Sunday, December 10, 2017

Tangling Anew With Tilts And Tugs

The geo-strategic narrative that was gradually building in the run-up to our elections has begun to boom across the neighborhood and beyond.
If the Chinese are as thrilled about the leftist sweep in our federal and provincial polls as we are being told they are, they certainly won’t be showing it. They are more likely to continue their admonitions to the Indians against reading too much into the electoral psychology of Nepalis.
In the coming days and weeks, the results will be dissected in all their glory and gore. For our purposes here, let’s begin by accepting the prevailing Indian premise that Nepalis have voted en mass against India. Is a northward Nepali tilt a foregone conclusion? Instead of ‘Bhutanized’, have we all suddenly become ‘Maldivized’?
Will Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government learn from not having let Nepalis be Nepalis and back off a bit? In style, perhaps. But hardly so in substance. The Indians aren’t about to give up on their most advantageous flank in their stepped-up rivalry with China. If anything, New Delhi may decide to become more creative in its dealings.
The canvas may be quite conducive. A Nepali Congress licking its wounds will have a mind working in different directions. Throw in those party luminaries who will always have a hard time believing the scale of their rout.
Gagan Thapa and his ilk may well blame Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Poudel for the fiasco all they like. They will find Deuba and Poudel’s fingers already pointing to the late Girija Prasad Koirala and Krishna Prasad Sitaula. (Isn’t the irony irresistible here? The man who did the most to hitch the hitherto monarchist Nepali Congress onto the republican Maoists was defeated by a royalist supported by the Maoists and the Marxist-Leninists).
Will the Kamal Thapa and Pashupati Shamsher Rana factions and all the royalists in between suddenly realize how badly they squandered their last chance and mend their ways? Fat chance. Counterintuitive as it may sound, the people happiest at the royalist/Hindu statehood rout are the royalists (the real ones, one might add).
If the monarchy/Hindu statehood-restoration agenda moves forward at all, it will now do so on a wider berth inclusive of a Nepali Congress looking wistfully at its roots. Even before the first votes were cast, Deuba and other Congress leaders were warmly espousing Hinduism in public. There’s a fair chance that the Two Necks In A Noose Theory will enjoy some kind of revival.
The regional groups may find themselves busy pursuing their agenda within the regional structures, if they are not distracted by a more immediate imperative to regroup amid the new political realities.
In retrospect, Deuba may have grossly overplayed the communist threat. That doesn’t mean the left will be looking over its shoulders with any less apprehension. They own the place – including whatever they bake and break. Alluring as the prospect of monopolizing credit for success is, they know they won’t have anyone to kick around when the going gets rough. But let’s not prejudge our comrades.
However, there is enough that permits us to delve deeper into the China tilt storyline. Khadga Prasad Oli, Pushpa Kamal Dahal and most of the folks on their end of the political spectrum may have their personal preferences in terms of our two neighbors. Yet they have the political savvy not to forget their debts to the south. And they must be thinking of their future. If, God forbid, something happens and they need to take a hike, the trek southward will prove far easier.
It’s not only geography. Our comrades are conditioned by history. The northern experiences of Bahadur Shah, Bhimsen Thapa, Jang Bahadur, Chandra Shamsher, kings Mahendra, Birendra and Gyanendra convey a definite dismal pattern. Dahal and, to a lesser extent, Oli are familiar with the unsentimental pragmatism the mandarins up north have mastered as a tool of foreign policy.
On the other hand, our comrades have seen the hospitality the Indians have accorded Mohan Shamsher Rana and ex-king Gyanendra individually, even after having exhausted them institutionally. Politics is the art of the possible. Without self-preservation, can there be many possibilities?

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Watch Your Words – For All The Tomorrows

A suddenly salient feature of our politics today is the post-Dasain transformation in its language.
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s campaign rhetoric is reminiscent of the pre-1990 era wherein anything the communists said or did was tantamount to a conspiracy against the Nepali Congress and democracy (which the party considered synonymous).
The communists, for their part, have brought back memories of an even distant era, one preceding the Pushpa Lal Shrestha-Keshar Jung Rayamajhi rupture (or, more appropriately, the Sino-Soviet split). It’s as if idealism should continue to trump achievements to votaries of that ideology, even after all that was sifted from the rubble of the Berlin Wall.
The results of the local elections, the unification drive between the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and perceptions of a diminution of the royalist threat as the country hurtles toward the culmination of the post-April 2006 process have all played a part.
No less important are the realignments on the geo-political front in the post-Doklam/Dong Lang context. International headlines today are eagerly portraying elections that are supposed to signify the complete and irreversible affirmation of Nepal’s entry into newness as one more front in the Sino-Indian contest for supremacy.
From that standpoint, at least, Nepalis may be forgiven for wondering whether these times presage the kind of surprise the multigenerational Pande-Thapa bhardari rivalries produced before the Kot Massacre of 1846.
The UML and Maoist Centre seem content to perform their respective roles as members of a mutual admiration society. UML chairman K.P. Sharma Oli, when he is not training his jests and gibes on Deuba and his party, has been adulatory of the impending union between the two major Nepali communist parties.
The superlatives Maoist Centre chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal used in support of UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal the other day were, at best, cringe-worthy. And not because of the words per se.
On its own, Dahal’s praise for the great personal risk Nepal took in meeting with Maoist leaders during their days underground in the interest of building confidence and consensus is laudable. However, the echoes of ‘Delhi’s lapdog’, ‘poison tree’, ‘royal supplicant’ and other slurs Dahal & Co. have used against Nepal in the past continue to grate us.
Days earlier, Dahal exhorted his rivals in the Nepali Congress-led alliance to mind the language they are using against the communists. His point was that the imperative of cooperation among today’s rivals would continue to exist even after the elections. “Let’s not exchange words today that might make us too embarrassed to shake hands tomorrow,” the Maoist chairman said.
True words. But, then, isn’t the converse equally true? Don’t compliment today’s allies to the skies lest you lose the potency of words required if (when seems more likely) the time comes to censure them again tomorrow.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Could This Be What The Dalai Lama Meant?

The outrage that continues over the Dalai Lama’s recent assertion that Lord Buddha was born in India is understandable. If the Ocean of Wisdom who draws every drop from the Enlightened One’s eternal waters doesn’t have his facts straight on this one, might the Almighty even deign to save our souls?
We’ve passed the stage where history and geography provide any parameters for discussion on this subject. Suggesting that Prince Siddhartha was born in Nepal and attained Buddhahood in India becomes mere hair-splitting. Nor does it help to question whether notions of today’s Nepal and India should even be applicable to events of yore.
Stress the wisdom of upholding the universal teachings of the Buddha instead of obsessing with his antecedents and you end up muddying the waters further. If the clarification offered by the Dalai Lama’s Office on November 25 seems to fall flat, we know why.
“[We] would like to clarify that His Holiness meant no disrespect towards his Nepalese brothers and sisters. Like Buddhists everywhere, he wholeheartedly accepts that the Buddha's birthplace was Lumbini,” a statement on the official site of the Dalai Lama reads.
“What he wanted to emphasize in contemporary terms is the importance of understanding what the Buddha taught and the scope of his influence throughout Asia. It is universally acknowledged that India, the land of the Noble Ones, is where the Buddha achieved enlightenment and subsequently gave profound teachings. We trust that this clears up any misunderstanding or misapprehension.”
Owing to the continuing trust deficit, Maila Baje has attempted to examine the Dalai Lama’s assertion in a different way. The contentious remark came in the course of answers His Holiness offered to questions from students in Meerut on October 16. Thus, it preceded by over month the latest hullabaloo the Dalai Lama has generated by assuring the Chinese that he sought not independence for Tibet but its development.
To be fair, the Dalai Lama hasn’t really renounced the patron-priest relationship with China that underpins his institution. When Chinese forces took full control of Tibet in 1950, he remained inside the territory and continued discussions with Mao Zedong in Beijing on ways to secure the best deal for his land and people. The two men seemed to admire each other.
When the Dalai Lama visited India in 1956-57, there were expectations that he would seek asylum. However, he returned home. By the time he fled in 1959, His Holiness was disenchanted with Beijing’s policies and actions. Still, his flight was linked primarily to his personal safety. The repudiation of the 17-point agreement and the notion of a government in exile followed once events took a particular course.
There was no shortage of external elements that desired to see the Dalai Lama established not as a symbol of Tibetan independence but as an anti-China mascot who could be raised or lowered according to geopolitical exigencies. (Something akin to this happened here when Surya Bahadur Thapa & Co. scared B.P. Koirala into exile citing the second thoughts King Mahendra supposedly had after freeing the Nepali Congress leader from Sundarijal in 1968.)
Having seen the Americans, Brits and everybody else sacrifice Tibet on the altar of their own interests, the Dalai Lama must sometimes wonder how differently history might have unfolded had he decoded to stay in Lhasa. His Holiness has enough roots in this world to cherish his celebrity status and attempt to put it to good use. Who would blame him if simply chose to play along with the independence guild.
When hyper-realists in India in their post-Doklam exuberance dream of using the individual and the institution to step up pressure on China, the Dalai Lama may have felt the need to refocus his script. In seeking to conciliate China during his November 23 remarks to the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Kolkata, he may have sought to put the brakes on Indian pugnaciousness in time and ensure more lenient treatment of compatriots back home.
In this sense, the Buddha-was-born-in-India line may have had a more portentous purpose amid the 14th Dalai Lama’s impending exit and the inevitably antagonistic search for a successor. If the Indians could so easily discard their ‘own’ son – the Buddha – and let the Chinese claim the mantle of Buddhism, how wise would it be for Tibetans still dreaming of independence to rely on the Indians?
When the Indians wanted the Dalai Lama to be a good guest at Dharamsala all these decades, they gave him a set of do’s and don’ts. Maybe Tenzin Gyatso now wants the Indians to be good hosts.
Did he have to injure Nepali pride in the process? That, as they say, is a good question.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Dreaming Up Others’ Dreams

Comrade Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ is consumed with purveying dreams these days – except they are not his own.
At one public function, the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) vowed to fulfill the dream of the late strongman of the Nepali Congress, Girija Prasad Koirala. Days later, he promised to complete the tasks left undone by Madan Bhandary, the late founding general secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist).
G.P. Koirala, if anything, was a cold-hearted realist. If he had a recurrent dream, it was to become Nepal’s first president. And Dahal, lest we forget, had firmly stood in his way.
Madan Bhandary, ideologically and by inclination, was a dreamer. But his dreams were dense with rhetorical flourish. In Dahal’s own estimation, Bhandary was a dark spot on the glorious light of communism that survived his death. And wasn’t that why the Maoists had to band together and fight the ‘people’s war’. 
Yet today Dahal tells us that he was huddling with Bhandary to forge a grand leftist alliance. (Curious, then, how all we heard was how Bhandary was in talks with King Birendra when he perished in that mysterious car plunge.)
If the Nepali Congress and the UML have been able today to establish themselves as the principal champions of republicanism, federalism and secularism, it is because Dahal & Co. have let them. No wonder the foot soldiers and field commanders of the ‘people’s war’ who have not prospered politically in the past decade have stopped asking whether the 10-year insurgency was worth it all.
In the realm of politics, dreaming is not necessarily a bad thing. And who knows that better than Nepalis. All three tenets of New Nepal were dismissed as pipe dreams until the very moment they happened. With so little indigenously to go by, moreover, weaving dreams keeps us preoccupied. 
Still, why chase G.P. Koirala’s and Bhandary’s dreams when the Maoists have woven enough of their own? Is it because they are dead and cannot vouch for what they did or did not envision?
Maybe there is a more hardheaded reason. Dahal, in his post-Dasain avatar, has given us every reason to believe that he anxiously wants his party to be taken over by a ‘lesser’ organization in order to wipe out all traces of the Maoists’ existence. If people want to remember the once-formidable organization, let them do so in the realm of lore.
The present is rooted in existence and evidence. In the aftermath of a collective vanishing act, it would be harder to haul Dahal & Co. all the way to The Hague. More importantly, the fraternity would be able to evade responsibility for translating into vivid reality the wonderful dreams they once sold.
It would have been much better if the Maoists had voluntarily disarmed, disbanded and dispersed among the existing parties once the ‘people’s war’ screeched to a safe landing. After all, few if any in that organization had ever promised us a ‘people’s peace’. Maybe that’s what Comrade Dahal is really getting at here.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Abundant Gratitude, In Life And Death

In death, Kirti Nidhi Bista has been appropriately eulogized for his indefatigable defense of the nation’s interests and for his spotless persona as a public figure.
Bista’s first term as premier (1969-1970) is remembered for his decision to remove Indian military checkposts and liaison office as part of consolidating Nepal’s national sovereignty and territorial sanctity.
During his second tenure (1971-1973), King Mahendra passed away. In serving King Birendra, the prime minister provided much continuity amid the aspirations for change the new monarch’s ascension had inspired.
Yet, when Singha Darbar mysteriously caught fire, he resigned on moral grounds. Few could be sure what Bista could have done to prevent the calamity that struck the iconic central secretariat. That decision has been held as an example of political integrity.
Bista returned to the premiership in 1977 and resigned in 1979, when King Birendra announced a national referendum in response to student protests that threatened to burgeon into a full-blown national insurrection.
The royal proclamation read over Radio Nepal exhorting the people to choose between continuing with the partyless system or returning to multiparty democracy was said to have come as a surprise to Bista. Regardless, he concluded that he could no longer continue to lead the government with the nation standing at such momentous crossroads.
After the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, Bista tried his hand in competitive politics, alongside, at one point, another ex-premier, Matrika Prasad Koirala. Having failed to make any headway, he quietly receded into the background.
In 2005, he emerged to become one of the two vice-chairmen in the government headed by King Gyanendra as the monarch took full state powers. After the collapse of the royal regime amid a popular uprising in April 2006, Bista continued voicing his opinions on crucial national issues.
Sure, he had his fair share of critics. Many called him a palace lackey, while others denigrated him as China’s pointman in Nepal. Indeed, if Bista was the only Nepali politician the Chinese might have been tempted to rate among the Zhongguo renmin de lao pengyou [old friends of the Chinese people], Bista certainly earned the spot. Two episodes, both preceding Bista’s ascension to the premiership, serve to illustrate the roles he played.
First, a little background. Growing Sino-Nepali engagement in the aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian war had manifested itself in increasing flows of Chinese aid to Nepal in an ostensible effort to offset India’s preponderance. At the same time, the logic of the Cold War precipitated American, British, and Soviet aid policies aimed at countering Beijing.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Nepal-China bonhomie was not a done deal. After his high-profile visit up north in 1961, King Mahendra would not visit China again. Premier Zhou Enlai, who had visited Nepal twice, skipped Kathmandu during his travels in the region in 1964 and 1965.
As Beijing pulled out of two aid projects – rather brusquely in Nepali eyes – the value of Chinese economic assistance had begun to be reevaluated in some Kathmandu quarters. Official Chinese pronouncements, for their part, had begun referring to friendship and support for the Nepali people rather than for the Nepali government.
The palace’s apprehension of a shift in Chinese policy was no doubt bolstered by the fact that the pro-Chinese faction of our communist fraternity was in exile in India advocating an uprising against the monarchy, while the pro-Soviet wing was quietly backing the king.
As the Kathmandu-Tibet highway opened to one-way traffic in December 1964, a Chinese technician who defected to Taiwan alleged that the road was constructed for military purposes. An official in Kathmandu revealed the discovery of four large caches of arms reportedly smuggled in by Chinese agents. The Soviets began playing up such reports of ulterior Chinese motives in Nepal, prompting Beijing to condemn Moscow’s tactics.
In an effort to widen Nepal’s strategic space, King Mahendra began seeking US and British military assistance, and Kathmandu politely turned down a Chinese offer to build a road connecting the Kathmandu-Tibet highway with a point in the eastern Terai. Although Beijing was said to have made angry complaints in private, it never voiced them publicly.
When the CIA made another airdrop of arms, ammunition and food supplies to Khampa rebels in Mustang in 1965, the Chinese pressed the palace to act. Several Khampas were arrested in Kathmandu with arms and radios and an American diplomat was expelled for having supplied them. Welcoming those moves, Beijing considered them insufficient.
Against this grim backdrop, Bista, as Deputy Prime Minister, visited Beijing in August 1965. By the time he returned, Beijing seemed satisfied enough with the royal regime to step up aid projects in the form of the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway and Sunkosi hydropower station.
The second episode came in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in 1966. As the Kathmandu-Tibet road was opened to traffic the following May, Chinese media reported that Nepalis at inauguration ceremony had raised slogans extolling Mao as “the red sun which shines most brightly in the hearts of the people of the whole world”.
The expulsion of two Chinese diplomats from India in June 1967 intensified tensions as some 200 Chinese Embassy officials and project technicians gathered at Tribhuvan Airport to welcome the two men. When told they were not on the flight, the assembled Chinese raised anti-Indian and pro-Cultural Revolution slogans, prompting New Delhi to lodge a strong protest.
Tensions escalated later that month at the annual exhibition held to celebrate the king’s birthday. The Chinese wanted to put up a portrait of Mao beside King Mahendra’s in their stall, although Liu Shaoqi was China’s head of state. A crowd of Nepalese students attacked the Chinese stall before attacking a Chinese Embassy vehicle and the Nepal-China Friendship Association library.
The official Chinese media accused US ‘imperialists’, Soviet ‘revisionists’ and Indian ‘reactionaries’ of having instigated the Nepali ‘hooligans’. It also accused Nepali authorities of having ‘approved and supported the protests’, a charge subsequently leveled by the Chinese government.
Although immediate tensions subsided, Nepal grew more suspicious of the China. Beijing, too, reevaluated its stance. Bista paid a visit to Beijing and seemed to have succeeded in injecting a modicum of normalcy in relations.
During a visit to Kathmandu in 1969, Indian Foreign Minister Dinesh Singh reaffirmed that Nepal and India shared special relations. Bista, by now prime minister, described such relations as outdated in view of the progress Nepal had made in its foreign relations. (Among other things, Nepal had been elected to a two-year term as a member of the United Nations Security Council.)
Bista went on to demand the withdrawal of Indian military checkposts along the Nepal-China border, insisting that Nepali troops were available and capable of doing the job. Stating that the Indian military liaison team stationed in Kathmandu had completed its work, Bista demanded its withdrawal as well. 
New Delhi met those demands, but not without noting that Kathmandu’s assertiveness had come three weeks after Bista’s return from a visit to China. (Bista would reveal in a newspaper interview in 2015 that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi subsequently told him that the matter could certainly have been taken up in private.)
Bista had no illusions about himself or his times. He never sought personal credit for any success or shirked responsibility for failure. That trait stood in sharp contrast with the behavior of most Panchayat leaders who relentlessly criticized the monarchy and partyless system before lauding the wonderful things they claimed to have done while in office.
When many erstwhile members of King Gyanendra’s council of ministers continue to complain of having had nothing better to do in office than swat flies while the foreign and home ministers ran the show, Bista continued to contemplate on the state of the state till the very end and counsel anyone interested in hearing him out.
His request for a simple funeral was perhaps the ultimate expression of his abiding gratitude to his motherland – for having honored him with the opportunity to serve.