social mobility; and from the promise of competitive federalism to the pitfalls of a creeping complacency that threatens to trap Nepal in the past.
Upadhya makes the compelling case for a fundamental reset, befitting Nepali aspirations of their new and progressive constitutional compact. But he also questions the will of the Nepali establishment to transcend deep rooted socio-political and economic prejudices. Cabals and Cartels is a story of foreboding. Equally, it is a soulful plea for reflection and change.