Saturday, November 10, 2018

When It’s All About Looking Busy

As the post-Dasain/Tihar political momentum picks up, introspection seems to be the byword on the left center and right alike.
Former prime ministers Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) have promised that the government will begin showing more life. It is significant that the assurance comes from the two men most responsible for disrupting Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s government from within the party.
Dahal’s much-hyped geopolitical excursion turned out to be a dud, largely owing to the excessive hospitality New Delhi showered on him. Madhav Nepal’s use of Oli’s absence from the country to mount a virtual insurrection didn’t turn out be propitious in its timing, either. Still, the two ex-premiers can’t escape part of the blame for our political plight. Dahal has little compunction in accusing the bureaucracy of impeding a government enjoying a two-thirds majority in the legislature. Madhav Nepal hasn’t been as callous in deflecting responsibility, but he hasn’t been terribly receptive of what is arguably his share of it.
Over at the Nepali Congress, president Sher Bahadur Deuba has lost none of his newfound zeal for going his way. The nomination of Bijay Kumar Gachchaddar as vice-president is proving hard to swallow for many party functionaries, including who have nothing personally against the man. The party hadn’t quite suffered such a drought of qualified candidates that Deuba had to turn to someone who left and rejoined the Nepali Congress in circumstances that still are largely obscure. Gachchaddar’s skills as a leader are not in question here. What kind of message does Deuba want to send by rewarding, so to speak, a water pot without a base, regardless of the shininess of the brass? (If you ask Deuba privately, he’d probably have a short and easy answer: personal loyalty.)
The Nepali Congress is so divided that the anti-Deuba factions can’t be sure that anything of significance really unites the dissidents. So Sujata Koirala talks about Deuba’s last chance, while cousins Shashank and Shekhar speak of the imperative of checking the ideological and institutional disarray the party finds itself in. Little wonder that non-Koiralas like Ram Chandra Poudel feel the need to tip-toe around things: letting everyone know how mad they are but not enough about what they intend to do.
The right is once again animated by talk of reunification among the three principal factions. Kamal Thapa of the Rastriya Prajantantra Party seems to be preparing for the storm he predicts will rage after India’s national elections next year. Pashupati Shamsher Rana of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Democratic) insists he will restore Hindu statehood, without elaborating how he intends to achieve that. Prakash Chandra Lohani of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Nationalist) insipidly maintains that unity will be achieved sooner than later.
The fusion/fission cycle on the right has become so routine that most people aren’t too bothered about what really unites and divides the men and women on that end of political spectrum. The mere process is exciting enough to drive the larger narrative that politics is alive.
Still, the fact that all three points on the ideological spectrum are undergoing a form of overt introspection can’t be coincidental. At a basic level, it underscores the tentativeness Nepali politics hasn’t been able to shed even after the promulgation of a new Constitution and elections at all three tiers. Politics, like most other things, shuns a sense of finality. But haven’t we been loitering around the starting line for far too long? Maybe the key to Nepal’s destiny still isn’t in the hands of Nepalis.
A glance around the neighborhood does little to clarify our outlook. Is Doklam or Wuhan the operating word regarding Sino-Indian relations? An election in the Maldives is said to have thrown out a pro-Chinese government. But it only seems to have shifted geopolitical rivalries north-eastward to Sri Lanka. Pakistan was said to have become a shining emblem of the inherent senselessness of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But the joint statement announced after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to China appears to have given new impetus to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship of the BRI.
In such a situation, you can’t blame our political class for not knowing what might happen here next and when. The best they can do is prepare for the indefinite. How do you do that best? By looking like you are busy preparing all the same.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Hold The Applause – And Affronts

This hasn’t been a good time for India’s geo-strategists appraising their recent ebullience.
Consider the latest confluence of events. US President Donald J. Trump turns down an invitation to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations as the chief guest, as Japan and China step up cooperation on Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative all but in name, and Sri Lanka’s supposedly India-friendly president sacks the prime minister to appoint a known hawk vis-√†-vis New Delhi.
In the general tumult, it is easy to miss the import of the declaration by our Deputy Prime Minister, Ishwar Pokharel, in the Chinese capital that Nepal would never again have to endure an Indian blockade because of the new connectivities established up north.
True, the Indian news media are covering Trump’s latest decision with careful caveats. Somebody somewhere in Washington DC said something about this to someone high up in New Delhi. Regardless, the message is unambiguous. You can’t hobnob with the Russians, Chinese and Iranians at the same time and expect to get away with it – not in Trump’s America. When strategic autonomy keeps looking and sounding like unadulterated Nehruvian sanctimony, America can still act.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for his part, seems to have taken a leaf from the Indian playbook. Sure, Tokyo is locked in an inexorable grand contest with its traditional rival, but China is also a neighbor geographically closer to Japan than India is. If economic cooperation with Beijing can help Tokyo manage its political disputes, maybe the BRI shouldn’t be deemed as dangerous as, say, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Moreover, it’s not as if Japan is going to drown in Chinese loans anytime soon. Of course, Abe didn’t say that to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting in Tokyo, a day after Abe returned from China.
Closer to home, when news reports surfaced a couple of weeks ago that Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena had accused India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, of plotting to assassinate him, everyone expected Sirisena to come out and deny it. His denial didn’t answer the underlying question. How could such a severe accusation leak if something ominous wasn’t afoot in Sri Lanka.
As New Delhi rejoiced in pro-Chinese President Abdulla Yameen’s failure to win reelection in neighboring Maldives, there was little indication that it would be Sirisena who would go to the extent of provoking a constitutional crisis to put anti-Indian Mahinda Rajapaksa in the premiership.
It’s certainly fascinating to see some prominent Indian hyperrealists jump for joy every time a recipient country reconsiders the anticipated benefits from proposed Chinese-aided projects, irrespective of whether they are indeed part of the BRI or not. As much as it might be gratifying, rooting for the BRI’s failure has a flipside: overt insensitivity to development needs of the country concerned. Those warning of Chinese debt entrapment the loudest aren’t rushing in to build projects for free, are they?
Does all this warrant the kind of rhetoric Pokharel deployed regarding India on Chinese soil? Rubbing it in certainly won’t help. We all know that Indira and Rajiv Gandhi got away with their blockades because Nepal was not a democracy then. New Delhi could separate the people from their government. Modi’s government failed to acknowledge how Nepali democracy had changed the dynamics to the point where damage control impels him to invite himself here at least once a year. Still, the last thing we should be doing is underestimating India’s capacity for creativity at a time when China’s viability as a solution to our landlockedness remains vague.
That’s why sentiments such as those Pokharel conveyed in Beijing – even as statements of fact – should not be part of our leaders’ public pronouncements, especially in contexts where others are more likely to construe them as a deliberate and emphatic declaration of an inconvenient reality. Leave those to blokes like yours truly.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Another Punctured Trial Balloon

As trial balloons go, this one wasn’t supposed to come crashing down – at least not so spectacularly.
Fully inflated and activated, this blimp had shed traces of tentativeness before it was floated. The sitting Communist Party of Nepal (NCP) member for Kathmandu-7 constituency, Ram Bir Manandhar, resigned to make way for party leader Bam Dev Gautam’s candidacy in a by-election.
This blatant crystallization of the Gautam-Pushpa Kamal Dahal alliance in the ruling party followed serious rumblings within a party that once took pride in its discipline. Barely had Dahal’s high-profile geopolitical sojourn faltered in its original purpose than Madhav Kumar Nepal took advantage of Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s absence to mount a virtual insurrection.
Oli, for his part, sounded least bothered and continued on to Costa Rica after addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. When he arrived home, he did so with a countenance that conveyed everything was in order. Days later, when key Madhesi leaders met the prime minister, one interlocutor couldn’t help telling reporters how wearied he had found Oli.
Now, even if the burdens of his second premiership were so unbearable, Oli wouldn’t be one to chicken out, would he? Wouldn’t he benefit from a party coup – even one he could easily quell? After all, a casualty is far more respectable than a coward. So you’re force to wonder whether this whole Bam Dev thing had Oli’s imprimatur all along.
Who really knows? But our premier certainly seemed to let Messrs. Dahal, Nepal and Gautam feel that way, while went sniffing around the neighborhood. Predictably, the Bishnu Poudels and Ishwar Pokharels were up in arms. Raghubir Mahaseth endorsed the sordidness of inflicting a costly byelection, saying he, too, would be prepared to quit if the party asked him to.
As the notion of a Mahaseth speaking for a party of proletarians had long ceased to be amusing, Gautam’s assertion that he wanted to enter parliament to speed up development didn’t spark too many uncomfortable smirks among his peers. (To be fair, Gautam seems to have retained much of his 1990s-era ebullience, going by his full-blooded rebuttal of parts of former Inspector-General of Police Achyut Krishna Kharel’s newly published memoirs.)
Oli allowed the balloon to float for a few days more, enticing the principal players closer to what they considered a fait accompli and allowing the public mood to sour further. Whether Gautam felt the first intimation of doom in Bibeksheel Sajha Party convener Rabindra Mishra’s impending electoral challenge is unclear. But the former deputy prime minister was smart enough to read the real message in Oli decision to postpone a crucial party meeting that was to have finalized the matter.
Gautam bowed out, giving Dahal an easy exit as well. The ever-wily NCP co-chair instantly went into damage-control mode, praising the great things the Oli government had accomplished but had not been credited with. Manandhar, a onetime Oli loyalist, learned the bitter lesson of prematurely switching camps as others continue to take in the message in different ways. 
Wearied or not, Oli has worsted his critics. For how long is anyone’s guess, though. If he’s smart, he’ll keep us all guessing.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Flashback: All Worked Up By Works In Progress

If reality is a work in progress, our polity surely encapsulates the perpetuity of the process. With too many experiments going on at the same time – in parallel as well as in conflict – every appearance of arrival only advances our destination.
After plodding on for a dozen years, the assorted architects of our collective destiny finally seemed to have reached an equilibrium. On the bedrock of republicanism, secularism and federalism, Nepalis could find their equipoise. Sure, the Constituent Assembly turned out to be a Pandora’s Box – and twice. We’re still not sure what came out of it or what’s still inside. But the lid was shut. Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli has a hard time keeping it shut.
Oli heads a unified communist party that predominates that end of the spectrum as well as a government that enjoys two-thirds majority support in the elected legislature. Yet those you’d expect to be hailing this relief from fractiousness of the past see in Oli a single successor to the dozen ‘potentates’ that replaced the maligned monarchy.
The practical dimensions of federalism have provided the first validation of critics of this variant of devolution and decentralization. Provinces are still named numerically, as in the Rana era. Provincial officials complain of poor compensation and lack of conveyance. Centre-state conflicts have been largely in check because the people haven’t begun speaking yet.
Early on, secularism energized the faithful. After an initial victory run, Christianity seems to be on the defensive, if you read foreign Christian publications. Hinduism was never this ebullient even when Nepal was the world’s only official Hindu state. Where we have bucked the global trend is in the placidity of our Muslim brethren. In term of inclusion and representation, we have come out ahead numerically. That should count for something when we don’t have any other yardstick over the short to medium term.
Yet the Oli government is besieged. The Supreme Court tends to reverse almost every decision it makes. And that’s even before we have a permanent chief justice. Civil society tends to act as if nothing has changed since the final decade of the partyless Panchayat system. A prominent media house changes its key editors in a decision tenuously linked to the supposed appointment of a senior Indian management executive and we begin debating how that affair might affect our national destiny. An activist medical doctor with a penchant for Gandhian deprivation of nutrition chooses a remote district to make his valiant stand against the government. And the government and the doctor’s supporters both act as if the sky is about to fall.
Oli & Co. should be enthused by the new respectability their ideology, at least its socialist variant, is commanding among millennials in the West. Instead, our elected comrades are being demonized as crude incarnations of Stalin, Mao, Beria and Kang.
The roots of this apathy lay in the amorphousness of the April 2006 Uprising. For all outward appearances, it was a massive popular uprising. The principal trigger was the people’s desire to see the monarchy shed its authoritarianism and the Maoist rebels come into the mainstream. Beyond that, it was a blank canvas. Diverse interests drove their own narratives which easily set the national agenda.
The external dimensions of the distortion were starker. By the end of it all, the Chinese – who backed the monarchy against the Maoists until the last moment – welcomed the new constitution in 2015. The Indians, who set the ball rolling through the 12-Point Agreement on their soil, couldn’t come out with anything more than a tepid acknowledgement of the change in Nepal.
The Americans, Europeans and, yes, the Russians couldn’t be expected to relinquish the ground they invested in so carefully since 1950. For some further afield, our landmark elections were not representative enough. Others don’t see enough new rights upheld. Still others have their fingers firmly on the pulse to detect the outbreak of Cold War 2.0, if it hasn’t already. How could Nepal not be part of this Second Coming?
The Indians and Chinese want to turn their contest over Nepal into a neighborhood brawl. When they try to split the difference, others far afield are naturally agitated. What they lack in geographical proximity, they more than make up through money and other instruments.
Like us, the external players don’t like what Nepal has become. Again, like us, they don’t know what they want it to become. A work in progress by definition embodies eventual achievement of clearly defined and implemented initiatives. Equally, it can be an undertaking subject to the vagaries of attitudes, intentions and resources. With perplexity so entrenched in the internal and external environment, how can we not be so worked up?

Originally posted on Saturday, July 14, 2018

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Rising Up From Hurt And Hubris

Is Madhav Kumar Nepal’s near-insurrection against K.P. Sharma Oli’s leadership at a time when our prime minister and ruling party chief is abroad an act of cowardice? Or is it a brilliant incursion based on the perfect convergence of time, context and personalities? It’s hard to say.
What you can’t say is that it wasn’t coming. The creation of an overtly formidable communist party through the amalgamation of the influential Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) and Maoist factions was hailed as a harbinger political rejuvenation.
The jubilation seemed inherently contrived, though. The leaders of the two factions sat together in secret for hours over several sessions and couldn’t agree on much. Then, presto, they resolved everything, including ways of massaging their massive egos. Other egos were bound to be bruised.
The grumbling on the Maoist side was gaudier. As the newest kids on the block, the erstwhile ‘people’s warriors’ had a greater incentive to rue what they had become. The disaffection on the UML side sounded more substantive and cerebral. More experienced in power and patronage, these comrades were bound to ruminate more on the erosion of influence than on that of idealism.
The united communist party held critical decisions in abeyance. The co-leadership of Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal couldn’t even get the new party’s name right for registration purposes. So, they added the abbreviation as part of the proper noun to fulfill the imperative of novelty. Individuals shunted out of the party hierarchy had to be accommodated accordingly in the government.
Dahal had it a bit easier. His principal challengers like Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and Mohan Baidya were outside the party. Oli, on the other hand, had to keep in check the restlessness and desires of former premiers Nepal and Jhal Nath Khanal from within the party. With perennial deputy premier Bam Dev Gautam as motivated and malleable as ever, that task became all the more daunting.
Once the contradictions grew thicker, Dahal sought to strike the first blow through his much-hyped Indian and Chinese trips. Through their egregiously hospitality, the Indians ended up thwarting Dahal. If the Chinese were ever planning a warmer reception to our erstwhile Maoist chief, they must have been dissuaded by the Indians.
Clearly, Madhav Nepal saw his opportunity. The Nepal-Oli camaraderie that was at its apotheosis in the months immediately before and after the tragic death of Madan Bhandary never concealed the Jhapali v. non-Jhapali rift gripping the Marxist-Leninist faction. As men like Oli were either hunting other heads or scratching their own behind bars, other comrades were leading double lives to evade arrest. Oli and Nepal were entrenched on opposite ends of that divide, regardless of whatever came after.
With the Oli government under siege, the opposition Nepali Congress has built enough momentum to make us forget its drubbing in the last election. The media – social and the traditional variant – amplifies every act of government dereliction, real and otherwise, pushing the government further on the defensive.
Amid all this, Oli sounds unruffled. Brushing aside the hullabaloo back home, he headed to Costa Rica from New York City. How can the prime minister afford to be so blas√©? Or is he merely putting on an act – for the next turn in our interminable spectacle he, too, so assiduously awaits?