Sunday, August 18, 2019

Chasing Ghosts in Ghoulish Clothes

Is Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli deliberately trying to destroy the system he represents? The question is no longer sacrilegious. In fact, it is becoming starker with each pronouncement he makes.
Oli affirmed in parliament the other day that he would continue for a full five-year term, warning his opponents not to ‘daydream’ about toppling the government. The fact that such resoluteness came just days before the mid-point in his constitutionally mandated term is significant.
With abundant clarity, Oli has rubbished reports that he is bound by any understanding to trade executive power with Nepal Communist Party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ as part of the deal leading to the unification of the Unified Marxist-Leninists and Maoists factions last year.
But, then, Oli hasn’t been quite credible lately as a communicator of such affirmations. For starters, what’s really going on with his health? Earlier this month, the premier extended his stay in Singapore even after having his aides tell us he was in perfect health. Did he have to wait to sign his discharge papers?
Barely had the prime minister returned home than reports began to surface of another imminent medical trip to the city-state. As a key Oli adviser rejected those reports, the prime minister cryptically told the nation that nothing would happen to him for another 20-25 years. (And making a pitch for Cetamol.) Now, the Singapore trip seems to be on.
Was apportioning the NCP departments that important to the efficient functioning of the government? Or was rearranging the power balance in the ruling party the real motive here? More importantly, how do we know that Oli’s departure-arrival-departure isn’t part of the ‘broad consultations’ everyone seems convinced is going on abroad but unable to comprehend?
There was much Oli could have said in his address to the House of Representatives by way of assuaging the country’s anxieties. Apart from avowing his staying power and enumerating minor policy priorities, the only other thing the prime minister did was demonize those seeking a restoration of the monarchy. If that cause is indeed such a lost one, surely Oli need not have spent precious time in the august assembly emphasizing the obvious.
The prime minister may have desisted from the kind of threats and vitriol Dahal unleashed on the former monarch a week ago upon gauging the backlash it produced. Or maybe Oli is inherently more charitable than Dahal.
Yet the premier was all over the place on the subject. If monarchists are trying to resuscitate a ghost from the graveyard, wouldn’t letting them revel in their delusion be the best response? Instead, Oli vowed to unleash the full force of the government against such royalist conspiracies. Not without, however, pleading for unity among democratic forces to overcome traditional regressive forces attempting to jeopardize democracy.
Well, what is it, Mr. Prime Minister, that you see right, left and center: a puerile paroxysm or a clear and present danger? If you and your cohorts can’t make up your minds, maybe that signals the system’s time is truly up.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

What’s Cooking In Whose Kitchen?

Our olfactory senses don’t betray us. And they haven't been on such a heightened state of alert in a long time.
Foreign personalities with peculiar reputations land in Nepal openly as well as opaquely. Our top Nepali leaders fly abroad with abandon for pleasure, personal errands and medical treatment. Can they really be so callously oblivious of our underlying predicament?
If destinations as varied as Dubai, Bangkok and Singapore should reassure those inimical to New Delhi’s traditional monopoly in the driver’s seat, the amorphousness of the current course cancels things out. Compared to this, Delhi Compromises I and II were as clear as day(dreaming). Small wonder, then, that we are acting out in our uncanny ways.
Nepal Communist Party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, barely back from holidaying in Dubai, tried his best to be coherent. When he started out his public speech after inaugurating a bridge in Ramechhap district, it sounded like he was responding to former coalition partner, Rastriya Prajatantra Party chairman Kamal Thapa. A day earlier, Thapa had said it was time to seek an alternative to the current political system, which was certainly enough to infuriate its chief internal architect.
But then Dahal went on to warn former king Gyanendra that the people might force him to vacate government-provided Nagarjun Palace. The former monarch hasn’t said a thing, although he has brought out a book. In the past, when ex-king Gyanendra has upbraided his successors, Dahal has kept quiet. An eviction notice for the former monarch for meeting individually with a trio of PhD’s united in their disdain for the current dispensation and can’t stop telling us what they talked about?
Sharper minds are convinced Dahal spoke with a purpose. When the pedal hits the metal, the ex-Maoist supremo can always invoke the imperative of acknowledging ground realities and exercising maximum flexibility.
But, then, Dahal is no longer the smartest guy in the room. If acting Prime Minister Ishwar Pokharel really didn’t visit Nirmal Niwas, why did he have to park his vehicle in the vicinity of the ex-monarch’s private residence? Pokharel has now challenged reporters to either prove that he held private talks with the former king or apologize.
Maybe our deputy prime and defense minister feels calumniated by perceptions of skullduggery at a time when Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli is convalescing in Singapore. Or maybe in his capacity as defense minister he did meet with the ex-king, who was supreme commander of the Royal Nepal Army.
Perhaps Pokharel as the head of Nepal Trust, which is entrusted with using the property of King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya and their family for the welfare of the nation, sought a meeting with the nation’s most prominent ex-royal to update records. Given Pokharel’s days-long silence, however, you can’t quite let go of the feeling that even if he didn’t exactly enter Nirmal Niwas, he did want to keep his arch-nemesis Dahal guessing.
Admittedly, the ex-monarch’s departure for Bangkok just as Oli announced an extension of his stay in Singapore has thickened the plot. Ordinary Nepalis are caught between public figures confident of the imminence of the monarchy’s restoration and those equally convinced that the institution has receded deeper into anachronism.
Any word trickling out on ingredients, cooks, kitchens would make our existence less excruciating.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

The Art Of The Visit, Redux

Nepalis are still waiting for Chinese President Xi Jinping to make good on his promise to come avisiting ‘soon’. Well entrenched in his second term as leader of the People’s Republic with powers rivaling – if not surpassing – those exercised by the Great Helmsman, Xi and his cohorts continue to dangle the carrot of a Nepal visit at every opportunity.
As noted in an earlier iteration on the subject, etiquettes of good neighborliness aren’t the primary sentiment driving yours truly here. It is a quest for an assurance that Nepal-China relations are moving in a positive direction. In that spirit, it may be worthwhile to update that earlier post in view of the broader developments that have occurred since.
True, China’s engagement in Nepal has steadily deepened and become more diversified since the collapse of the monarchy. However, a palpable negativity has crept into the process from the outset. Regional and international rivalries always simmered and stirred under the current in terms of our bilateral engagements. Yet, during the second half of the 20th century, there was a sense that Nepal and China had crafted and started enjoying relations as sovereign and independent nations. The monarchy always played a crucial part in that process.
Measured against the fact that it took 17 years for an Indian prime minister to return to Nepal, President Xi’s reluctance to take the plunge is perhaps a bit understandable. Bold Indian reiterations of New Delhi’s abandonment of its ‘one China’ policy since the election of the Narendra Modi government in 2014, with its obvious implications for Tibet and thus Nepal, met with harsh realities at Doklam three years later. From there, the road to Wuhan wasn’t too difficult to build.
The growing convergence of Sino-Indian views on the messy geopolitical fallout from Nepal’s republican, secular and federal order must either crystallize or crumble over time. In the meantime, China’s reluctance to overtly challenge India while having made such remarkable gains in encroaching upon India’s strategic space in Nepal is understandable, even within the ambit of Beijing’s unsentimental foreign policy.
The opportunities and ambiguities surrounding Sino-Indian relations against the backdrop of Washington’s pivot to Asia and India’s warming up to Japan and Australia pointed to the wider dynamics at play. The swiftness with which Nepal has been sucked into the imperative of building a free and open Indo-Pacific cannot be divorced from India’s deepening eagerness to exercise strategic autonomy on the Trumpian doctrine as well as the Quad.
Chinese apprehensions at Nepal’s drift westward may be diminished somewhat by their satisfaction with India’s disquiet.  Still, the cumulative tensions being generated should sensitize Nepalis.
The current political establishment long castigated the monarchy for having brazenly played the China card at every opportunity in an ostensible effort to achieve its autocratic ambitions. That canard suited New Delhi well, as it was the principal party aggrieved by growing Nepal-China engagements.
Oppositional elements in Nepal no doubt were instinctively tempted to parrot the Indian line. But perhaps they should have been cognizant of the imperative of preserving their freedom of action if and when they assumed power.
If today’s leaders have allowed the relationship to devolve into one where Beijing feels comfortable in asserting Nepal’s independence and sovereignty only as part of its engagement with India, they have only themselves to blame.
In the best of times, democratic maturity has not automatically translated into geostrategic vision. Amid Nepal’s political puerility, foreign policy foresight remains elusive. After all, who can forget the mishandling of then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit by the Baburam Bhattarai government from start to finish?
Valid as Chinese grievances may be over their persistent inability to trust Nepal to uphold its commitments to the bilateral relationship during these increasingly turbulent times, the mandarins up north should understand that the feeling is quite mutual. Only then may they be able to begin pondering why.

Friday, July 26, 2019

When I Met The RAW Chief

Denial being the general disposition of the fortnight, yours truly initially didn’t want to broach the subject. But the scattered pieces made a compelling chronicle – a reverie of sorts, if you will.
When Samant Kumar Goel walked into the room hand extended, he evoked little that was, so to speak, spooky.  Wavy hair parted at the extreme, whitening faster at the temples, he could pass for your average mid-level Indian Embassy bureaucrat. Not someone whom our trembling political class would so assiduously deny having met.
After the customary preliminaries, Goel’s smile persisted, exposing a gap between his two top frontal teeth that served to underscore the space between his public and personal personas.
An expert on Pakistan, Goel was reputed to have planned the airstrike on Balakot in Pakistan in response to the Pulwama terror attack in India February. Although the international media was skeptical of the extent of the damage the Indian Air Force inflicted on terrorist infrastructure run by Jaish-e-Mohammed, the strike did help Prime Minister Narendra Modi win massive re-election months later.
The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is generally led by China or Pakistan experts, often in turns. China now having replaced Pakistan as India’s primary concern in Nepal, wasn’t Goel’s arrival so early in his tenure a bit incongruent? Unless it was part of micromanaging post-2006 Nepali politics?
“Is there really a distinction between Beijing’s and Islamabad’s footprints in Nepal, considering that they march to the same tune everywhere else?” Goel asked.
That general question was enough to suggest that his mission was aimed at our domestic affairs. Better steer the conversation toward the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Nepal.

MB: “What percentage of your time, money and energy is spent on Nepal?”

SKG: “Yeah, like we wake up each morning to figure out how better to subjugate Nepal.”

MB: “Well it does seem that way, considering the plots of your recent Bollywood spy thrillers.”

SKG: “Let’s not get distracted by images.”

MB: “No, really. Wasn’t it RAW’s long-held position that a monarchical Nepal was an inherent threat to India and that you finally won out through the Shyam Saran dimension of the Karan-Saran roadshow?”

SKG: “All that maneuvering between those two royal proclamations, having come to naught. Shyam Saran did persuade us that the Chinese would keep out of Nepal if we could pull off the Maoist-SPA 12 Point Accord.”

MB: “Then what? Prachanda and Baburam turned out to be as unreliable as the rest?”

SKG: “Worse than that. Prachanda rubbed it in at every opportunity. Even today, Baburam pontificates as if he has had no hand in it.”

MB: “Sikkim was a feather in your cap. The political class that replaced the chogyal has played its prescribed part well. How did Nepal turn out so differently?”

SKG: “That’s what baffles us. Just take one example. The official Nepali line after Pulwama was reprehensible, to say the least. It was almost designed to exonerate Pakistan. And all this after an attack on Indian soldiers masterminded by a guy who already humiliated us on that aircraft that took off from Kathmandu to park on that tarmac in Kandahar 20 years ago.”

MB: “Do you really think it was that bad. I mean, Nepal has independent relations with Pakistan. We can’t accuse them of something the way you do without evidence?”

SKG: “If it’s not Pakistan, then it’s China or the United States. What business do you have in a free and open Indo-Pacific when your foreign minister can’t even be honest with his own parliament about what he said and signed in Washington?”

MB: “So you think we’re doing all this on purpose? That there’s some visceral antipathy toward Indian rooted in the collective Nepali mindset that no politician can depart from? Not even those you have carefully nurtured?”

SKG: “It sure does seem like it, doesn’t it?”

MB: “OMG, has RAW finally concluded that an independent Nepal itself is threat to India?”

A smiley silence ensued eerily too long. I had more questions. Would India take over? Would the Chinese? Would they divvy us up? But, then, the gap between Goel’s teeth started expanding faster than my heart rate.
I woke up perspiring and petrified. A bad dream? Sure. But that doesn’t quite convey the haunting feeling that lingers on.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Flashback: The Guinea Pigs That Went To School

Even in exasperation, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli excels at enlivening things.
“Attempts to make the country a guinea pig to experiment rights and make it a playground for elements with untoward objectives cannot be accepted,” he declared on Constitution Day. The phase of experimentation in Nepal was over, asserted Oli, with a proviso: “If anything is yet to be experimented here, they are models of speedy development.”
Implementing our new Constitution was not going to be easier than drawing it up. Still, we are in a ditch that is deeper than anyone could have determined. Obstacles – perceived and real – seem to emerge from every corner.
Of new Nepal’s three props, republicanism and secularism were going to be contentious. The monarchy and Hindu statehood never stood a fair chance in the political climate whipped up during and after People’s Movement II. Advocates of republicanism and secularism – domestic as well as external – knew they had to strike the proverbial iron when it was hot. Even in the heat of the moment, they had to sneak in such sweeping changes through the backdoor.
True, more than 90 percent of the elected assembly eventually endorsed the Constitution. But, then, this overwhelming support emanated from the only constituency that was allowed any consequential participation in the political process. Demonization and defamation were scarcely conducive to collective coolheadedness. The surprise, then, is that the constitution did not receive 100 percent endorsement.
The monarchy and Hindu statehood, to be sure, were not established as a political reality based on the popular vote. So it is disingenuous at one level to rue their departure without direct popular sanction. Still, a country that has practiced seven constitutions in 70 years also comprehends how everything eventually becomes political – in aspiration as well as appraisal.
It is confounding how precipitously the third peg – federalism – has fallen into disrepute. Oli’s present position and scope of participation in the past might have precluded him from greater candor. The occasion and venue of his remark have certainly amplified his message. Debating whether federalism was right for the country was useless, he said, stressing that leaders had to implement decisions that had been made.
The guinea pig analogy is vivid enough to encompass our times as well as those bygone. Counterfactuals are invariably entertaining. In this case, they may even be instructive. Take, for example, our 1950-51 revolution. With the benefit of Indian, British and American archival material, it would be fair to wonder whether King Tribhuvan would have been restored to the throne had British and American communication and forward-deployment abilities been able to compensate for India’s geographical advantage.
Conversely, had the British and Americans proceeded to act on the imperative that Nepal was vital to upholding their common interests in South Asia in the aftermath of the Raj, might the Indians have kept quiet? In the worst case, would the 1950 Treaty have receded into the irrelevance Nepal’s full incorporation into the Indian Union would have dictated?
History has a cold logic that engenders an abundance of ‘what ifs’ that looks backward and forward. Nepal has not lacked for a string of seemingly unrelated events in and around the neighborhood that have created fertile ground for experimentations of all sorts for those with the will and wherewithal.
As the Red Scare provoked the Free World to contrive an alternative that drew enough from tradition to preserve the present and pinpoint the future, the two communist behemoths weren’t sitting idly by either. If international communism could co-exist with the monarchy in Nepal, could those staid and stolid comrades be that all that bad?
Basic democracy, guided democracy, partyless democracy were all local variants of initiatives funded – if not entirely fashioned – by the leading democracies in search of a halfway house in a turbulent world. Stalin and Mao had their communes, we got our American-funded cooperatives. Such consideration makes it easier to comprehend the correlation between specific episodes of détente and those of liberalization of our Panchayat polity.
When the Berlin Wall came crashing down, things perforce took another turn. Amid the hubris of the ‘end of history’, democratization had to be pursued at all costs. Again, the imperative was to strike when the iron was hot. China after the Tiananmen Square massacre and a Russia smoldering in the wreckage of the Soviet Union provided a rare window of opportunity. If liberal democracy could succeed in places like Poland and Nepal, well, then, history could be deemed to have truly ended. Structural adjustment and macroeconomic stabilization were bold supplements. Except that the Fukuyamans failed to appreciate that the Russians and Chinese weren’t going lay low forever. Nor were the likes of RAW and ISI to lack new missions.
As the Maoists complemented the Marxist-Leninists in our communist contingent amid democracy’s discontents (while Poland’s comrades reincarnated themselves as the Democratic Left Alliance), new thinking was required. Could development and security be somehow integrated to the satisfaction of all? How about a separate Armed Police Force to maintain internal security? Might an integrated command of security forces work better? We tried those and more and ended up with a still unexplained massacre in the heavily fortified palace.
Long before King Gyanendra dismissed him the first time, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba ended up a helpless bystander as US Secretary of State Colin Powell proceeded to discuss Nepal’s needs directly with the monarch and the military chief. The global war on terror was as ambiguous as it was all encompassing. Defensive imperialism and enabling the state were ideas desperately in need of a laboratory.
When the axe did fall on Deuba, most influential foreign governments supported the palace. Our ground had lost none of its fertility. But, this time, external agents were more than willing to and capable of experimenting at cross purposes, and far beyond Nepal’s carrying capacity. No surprise, therefore, that Deuba’s second dismissal prompted such severe condemnation.
In view of those and subsequent developments, Oli perhaps want us to pause and ponder. If we want to keep contriving victimhood, manufacturing grievances and inventing new rights, we certainly won’t lack external patronage and pelf. We can still marvel at how a movement against autocratic monarchy ended up producing republicanism, secularism and federalism and where else it might take us. But at some point, we need to get real. We have what we have and must at least try to make it work.
As for guinea pigs, they have to be very fortunate to survive the experiments and live the aftermath. Human beings – and nations – need more fortitude.

Originally posted on September 23, 2018