Sunday, June 24, 2018

Train Of Thought Or Deed?

Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s six-day visit to China brought to the fore the clash between the general and the specific gripping the bilateral relationship.
During his news conference at Tribhuvan International Airport upon return, Oli was justified in asserting that the visit had served to deepen friendship, mutual trust and understanding in an effort toward expanding and consolidating Nepal’s relationship with its giant northern neighbor.
However, the prime minister’s heavy emphasis on the proposed cross-border railway line connecting Kathmandu with the Chinese border town of Kerung was misplaced.
To be sure, the railway link would represent a major development on multiple levels. It featured during Chairman Mao Zedong’s talks with King Birendra in Beijing in 1973, at a time when the Chinese and Nepalis alike could have viewed the project as nothing but a distant dream. Still, the promise alone was bound to capture a Nepali psyche struggling to overcome the landlocked kingdom’s excessive reliance on India with all its attendant costs.
The arrival of the high-speed train in Lhasa in 2006 brought Nepalis closer to their dream. By then, in economic and operational terms, China began looking more and more like a viable alternative to India for Nepal. Over the years, as Nepal turned into a republic from a monarchy, Chinese leaders and diplomats began dangling the prospect of an extension of a Lhasa-Shigatse line to Nepal with a regularity that soon became tedious.
The absence of tangible progress on the railway link became emblematic of the general direction of Sino-Nepali relations and engendered uneasy questions. Was India, the principal driver of the new Nepali polity, fighting tooth and nail behind the scenes to ward off Chinese encroachments into what it considered its exclusive sphere of influence? Or had the Chinese discovered that the real value in humoring Nepal lay in humiliating India?
Juxtapose here Oli’s visit to the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party and his forthright views on the future of the movement. And the reference to Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics Supporters in the joint statement. Indeed, Oli supporters may not see a problem here. Our prime minister, who also heads the Nepal Communist Party, was merely engaging with his hosts within his ideological comfort zone.
The optics – and their broader implications – were distorted by context. The murky doggedness with which the Unified Marxist-Leninists and the Maoists chose to unite – to the point of messing up the new party’s name – often has been attributed to China’s alacrity. Not much has emerged to dispel such an impression.
On top of that, Oli’s visit was timed to approximate those of such leaders as Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Juan Evo Morales Ayma of Bolivia. Coincidence perhaps, but it is one that compels Maila Baje to recall how critics of the royal regime in 2005-2006 had warned of Nepal falling into the league of ‘China’s zombie countries’, in the memorable words of one US think-tanker.
While the fall of the Nepali monarchy deprived China of a stable ally, Beijing was pretty quick to fill the vacuum. China’s exertion in Nepal coincided with a global trend that is now being discerned with some trepidation by beneficiaries and detractors alike. According to this postulation, China does not seek alliances in the traditional sense. Instead, Beijing employs a series of coercive economic techniques to effectively gain what it wants from other countries.
There is a twist in Nepal, though. Admittedly, China has exponentially expanded its role and influence under our republican dispensation. But has Beijing really crossed any red lines New Delhi may have set as part of regular Sino-Indian strategic dialogues? In areas such as water resources where the Chinese appear to have done so, aren’t they (and we) paying the price in the form of cancellations/reviews of contracts?
With New Delhi now having ‘leveraged uncertainty’– in the recent words of an Indian analyst – vis-à-vis Beijing, might it not be more useful for us to curb our enthusiasm over the Kerung-Kathmandu railway, at least? As it is, too much uncertainty surrounds the project’s memorandum of understanding. Will the railway be built on Chinese grants, loan or assistance? What and how much will Nepal invest?
Such questions and their broader meaning must be considered not as part of some conspiracy to subvert closer Nepal-China ties but as an effort to build a mutually beneficial relationship that can endure over the long term independent of a third party.
Oli promises to base any decision on utmost judiciousness and deliberation. But haven’t those attributes been in woefully short supply amid Nepal’s momentous undertakings over the past decade and a half?

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Ruction On The Right

While the left’s struggle to reconcile the lingering contradictions resulting from its enigmatic unity has grabbed much of our headlines, the right, too, finds itself in a complex contest to maintain relevance.
The three Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) factions appear to understand the urgency of unity but cannot fathom how to do so. That part of the political spectrum is still top-heavy with leaders who performed best during the partyless years. All these years later, they still don’t seem to have figured out ways of working together. (Not that you can really single them out for blame, given the general malaise across our political parties.)
Some on the right see a future only in going full-fledged republican, perhaps even allying with the Nepali Congress. But, then, not many in that camp can really be sure that the main opposition party is going to stay put ideologically.
Others on the right counsel closer alliance with the former king, arguing that their tepidness in advancing the cause of the monarchy has cost them public support.
Amid the general bewilderment, RPP-Nepal president Kamal Thapa is personally confounded. Having suffered two successive splits less than a year after a much-hyped amalgamation in November 2016 , Thapa is said to privately blame ex-king Gyanendra for the ruptures. Thapa, therefore, isn’t exactly persuaded by the logic of allying with the former monarch, who, for his part, has been reaching out to leaders lower on the rung.
Among the leaders of the two other RPP factions, Prakash Chandra Lohani is fully committed to a restoration of the monarchy, while Pashupati Shamsher Rana is almost there. Although Rana is under pressure from some younger colleagues and loyalists to unequivocally recommit to republicanism, a large swathe of the rank and file recognizes that a republican right is tautological in Nepal’s context.
Even some of his worst critics readily admit that Thapa has done a remarkable job holding aloft the banner of the monarchy and Hindu statehood in our decade of secular republicanism. So it is not unnatural for him to wonder why has been so consistently undermined by Nirmal Nivas.
Look at things from the ex-king’s perspective. He most likely agrees that Thapa has been a great messenger. But here’s the catch. The messenger trying to become the message is bad enough. Thapa hasn’t been entirely candid about restoring the monarchy and Hindu statehood.
Are they both part of a single agenda, co-equals, or separate elements? In the latter case, which comes first? Or does political expediency dictate the order of precedence each day? Who, then, decides what is expedient and when? Thapa may be the country’s leading monarchist, but he is not the monarch, is he?
From Nirmal Niwas’ standpoint, the monarchy can’t return just because the ex-king or a few people here and there want it to. It is up to the people to decide whether the institution may still have relevance. If the series of steps between 2006 and 2008 through which the monarchy was abolished were not so tainted, the issue of relevance would have been settled by now. The political legerdemain masquerading as constitutional legitimacy can’t conceal this: Deep in the recesses of our collective psyche, there is a recognition that, should worse come to worst, an antiquated and maligned institution still might be available.
Thapa may have hit on something when he spoke of the wisdom of working with the Nepali Congress. Many in the main opposition party want to blame president Sher Bahadur Deuba for its current plight. But what the party doesn’t want to do is publicly recognize the loss it has incurred by abandoning constitutional monarchy as part of its guiding ideology.
It would seem easy for the Nepali Congress to reverse course in view of B.P. Koirala’s Two Necks in a Noose Theory. Before resuscitating the wisdom of the dead, however, the living would have to repudiate their past. Nepali Congress leaders can protest all they want that the decision to ditch the monarchy was taken in haste by Girija Prasad Koirala. Through their silence, they lent him their support.
When Gagan Thapa, our generation’s most prominent republican in the Nepali Congress, described the current government, and not the ex-king, as the greatest threat to the nation, he certainly wasn’t taking a circuitous route back to monarchism. That assertion, coming from where it did, could provide the basis for a much-needed national conversation.
If the recently unified communist party is a threat to the nation, what are those warning us going to about it? And how do they intend to do that. Merely by changing the leadership of the main opposition party that can’t craft a coherent message to replace the one it had? Or unifying disparate elements on the right whose agenda is no less muddled?
Surely, Nirmal Niwas is not the only place anxious for answers.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Cranky Yet Comfortable – For Now

From his outward acerbity and antics, Sher Bahadur Deuba looks like someone sedulously fighting for his political life. Yet, for a man in his situation, he is quite comfortably placed.
Having suffered that kind of a setback in the polls he held as prime minister, the head of the erstwhile ruling party might have volunteered his resignation. Not our Nepali Congress president, though.
“The Marxist-Leninists and the Maoists join hands and sweep the elections and somehow I am to blame?” Deuba doubled down a couple of weeks ago.
But, then, critics within the party aren’t accusing Deuba of failing to prevent the unification of Nepal’s two major communist parties. What most detractors are holding Deuba responsible for is rather hackneyed.
Every Nepali Congress president since Matrika Prasad Koirala has stood accused of running the party as his personal fiefdom. Deuba himself climbed the organizational ladder castigating his one-time mentor Girija Prasad Koirala for having institutionalized authoritarianism within.
Nepali Congress general secretary Shashank Koirala, unlike cousin Shekhar, seems to have grasped that basic reality. What’s more, he believes there is enough blame to go around. After all, how far can Ram Chandra Poudel expect to go against Deuba when Poudel himself failed to get elected?
Likewise, can Krishna Prasad Sitaula really complain about the Nepali Congress under Deuba being eclipsed by the new communist behemoth without addressing his own past role in so impulsively mainstreaming the Maoists at all costs?
Challengers like Prakash Man Singh no doubt see an opportunity here to cement their own family legacies by taking on the top guy when he is down. But, then, they have to contend with people like Bimlendra Nidhi who feel they can do the same thing by allying with the party president during his bad times.
In such a vexed and variegated context, Deuba’s two-pronged approach can be expected to stand over the near term. Hammering at Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s ‘nationalist’ credentials long enough, Deuba knows that the communists will sooner or later begin handing the opposition issues.
The percolating controversies over an executive presidency and centre-provincial relations could be such early fodders. Over time, the contradictions in a communist party unified in defiance of history and ideological consistency are bound to spill out into the open.
The broader non-communist arena, too, is in a state of flux.  As things begin to crystallize there, Deuba can be expected to seek to realign forces within the Nepali Congress by rhetorically taking on ‘subversives’ and rewarding loyalists with promises, if not immediate paybacks.
Until he confronts a single formidable challenger, Deuba can continue to simultaneously allow and feign outrage at the personal criticism coming his way. By portraying the party’s current plight as provisional, he can hope to rein in the rank and file.
What will ultimately matter, though, is what Deuba expects – and is able – to do in terms of broadening the Nepali Congress’ appeal. Expanding the party’s own base may be harder than building alliances with other non-communist forces.
Grasping the geopolitical winds of change may not be palatable for a party so wedded to contriving a legacy of singularity since inception.  But neither is the Praja Parisad parable that has acquired new frequency now.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

A Simple Model of Seniority and Turnover

Having resolved its christening controversy by adding the party abbreviation to its full name, the Communist Party of Nepal seems to have resolved the seniority row, too – for now.
Upendra Yadav, president of the Federal Socialist Forum Nepal, was appointed Health Minister but emerged from the swearing-in ceremony as a full-fledged deputy prime minister. Ishwar Pokharel, the hitherto No. 2 in Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s cabinet, too, was promoted and kept his rank.
Not without some creative thinking on the part of Oli and his NCP co-chair, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’. Now, for the head of a government commanding such preponderance in parliament on its own, Oli’s eagerness to induct Yadav was always intriguing.
One idea may have been to force Yadav to deliver on some of the demands he has been making vis-à-vis the Constitution. Another could be the imperative of building a ‘united front’ in an effort to improve our dominant communist government’s image at a time when quizzical international headlines have begun popping up.
There was no way Oli’s initial stand of not appointing deputy premiers was going to hold in this instance. Yadav, a former deputy prime and foreign minister, was content with the health portfolio as long as he was ranked second after the prime minister.
That was the last straw for Pokharel, a former deputy prime minister who consented to become a mere minister this time on account of the Oli rule. Furthermore, Pokharel just lost the party general-secretaryship to Bishnu Poudel and could barely contain his outrage in public comments.
But Oli and Dahal found an opening. While having to work under Yadav was a no-no for Pokharel, Yadav wouldn’t insist on seniority if he got DPM rank. If Oli made the no-DPM rule, he could break it. With Pokharel and Yadav placated (for now), Oli needs to contend with former prime minister Jhal Nath Khanal, who has vowed to aggressively challenge his apparent demotion from within the new party.
How Dahal tackles the seniority row within the ranks of former Maoists will now come to the fore. Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’, another former deputy prime minister, agreed to the home ministership because of the Oli rule. If the prime minister could break his stricture to accommodate a non-party member, should the obligation of organizational loyalty alone be enough to bound ‘Badal’? For now, perhaps.
Oli and Dahal both know that the seniority row is merely an extension of the discontent flowing from both streams that make up today’s unified communist party. From an optics point of view, ‘Badal’ wouldn’t want to spoil the moment by making seemingly petulant demands this early. As a master ex-rebel, moreover, he would want to measure the depths of the broader disaffection all around in order to mount an efficacious insurrection. Time, if not much, is on the side of ‘Badal’, Khanal & Co.
Oli would have a hard time keeping his flock in line, especially in view of all those severance catalysts strewn around him. Given enough time, Dahal, too, could find it easier to point fingers at the premier and join hands with Khanal. And we’re not even talking about that other ex-deputy prime minister, Bam Dev Gautam.
Yet Oli still sets the rules by precedent, if nothing else. Since seniority is likeliest channel for disaffection to break out, Oli could offer to retain the premiership on the lowest rung of the ladder and let aspirants duke it out for the top ministerial slot. That formula could work in the party, too.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Hundred Days Of Incertitude

However you want to score the first 100 days of Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s second government, you have to admit that the man has not lost his capacity to confound us.
Those measuring Oli’s government against his specific election promises will understandably be disappointed. What should hearten them is that our prime minister has zeroed in on specific actions that weren’t in his original line of sight.
The government’s campaigns against transport syndicates and gold smuggling rackets, among other things, have been gutsy. Its clampdown on construction contractors failing to meet their deadlines and paring the heavy calendar of public holidays has won similar public support.
The odds were getting pretty heavy against the unification of Oli’s Unified Marxist Leninists with the Maoist Centre. Yet through some still-hazy last-minute sleight of hand, Oli formalized the amalgamation. Of course, discontent persists on both sides over the wisdom of unity.
Oli and Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ couldn’t name the new party right. Nor could they distribute posts to the satisfaction of the principals’ ambitions or the Election Commission (in terms of women’s representation in the latter’s case). But, hey, everything is a work in progress these days.
On the external front, a man who was widely expected to bolster Nepal’s ties to China ended up building new bridges with India. It probably won’t matter whether or how much Oli’s stock has risen or fallen up north because the Chinese and Indians seem primarily to be talking to each other over Nepal. Meanwhile, we’re too busy measuring whose promises are taller to ponder who might fulfill them first in earnest. One direct effect of this preoccupation is the limit it sets on the opposition’s lampasarbad line, which enjoyed an incredible initial run.
The main opposition Nepali Congress shrewdly hyped the ‘creeping totalitarianism’ line once Oli began consolidating power in the Prime Minister’s Office. Clearly, the government’s amnesty plan for Maoist convicts, failure to make key appointments and looming signs of a center-province collision provided extra fodder to the opposition. Yet the Nepali Congress’ 100-day report card reflected a reticence to go on a full-blown offensive against the Oli government.
A party riven by internal dissension may see the communist resurgence as an opportunity for its own rejuvenation. The window of opportunity is narrowing quickly, though. Veer right, left or stay put, the Nepali Congress cannot afford to allow too much fuzziness surround what it intends to do.
The other opposition parties and personalities are understandably intent on making the most of the situation from their respective points on the ideological spectrum. Collectively, they are doing what they do best: oppose the government.
And Oli has made that job easier through some glaring anomalies. While basking in public adulation over its transport-syndicate busting, the government transferred the key bureaucrat who spearheaded that effort. The official response to media and public reactions went on to raise more questions.
Similarly, the Oli government made much about ordering the closure of the Indian Embassy’s Biratnagar field office. New Delhi, however, insisted that it was planning to do so anyway.
The upshot: Oli hasn’t fulfilled all of his promises. But he has done a lot of things he hadn’t promised. Now, what grade does that kind of record merit?