Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pulling A Fast One In Slow Motion

In a little over two years of existence, Mohan Baidya’s Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) has succeeded in elevating the mother organization as a responsible political stakeholder.
Even in the topsy-turvy world of Nepali politics, the inconsistencies of Baidya’s men and women have stood out sharply. The party not only boycotted last year’s constituent assembly elections but also actively – and often violently – worked to subvert the exercise.
Having failed in that enterprise, CPN-M leaders rather brashly began demanding ‘respectable presence’ in the assembly, ostensibly through the proportional-representation quota won by Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) or the government-appointed lot.
When that kind of fizzled, you would have expected the comrades to sit back and take a deep breath. Instead, they began demanding a round table conference on the new constitution. And that, too, with an urgency bordering on alacrity to usurp the prerogative of the body elected for that express purpose.
Once three major parties worked out the parameters of such a conference, Baidya & Co. refused to participate. In the ensuing blame game, they are projecting themselves as the victims.
“We are an inalienable part of the entire peace process,” Baidya claimed in an interview the other day. “Thus we maintained that all important issues, including those related to the peace process, needed to be discussed at the conference. Secondly, the conference should be provided with full authority [to implement the outcome].”
In the beginning, according to Baidya, the big three parties made verbal commitments to all of the CPN-Maoist demands. He balked when the leaders refused to provide a written commitment.
On the first point, Baidya represent a part of one party to the peace process. He probably has lost track of the parts of the peace process he likes and those he doesn’t. Like the Dahal-led Maoists, Baidya & Co. has shifted the goalposts so ruthlessly that setting boundaries has become meaningless.
In the eyes of the people, the culmination of the peace process would be symbolized by the promulgation of the constitution. With a legitimate and popularly elected venue already in existence, the three parties were under no obligation to commit to actions and opinions emanating from the round table conference. (And what kind of leader works on verbal commitments anyway, in this day and age?)
From the outset, the only thing the CPN-M had going for it was the claim of ideological purity. Baidya criticized Dahal and his loyalists for abandoning the principles of the ‘people’s war’ for sheer personal political gain, which resonated among the faithful. It turns out that the ideological veneer was skin deep. Who would have thought Dr. Baburam Bhattarai would have a key ally in the Baidya group in the form of Netra Bikram Chand?
Since Baidya and Chand have now issued separate exhortations to the people to rise up against the government’s power agreement with India, we can expect the intra-CPN-M fissures to sharpen.
The politics of it all is delectable. Although the principal parties continue to promise to promulgate the constitution by the January 22 deadline, their ability to do so is diminishing by the day. If anything, they needed a convenient excuse for failure.
Baidya, on the other hand, recognized the growing marginalization his party was likely to suffer outside the corridors of power. If the constitution should come out, it should be one his party could denounce as tainted. In retrospect, his demand for a round table conference gave the mainstream parties the perfect excuse.
Try as it might, the CPN-M now cannot distance itself from the constitution, if it does indeed emerge by the stipulated deadline. In case the mainstream parties fail to deliver on their pledge yet again, they can spread the blame evenly to the CPN-M for its having squandered time and resources on convening a conference the party ultimately lacked the confidence to attend.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Art Of The Visit

It was a stretch to have expected Chinese President Xi Jinping to land in Kathmandu as part of his current South Asian tour. Still, Maila Baje couldn’t avoid those should’ve- would’ve-could’ve gyrations.
Good neighborliness wasn’t the primary sentiment driving yours truly. It was a quest for an assurance that Nepal-China relations were moving in a positive direction.
Admittedly, China’s engagement in Nepal has steadily deepened and become more diversified since the collapse of the monarchy. But a palpable negativity has crept into the process.
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.
Measured against the fact that it took 17 years for an Indian prime minister to return to Nepal, President Xi’s current itinerary is perhaps a bit understandable. How events on the ground can affect high-level visits was borne out in the case of Pakistan, where Xi was forced to put off his arrival amid the country’s political turmoil.
Bold Indian reiterations of New Delhi’s abandonment of its ‘one China’ policy ever since the election of the Narendra Modi government certainly have implications for Tibet and thus Nepal. 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 point to the wider dynamics at play. All these engender tensions that should alarm 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 two years ago?
As Beijing makes more demonstrable displays of how higher South Asia has climbed on its diplomatic priority list, Sri Lanka and the Maldives host the Chinese President for the first time. We are still in thrall over what the Indian prime minister said about our duty to constitutionalism without paying much operational heed.
Who knows? Bhutan might end up on the next Chinese presidential itinerary, while we might still be stuck with the interim constitution, condemning our tangible past and chasing a tenuous future.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

The Shapes Of Things To Come

The constitution-drafting process, stymied in its legitimate venue despite a second popular mandate, is now set to be pursued at the Track II level.
How the putative round table conference might be able to iron out contentious issues when there are so many more wrinkles outside the constituent assembly is anyone’s guess.
But the mainstream parties have demonstrated that they at least care. And in today’s liberal/left milieu, that touchy-feely approach counts for good optics.
Not to everyone though. Kamal Thapa, the leader of the conservative Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal, blasted the Big Three for trying to impose their decisions on the country.
Normally, the majority vote – which the Big Three more than represent – carries the day. As a political practitioner across three system, Thapa knows the numbers game. But, then, there’s that pesky concept of ‘consensus’ that stands in the way. Everyone inside the chamber believes he or she should have a finger in the pie.
The non-party polity could not advance the notion of every-Nepali-is-a-pancha-and-vice-versa and had to give way to groups, coteries and factions long before we restored multiparty politics. Now the purveyors of newness are striving for conformity.
Thus, while castigating the Big Three, Thapa came to the defense of the Baidya Maoists, whose political chutzpah has been startling, if anything.
To be charitable, you could argue that the political establishment has heeded Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Applauding Nepali lawmakers for having embarked on what he called an exemplary mission for the world during his address to the house last month, Modi also cautioned them to make sure no comma, full stop, presence or absence ever came back to haunt them.
That exhortation was a given when Nepalis voted in a second constituent assembly after the first fell flat. Somehow, the message was deemed so much more significant because the messenger was so mesmerizing.
The Baidya Maoists who not only boycotted the last election but also tried to subvert are going to have a say in the document. We can expect disparate groups and organizations to get a patient hearing.
This will provide another opportunity for our grievance industry to churn out new groups of victims to overwhelm the system. Saul Alinsky would certainly be proud.
To their credit, Deputy Prime Minister Bam Dev Gautam and Nepal Workers and Peasants Party leader Narayan Man Bijukchhe have pointed to the absurdity of the situation. But they are lonely voices on their perch.
Deeper down, they, too, need to expand the culpability base once the day of reckoning arrives. Still, our quest for nebulous newness can be expected to continue as long as the external sponsors of the search refuse to concede failure.
And they won’t concede because they have invested so much for diverse reasons. Those who pay the pipers will continue to call the tunes, regardless of how jarring the sounds may be to the rest of us.
So the operative question is this: Since we are a work in progress in perpetuity, why quibble over whether the table is round, square, triangular or even turned upside down?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Bonfires Of Inanities

It’s getting down to crunch time for Comrade Baburam Bhattarai.
Our Doctor of Eternal Innovation is actively tamping down public expectations, as the deadline for the promulgation of the constitution looms.
A basic law promulgated through majority vote of elected representatives would not be able to address all sections of society and therefore the nation’s needs, Bhattarai sagaciously informed us the other day.
The chairman of parliament’s Constitutional Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee also spoke of efforts under way to convene a round table conference to ensure consensus behind the document. True, such an event would go a long way toward assuaging the likes of the Mohan Baidya-led faction of the Maoists and the assortment of small armed groups. But, then, C.P. Gajurel, a luminary in the Baidya lot, has already shifted the goalposts. A few days earlier, he dismissed federalism, democracy and republicanism as India’s agenda, ostensibly pushed for diabolic purposes.
Tempting as it certainly is, there’s no time to dwell on the shamelessness of the contention of a man whose party waged a 10-year bloody war to advance that trifecta. For now, Gajurel has zeroed in on the conflagration likely to consume the country should a tainted statute be foisted upon it.
Even if Gajurel is indulging in usual theatrics here, movements on the wider stage are hardly encouraging. Bhattarai’s boss, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, continues to warn that the Maoists might pull out of the constituent assembly altogether. You can’t imagine what a man so desperate to keep his house in order might wreak.
The talk of replacing one perpetual convalescent with another in the premiership had already weighed down the process before the government finally came out with a partial list of nominated members of the constituent assembly. For one thing, the assembly is still incomplete. For another, even after such inordinate delay, one lady’s name had to be scratched out because it later emerged she was already on the proportional representation list of her party. With that kind of inattention to detail, you wonder…
From the details emerging from the drafters – and those close to them – everything the Nepali people were promised would be in the statute of New Nepal is now being deemed amendable. Republicanism, the first gift of the first constituent assembly bestowed under the aegis of an unelected, interim prime minister, will be in the preamble. So that should be unalterable, right. Well, not quite. The drafters are not sure how to deal with the beginning, so they’ve decided to leave it till the end.
Bhattarai, whose prime ministerial tenure will be remembered for the capital’s road-widening project, has stopped taking credit for single-handedly turning Nepal into a republic. Instead, he’s talking about the urgency of building a new political force. Yet we seem to be decaying.
With no constituent assembly, the interim constitution of 1951 lasted nine years. With two such bodies elected already, the current temporary statute seems set to last quite that long.
No wonder men like Chitra Bahadur K.C. and Kamal Thapa have stepped down from their respective anti-federalism and pro-monarchist perches, and want the constitution promulgated as soon as possible. Putting out those bonfires of inanities might be our more pressing task.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

In Whose Book, Fellas?

Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal seems most aggrieved from the recently published memoirs of General Rukmangad Katawal.
The former supreme commander of the “People’s Liberation Army” has used at least two occasions in public to demolish the credibility of the former Nepal Army chief. Like most people on the defensive, though, Dahal has focused less on the substance of the general’s revelations.
At an institutional level, the bad blood between the two can easily be surmised. The army could not defeat the Maoists, nor could the rebels vanquish the state. Yet Dahal emerged stepped into the public spotlight in 2006 as if he had won the world. The hatred he spewed against generations of soldiers, in the presence of the prime minister and all senior democratic leaders, could not have been easily forgotten by anyone familiar with the force.
At a political level, Dahal lost the premiership because of his failure to see through his decision to sack Gen. Katawal for insubordination. The general, who opens with a gripping narrative of that episode, portrays his complicated relationship with Dahal.
But that is a side story to the vigorous defense of the military Gen. Katawal mounts. To those who sought to establish a philosophical and practical equivalency between the state and rebel armies, Katawal makes a key point: the military was intent on pressuring the Maoists to join the political process, whereas the rebels were going for the kill. The guerillas inflicted massive losses on the soldiers and state, but the conventional army always held the ground.
Amid this stalemate, the political process took center stage, laced with the unsentimental rigors of geopolitics. Thus, a movement that began with objective of ending ‘autocratic monarchy’ ended up ushering in a republic.
Katawal’s reminiscences on the disparate personalities involved in that process are revealing. For instance, it’s hard to believe that Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, miffed by the Maoists, would urge Gen. Katawal to take over. But that goes with the genre.
On Katawal’s pages, Dahal emerges in the same way he has been seen in public. At times, daring, flexible, blustery, obsequious and adamant – in no particular order. Clearly, his self-described ‘chemistry’ with Katawal was a compulsion of the times. Since it’s Katawal’s book, the general gets the last word on Dahal’s moves and motivations. And Dahal has every right to resent Katawal’s characterization. Case closed.
But Dahal took a curious route to press his case. He castigated the general as despicable and unreliable for having ditched the monarchy.
On that score, Katawal makes fascinating revelations beginning from his first contact with King Mahendra in his home district and subsequent arrival in Kathmandu for studies under royal sponsorship.
Over the years, his admirers and detractors stretched that instance of royal sponsorship into something akin to enduring royal guardianship. But Katawal, who by chance had ended up in King Mahendra’s office on the eve of the 1960 royal takeover with barely an inkling of what was about to happen, never met Queen and later Queen Mother Ratna. He was hardly a palace boy, by that reckoning.
The country didn’t know that when Katawal rose to the top and the monarchy was in its last gasps. The national focus was on how the army – traditionally loyal to the palace – would react to the push for republicanism under a general the public deemed was all but a brother to the suspended king.
In an effort to save the monarchy, Katawal, among other things, pushed the idea of enthroning a ‘baby king’. King Gyanendra rejected that outright. (“Over my dead body,” the general quotes the monarch as saying.)
Katawal doesn’t say so explicitly, but he seemed hurt by the royal snub. Maila Baje always felt King Gyanendra had a point: You can choose between a king and a president. But you can’t choose who you want as king.
Although he emerges as a strong monarchist still – at least within the demands of Nepal’s geo-strategic precariousness – Katawal quotes Nepali politicians as well as foreign diplomats casting aspersions on the ex-monarch’s personality and predilections. His general characterization of King Gyanendra’s rule is not flattering.
Did the king drag the army along kicking and screaming on February 1, 2005? Or did the generals advise the king of their ability to take control of the situation sufficiently to put the political process on track? Katawal maintains there were two armies – the palace guard and regular force. If the national army headquarters could not prevent that infringement on its jurisdiction and scope, then all his talk about professionalism becomes moot.
Those who wonder why the palace would want to keep GHQ at arm’s length might want to go a little back in history. Our army takes pride in its roots in the national unification campaign of Prithvi Narayan Shah. Yet, decades later, when a junior officer seized power and managed to monopolize it within his immediate family for over a century, keeping successive kings virtual prisoners in the palace, the army continued to back the usurpers. Surely, Dahal knows that the army-monarchy debate transcends the Katawal-Mahendra dimension. There were other ways he could have rebutted Katawal’s version of current history – including announcing that he would write his own book.
And even if the general did betray the palace and side with the republicans, shouldn’t Dahal be hailing Katawal?