Sunday, July 26, 2015

Be Of Good Cheer, Comrade Prachanda

It’s quite tempting to dismiss them as rants of a broken man. Yet the frustration Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, Chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (UCPN), vented in public the other day deserves our collective attention.
“Whenever we meet for a party meeting, we share similar views”, Dahal said, referring to his party colleagues Baburam Bhattarai and Narayan Kaji Shrestha.  “I have no idea what happens when we hold separate meetings [and when] we only talk of our group.”
Although UCPN leaders shared the same ideology and strategies, Dahal contended, they tended to criticize one another during factional meetings. “No matter what I do, there is always fault in it,” Dahal said. “Prachanda is the only one to be blamed. [It’s almost as if a] dirty person turns clean if Prachanda is criticized.”
Surely, our comrade is not as naïve as he sounds. Once he emerged in public 2006 from decades of shadowy subterraneous existence, the only direction Dahal could go was down. The “people’s war” had acquired such mythical status in the anti-monarchy struggle that the mainstream parties found it politically expedient to take a back seat in the months following the April Uprising.
Civil society leaders sung paeans to the purity of the Maoists’ pursuit of violence in defense of the people, contrasting it with the venal bloodthirstiness of royal army. A large section of the international community, even while supporting the Nepali state’s campaign against terrorism, romanticized the rebels.
The prevailing narrative? The supreme commander of the army that liberated the people must be endowed with phenomenal powers. Dahal, as a consummate politician, was never going to puncture that perception. Nepalis and everyone else would have to judge him by his actions.
To be fair, as prime minister, Dahal did try to break new ground. He defied convention and made Beijing his first foreign port of call. Weeks later, he tried to assuage his Indian hosts that, technically, his first official visit was indeed to the south, considering that he had flown up north only to attend the Olympics.
A few months later, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, he met with US President George W. Bush, even if briefly in a group setting. All in all, within his first 100 days in office, Dahal had met with the leaders of China, India and the United States, the three principal drivers of the country’s destiny.
Anyone familiar with the intricacies of Nepali politics knew that was not going to sit well domestically. The questions Dahal started getting from reporters upon his return from foreign trips were telling. (“Which relatives did you take on your trips and how many dollars per day did the state spend on them?” “Can you explain why, as a warrior for the poor and downtrodden, you lavish in the official luxury of Baluwatar?”)
Of course, Dahal’s personality and temperament did a lot to do him in. Days after accusing the Indians of having masterminded his ouster as premier, he gave interviews to Indian reporters on how he had sought greater intervention from New Delhi in resolving the crisis precipitated by his standoff with the incumbent army chief.
Old videos and new vitriol combined to create in the public mind an image of someone who was unstable, self-serving and outright slimy. Bhattarai must have had a lot of old grudges. Shrestha, himself a surprising entrant to the top echelons of the party, could hardly have been expected to relish the halo Dahal monopolized. Mohan Baidya’s agony over the ideological drift gripping his one-time protégé and Netra Bikram Chand’s outrage over Dahal’s abandonment of the cause could easily mesh with their more personal prejudices. Leaders of the other parties were merely biding their time. The surprise therefore is that it took Dahal so long to speak out.
Yes, Comrade Dahal, people criticize you to cleanse themselves. But be of good cheer and use that line as your battle cry. It might help to cleanse the body politic, after all.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Karan-Saran Conundrum

Shyam Saran (left) and Karan Singh
For a while, the domestic chaos surrounding the draft of the new Constitution succeeded in camouflaging the disquiet gripping its principal driver. The parade of Nepali leaders travelling to New Delhi in advance of the anticipated promulgation has begun to focus attention on India’s predicaments.
Indeed, New Delhi succeeded in bringing the Maoists to the mainstream and
abolishing the monarchy by forging an ambiguous accord between the agitating mainstream parties and the rebels.
Nepali governments and politicians since April 2006 have been competing with one another to establish their pro-India credentials. The Indian Embassy has emerged as the principal power center in Nepal, in line with the situation conceived under the 1951 Compromise. Yet, over these years, India’s anxiety is growing. Politically, New Delhi has not gained popularity points.
Karan Singh, the emissary Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dispatched in late April 2006 to quell the anti-palace protests, acknowledged recently that he had been able to convince then king Gyanendra to hand over power to the parties immediately before the Maoists overwhelmed the political landscape.
With admittedly less candor, Karan Singh conceded that he thought India would continue with its post-1990 two-pillar Nepal policy of a constitutional monarchy and democratic parties. He appeared to suggest that there might have been another Indian conduit with greater sway over Nepal that was responsible for the monarchy’s removal.
Former king Gyanendra has claimed he had reached an agreement with political parties in 2006 which they had reneged on. While much of the political class refuted the suggestion, Rastriya Prajatantra Party chair Pashupati Shumsher Rana disclosed that the political parties had indeed reached a secret deal with the then king to not abolish the monarchy. However, former Indian ambassador Shyam Saran torpedoed that deal.
“What Karan Singh said publicly before returning to India indicated that there was a deal between then king and political parties,” Rana had said. “But, the deal was off when Saran returned to Delhi.” An avid royalist turned avowed republican, Rana – like former king Gyanendra – is related to Karan Singh. So he may have been speaking on good authority.
For long, India profited from a diabolic game of playing on all sides and retaining enough plausible deniability to step in as the redeemer. It can no longer afford that luxury. Those who tried to heap anti-Indianism on the monarchy have been discredited in a peculiar way. The regular visits the ex-king has been paying to India have focused Nepali public attention on New Delhi’s motives. The prolonged transition has created condition where other foreign powers are emerging as key players rivalling India traditional clout.
Was an understanding reached between New Delhi and Beijing during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent official visit to China wherein New Delhi was free to act in Nepal as long as it curbed the Free Tibet movement on its own soil? Juxtapose that with the reality that the Lipu-Lekh controversy has raised serious questions among Nepalis about China’s real motives.
Ordinarily, such apprehension would have been a net plus for India. However, the burgeoning support for the restoration of Nepal’s status as a Hindu state has put the majority Bharatiya Janata Party government in a pickle. If the public demand for a referendum on settling the issue of Hindu statehood gains serious political momentum, how would the avowedly Hindu nationalist ruling party respond?
Perhaps the promulgation of the new Constitution – complete with its infirmities and flaws – is needed to set the stage for contending with the Karan-Saran conundrum.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

It’s Because We’re Still Around

In this case, the messenger was more important than the message.
When prominent neurosurgeon Dr. Upendra Devkota claimed the other day that Christian missionaries funded Nepal’s communist revolution, he didn’t break new ground.
Ever since we turned secular, Nepalis have been wondering what hit us. Or, more to the the point, how whatever hit us did hit us. In recent years, the debate has sharpened to the point where no one can even claim credit for having thrown out Hinduism together with the monarchy from the basic law of the land.
That someone of Dr. Devkota’s stature said so cuts both ways (pardon the pun).
On the one hand, for some, his inclusion in King Gyanendra’s first handpicked cabinet was ‘payback’ for his ‘cooperation’ at the military hospital on the night of the Narayanhity Carnage.
On the other, Dr. Devkota demonstrated early on as minister his no-nonsense demeanor when it came to matters of statecraft. He famously called the constitution a piece of paper if it could not embody the hopes and aspirations of the people.
The love-hate relationship between Christians and Hindus was established with the founding of the modern Nepali state. Among the first things of King Prithvi Narayan Shah, who asserting the country’s status as the real Hindustan, was the expulsion of the community of Capuchin missionaries. Interaction among different civilizations had positive and negative elements in the 18th century, as the Qing and Mughal courts both knew. When overt interference became the dominant creed of the purveyors of an alien faith, it produced a reaction locally. When the dispossessed and dislodged went into exile, they found well-oiled allies, leaving the rulers in Kathmandu in eternal attentiveness.
With the opening up of Nepal in the 1950s, the resurgent royals were driven by the same love-hate imperative. The Jesuits almost became a fraternity of their own because they lay low politically (or so we thought), while educating some of us. However, other Catholics and those professing rival branches of Christianity were on the state watch list.
Media in Kathmandu and the Vatican covered King Birendra’s one-on-one with Pope John Paul II as if it was some kind of concord of civilizations. The imperative was purely geostrategic. Nepal was still among the half a dozen countries or so where it was impossible to spread the Good News.
The Church is a corporate structure where the bosses strategize how they can get the best possible deal for their congregation. Religion may be the ultimate good, but there are trade-offs and detours. As an institution that once ruled much of what it held under its sway, the Church is also master of self-preservation.
Thus the Church funded the anti-Soviet jihadists in Afghanistan against the godless Communists with ease. If the Russians ever became free to worship, they had their own Orthodox Church, whose resurgence was a no-no anyway. It may be easier to understand things if we consider the European Union the latest successor to the Holy Roman Empire.
At least Pope Francis is honest about his institutional role. A true votary of the liberation theology of 1980s Latin America, he rails against capitalism with the élan of a Marxist. When the issue of genocide of Christians in the Middle East comes up, he pays little beyond lip service.
Coming to Dr. Devkota’s other point, why has Hinduism become the target of all other religions? Here’s a thought: every other faith emerged as an alternative to Hinduism. But we’re still around in great numbers. That must grate upon a lot of souls.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Waiting Forever For ‘The One’

The anticipation has been excruciating enough. For us, if not for him.
How much longer must we consider Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli our premier in waiting?
The Nepali New Year appearance of
When the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) leader emerged aloft Dharahara to mark the Nepali New Year, the appearance was supposed to have marked the apogee of his pre-premier tenure. Instead, nature turned furious and toppled that tower, and much else.
The post-quake agreement that led to the issuance of the first draft of the Constitution seemed predicated on Oli’s anointment. But something seems to have happened somewhere. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala doesn’t sound like someone about to throw in the towel, does he?
Ever since the last election, Oli has become indispensable to the success of UML, eclipsing party rivals such as Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhal Nath Khanal and Bam Dev Gautam. Afflicted by an identity crisis since its birth, the party is struggling to maintain its relevance between the Nepali Congress and the Maoists. The eggheads in the party are eternally deploying their entire erudition to craft a coherent party platform conforming to the times.
It doesn’t seem to matter that Oli spends half his time in the hospital or in convalescence somewhere here or abroad. Worse, we don’t know what it is that really ails him. Yet, his party – at least a substantial chunk of it – sees in Oli its savior.
During the years of royal assertiveness, Oli seemed to have a soft spot for the palace. At one point, Madhav Nepal had to cut short a visit abroad to restrain Oli from joining the royal cabinet (even as its head).
Once the Maoists entered the mainstream, Oli was one of the few luminaries of the Seven Party Alliance who consistently questioned the former rebels’ commitment to peace and democracy.
When then-Prime Minister Khanal awarded the home portfolio to Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara while Oli was out of the country, Oli returned home to describe the move as a conspiracy against the party. But, then, others had indulged in far worse demagoguery.
To be sure, Oli’s background and experience make him a credible candidate for the party leadership. That he has so energized the rank and file is a tribute to his leadership qualities. But what about the rest of us? Don’t we need to know why he’s been in the waiting room so long?
There are suggestions that the ‘establishment’ faction in India is against the 16 Point
Agreement and is speaking through the Madhesi parties. But we don’t know the exact configuration of the ‘establishment’, do we?
With Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Mohan Baidya having turned against China for its Lipu-lekh transgressions, the extreme left seems likely to have a say in who becomes what.  If Oli has suddenly turned suspicious of Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, you can’t blame him. Dahal, after all, has a propensity for weighing the personal and political with exactitude. And he is scheduled to leave on an official trip to India.
Oli is, therefore, compelled to continue providing lip service to the UML’s alliance with the Nepali Congress. For now, setting deadline upon deadline for the formal promulgation of the Constitution has become his way of preserving of maintaining frontrunner status.

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.