Sunday, June 28, 2015

You Say You Want A Constitution…

Gee, our politicos turned out to be cannier than we ever considered giving them credit for.
They want to give us that long-delayed constitution so bad that it will now be our fault if we don’t get it sooner rather than later.
Before the Great Earthquake, it seemed as if our Constituent Assembly members were intent on prolonging their term in office, persuaded that were inured to their ineptitude.
After the disaster struck, the entire political fraternity disappeared, knowing the little they could have done in the circumstances. After all, their specialty lay in shutting down the city, not opening up its blocked arteries and alleyways.
Ordinary people rallied together in a spontaneous demonstration of collective action, drawing the admiration of those near and far. We almost got comfortable with the notion that Nepal could do without politicians.
Then the 16-Point Agreement took us by surprise. Was the political class so shaken out of its stupor so as to demonstrate its relevance? Or did the earthquake precipitate just enough geopolitical shifts to advance the political agenda? Regardless, the Supreme Court’s interim intervention did not stop the scribes. Nor did President Ram Baran Yadav’s admonition. The document will be ready for public unveiling any day now, considering that the draft has been all but finalized.
In retrospect, the political class made a smart calculation. A constitution no one likes is likelier to be acceptable to everyone for the time being. The Great Earthquake shifted the national conversation and concern. To be sure, the Big Four want to become part of a national government. But they seem patient enough to wait until after the constitution has been promulgated. Now, isn’t that forbearance a sign of finality?
After the international donor conference, Nepal needs to press ahead with reconstruction. Nepal’s is the first major natural disaster to have occurred since the United Nations Disaster Reduction Conference held in Sendai earlier this year. Japan, the host country, has said Nepal would test the commitments the international community made there.
The amount pledged at the Kathmandu conference varies from $3 billion to $6 billion, with $4.4 billion being the widely accepted figure. Still, no portion of those billions will start trickling out until we prove our worthiness by, among other things, strengthening efficiency, transparency and accountability in handling international assistance, we’ve heard from experts and analysts.
That, in turn, would depend on ensuring political stability, organizing early local elections, and completing the constitution drafting process.
So it all boils down to this: We can contemplate amending the lousiest constitution only when we have one in place.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Hard Bargain Or Soft Sell?

From the scorn they have heaped on the Supreme Court for having stayed implementation of the 16-Point Agreement, you could be forgiven for thinking that the four major parties were actually on the verge of promulgating the constitution this time.
The surprise June 8 deal had generated a generally upbeat vibe, especially among those most intent to underscore the relevance of the frayed 12-Point Agreement that set forth our nine-year journey into nebulous newness.
India, however, was said to have been displeased by the surprise the Big Four sprung on us. If so, New Delhi did a good job of hiding its feelings, because it took Nepali analysts a few days to see signs of annoyance.
Now, if New Delhi was indeed miffed by its apparent displacement from the driver’s seat, what better way to express itself than through the Supreme Court? More importantly, though, why should India want to scuttle a new constitution that would have marked the culmination of the 2005 Delhi Compromise?
Granted, the rulers in New Delhi today represent a different political ideology than the one espoused by the regime that forged the Maoist-mainstream opposition against the monarchy. But, as the largest opposition then, those at the helm in India today did go along with the myths spun then, didn’t they?
So could India’s supposed irritation stem from a discovery that it was leading from behind in Nepal, as in the case of the creation of the Jhal Nath Khanal government a few years ago? Prime Minister Narendra Modi must have taken it personally that Nepal became the first neighbor to burn his effigy, and that, too, after having mounted a rescue and relief operation.
The open secret before the Great Earthquake was that India was engaging in negotiations with the former king, who had pitched his tent in New Delhi for an extended stay. Just before the devastation, too, a leading Chinese expert on Nepal had ruled out the restoration of monarchy in any shape, manner or form, in what was by far the most candid articulation of Beijing’s feelings on an institution we all believed it had nurtured and sustained.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, according to some reports, had resurrected the terms India had presented Kings Birendra and Gyanendra in 1990 and 2006 respectively in exchange for a restoration of the monarchy.
Despite the much-hyped alignment between Beijing and New Delhi on matters concerning Nepal, could the Chinese have acted in concert with other powers seeking to thwart a return of the monarchy and sprung up the 16-Point Agreement?
Or did elements within India, deliberately or otherwise, seek to undo a deal in such a way that would pile pressure not only on the former king but the ruling and opposition parties as well? In that case, the Supreme Court’s intervention may have bought New Delhi the time to identify the best deal.
But if we really want to be hopeful, this could also be a chance for Nepalis to secure the best bargain geostrategically possible.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Love-Hate Relationship, Indeed

In less than a year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned from an adorable novelty to a self(ie)-seeking ogre. And all it took was the Great Earthquake.
Some Nepalis saw India’s alacritous aid dispensation a diabolic lack of altruism.
The Indian media did not help matters by acting as if Nepal were an adjunct of the federal government in New Delhi or that somehow the earthquake offered the perfect opportunity to shed any semblance of sensibility during person-on-the-street sessions.
But Modi didn’t seem perturbed by his blazing effigies. Not only has he promised to wipe every Nepali tear, he has cited cooperation with China on rescue and relief as a model of strategic cooperation between the Asian giants.
It didn’t take long for the international media to detect regional rivalries hover over Nepal. But something more expansive seems to be going on.
The development community sees people-driven dynamics as a harbinger of change. Statists see in the post-disaster official turmoil the need for centralized control. The political class stood out of the way of the plethora of other players because they could have neither led nor followed. After all, shutting down the country through mass mobilization for political gains is far easier than opening up roads and city squares in the aftermath of nature’s fury.
The international goodwill for Nepal was manifested during the five-yearly review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the United Nations, where virtually every high-level speaker prefaced his or her homily with expressions of support and solidarity for Nepal. Fundraising became such a popular cause that international law-enforcement agencies had to start warning everyone to beware of crooks.
Three weeks and a second earthquake later, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution urging more concerted international action over the short, medium and long term and across a variety of areas. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, lamenting the underfunding of the $423 million flash appeal, sung the praises of Nepal Army and police personnel.
During the post-adoption explanations of vote, countries big and small scrambled to assert what they had done for Nepal and Nepalis. The European Union alone sought progress on the constitutional front as part of durable post-disaster recovery. Otherwise, it was here’s-what-we’ve-done time.
Cuba and the United Arab Emirates didn’t want to be left out as India, China, the United States and United Kingdom detailed the scope and extent of their engagement. Of the Big 5, only the Russian Federation sat out the back-patting fest. 
From the South Asian region, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Afghanistan let India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan speak as forcefully as they could. China took pride in the fact that Nepal saw the first overseas deployment of People Armed Forces.
So where are we? Since this was the first major natural disaster to strike since the international agreement on disaster risk reduction was reached in Sendai in March (although Vanuatu was hit by a typhoon on the first day the conference opened), the urgency to act superseded any ambiguities associated with the international commitment to undertake a resilient recovery approach.
If Modi considered the Nepali reaction to India’s assistance rather irksome, he was prudent in exhibiting patience. When the international spotlight fades and fatigue sets in the rest of the world, the heavy lifting would still be needed.
It’s called a love-hate relationship for a reason.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sati’s Curse And Forced Fatalism

Sati’s curse on the country has expired – thus spake Khadga Prasad Oli.
The leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, addressing civil servants affiliated with his organization, made that declaration as part of his pre-premiership effort lift the national mood from its deepening despondency.
The sati excuse has long been used to justify our collective languor. And for good reason. What, after all, could be easier than attributing our perpetual woes to the swearword an unidentified widow of yore uttered as she perished on her husband’s funeral pyre? The search for archfiends is as intrinsic to our soul as the quest for saviors.
Comrade Oli must be commended for striking his gavel so hard. As a student and practitioner of scientific materialism, it must have taken him some courage to pull a palliative for something so rooted in the past. Oli’s real resolution lies in his preparedness to pontificate on something so shrouded in oblivion.
What we can gather from the available literature is that a sati pronounces a curse if she becomes angry while preparing to die. In so doing, she makes it known that some person or persons have behaved badly and unacceptably toward her.
The curse is said to hang over a family usually for seven generations and serves to encourage within it proper attitudes and activities. Satis may curse other related families if the cause so warrants. Regardless, her spell is considered a benevolent discouragement against future bad behavior from someone akin to a protector.
But what if she curses persons she is not related to? In that case, her punishment is said to come without guarantees of protection. In other words, she is malevolent and vengeful.
A couple of questions are then in order. Can we consider the sati as malevolent simply because she utters a curse. Or do we have to look at her intentions. To phrase it differently, do we need to see how the recipients understand the curse? In that case, the distinction between the benevolent and malevolent curse becomes sharper.
Then there’s the etymology. The sati is someone impelled by ‘sat’ (virtue) to follow her husband in death. For the curse to be deemed effective, must her motivations be certifiably pure? Can someone who, say, followed a duly convicted and executed criminal on the funeral pyre – regardless of the purity of her act – be considered an effective curser?
If, on the other hand, the pre-deceased male was pious and innocent but the woman was forced to become a sati against her volition, would her motivation in delivering a curse be deemed pure?
Or do other factors, such as bloodline in a caste-regimented society or spousal rank in a polygamous order, count. Perhaps how exactly the flames consumed her body – instantly or ungenerously – makes a difference.
In Nepal’s context, references to sati’s curse are as diverse as they are disparate. One of the earliest collective curses was said to have been uttered by a queen of King Jagatjayamalla, who announced from her pyre the end of the Malla dynasty and the coming of the Shahs.
Every violent change of regime since has had its share of widows burnt alive with their husbands. Who said what to whom? And which sati was more or less qualified than the others to do so – at least in terms of the efficacy of their utterances?
In that great unknown, we accepted a collective jinx: accursed is he who tries to do something good for the country. The first English writers of the history of Nepal perpetuated that line, which has been dutifully picked near and far ever since. Over time, variants also abounded to instill and entrench a sense of fatalism in our national character. And who benefited from our centuries-long obsession?
Oli may be on to something.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Flashback: Take It Or Leave It

If you are infuriated by the political establishment’s obsession with how the new constitution should be settled, it is time to cut them some slack. There is not much by way of content that they can show. Well, maybe they can show a lot in the new document. But it won’t be what too many of us will like.
Clearly, the wrangling over the number and nature of provinces serves a purpose. Blame Indian and Chinese geopolitical sensitivities and throw around all kinds of ideas. Madhav Kumar Nepal gets to yell at Khadga Oli at the top of his lungs. Pushpa Kamal Dahal gets to head both the mechanism to manage political affairs and the alliance menacing it.
On the religious right, the Hindu state standard-bearer – Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal (RPPN) – is being forced to cede some ground to a group of Nepali Congress leaders. How and when Khum Bahadur Khadka decided to take up the mantle remains unclear. After all, he was on record rallying for republicanism in the early 1990s when Girija Prasad Koirala was still best buds with King Birendra. If incarceration and insulin somehow transformed him, it was a quiet one.
For all its posturing, this Nepali Congress faction has not been able to tell us how a Hindu republic would fare any better than the secular one we have now. The appellation certainly has some implications. A Christian or Muslim president attending the hymnal advent of spring at Hanuman Dhoka might not be palatable to many Hindu ears. But if you start barring non-Hindus from the highest office of the land just to prevent that awkwardness, wouldn’t that constitute non-royal regression?
Or are we just trying to call Nepal the world’s only Hindu republic and leave things at that just to make some of us feel good?
That’s the kind of inanity you would expect the RPPN to pounce upon. There was a time when Kamal Thapa was thought to have abandoned his campaign to restore the monarchy. For a while, he, too, blew hot and cold – and seemed to enjoy it. Now he’s angry – at the deputy prime minister for now. If passions don’t cool soon, well, don’t even think about what might come next.
It’s easy to fall back on the oh-we could-still-restore the-monarchy line. What if Mr. Gyanendra Shah likes being ex-king so much that he won’t budge from where he is? The son, despite the recent outpouring of public sympathy over his travails in Thailand, is still considered too toxic to be throne-worthy. The grandson? He’s too young and running against time to grow up. King Birendra’s daughters? The Basanta Shrawan conundrum would persist in a different way, especially if it happened to be that time of the month for the Queen.
Perhaps our political leaders’ public confidence is genuine and the constitution will be promulgated on time. Those dissatisfied will erupt in protest, but there will be too many howls from far too many directions to pose a cohesive threat to the establishment.
Prime Minister Sushil Koirala could address the nation: “Brothers and sisters, this is the best we could do. Now, take it or leave it.” He could decide toward the end of the speech whether to throw in his resignation, depending on the intensity of the fire and smoke.

Originally posted on November 2, 2014