Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Handshake And A Shakedown

Photo: Rastriya Samachar Samiti
Was Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s visit to India really as successful as is being officially characterized in both countries?
The answer would rest on whether Chinese President Xi Jinping lands in Kathmandu this year – or ever.
From New Delhi’s standpoint, at least, our prime minister’s visit helped to melt the frost that had enveloped bilateral ties during the Khadga Prasad Oli-led government. Although Dahal has not been so explicit, he feels he can go along with New Delhi’s interpretation.
Oli, for his part, has become the most vociferous critic of Dahal’s southern sojourn. The former prime minister believes Dahal did what he was supposed to: undo the work of the previous government towards strengthening Nepal’s relations with China in keeping with the times.
Accusing Dahal of stooping ‘too low’ and compromising on the independence of Nepal’s foreign policy by agreeing to work together with India in international forums, Oli said his Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) would not accept the 25-point joint communiqué.
How other key leaders of faction-riven UML take Oli’s unilateral delineation of party policy in public remains unclear. What is clear, though, is that the UML has managed its internal divisions better than our other parties.
On matters pertaining to India, ever since the UML’s fall from power, the other two ex-premiers, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhal Nath Khanal, seem to have taken an oath of loyalty to Oli. If so, that’s because the UML has decided to firmly hold the banner of nationalism aloft and make sure no one else even thinks of raising it higher.
The Indians have waxed eloquent over how Dahal, by his mere ascension, has ended the Oli-era nightmare. The visit, from their perspective, only capped that reality. One of the Maoist leader’s former Indian handlers gushed that Dahal had established himself as the only person who could lead Nepal.
No doubt, this distinguished Indian foreign policy and security analyst also feels vindicated after the lousy start Dahal made during his first innings in Singha Darbar.
During their one-on-one meeting, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was believed to have asked Dahal to keep a distance from Beijing, before hailing him at a joint news conference as “the catalyst force for peace” in Nepal.
On his return home, Dahal told reporters that the new understanding reached with India would not affect Nepal’s relations with China. Yet he is smart enough not to be taken in by the effusiveness of India’s acclaim. The way our anti-graft watchdog ordered a probe into the alleged embezzlement of more than Rs. 6 billion from funds meant for rehabilitating former Maoist guerrillas the day the two prime ministers held talks in New Delhi can hardly be deemed coincidental. Although the agency did not name names, top Maoist leaders, including Dahal, could be questioned.
The message is clear: If any Nepali politician steps out of line, there are levers of our state that New Delhi knows can easily be deployed against the offender.
Maybe that realization is what really prompted Dahal to cancel his trip to the United Nations. The Chinese, after all, are capable enough to decide whether Xi should or should not visit Nepal, without Dahal being within earshot of Premier Li Keqiang.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Curious Evolution Of A Premier’s Persona

Something eerie seems to be going on with Comrade Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
Of course, he’s trying hard this time to be humble, contrite and all that. Nothing wrong there.
The bluster and superciliousness of his last tenure as premier did not serve him well. Let the man learn his lesson and move on.
Still, something is discordant, particularly with regard to his position vis-à-vis the Indians. And it’s not just because his televised undertaking in 2009 not to prostrate before foreign deities to stay in power echoes on.
Dahal’s predecessor, Khadga Prasad Oli, is the leading the charge in depicting the current government as remote-controlled from New Delhi. Riding on the series of agreements Oli signed during his visit to China, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) is milking every drop from those nationalist credentials.
The jury is still out on whether Oli’s northern sojourn really represents a geostrategic shift, so you just have to put up with Oli.
But egging on Dahal to take on the Indians on Lipulekh and Kalapani et al during his upcoming visit to India? Isn’t that going a bit too far?
Apparently not. Dahal, for one, seems to have made an early decision not to fight the ‘pro-Indian’ tag. He keeps assuring us that he won’t sign any anti-national deals during his visit so often that you begin to see that wink-wink routine there.
In an interview with a leading Indian daily, he came out as a confidence-builder too much for his own good.
Such ‘evolution’ is fine. And it’s not unprecedented either. Somehow, those disenchanted with the Chinese for one reason or the other seem to be afflicted the most by the urgency to publicize their transformation. (If you have doubts, just refer to the speeches of former prime minister Kunwar Inderjeet Singh after he returned from his exile in China).
The pendulum can easily swing the other way. The CPN-UML continues to bemoan the tragic death of its charismatic leader Madan Bhandary as part of an Indian conspiracy against his nationalist stance. However, a few years earlier, when an extensive full-spread interview in an Indian daily launched Bhandary’s national political debut amid the anti-Panchayat movement, many of us were left scratching our heads wondering, Madan who? And Oli himself wasn’t known for firebrand nationalism before his premiership, was he?
The problem is with letting personal evolutions become emblematic of a nation’s diplomatic transformation. The most recent fallout? The ostensible postponement of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s impending visit to Nepal about which our Foreign Ministry officially knows nothing. That didn’t prevent Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara – Beijing’s ‘closest friend’ here – from springing into action. Yes, the same Mahara who several years ago was on our official most-wanted list but was comfortably talking to CNN’s Satinder Bindra on Indian soil.
The news report detailing the postponement of Xi’s visit was quite explicit – and damning to Nepal – about the reasons. Was the story a plant? If so, by whom? The Chinese or the Indians? Be sure not to ask Prime Minister Dahal. He looks like he already knows what you want to hear.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Politics of Pre-emption?

Khum Bahadur Khadka is a restless man. He has been edgy for quite a while.
The Nepali Congress luminary is said to have around half a dozen central committee members and twice that number of lawmakers in his camp. He has been seeking the party’s vice-presidency, citing the central role he played in the election of Sher Bahadur Deuba to the top job at the party convention.
Deuba, however, is wavering. The three-time premier has long been familiar with Khadka’s prowess. Without him, Deuba could not have broken away to form his Nepali Congress (Democratic) in 2002. Although that enterprise turned out to be a sheer disaster for the country in many ways, Deuba did ultimately prosper from it.
Sure, the king sacked him twice for incompetence. But that was then. Without the opportunity of leading his own party, Deuba could not have returned to the Nepali Congress so galvanized as to claim the mantle left behind by mentor-turned-rival Girija Prasad Koirala.
Khadka, for his part, knows the unreliability of Deuba. As general secretary of the breakaway party, he seemed thereby intent on establishing its primacy. Serving as Deuba’s home minister, he opposed the prime minister’s recommendation that the king postpone the parliamentary election, maintaining that the administration was capable of warding off the Maoists and organizing an exercise then deemed as central to survival of democracy.
Deuba instead got the sack and the king took over, with the deposed premier now peddling himself as the second coming of B.P. Koirala. Khadka, meanwhile, found himself imprisoned under some of the same senior police officials he was commanding. As Deuba continued playing the victim, it was Girija Prasad Koirala who would call the deposed home minister to enquire about his health and raise his political spirits. That ‘nurturing’ encouraged Khadka and core loyalists to return to the Nepali Congress in 2003.
Deuba got to become a palace-appointed premier before being sacked a second time in early 2005. His arrest and detention came late in the royal regime to really matter. Under republican Nepal, Khadka was convicted of corruption and spent one-and-half years in jail before emerging to resurrect his career.
He has been remarkably successful, one must admit. Today Khadka critics claim that rewarding someone with such a sleazy past with the vice-presidency would serve to tarnish the reputation of the party. They are missing the point. Khadka served time for his sins. If precluding a politician from politics for life just because of a criminally corrupt past made sense, those advocating might have prescribed Khadka a life (or even perhaps the death) sentence.
A man does time, paying his debt to society, and comes out to find out that he can no longer do the only job he knows how to do. How fair is that?
Furthermore, party members have trusted Khadka enough to elect him to the Central Working Committee with the second highest number of votes. Why, then, should a corrupt past be a bar to an appointive position like the vice-presidency? And if Khadka wasn’t too dirty for Deuba when he wanted the votes, should he really consider him too tainted to serve as his deputy?
Maybe the corruption argument is a ruse and Khadka critics fear him for his pro-Hindu statehood banner. Unlike the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s, Khadka’s plank is not tied to the monarchy. (At least, not overtly). Or maybe the critics remember something the rest of the country seems to have forgotten. Khadka is the last surviving leader who stepped out of that aircraft on that cold December day with B.P. Koirala seeking national reconciliation in 1976.
To many ears, B.P. and Hindu statehood probably don’t seem to go together well. Yet could they be a winning combination for Khadka – and one that his rivals desperately want to pre-empt?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Running In Circles Around Overlapping Spheres

Who would’ve really thought the Indian and Chinese presidents one day would be vying with each other so feverishly to visit Nepal first. Okay, neither Pranab Mukherjee nor Xi Jinping seems that desperate. But you get the drift.
Watch for what is said as well as what is not. The Indians never felt the need to deny that K.P. Oli had to exit Baluwatar because he coveted that northern alliance a bit too much for his own good. Their sense of triumphalism says it all.
When Nepal flashed the ‘China card’ in the past, the Indians could easily mock the palace for indulging in such a blatant anti-people ploy. The mandarins up north weren’t exactly helpful, either.
When the Indians locked Nepal in that economic stranglehold in 1989-1990 for having bought anti-aircraft guns from China, lost in the story was the fact that Beijing had tempted us with lucrative prices. When the Panchayat system collapsed as a result, the Chinese joined the chorus denouncing how despicable the partyless system was.
After the royal takeover of February 2005, Beijing was no doubt the principal external beneficiary. Tightening the noose on Tibetan exiles, the palace-led government sought to correct Nepal’s southern and western drift the Chinese had begun grumbling about in public.
Beijing got observer status in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. What did the Nepali government that had so strenuously pushed China’s case get? Zero, zip, zilch, nada. Once the royal government collapsed, the Chinese swiftly changed their ambassador so that he could be the first foreign envoy to present credentials to the prime minister, who was officiating as head of state.
Republican Nepal didn’t fare much better. When Pushpa Kamal Dahal as prime minister attempted to publicly reconfigure Nepal geopolitical locus, the Indians didn’t seem too bothered. The seven parties arrayed against the monarchy were still available to tame the Maoists. After Dahal’s departure from Singha Darbar, Beijing seemed to cultivate the hardliners in the Maoists, eventually emboldening them to break away.
Oli’s ‘China card’, however, proved to be different. From the outset, it reminded the Indians that the game had two players. Beijing seemed anxious to demonstrate that this time, it meant business. Sure, things are still pro forma on the Sino-Nepali front. The legacy of distrust on both sides may not be at the level of Nepal-India relations in scope as well as in public rancor. But suspicions and skepticism do persist.
Yet the agreements the two governments signed during Oli’s visit to Beijing do provide the basis for concrete action on meaningful cooperation in the event of requisite political commitment. It is Xi’s visit to Nepal everybody’s talking about, not President Bidya Bhandari’s to China. Thus, the immediate task for the Indians is to scuttle a Xi visit, at least before Mukherjee makes a trip, in terms of the battle of perceptions.
This time, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is not in two minds about which neighbor to visit first. But he still has to figure out which neighboring leader to host first. As for Nepalis, they understand better why they are feeling the squeeze.
The title of being the last tributary to the Middle Kingdom comes with a price, especially when the successor regime draws inspiration from the same imperial ambitions. On the other side, the Indians see Nepal as the unfinished business of independence. These competing claims of sphere of influence aren’t going to be resolved any time soon.
So how’s this for a deal? Let Mukherjee and Xi alight the same aircraft, together, hand in hand, either before or after the Goa BRICS summit in October. The least we can do is provide the plane.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Is It Adjournment Or Abandonment On The Right?

Where does the unification effort between the two factions of the right-of-center Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) stand today? RPP chairman Pashupati Shamsher Rana insists that the amalgamation announcement set for August 9 could not take place because of the parties’ failure to agree on ‘balance of power’. He contends that the door remains very much open.
RPP-Nepal Chairman Kamal Thapa, however, earlier unleashed a public tirade against Rana for having exhibited sheer dishonesty and fallen under the influence of a foreign power center (read India) to thwart what had been an elaborately negotiated unification.
A palpably aggrieved Rana shot back, refuting those allegations as unbecoming of a leader of Thapa’s standing. He has since demanded an apology from Thapa as a precondition for unity. Meanwhile, luminaries from Rana’s RPP have joined Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s cabinet, at a time when Thapa’s party has assiduously chosen to remain part of the opposition.
Intemperate though they may have been, Thapa’s public comments were understandable, given his version of the turn of events. Rana ostensibly pulled the plug unilaterally at the last minute, without – in Thapa’s words – exhibiting the “courtesy, decorum and political character” of consulting with the RPP-Nepal on such a two-pronged matter. Rana’s equally unflinching demand for a public apology from Thapa underscores the deep personal antagonisms that have set in.
All along, the unification hype failed the basic smell test. Admittedly, the RPP-Nepal and RPP today seem to be united by a desire to see the reinstatement of Hindu statehood. Beyond that, the latter is still wedded to republicanism and views the RPP-Nepal with abiding suspicion on that front (or at least gives a public posture of such).
Thapa, for his part, has come under criticism from loyalists for having discarded the agenda of restoring the monarchy. No longer on the defensive, though, the former deputy prime minister has placed the monarchy as the driver of its broader nationalist agenda. Asked to comment on perceptions that the former monarch himself was displeased at the party’s ostensible dilution of the pro-monarchy plank, Thapa told a leading Nepali newsweekly: “The RPP-Nepal is not a committee created for the restoration of the monarchy”.
The RPP signed on the new secular, republican constitution, while the RPP-Nepal was the only party that voted against it. Yet both parties became part of the K.P. Oli-led coalition. In the intervening months, Thapa appears to have beaten back factionalism within the party, while Rana still faces lingering divisions within. (Key RPP members originally expressed anger-tinged surprise at the scuttling of the unification effort, before subsequently going silent).
Yet we were somehow supposed to believe that the two groups – with their demonstrable history of fission and fusion –would join hands for the greater good of the nation, leaving it to the general convention to iron out their underlying differences.
According to Rana’s latest – and hitherto most specific – explication, the unification effort was dropped after Thapa failed to agree to an equitable balance of the functions, duties and rights of the national chairperson and executive chairperson of the proposed new party. (A contention Thapa, one might add, seemed to publicly refute even before Rana had advanced it.)
Still, if things are in the works as Rana says, Thapa’s stance doesn’t seem to give that impression. He is still busy singing paeans to the nationalist credentials of the last government and scolding the successor for encouraging blatant external intervention.
Even if the two groups were to unite sooner or later, wouldn’t the storyline be the same? How long before they split again?