Saturday, March 17, 2018

Visiting Rights And Wrongs

Our sparkling-new Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali’s eagerness to have the Chinese and Indian leaders visit Nepal this year is understandable. Few Nepalis would quibble with Gyawali’s assertion that such high-level visits would help not only to strengthen bilateral relations but also to secure new avenues of cooperation.
Maila Baje feels there is a more immediate imperative, though, now that our prolonged political transition has come to a close. If Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s government could pull off visits by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this year, it would provide a much-needed psychological boost to the nation.
Say what you will about the bad old days, but we certainly didn’t have any shortage of visiting foreign leaders, some of them even luminaries of their times. Dictators and democrats, we were an equal-opportunity destination. Sure, Nepalis were forced to line the streets and wave those flags for hours on. But, as you look back, you can’t deny that, at some deep level, it felt good to be alive. How wonderful it would have been if such bright spots of those ‘dark days’ simply endured.
Make no mistake. We’ve had our share of foreign dignitaries visiting Nepal over the last 28 years. Democracy made us a little inward looking. Post-Cold War international realignments cast us to the sidelines. Given India’s predominant role in the changes of 1990 and 2006, perhaps political itineraries were bound to be skewed in one direction. But things went a bit too far. Our leaders turned political supplicants in the guise of medical treatment and pilgrimages. For junior leaders of factions within Indian political parties, Nepal became a proving ground.
We were sore when Indian prime ministers stayed away for so long but expected to be the first to host each incoming Nepali leader. When Indian prime ministers did start visiting again, we wondered where all those people leading the rest of the world were. Somebody somewhere must have had some time for us. When Pakistan’s prime minister arrived on such short notice to such high state honors, our collective response was striking: it was almost as if our army band was paying tribute to Nepalis.
News that Prime Minister Modi might visit Nepal this year emerged a few weeks ago in the Indian news media. Xi, for his part, has been enticing us with the promise of a visit for far too long. So much so that it looks like the Chinese are anxiously seeking commitments and undertakings that we are equally anxiously avoiding.
It’s not as if we’re going to get a Donald Trump or a Vladimir Putin here anytime soon. So, Mr. Gyawali, just press on with your preparatory work on getting Xi and Modi here this year. Let’s not get bogged down in who gets here first. A joint Xi-Modi visit could be contemplated, if we’re up to it logistically. If not, let them come in reasonably rapid succession to maintain the momentum.
We’ll think about about strengthening relations and securing new avenues of cooperation after that. If such a seemingly antithetical approach helped us build the internal underpinnings of a ‘new Nepal’, it might work just fine on the external front.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Flashback: Get Back To Where You Once Belonged...

If the expression ‘damp squib’ can be associated most aptly with any political formation in Nepal, it has to be the Naya Shakti of Baburam Bhattarai.
Indeed, the dude himself has been remarkably candid about the dud his organization has become. So you would have expected Dr. Bhattarai to be a wee bit sympathetic to calls for a homecoming. But, no, the one-time Maoist ideologue has shut the door on going back to the once-formidable Maoists.
Now, you could easily sympathize with Dr. Bhattarai here. It’s not as if Maoist Centre chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ is anxious to vacate the party leadership in favor of Bhattarai. For his part, the Naya Shakti chief, whatever the disaster his decision to break away in September 2015 may have turned out to be, is not too keen to return to the veep slot.
Moreover, Dahal’s unity appeal was directed to the Mohan Baidya- and Netra Bikram Chand-led groups as well. Truth be told, for Dr. Bhattarai, that might have been the real ultimate insult.
The Naya Shakti chief’s almost visceral instinct for distinctiveness was also apparent in the botched merger with the Federal Socialist Forum-Nepal (FSF-N) led by Upendra Yadav. Dr. Bhattarai’s explanation for the last-minute breakdown earlier this month is a bit bizarre. Naya Shakti espouses federalism, he said, while the FSF-N supports ‘federal socialism’. This is akin to splitting hairs, unless Dr. Bhattarai wants us to believe he isn’t too keen on federalism anymore.
Also, if there were differences on “some ideological and political issues” besides the party’s name and organizational issues – as Dr. Bhattarai suggested the other day – then wasn’t Naya Shakti’s decision to contest the local elections on the FSF-N symbol an act of duplicity.
Dr. Bhattarai also says the FSF-N is “reluctant” to transform itself into a new force. But isn’t that the exact thing people leaving Naya Shakti have been accusing the party of?
It’s one thing to oppose ‘careerism’ and advocate ‘good governance’ philosophically. Practically, you need to do more than going after the Chinese company building a hydro plant and demand the scalp of the water resources minister who let it in.
So here’s the deal, Dr. Bhattarai, coz this sure ain’t working. Step back two steps or even three and recall where you were before you joined the Maoists (or formed it). Doesn’t it feel like you’re almost back there after parting ways with Dahal and Co?
Admit it, your best days were with Dahal, as his deputy. Sure, you two never got along. That was the beauty of it. Each of you could craft ideologically laced but seemingly incoherent charge sheets that we took as prose of profundity and watch you duke it out.
Clearly, Dahal misses you a lot. Deep down, you seem to, too, if not specifically the man then all those moments with him. So what if you have to step down a notch? Do it for us.
Originally posted on Saturday, July 29, 2017

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Nepali Congress: Conundrum Of Change

Amid the banality of the dump-on-Deuba campaign within the Nepali Congress, Krishna Prasad Sitaula’s remarks merit closer examination.
You can hardly quibble with Sitaula’s prediction at a public function the other day that the party would threaten its existence if it failed to adjust to the changing times. His stress on the need for an ideological discussion, too, resonates well in the organization and beyond.
Sitaula’s remark that Nepal’s communist parties work just for partisan interests and do not care about the welfare of the nation could be construed as an attempt to prejudge the wisdom of the electorate. But, then, everyone has a right to his or her opinion. Still, you are forced to wonder how different things might have turned out had such wisdom guided Sitaula during the royal takeover of 2005-2006 and its immediate aftermath.
It might be an exaggeration to say that Sitaula singlehandedly turned the Nepali Congress into an adjunct of the Maoists. But it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. Having virtually monopolized the time and attention of an ailing Girija Prasad Koirala, Sitaula was often characterized as merely doing the bidding of certain external quarters in a grand experiment.
He brought Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ from his hideout into full public glare. He was credited with devising the deal that led king Gyanendra to handover his crown and scepter and vacate Narayanhity Palace for Nagarjun. If anything, he was the embodiment of change. Sure, he had his critics. But they chose to remain quiet, at least publicly.
Sitaula’s defeat at the hands of the single triumphant candidate representing the old order, if you will – Rajendra Lingden of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal – must rank among the cruelest ironies of Nepali political history. A defeat, moreover, that was predicated on the joint strength of the Unified Marxist-Leninist and Maoist factions of the communists.
The double whammy may go one to explain Sitaula’s latest tirade against our communists’ true motives. But our focus here is on the change he and others expect the Nepali Congress to undergo.
Since Nepal’s self-proclaimed sole democratic party cannot out-red the communists in any shape, manner or form, meaningful change must come from a different direction. What might that be? The feasibility of doubling down on centrism has diminished ever since the party severed its identification with constitutional monarchy. Globalization and its discontents have rendered full-blown fealty to capitalism and liberal internationalism unworkable. Even if the Nepali Congress were to abandon its democratic-socialist tag, it would be hard-pressed to fare any better than its principal rivals with their communist label.
As to Trumpian populism, it does not go together well with centrism, unless you are willing to keep the people guessing who you really are. A party intent on building upon its impressive organizational legacy cannot afford to let individual idiosyncrasies govern its outlook and approach.
A rightwing drift can be premised on the Nepali Congress’ open espousal of Hinduism. But the party’s DNA does not seem structured that way, notwithstanding the exertions of Messrs. Khum Bahadur Khadka and Co. The party’s genesis, orientation and persona preclude rightwing nativism, especially concerning the geopolitical directions of our open borders.
If the Nepali Congress truly desires ideological rejuvenation, there can be few routes beyond a return to espousing constitutional monarchy as a means of preserving tradition and pursuing modernity. Any half measures, such as splitting the national party and parliamentary party leaderships, would remain precisely that.
Politics is the art of the possible. Should an opportunity present itself to the Nepali Congress for a precipitous and unexpected ascension to power, why open future fault lines in the name of soul-searching today?  If Sher Bahadur Deuba is indeed the problem, throw him out and elected a new leader who can be entrusted with both the party presidentship and premiership with new vigor.
Unwittingly perhaps, Sitaula may have delineated one more course of action. If Nepali communists do indeed work only for partisan interests and do not care about national welfare, then the Nepali Congress can simply sit back long enough in the hope of bouncing back. An easy approach – and the one most likely to be taken, too.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Talking Straight In The Shadows

Chalk one up for cruel candor, if you will.
With one word put in vicious context in one interview, Prime Minister K. P. Oli has provoked the Indian commentariat into probing his means, motive and opportunity.
In his interview with the South China Morning Post, Oli made wide-ranging observations on Nepal’s relations with its two giant neighbors. However, it was his desire to deepen ties with China and gain more ‘leverage’ with India, expressed halfway through the 1200-plus-word text, which drew New Delhi’s almost exclusive attention.
From the reactions emanating from across the southern border, you get a feeling that Oli really rubbed it in this time. Clearly, the audacity inherent in our premier’s articulation, more than the substance of the subject, has irked the Indians.
Some sections in New Delhi seem to believe they may have gone overboard in seeking to woo Oli, to the point of emboldening his already pronounced rhetorical boldness. Is this what you get after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s phone calls and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s personal exertions? Others have sought to put on a brave face, counseling faithful patience in the Nepali Congress’ inevitable revival, tinged with intimations of the availability of other options.
Keeping Bhutan largely within the fold amid the Doklam/Donglang face-off was a triumph for India. But landlocked Nepal veering in the direction of islands and archipelago like Sri Lanka and the Maldives? From that standpoint, you could even make the case that India’s reaction has been subdued.
But, then, can you really put too much premium on what transpires in public, as far as Nepal and India are concerned? The South China Morning Post no doubt has been reflecting Beijing’s thinking more closely with every passing decade of Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty. Yet it is not in the league of the Global Times.
Moreover, the Indian byline accompanying the story may have served to confer on its content a degree of independence and credibility. But the reality that it was a non-Han who interviewed Oli could equally signify much more in different directions.
Oli probably did not compare notes with Chinese representatives in Kathmandu before opening up to the SCMP reporter. But he isn’t someone apt to shoot from the hip, either. Having hugged him hard with smooches all over, the Indians could easily understand Oli’s desperation to breathe free for a while. A head fake in the media would give official New Delhi enough cover to pursue its real policies vis-à-vis our new government, while letting the spores of apprehension germinate further north.
The Chinese, for their part, certainly won’t commit too much to the preponderance of the left here without properly sizing up Oli. A key test would be the swiftness with which our prime minister follows through on some of the things he said in the interview, such as reviving the Budi Gandkai dam project.
As Beijing widens its gaze, the Nepali media, in playing up US President Donald J. Trump’s otherwise routine congratulatory message to our prime minister, may have given Beijing something more to ponder.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Change Is The Only Constant

If Khadga Prasad Oli’s return to the premiership was inevitable after his party’s sturdy performance in last year’s elections, the timing of his ascension appears to have been conveniently crafted.
While the ‘China’s gain, India’s pain’ narrative will be assiduously held, New Delhi appears to have ensured sufficient safeguards against any significant ‘contrariness’ from the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) chairman this time around.
Not long after Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj invited herself to Nepal to give him that so palpably asphyxiating embrace, Oli finds himself at the helm of a minority government. The much-ballyhooed grand leftist unity is still marred by almost willful obfuscation from the principal protagonists. The Maoists could have sent a minister or two as a confidence-building measure.
Ideology, power sharing, personal predilections, or any number of other things could be standing in the way. For now, all we hear is the word ‘inevitable’. Beijing might be happy at the change of guard in Kathmandu, but it will certainly be hard-pressed to identify what there is really to cheer about.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the most formidable opposition to the UML-Maoist Center unification is emanating, not from so-called ‘national and international conspirators’, but from within the two parties. Of course, the distinction may be feebler than it sounds. But you cannot disregard the reality that others get to play only because those within allow them to.
If Oli is facing antagonism, if not outright insurrection, from factional chieftains like Madhav Kumar Nepal, the Maoists are not in exactly pristine form, either.  Once-acquiescent lieutenants like Krishna Bahadur Mahara, Ram Bahadur Thapa, Barsa Man Pun, Janardan Sharma and Top Bahadur Rayamajhi are becoming more assertive in the organization as the aura of chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal continues to fade. The fact that these second-rung leaders come from different directions and have yet to fully pursue their own rivalries only complicates matters. 
On the other hand, caretaker prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba seems to have taken enough care to ensure that Oli’s journey would be anything but smooth. How many decisions will the new prime minister have to undo before he can start taking his own ones. And, then, who really knows how many – and what kind of – other ‘inopportune’ decisions the Deuba cabinet might have taken that have not hit the headlines.
Then there’s that innately human element. Oli had really stuck his neck out long and hard northward last time. What did the Chinese do for him when the inevitable backlash arrived? He was thrown out like a door mouse. More importantly, how many of us who ceaselessly commended his ‘nationalist’ stand during the Indian blockade do to bolster him in his hour of need?
To cut a long story short, where’s the evidence that Oli won’t be a changed man this time around as far as his geostrategic orientation goes? Dahal’s 180-degree flip was softened to an extent by the distance between his two premierships. The relative closeness of Oli’s tenures will perhaps make any such somersault more extraordinary, but it will certainly be no less explicable.