One would be hard-pressed to find a world leader more appropriately named than Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal of Nepal. And it is a shame that nothing more positive may be said of the man or his speech, entitled “Post-Conflict Challenges and Development,” at Low Rotunda Thursday afternoon than that his name is easy to remember.

Since the end of its no-party rule in 1991, Nepal has endured a bloody and protracted civil war waged by Maoist militants, along with a violent massacre of its royal family; as recently as May 2008, it has seen the abolition of its 240-year-old monarchy in favor of Maoist power, and the expedient deposition of said power in favor of a Democratic-Marxist alliance.  Even in summary, the last two decades of Nepali politics are an ideological mouthful, and it is only natural to expect Prime Minister Nepal—active in politics since 1969 and a crafter of both the 1991 and current constitutions—to have at least one insightful comment on his nation’s democratic trajectory, violent snafus, and questionable political gambits.  Surely it is not out of order to expect a speech full of interest and insight from the leader of one of the world’s most underrated danger zones.

But alas—Prime Minister Nepal, who was selected as a speaker at the World Leaders Forum before assuming the high office in May 2009, offered no such thing.  For all his years of leadership, it would appear that Nepal lacks a great deal of political acumen, although he has mastered one dance move: the sidestep. The initial minutes of his address were wasted on a series of increasingly absurd and sycophantic platitudes towards America and Columbia University. A degree of humble thanks and praise for one’s host is to be expected and appreciated, but this lackluster speaker’s droning seemed less of a civility than a prelude to a long plea for assistance and clemency.

And indeed it was. Nepal listlessly invoked pity for the poverty of his nation, implored the audience to recognize its role as an arbiter of peace and stability on the world scene, and vouched for its simplistic beauty. But never once did he allude to the conflict and constitutional logjams that have characterized his state for the past two decades, save the occasional mention of a “difficult past.”

Nepal took special care to stress (in his single mention of a concrete program for the future) his threefold plan to finish the longstanding process of crafting a constitution by May 2010, to follow through on anticipated peace talks, and to achieve sustainable economic development. While these are worthy goals, they are all affirmations of a key criticism of Nepal’s government – that it acts too slowly, leading alternately to chaos and stagnation. 

Indeed, the Prime Minister pleaded for patience, urging his people and the world to recognize that true peace and stability comes only slowly and with great deliberation.  It was here that Nepal’s platitudes predictably returned, as he pointedly remarked on the need and (implicit) obligation for international bodies to aid Nepal in its development projects, appealing to popular American sentiments by claiming that such investments would help secure a (read: his) democratic regime in Nepal. That Nepal should pursue his government’s continuation in his speech is only natural; however, he might have chosen to cloak his motives in finer words lest his audience should feel, as did Bwog, used and abused by a nation it so desperately wants to love and support.

It was all the more difficult to love this man during the Q+A segment. Confronted with questions on the place of Maoist combatants and aspirants to one-party rule in the new Nepalese government, the Prime Minister dodged clear answers with vague ideas for idealistic rehabilitation, refusing to acknowledge a world in which his fantasy would not become reality; his answers to a number of other questions, including one regarding his nation’s poor treatment of Tibetan refugees as it increases its ties with China, were similarly nebulous and circular.  In addition, Nepal would frequently listen to long and suspicious whisperings from an unidentified, furiously-scribbling Nepali, whereupon he would often give a particularly cursory answer, such as the bemused “huh?” with which he responded to a question on Gurkha emigration.

Ultimately, at worst Nepal seemed insincere, dry, and determined to avoid serious and substantive discussions on matters of international importance. At best he seemed an idealist willing to delegate everything to a committee in good faith. Perhaps he, like so many Nepali citizens, is tired of a history of discord and failure; perhaps he even has an ace up his sleeve which he is not yet ready to reveal. What is certain is that, whether to sinister or sincere ends, Prime Minister Nepal is a man who does not know when trite flattery must end, where pragmatism is favorable to vague and idealistic sentiments, and when to engage candidly with his audience.  Now that he’s received a healthy dose of Manhattan spirit, hopefully he’ll find himself inspired before it’s too late

-Mark Hay