Saturday, July 26, 2014

Between Babudom And Netaland

After obliquely chiding us – for all of a day – that he might have no time to visit Nepal immediately, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is officially slated to come calling early next month.
Although the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government finds itself mired in controversy over New Delhi’s latest proposals on harnessing our waters, Modi himself is the beneficiary of the doubt. It probably took a day for the man to realize that.
Those proposals, which are perceived to tighten India’s already asphyxiating grip on us, were purportedly drawn up and communicated during the fag end of the Manmohan Singh government. Moreover, as former water resources minister and engineer Dipak Gyawali suggested in a recent TV interview, the entire episode – its secrecy as well as revelation – may be a plot by India’s bureaucratic establishment to subvert any positive thrust Modi might be contemplating vis-à-vis relations with Nepal.
Gyawali concedes that his apprehensions might turn out to be nothing more than political conjecture. Surely, events will have the ultimate say there. But, Maila Baje wonders, can we afford to wait?
The Indian bureaucracy will zealously guard its ‘privilege’ to conduct relations with Nepal, which a cursory examination of recent Indian commentary reveals. Those cautioning Prime Minister Modi against listening to anyone besides the architects of the post-April 2006 framework invariably happen to be ex-babus institutionally or individually involved in the process. Particularly apprehensive at this juncture are elements once associated with India’s intelligence agencies, today populating academia and other ‘non-government’ perches.
By now, Nepalis recognize that we are living under the post-monarchy vision the Research and Analysis Wing began framing in the 1960s. It took a while for the spooks to persuade their political bosses that the palace was the problem, as far as India was concerned. The bureaucracy salivated at the prospect of widening its jurisdiction. The halfhearted faith of the Indian political class in babudom’s prescription has been evident from the outset.
The successor regime in Nepal has not proven itself capable to correct the purported flaws of the palace. It’s not just that Nepal has failed to fall in line. Too many bidders with too deep pockets are proliferating from all directions all the time.
RAW and its narrow band of benefactors, struggling for a success story after Bangladesh and Sikkim receded into the background, are intent on making sure this process lingers on. At some point, as they see it, the collective will of the Nepali nation must succumb.
The political class in India, who enjoyed the respite provided by babudom on a vital frontier as they articulated their great-power aspirations, has a different psychology. True, they don’t want to know the details of covert operations as long as the analytical and operational players produce the right results. But they certainly don’t want to have to clean up the mess in full public glare.
The former monarch, who has bucked the chronological record of his ancestors, cannot be expected to keep doing so forever. His son has publicly ruled himself out of the succession, thus sparing the people much disquiet. The grandson is still too young to be anointed the royal successor in a way that would carry much meaning in either side of the debate.
Normally, this should be something worrying Nepali royalists. But you get a sense that the architects of our destiny down south are more petrified. The restoration of the monarchy is a prospect that lives on in Nepal not because of some nefarious design of the disempowered royals and courtiers. It does so because of the inability of the successor regime to establish itself as a viable successor amid Nepal’s geostrategic precariousness. RAW officers – current or former – already have a fair idea of what they are up against here. When direct beneficiaries of India’s covert policies – such as our Maoists – begin demanding that Indian politicians should drive their country’s policies toward Nepal, you can imagine the extent of the babus’ collective mortification.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Now, What Really Ails Us?

Those petrified by the possibility of the newly elected chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) leading us on a rightward lurch to the past probably should start pushing the panic button just a bit harder.
Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, citing his fragile health, has let us know quite clearly that he is a man in a hurry. Those of us wondering why he was so desperate for the top job – and could band together such a loyal following – have not got our answers yet. So there must be more excitement in store.
Among the first non-Nepalis to congratulate Oli were Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ally, Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah. While the alacrity of their gestures must have raised the fears of our anti-rightist camp, the Indian premier has waded into fresh controversy over his country’s putative plan for our waters. The story remains the same. Topography dictates that our rivers flow south, which we can do nothing about. But surely we don’t want the Indians to be the only non-Nepalis fishing in it, even though no one else seems to be seriously interested.
As the maneuverings on that front unfold, there is no telling what a man so conscious of his mortality can wreak. Oli and his principal ally Bam Dev Gautam once had a soft corner for the monarchy. We don’t know how the consistency of that sentiment has changed over the years. On the other end of the spectrum, Oli isn’t quite thrilled about the Maoists, either. Thus his public quest must be to conquer the middle ground of national politics from the Nepali Congress.
Madhav Kumar Nepal, mocked for mounting what was perceived as a futile challenge, actually presented a vigorous show. In the end, the votes from western Nepal seemed to have made the difference. A Ukraine-like polarization might not be in the cards here, but the fissures have opened up in a traditionally fractious party, which are bound to be felt outside.
Oli sounded magnanimous in victory. “Running a party is not akin to taking part in a marathon and party leaders are not marathon runners,” he said. “It is rather a team spirit and mainly the party leaders unitedly take the party ahead while adhering to the party’s ideology and keeping the organizational setup intact.”
Congratulating Oli, Nepal said he had begun feeling that it was a mistake to take part in the election by forming panels and groups. “I sincerely hope that those who have won will not marginalize the defeated and those who have lost will extend their helping hand to the victorious.”
Having made a campaign push to modernize the UML, Oli got an early taste of the extent of his challenges at the first post-election meeting of the party. The new leader might not be able to empower his panel to the detriment of his rival’s.
Still, that might not pose too much of a problem. Going by the past, it’s hard to see panel members suddenly become firm in their loyalty or conviction. With proper blandishments, the balance can always shift toward Oli, especially with Gautam on his side.
Despite all this, you’re still forced to wonder. An ailing prime minister and an ailing prime minister in waiting. And we’re still asking what ails our country?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

It’s All About Optics

The realities and restraints of open and competitive politics have considerably chastened our one-time Fierce One.
Sure, Comrade Pushpa Kamal Dahal still tends to breathe rhetorical fire at times. But the chairman of the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is no longer capable of persuading us of the limitlessness of our possibilities.
In general, hopey-changey politics simply doesn’t have sufficient constituency of suckers to ensure an extended shelf life. Bitten ever so often, Nepalis possess more pronounced skepticism than the rest.
However, it was hard not to give Dahal the benefit of the doubt in the spring of 2006. When he first emerged in public as the leader of a violent rebel movement who was now committed to waging peace, Dahal seized the country’s imagination – because there was so much we didn’t know about him.
As prime minister, we remember how he insisted on visiting China first, insisting that the circumstances warranted a sovereign nation’s making its choices without fear or favor. We tend to forget that within his first 100 days in office Prime Minister Dahal had met the presidents of the United States (even if in the form of a brief handshake on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly) and China as well as the Prime Minister of India. Nepal was on its way to making a clean break from business as usual, we were told. It started to look like it was.
Confronted with his first major crisis – President Ram Baran Yadav’s decision to reverse the prime minister’s decision to sack the army chief – Dahal chose to resign. His party had the best-organized cadre base on the streets and retained a distinct fear factor. By resigning, though, he sought to burnish his democratic credentials. You couldn’t say he failed.
In interviews with the Indian media, he sought to dispel the notion that he was somehow stepping into the same spiral of anti-Indianism popular with Nepali politicians out of power. Although skepticism had deepened by his tendency to speak in keeping with the audience, Dahal still enjoyed the support of those who considered his post-premiership remarks as a good-faith effort to explain the geo-strategic dimensions of governance.
Soon after, things began going downhill. Once he realized that his return to the premiership was now hopelessly encumbered, Dahal began publicly regretting his decision to step down.
Now, instead of advancing the search for the right balance between our two neighbors, Dahal began pitting Beijing and New Delhi against each other in order to bolster his personal politics.
The Chinese, having invested so much in the Maoists, tried working with second-tier leaders. The Indians, who were still seething at what they considered the monarchy’s brazen tradition of waving of the ‘China card’, turned nostalgic for the decency and dignity with which the palace pressed on that course.
Dahal eventually allowed his deputy, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, to become premier thinking that it would be the second best thing. Instead, the party split, the Maoists lost considerable ground in the second Constituent Assembly elections and Dahal was almost left without a job. The Maoists became just another chapter in the sordid history of fusion and fission of Nepal’s communist politics.
The Maoist interregnum did serve to bolster the credibility of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist. Maybe their kind politics is the norm. The two parties, having squandered the public trust, are living their second lives with reasonable élan. (Life on the sidelines has been an extremely useful popularity booster for our ex-monarch as well.)
Dahal must have learned a lesson or two here. But his fighting words? He is just too much of a political animal to restrain himself. The other day, the Maoist chief insisted that he was ready to go to jail and even lay down his life for the cause of identity-based federalism. In fairness, he probably still believes in the cause. But he surely can’t believe much of the country still believes in it as well.
He can’t abandon the idea in the same way he can’t abandon the constituent assembly, republicanism or secularism. Going to jail or getting out of this world wouldn’t place the burden of achieving identity-based federalism on Dahal. The optics would be good. And, yes, to be a successful Maoist these days, you have to be careful about appearances.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Tightening The Tent Of Tentativeness

Now that a top leader of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has publicly ruled out the return of the monarchy in Nepal, you would expect our political establishment to redouble its efforts to promulgate the overdue republican constitution.
Some leaders, to be sure, have been issuing remarkably upbeat prognoses on the process. Beneath the surface, however, you get a palpable sense that the stars still have not yet aligned properly.
Superficially, the issue of federalism continues to haunt our march towards New Nepal. Everyone knows that without addressing the expectations of inclusiveness the Maoists heightened – and the other parties jumped onto as a political ploy late in the day – the document is doomed. Yet no one seems to be able to find that formula for fullness that would also be in keeping with the principles of national and geopolitical viability.
While federalism has come to embody the quest for completeness, it only masks the other dimensions of our identity and institutional crises. In recent weeks, we have been rudely awakened to the appropriate role of the courts and the media in our emerging polity. International lessons abound when it comes to establishing a dignified relationship between the citizen and the state. The much-maligned air-and-water theory of adaptation still hovers over the national discourse.
Here’s the rub. A new constitution would set the parameters of our politics in ways that cannot be fully grasped today. Deep down, this uncertainty haunts every political party and player, major or minor. The people may be clamoring for finality, especially considering the repeated upheavals they have endured within a single generation. The political establishment cannot be ready for conclusiveness unless each constituent can be assured of its place and prospect.
Still, politicians feel obliged to assure us of their abiding commitment to fulfilling the mandate of Constituent Assembly II. And they are looking for novel ways of doing so. So much so that politicians whom you would not normally consider weirdoes end up making wild assertions.
Speaker Subhash Chandra Nembang said the other day that enacting the new constitution by January 22, 2015 would be the greatest tribute to late prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala. Nembang, in fairness, was addressing a program commemorating the 90th birth anniversary the Nepali Congress titan and thus had to be polite. But personalizing the vital undertaking as an act of homage to Girija babu? What happened to the martyrs? Or our collective wisdom as a nation?
Minister for Law, Justice, Constituent Assembly and Parliamentary Affairs Narhari Acharya, for his part, claimed that Nepal would witness political stability once the new constitution was promulgated. But political instability is not exactly our problem, is it? At least not compared to the 1990-2002 period of parliamentary democracy.
The political class has been remarkably subdued now when it comes to pursuing the proverbial warfare by other means. Perhaps this is because each party is mired in internal battles. Surely, Acharya could have been more convincing by conveying the urgency of completing a task long overdue at considerable public expense.
In order to comprehend the tentativeness of our political class, Maila Baje chose to re-read BJP leader Vijay Jolly’s remarks, which one English daily had headlined: “Monarchy won’t make a comeback: BJP leader”.
Professing respect for the Nepali people’s desire for change in 2006 – which he said he had personally witnessed in Kathmandu at the time – Jolly said the BJP had actually supported the removal of the monarchy. Yet when it came time to be categorical in our midst about the future, Jolly’s precise words were: “I don’t think monarchy will make a comeback in Nepal”.
How many provinces are we contemplating, again?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Generalspeak: Platitude Or Portent?

An already ailing prime minister diagnosed with another serious malady has reignited a leadership struggle in the principal ruling party, pitting its dynastic claimants against the plebeians.
The other major coalition partner is mired in a party convention wherein the two prime contestants for leadership are slinging mud over who brings more royalist baggage to the ring.
The once-feared rebels, splintered, exhausted and relegated to third place, insist the two ruling parties are bent on restoring the monarchy and unitary state by reinstating the previous constitution.
And when the only avowedly royalist party in the elected assembly insists it would not accept any constitution that did not formally accommodate the monarchy and Hinduism, even the most committed republicans do not pretend to rise up to offer a rebuttal.
So when Gen. Gaurav Shamsher Rana, chief of staff of the Nepal Army, reminded us other day that the armed forces were the last line of defense, he created a flutter.
In the best of times, such platitudes would have been easily shrugged off. Even in the worst – like today’s – a been-there-done-that attitude should have sufficed. Yet the attempt to read between the top general’s words persists. It’s an age-old syndrome: When you don’t know what you really want, you try to seek meaning in everything.
A little history lesson may be in order. The last time our top general gave the same message, stirrings of change were in the air. Except it wasn’t the kind we expected. When the entire family of the supreme commander of the then Royal Nepal Army perished inside the heavily fortified palace perimeter, the same army chief wanted us to be believe that his organization was not responsible for the royals’ security.
Clearly, army bosses pushed then king Gyanendra to seize full control of state powers in February 2005, confident in their ability to control the situation. Superficially, the monarch confronted a two-front battle. In reality, though, the mainstream parties were still discredited and the monarch initially had the people’s palpable – if wary – support. Why then could the army, unencumbered by the political imperatives inherent under party rule, make no dent against the insurgents? If the shortage of arms and ammunition resulting from the post-takeover embargo was the reason, what did that say about the generals’ political acumen?
Admittedly, you could accuse the monarch – as so many continue to – of squandering the brief window of opportunity by packing his cabinet with discredited politicians from the partyless and multiparty past. What else could he have done amid the sustained boycott mounted by the mainstream parties? Name key generals to top cabinet positions?
In the end, you could say the generals persuaded the monarch of the impossibility of his enterprise and encouraged him to step back. To assert that claim, the generals would have to inject some honesty to the discourse.
The army ultimately absolved itself by undergoing a name change and distancing itself from the palace. Any new such adventure would be far more perilous to the armed forces and, by extension, to the nation.
Now, if Gen. Rana’s intention was to assure us that the armed forces, which unified Nepal, sustained Bhimsen Thapa’s thirty-year autocracy before underpinning a century of the Ranas’, and went on to bolster the democrats, the panchas, multiparty practitioners, royalists and republicans of a still independent nation, then he should not have taken the trouble. If anything, we’ve wizened up to our history these past few years.