Even in the aftermath of Nepal's devastating earthquake, which killed thousands and displaced countless more, it has been difficult to come to grips with the scale of the calamity. Days after the quake rocked the capital, Kathmandu, destroying irreplaceable heritage sites, rescuers and response teams still struggled to reach the country's remote outlying districts, where whole villages are feared to have been wiped off the map.
The natural disaster, as many have noted, did not come out of nowhere. For decades, there have been studies showing how prone Nepal is to such temblors, but little was done to prepare for a quake of this magnitude. Experts point to the country's endemic poverty as a reason for its particular vulnerability. The vast international relief mission that has whirred into motion has reinforced the image of a seemingly helpless Nepali state, dependent on outside aid.
In the minds of many outsiders, Nepal remains a romantic Himalayan destination. Kathmandu, famed for its ancient palaces, is just a gateway to trekking adventures in the shadow of Mount Everest or some of the country's other epic ranges.
But this picture-perfect postcard obscures the sweeping, traumatic changes that have racked the country over the past two decades. Parallel to Nepal's active geological fault lines are very volatile political divisions.
In the 1990s, a Maoist insurgency sprang up, aimed at toppling the century-old monarchy and upturning the history of entrenched ethnic and caste inequity that radiated from Kathmandu's palaces. The Maoist rebellion ended only in 2006, with at least 12,000 Nepalis killed and much of the nation's countryside ravaged. A peace process overseen by the United Nations was supposed to transform Nepal, a constitutional monarchy, into a secular, federal republic.
That sort of happened. Nepal's Maoist guerrillas swapped their jungle hideaways for plush offices in Kathmandu and became stakeholders in the country's multiparty democracy. Elections led to the formation of a transitional government and an assembly tasked with drafting the country's new constitution. In 2008, Nepal's century-old monarchy was formally abolished. By 2012, Maoist fighting units had been integrated into the Nepali army, once a bitter enemy.
But the past decade has also seen Nepal lurch from one crisis to the next, the national interest held hostage to the quarrels of feuding political parties. Successive legislatures elected to pen a new constitution have failed at their main task. Simmering tensions between the Maoists, royalists and more-centrist political parties have led to coalition governments forming and swiftly collapsing, while protests and strikes paralyze the country.
"The sole purpose of the political class has been centered on survival," says Prashant Jha, author of "Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal" and a New Delhi-based reporter for the Hindustan Times. "The average tenure of each government has been so short-lived that no one has focused on building up the state's capacity." Even the country's bureaucracy is deeply politicized, Jha says.
Years of political turbulence have left the Nepali economy in the doldrums, and the Nepali state woefully unable to cope with a tragedy of this size in a country where the infrastructure — from a lack of airports to a shortage of paved roads — is notoriously poor.
"We don't have a political culture where there's a home minister who has spent years developing the means to handle this sort of disaster," Jha says.
"After a decade of conflict between the government and Maoist insurgents, Nepal’s politicians have been too busy battling one another, most recently over constitutional reform, to treat disaster preparedness as a priority," Kunda Dixit, a prominent Nepali journalist, writes in the New York Times. "There have been no elections at the district, village or municipal level for almost two decades, and the committees that run local councils aren’t organized to coordinate emergency assistance."
As was the case after a devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, nongovernmental and international organizations will have to manage despite the government's failings.
To be sure, Nepal's political dysfunction isn't just the product of incompetent, shortsighted elites. Reshaping a nation of Nepal's bewildering complexity — its roughly 30 million people belong to more than 100 specific castes and ethnic groups — is no easy task, especially when it has to happen in a democratic process.
There are genuine ideological disputes between, say, the Maoists and other political parties over how to redraw the country's political boundaries and create a new federal system that better represents some of its more marginalized communities.
The tragic irony, though, is that as Nepal's leaders war over an ideal future, the present has grown gloomy. A staggering proportion of the country's population has been compelled to make a living overseas. And despite talk of decentralization, Kathmandu has only grown in prominence, with the instability of years of war prompting a significant spike in rural migration to the valley where the teeming, overcrowded capital sits.
"We are almost a one-city state," Jha says. "All the country's opportunities, its good medical facilities, its main places for education, its administrative centers, everything is in Kathmandu."
This makes the challenge of coping with an earthquake that flattened whole swaths of the capital all the more difficult for Nepal's government. Many may hope that, as Nepal literally picks up the pieces, its political classes will have learned some lessons from their country's ruin.