Sunday, June 18, 2017

Finding Our Way Through The Stars

If you listen to his critics, the ‘incompetent’ tag bestowed twice on Sher Bahadur Deuba over the last decade and a half is closing in on him early in his fourth innings as prime minister. Yet the man remains visibly undaunted.
The opposition, led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), was quick to pounce on Deuba’s decision to postpone elections to the local bodies in province number two to September 18 as a portent of disaster. Our prime minister, for his part, doesn’t think his latest term in office has even begun.
Deuba has been waiting for the stars to align properly before moving into the prime ministerial residence in Baluwatar. Juxtaposing his birth chart with the current planetary line-up, Deuba, we are told, has found Rahu in particular to be inherently unpropitious. Well-placed Jupiter alone has not been able to mitigate the malevolence of the dragon’s head. Conjunctions, aspects, combinations here, dissociations there, combustibility, exaltation, debilitation, retrogression, square, trine, every which way he looks at it, he just can’t leave Budhanilkantha.
The prime minister, having focused the two weeks following his swearing-in on remedial measures, has finally found a way. All things considered, Deuba’s real tenure would begin on Monday, June 19 around 6 am following completion of the prescribed religious observances, rituals and rites.
As the nation’s fate is inextricably tied to that of its most powerful citizen of the moment, Nepalis will have to exercise the requisite forbearance and fortitude. Yet the postponement of the local polls in Province 2 has cast a shadow perhaps unrivalled by the shadowiest of the celestial bodies.
The government said the postponement was announced in consultation with the agitating Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N), which has denied any such meeting of minds. RJP-N leaders maintain they will boycott the elections, but some cadres have gone ahead and filed their nomination papers.
Furthermore, there are fears that Province 5 will go the way of Province 2, especially since the realities on the ground are similar. And we’re not even talking about the form of the constitutional amendment the RJP-N wants, not to speak of the content. Leader of the opposition, K.P. Oli of the CPN-UML has pointedly asked the premier, given the current pace of deferments, when he intended to hold provincial and federal elections.
Oli’s implication is obvious. Failure to hold elections to the remaining 481 local bodies, the seven provincial assemblies and the federal legislature by the constitutionally mandated deadline of January 21, 2018 would represent the failure of the experiment that began in April 2006.
Not to worry, according to Deuba’s personal soothsayers. The prime minister’s position will only get stronger once he is comfortably placed in Baluwatar.
And what’s so sacrosanct about a human-imposed deadline anyway? There are enough planet-specific chants and sacraments in our collective cache to untie the knot even if that magic potion called consensus failed to do the trick this time around.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Knowing The Deubas We Know…

With Sher Bahadur Deuba set to embark on his fourth term as prime minister, it might be enlightening to review the Nepali Congress luminary’s chequered political history for pointers to the future.
During his first term as head of government in 1995-96, Deuba projected himself as a consensus builder. Atop Nepal’s first experiment in coalition governance, he legitimized the ex-panchas, more out of political expediency than any thing else, but the effect was unmistakable.
Over time, Deuba began demonstrating questionable abilities to stay in power. Of course, it’s easy to blame him for having brought in the ‘Pajero culture’ and other distortions. Yet the structural and institutional quirks of multiparty parliamentary democracy coupled with the political culture (or lack thereof) of its practitioners brought about that degeneration. Deuba, as any politician would have, sought to make the most of the power of incumbency.
It was an innocuous misstep – an amalgam of credulity and confidence – that proved his undoing. Egged on by Nepali Congress chief Girija Prasad Koirala – his onetime mentor turned rival – to seek a vote of confidence he was not required to, Deuba called the vote. He stood by helplessly when Koirala connived to keep two members away from a vote Deuba was confident of winning.
Conventional wisdom holds that Deuba-era political corruption and systemic chicanery disgusted the country to the point of spawning the Maoists and their “people’s war”. Although subsequent coalition governments and a majority-burnished polity fared no better, the slur on Deuba stuck. The man got his revenge in the aftermath of the Narayanhity Massacre in 2001. When Deuba ordered a ceasefire, Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ called him a brave man. Months later, Deuba would go on to place a bounty on Dahal and other Maoists leaders.
Deuba was so wary of Koirala that he didn’t see what was coming his way from other quarters. King Gyanendra got a lot of flak for having sacked an elected prime minister in October 2002 and consolidating royal authority. But it shortly emerged that other members of the political elite, notably Surya Bahadur Thapa of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, egged Deuba on to assert executive prerogative to postpone the election and stay on as premier. Thapa, simultaneously, was cautioning the king against an assertive prime minister.
If King Gyanendra had indeed overstepped his boundaries, he certainly had not done so to humour the political class. By the time the mainstream parties discovered that, Lokendra Bahadur Chand had been succeeded as premier by Thapa, who in turn paved the way for Deuba’s return in 2004.
Upon assuming his third term, Deuba said he got justice from the palace and persuaded the CPN-UML that regression had been half-corrected. Those who suspected that the prime minister and the monarch had conspired in an elaborate ruse felt vindicated. Koirala began toying with republicanism and we all laughed him off.
Deuba, we are told, knew something was brewing but pleaded helplessness in the fashion of B.P. Koirala in the runup to 1960 royal takeover. In fact, it was Deuba who cracked down on the Dalai Lama’s office and the Tibetans, giving King Gyanendra’s second takeover a pro-Chinese color. It seemed the royal regime singled out Deuba for persecution on corruption, while merely pushing the politics of the rest of the leaders.
Post-monarchy Nepal was still merciless to Deuba. Having been dismissed twice by the monarch for incompetence, Deuba was supposed to have been finished as a politician. But was he? If a ‘discredited’ monarch was the arbiter of Deuba’s fate, wasn’t that to be an advantage in a republican Nepal. Deuba lumbered on, biding his time. After wresting control of the Nepali Congress, he waited for the stars to align more propitiously.
The moral of the story? Actually, none. It’s just that Deuba has walked into far too many landmines and survived them. It would be fun to speculate on his mistakes, missteps and misspeaks. He’ll probably enjoy it, too.
Consider things this way. As we hurtle toward an inexorable unknown, wouldn’t having Deuba at the helm be reassuring? With a survivor like him, maybe we all will survive.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Flashback: A Memory Frozen In Time

When Shailaja Acharya waved that black flag in front of King Mahendra on Democracy Day 1961, she probably had no inkling of the eternalness of her action. Immediately hauled away by a stunned security detachment, Shailaja plunged into politics with a fastness that sent ripples right into the Sundarijal detention center where her illustrious uncle, B.P. Koirala, could barely conceal his contentment.
Shailaja never sought to cash in on that act of defiance. She was powerless to stop its undulation. That she stepped aside stood the country in good stead. In a sense, Shailaja reflected her uncle’s narrative of endurance. In prison, exile and back in prison, conviction and courage reinforced each other. Acknowledging herself as flawed as every human being by definition must be, Shailaja could remain unfazed by the sustained campaigns of vilification mounted by inveterate foes as well as purported friends.
With the collapse of the partyless citadel in 1990, Shailaja found the to-do list only growing. As agriculture and cooperatives minister in Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s first government, Shailaja confronted a mess. Her immediate predecessor, Jhal Nath Khanal of CPN-Marxist-Leninist, had bequeathed to her a demoralized staff. When her own party and cabinet stymied her effort at wholesale cleanup, Shailaja quit. But it wasn’t your regular recourse to the easiest way out. The creeping corruption would ultimately undermine democracy, she warned from inside parliament.
Still, Shailaja was prudent enough understand why Premier Koirala could let her go so easily. He had the party – and future elections – to worry about. Multiparty democracy didn’t come cheap and graft greased the wheel of politics every step of the way. She would have to wage a solitary battle.
It was that curious mixture of principle and pragmatism that left the leader of the opposition, Manmohan Adhikari, comfortable discussing burning political issues with Shailaja in a way he never really could with his own party colleagues. Not someone prone to dispensing favors, Adhikari was often prepared to put in a word to Shailaja – and only Shailaja – if it was really unavoidable. The CPN-Unified Marxist-Leninist saw Adhikari as a useful figurehead. The communist lion, too, could easily see through the fa├žade his supposed loyalists had built.
Shailaja returned to power becoming the country’s first – and only – deputy premier. The notoriously lucrative Water Resources Ministry could not tarnish her reputation. As vice-president of the Nepali Congress, Shailaja was fully equipped to provide ideological vigor. But the party had become a fractious entity where each satrap was busy extracting a bit of party history and reaping returns several times over.
The Nepali Congress, as the longest ruling party, inevitably began drawing public ire. Yet it seemed reluctant to acknowledge its paramount role in the squandering of the promise of 1990. Shailaja stood apart. Since the Nepalese people had limited expectations from the other parties, she argued, the Nepali Congress was morally obligated to be doubly contrite.
During the daily open house at his Jaibageshwari residence, B.P. Koirala often insisted that only two people could do full justice to his life story. Since Shailaja was preoccupied with day-to-day politics under a polity that allowed parties to function as long as they carried the prefix “banned”, Ganesh Raj Sharma, the eminent constitutional lawyer, stepped into the role his brother-in-law had envisaged.
Published posthumously, B.P.’s memoirs and prison diaries cast much-needed light on a critical phase of history and on his own transformation. The other branches of the extended Koirala family weren’t too thrilled by this audacious enterprise, yet they remained awed by the spark in the public imagination. B.P.’s immediate family was left lamenting how the Koirala mantle had been usurped by its least worthy claimants. Shailaja didn’t have to say a word.
After the 2002 and 2005 royal takeovers, Shailaja offered tepid support to the democracy movement. This underscored the Nepali Congress’ deviation more than her own ideological drift. It was impossible to label Shailaja as a co-conspirator in the revival of “royal absolutism”. But her critics did try their best.
Shailaja was resolute. The Nepali Congress could mount countless battles against the palace to retrieve liberty and freedom. That would not be possible in the event of a Maoist takeover, an eventuality she believed the Nepali Congress had brought closer in the name of upholding democracy.
The abortive ambassadorship to India allowed Shailaja’s opponents to strike what they considered the final blow in their demolition drive. The 48-year-old image, it turns out, is too solidly frozen in time.

This post originally appeared on Sunday, June 14, 2009

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.