Sunday, May 21, 2017

How To Swap Horses Midstream (And Not)

Having overseen the first round of our high-profile local elections, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ is all set to hand over the premiership to Sher Bahadur Deuba this week.
Our Maoist chief says he is bound by a power-sharing deal he struck with the Nepali Congress president last year before replacing K.P Sharma Oli as head of government. If Dahal is so anxious to prove that he is a man of his word, then who are we to nitpick?
Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist is outraged. How can one election be conducted by two prime ministers? “At a time when election commission does not allow to transfer even a clerk-level staff, how come we are going to change the government, prime minister and ministers?” asked Subash Chandra Nemwang, former chair of the Constituent Assembly. That is a sentiment shared by the Nepali Congress’ Shekhar Koirala.
Deuba & Co. would like to argue that the complexion of the government would not change. The Election Commission, while uncharacteristically assertive on all matters pertaining to the polls, is also eager to avoid that landmine. It knows that the national political process over more than a decade has been driven by compromises of convenience rather than constitutional niceties.
Since the second phase of polling, scheduled for June 14, will be focused on the Madhes, the apprehensions are obvious from that quarter. For one thing, that’s the region that has proved most intractable as far as matters of inclusion and representation are concerned. Furthermore, violence and volatility have meshed with geopolitics and granularity for so long that no one knows who stands for what and for how long.
All this exacerbates the gripping sense of uncertainty. Some Madhes-centric leaders see royalists trying foil the second round. Given the drubbing the Rastriya Prajantantra Party Nepal suffered in the first round, such allegations can find easier credence.
Other Madhes-centric leaders maintain what they consider their principled stance. Without an amendment to the Constitution, a second round is out of the question. So what if the first round was successful? It didn’t represent the bulk of the electorate, did it?
Amid all this, one question becomes more relevant: Is the power transfer a deliberate ploy to subvert the second round of voting and thereby delegitimize the first? That way, it would be impossible to conduct the three levels of elections within the constitutionally mandated January 2018 deadline. No single individual or entity could be blamed for such a disaster. Blaming political quirks and institutional compulsions would give the public mood enough resignation and despondency to make another experiment palatable.
Should things head in a positive direction, the nation can congratulate itself for having pulled off a remarkable feat and focus its hopes and fears on the next two elections.
Dahal, for his part, can sit back and relax. If he keeps his word, he will go down in history as that rare specimen of politician. If he wants to stay in office, he can let the CPN-UML and other critics do the heavy lifting.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Adore Or Abhor, It’s OBOR

Nepal’s decision to join China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative seems to have elated China to such an extent that Beijing has begun flashing its Nepal card.
China has been quite candidly apprehensive of our commitment to a new bilateral partnership and had all but set OBOR as a crucial test. With Kathmandu now officially onboard, Beijing is thrilled that we have ended our vacillation publicly and authoritatively.
It would be futile to assume that the signing of a framework agreement in Kathmandu alone would assuage Beijing’s underlying concerns about Nepal’s strategic commitments. But those apprehensions can perhaps be left for another day.
We are neither directly connected with the Silk Road nor with the Maritime Belt that are being restored under the ambitious initiative. Nepal’s role is what it has always been: a strategic link between the Asian behemoths. China, which is extending its Tibet railway to Nepal’s border in Rasuwa Gadi, plans to lay tracks all the way to the Indian frontier in Lumbini.
For now, Beijing sees Kathmandu’s participation as an eventual encouragement to India to shed its reluctance. Two leading Chinese analysts, in published comments, believe enhanced transport and trade connections between Nepal and China would eventually entice India.
Hu Shisheng, a South Asia expert at China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said that Nepal has a big role to play to bring China and India together and to materialize the vision of trilateral economic cooperation. “If Nepal gets sustainably connected to China physically, I don’t think India can stop the momentum,” he said. “The local governments of northern India will mount pressure on the central government to make the right choice.”
While asserting that the bilateral cooperation would not be easily disturbed by other external forces, Hu was cognizant of that other vital quarter. He stressed the need for major political parties in Nepal to forge consensus to effectively pursue and implement projects under OBOR. In other words, the devil is in the details.
Still, the if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them logic remains alluring up north. Wang Dehua, director of the Institute for South and Central Asia Studies in Shanghai, echoed Hu’s assertion that Kathmandu participation would ultimately nudge India to join OBOR.
Many Indians are advancing that argument. In the latest iteration, T.N. Ninan, Chairman and Editorial Director of Business Standard Ltd, publisher of India’s second largest business daily, asked the other day: “Does [India] risk being enclosed in a geographical cocoon if it spurns a multicontinent project for which everyone else has signed up?”
Indeed, key countries that have signed on to the OBOR initiative have done so in spite of all kinds of reservations, general and specific. As Ninan noted, India alone is manifestly hostile to the whole project. This is partly because of the sovereignty issue over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, through which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a major OBOR component, will run.
Additionally, New Delhi is wary of a transport link from Kunming in southwest China through Myanmar and via India to Bangladesh where China would like to set up a deep-sea port. The latter, in New Delhi’s view, would complete India’s maritime encirclement.
Obviously, India envisages its own regional connectivity networks. But so far, those are still in the imagination. The Chabahar port in Iran, envisioned as a route into Afghanistan and into Central Asia, has made little headway. Links to the Indian northeast through an Indian-built port at Sittwe in Myanmar remain stymied. Road and rail lines through Myanmar to Thailand and deeper into southeast Asia are even further from reality.
In a nutshell, India has begun waving its Tibet and Taiwan cards with greater audacity. China’s Nepal card looks more innovative, at least in this case.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Thank You, Ms. Pelosi, But…

Terms like resignation, impeachment and restoration are swirling around us and yet the United States believes it can take a leaf from Nepal's constitution.
Since it’s former US House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi who made that remark in Kathmandu the other day, you can take it with a pinch – nay, a fistful – of salt.
Because, just to refresh your memory, she’s the lady who wisely counseled anxious Americans to be patient about Obamacare. “We have to pass the bill to see what’s in it,” the speaker memorably said. (To be fair to Pelosi, a few Republicans were making the same pitch while trying to push through ‘Trumpcare’ in the House.)
Let’s not be too harsh on Pelosi on this one. She spoke after Foreign Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat briefed her on Nepal’s latest developments. And, lest we forget, Pelosi was specifically referring to “women” and “inclusiveness” in terms of the lessons her country could take from us.
It’s still amusing to hear Pelosi say what she did. Her leadership has converged with a phase that has seen the Democratic Party position itself as an exclusionary organization. During Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, top advisers all but declared that there was no place in the party for white men. Non-college-educated white males were in the worst shape. The future belonged to the winning coalition of blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ and immigrants (preferably the illegal variety).
Economics, under Pelosi, was dumbed down, too. Unemployment in the wake of the Great Recession became ‘funemployment’, where laid off Dads at least got to play with their kids. (Some of who could be up to 26 years of age, as defined by the health insurance law.) The childless got to get back to their passion for painting and singing. Food stamps, far from hollowing out the individual, were a national economic stimulus.
And Pelosi and her ilk are wondering what got Donald Trump elected. In the ongoing post mortem, Pelosi seems to have found her limits. She disagreed with Tom Perez, the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, that the anti-abortion crowd had no room in the party. Still, there is an equal chance Pelosi may have misspoken. After all, she has called the incumbent in the White House Bush more than once.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter, wherein Pelosi praised the provisions made in Nepal’s constitution regarding women’s participation and inclusion, expressing the view that the United States could learn. It may be too late for that. Gender is a fluid concept on US college campuses, which house the base of today’s Democratic Party. The notion of inclusiveness can contain a tinge of microaggression, pushing snowflakes to safe zones. Learning from Nepal might have been a winning idea three years ago. Today, you have to make sure it does not constitute “cultural appropriation”.
Foreign Minister Mahat must have felt in the twilight zone, too. He studied in the US Mid-West long enough to appreciate the political evolution of the land of the free and home of the brave during the Clinton era. A few of Mahat’s tutors have today become part of the foreign policy establishment.
At the same time, our foreign minister must also remember his days in Nepal Students Union, when he and his vexed colleagues had to constantly hear American leaders and diplomats incessantly praise the partyless Panchayat system as an exemplar of democratic innovation.
We have learned to innovate our own way. Chief Justice Sushila Karki has been restored by a judge she was believed to have disliked. Cholendra Rana’s interim ruling read like the tear-jerker Pelosi and her party have perfected as a political tool. Home Minister Bimlendra Nidhi has withdrawn his resignation and rejoined the defense of the government of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’.
An arrangement seems to have emerged wherein the government would withdraw the impeachment motion against Chief Justice Karki on the undertaking that she will not look into cases during her short remaining tenure. (You are forced to wonder, though, why in the world you would want to give someone back her job only to make sure she doesn’t do it. But, that’s beside the point.)
So thank you Ms. Pelosi, but…

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Redundancy Of Regionalism Or Refitting Of Rivalries?

Disregard the embarrassment surrounding the naming of the new political organization created by six Madhes-based parties and consider the bigger picture: the trend toward nationalizing the articulation and engagement of political principles and passions.
Upendra Yadav, the originator of the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum, morphed his organization into the Federal Socialist Forum Nepal. He is now mulling unity with Baburam Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti.  Earlier this month, Bijaya Kumar Gachchhadar’s Madhesi People’s Rights Forum-Democratic had announced a new party named Nepal Democratic Forum through a merger with two other groups.
Last week’s creation of the Rastriya Janata Party, amalgamating the Tarai Madhes Democratic Party, Sadbhavana Party, National Madhes Socialist Party, Madhesi People’s Rights Forum-Republican, Tarai Madhes Sadhbhavana Party and Federal Sadbhavana Party, caps this trend.
“This is a new dawn in Nepali politics,” Rajendra Mahato said in comments published after the merger of the six parties. “It has united the people of Madhes in one cord. The wishes of Madhesi, Tharu, Muslim and all other communities have come true.”
Mahato did not stop there. “We are already an established force in Madhes but we don’t want to be limited there. By dropping Madhes from the party’s name, we are trying to give a clear message that this party is also the party of the people living in the hills and the mountains.”
All this begs the question: Has the redundancy of regionalism in our diverse albeit small nation dawned on its most active advocates? The ardent arguments over the powers, functions and jurisdictions of local bodies persist in all their passion. So it would perhaps be safer to say that devolvement and decentralization have been decoupled from regionalism as a guiding philosophy.
What precipitated this action? It is easy to advance the proximate cause as the series of elections whose successful conduct would be central to the triumph of the post-2006 national project. However, it would be useful to delve deeper.
Were the champions of regionalism finding it hard to defend their project from allegations of separatism? This question, in turns, paves the way for a specific one: Did the perceived association of Madhesi grievances and aspirations and methods of their articulation with Indian wishes begin taking a heavy toll on our Madhes-centric parties?
The tactical utility of regionalism in Nepal to India having been served, New Delhi would be understandably anxious to disassociate itself with allegations of having continued the destabilization of Nepal.
Notwithstanding the mutual advantage some groups and New Delhi derived during India’s recent economic blockade, Madhesi parties have seen little real benefit from Indian ‘patronage’. Ordinary people on our side of the border have long been familiar with the relative neglect of Indians residing the closest to us.
Then comes the China factor, considering Beijing’s engagement with some Madhes-centric groups in the post-monarchy years. It would be relevant to view such Chinese overtures with Beijing’s experience and perceptions of the New Delhi’s links with Nepali Maoists.
For long, New Delhi benefited from the perpetuation of the line that Nepal’s Maoists were being directed and controlled by Beijing. Indeed, it is hard to believe that a pragmatism-driven China did not maintain some kind of relationship with the Maoists while arming democratic and royal regimes to go after the rebels. Yet New Delhi was working out its terms of engagement with Messrs. Dahal and Bhattarai under the radar with utmost tactical advantage.
Eventually, the Chinese benefited from the Maoists’ rise here in ways that stupefied New Delhi, but perhaps not to the extent Beijing had hoped. Even if China’s post-2066 Madhesi outreach was not exactly a payback to India, it certainly could have been precipitated by raw geo-strategic calculations. Doubtless, flashing the Tibet/Taiwan cards against China is an audacious move on the part of an India confident of its aspirations in an evolving world order. But perhaps it is not audacious enough to respond to the One Belt One Road, CPEC, and ‘string of pearls’ and other obvious and amorphous initiatives on a multiplicity of levels.
In such a scenario, from New Delhi’s calculations, facilitating the nationalization of regional politics in Nepal would help to preempt Beijing from making further inroads, while allowing India to espouse more indirect but more effective means of pursuing that broader rivalry.
Thus, our national political future would only be the outward manifestation of the ebb and flow of geo-political/-strategic realities and assumptions, predilections and preclusions.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Flashback: Freedom, Fluster And Fatalism

Viewed from a section of the south, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s northern sojourn was a damp squib. That the Maoists’, like their ideologically disparate forerunners in power, never intended to set off fireworks, was beside the point.
Beijing, according to the dominant Indian media storyline, did not shower financial largesse on Dahal suggestive of a patron-client relationship. The trust deficit, therefore, must still be too wide. By alienating Delhi, Dahal only contributed to shortening his tenure as premier. The last conclusion stems locally, from analysts allied to the opposition Nepali Congress known to reflect Indian opinion.
Yet the sting still seems to burn in other parts of New Delhi. The Manmohan Singh government is anxious to welcome Dahal on his way to the United Nations General Assembly. Landing in New York City is not tantamount to visiting the United States, but the Indians don’t want to be downgraded another notch.
Dahal, upon return, immediately went on damage-control mode. He said he would make his first political visit to India. Why this sudden surge of obsequiousness? Did the Chinese really cold-shoulder him?
There’s probably a very basic explanation. Dahal must have had ample time during his shadowy subterranean existence – before the People’s War, if not during it – to study the range of India’s capabilities in Nepal.
Shortly after his election as our first democratically elected premier in 1959, B.P. Koirala had rebutted his Indian counterpart’s suggestion that Nepal fell within India’s security perimeter. In response, Jawaharlal Nehru yielded to B.P.’s assertion of Nepali sovereignty. But he chose to make public the letters exchanged with the 1950 treaty. Mohan Shamsher Rana, the Nepali signatory, could afford to laugh off the time lag; history had ensured an irredeemable reputation for his clan.
B.P., on the other hand, wasn’t going to be beholden to the Ranas eight years after their ouster. Certainly not when he was building bridges to Israel, one of Nehru’s favorite whipping boys.
B.P.’s assertion was bold, but it would mark the beginning of his travails. After eight years’ imprisonment in Sundarijal, B.P. went into exile in India to discover that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had almost become nanny to his daughter Chetana during his official visit as premier, couldn’t schedule a mutually convenient meeting for quite long.
A pattern of sorts emerged. In 1971, the Nepali Congress’ arsenal for the second insurrection against the palace had to be redirected to Bangladesh. Amid the 1975 emergency in India, B.P. somehow concluded that Sundarijal had been more comfortable. (At least he could gauge the mood of the royal regime by the quality of the cheese it offered each day.) Clearly, he died ruing the capacity for greatness his Indian friends had squandered in Nepal.
Yet B.P. was lucky. Few can decouple UML leader Madan Bhandari’s death in 1993 from his fierce opposition to the Tanakpur accord. Marx had enough space to live a life of influence in Nepal. He didn’t have to hobnob with the commies in West Bengal in an effort to paint Bihar and Uttar Pradesh red.
It’s hard to miss the connection between the Narayanhity carnage eight years later and King Birendra’s refusal to sign that controversial citizenship bill. The struggle between the palace and Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala over the precise number of the treaties to be signed during Chinese premier Zhu Rongji’s visit might seem like a footnote today. Could it be any coincidence that the ones that weren’t would have had integrated Nepal’s economy closer to the north, leaving it less vulnerable to political manipulations from the south?
That ex-king Gyanendra owes his commoner’s status to his effort to bring China into SAARC as an observer is well known. Until then, efforts by one section of the Indian establishment to create a Maoist-mainstream alliance against the palace were being ridiculed by the other end. Honestly, how many of us haven’t wondered whether the last king could have avoided a fate worse than his brother’s were it not for the dimness of the potentially expedient line of succession?
Clearly, Prime Minister Dahal took a great risk by boarding that flight to China. His subsequent clarifications should not substantially diminish its importance. It would be safe to say that his personal well-being is now intertwined with Nepal’s.

Originally posted on Sunday, August 31, 2008