Monday, January 19, 2015

Starry-Eyed And Snookered

“When the king hounded you, you came running to us considering us democrats. Now you have the audacity to call us obstructionists?”
Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) general secretary Krishna Bahadur Mahara’s pointed question to the two mainstream parties the other day wasn’t exactly new. The context has amplified its relevance.
Some of us still wonder how far from the Ratna Park perimeter the erstwhile Seven Party Alliance would have been able to push their anti-palace protests without forging that alliance with the Maoists. But for the New Delhi-brokered 12-Point Agreement, the Maoists would probably still be waging their People’s War, unable to win or lose.
Had king Gyanendra appointed Surya Bahadur Thapa as chairman of the council of ministers on the morning of February 1, 2005 instead of taking on the dual role, wouldn’t the twin-pillar principle still be the defining tenet of India’s relationship with Nepal? We certainly wouldn’t be debating a prime ministerial vs. presidential system. But would be stuck so neck deep in the number of provinces the state could shoulder?
Instead, the monarch bet on the sheer impossibility of an alliance between the mainstream parties and the Maoist rebels – and lost. The country, for its part, put its faith in the possibility of such contrived cooperation and is left hoping against hope ever since.
For a while, politicians and civil society leaders who considered themselves the new saviors told us how the violence perpetrated by the Maoists was qualitatively different. The rebels shed blood in defense of a people languishing in the vise-like grip of the military-backed monarchy. With the monarchy gone, those same groups immediately began wooing the military against the Maoists.
As the allure of a “new” Nepal descended upon us, old grievances were bound to mingle with new ones. But the grievance industry went into full production mode. The proliferation of new victims eviscerated meaning from terms like inclusion and federalism.
The royal regime was castigated internationally for beating up on Tibetan refugees here. Two years later, the Dalai Lama could be heard sighing how safer his followers in Nepal were even during the supposedly worst moments of the monarchy.
Contradictions and incongruities proliferated but were swept under the carpet, where there was only so much space. They have now surfaced in all their ugliness. Political parties ideologically inspired and organized to compete with one another – and which did so in two elections – continue to stress the urgency of consensus when it comes to producing the constitution. Majority rule – the bedrock of democratic governance – is being shamed and shunned.
Having allowed the bureaucratic-technocratic establishment to mediate among the political parties in between the elections, the military is now being asked to defend democracy.
Our absurdities have infected the realm of occultism. Astrologers are competing to burnish their credentials by pronouncing on whether we will or will not have a new constitution or whether the monarchy will or will not return.
Dream, we all must in order to go on living. But shouldn’t we also remember to wake up?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Caught Between Anticipation And Indifference

The Constitution is all about, well, whom you want to ask.
For Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist chairman Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, the January 22 deadline is sacrosanct as part of his drive to become prime minister. It doesn’t matter what’s in the document as long as it comes out.
Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, too, has been insistent on the urgency of adhering to that date. But, then, he would have to step down from a perch he didn’t originally covet but has since grown comfortable on.
Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal isn’t even trying to hide how hard he wants to miss the deadline. What he wants is the presidency, with full powers. Everything else is just a prop.
Lately, the Madhes-based parties have professed their desire to prevent Oli’s rise to the premiership. Once the January 22 deadline is breached, they hope to join a national government and keep the conversation alive. There is so much going on under the surface among the factions there that needs to be sorted out subterraneaneously.
To be sure, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N) is energized by its chariot procession for restoring the Hindu state. But it doesn’t have the numbers to prevent a secular statute, unless there is a massive revolt in the Nepali Congress by like-minded members.
Should that happen, the RPP-N would have to share the Hindu agenda with a more formidable faction. In reality, though, it has provided the cover needed for Nepali Congress members to revisit their decision to go secular. So the RPP-N insists on meeting the deadline while staking out its ground in the event that it is missed.
Reversing secularism will be fought tooth and nail by the western powers and their local protégés that drove that agenda. Maila Baje has been hearing a subdued but sustained fear in the republican camp that the West might accept the restoration of a Hindu monarchy provided the state remains secular.
India, although ruled by a Hindu nationalist party unabashed about promoting its ideology domestically, will not come out openly in favor of Hindu statehood here. Compromise and consensus will be the mantra from down south, as during the days of the Rana-Congress alliance and the twin-pillar theory. What matters is figuring out what transpires behind that façade of conciliation.
China, too, has become more outspoken, particularly on state restructuring. But, then, candor has been the general trend in Xi Jinping’s neighborhood policy. Investing consideration and cash in all key parties means Beijing would not have to suffer the indignities of 2006 all over again. (Remember how they had to beg, scream, kick and cajole to let their ambassador become the first top foreign diplomat not to present his/her credentials to the king?)
Any surprise, then, that the nation’s conscience has been seared by an admixture of anticipation and indifference ahead of January 22?

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Deadline And Lifelines, Again

Our leaders are so carried away by their confidence in bringing out the new constitution by their self-imposed January 22 deadline that they have been going off on tangents.
Realizing it or not, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala threw his cousins under the bus. “I will not be remembered as a Koirala who sold our rivers cheap,” the premier affirmed the other day.
Granted, he was assuring a group of citizens demanding the scrapping of the project development agreement for the Upper Karnali hydro project. Yet, it’s hard to consider those comments outside Koirala’s general contortions about the inevitability of meeting the deadline.
At the root of this perhaps lies the man’s sincere belief that he is a different prime minister working in different times. Just because his three Koirala predecessors as premier were associated with giving up Kosi, Karnali and Mahakali rivers respectively, Karnali – and Sushil – should not be automatically placed in that league, no matter how fluid our times.
Rhetorical ebullience has also bitten Koirala’s deputy quite hard. Bam Dev Gautam, the senior deputy prime minister, told a gathering the other day that he admired Prithvi Narayan Shah and Mahendra among our monarchs. On the first, it is fashionable to pay homage to the founder of modern Nepal, since even diehard republicans, separatists, or Lhendups know they need a country first.
However, Mahendra still remains the king our pols – and their patrons across the southern border – love to hate the most. Gautam, to be sure, lauded Mahendra’s genuine and tangible contributions to Nepali nationhood. Video snippets and photographic scraps circulating on social media have begun introducing his indelible legacy to an entire new generation of Nepalis.
But the deputy PM did so to shore up his own credentials as a reasonable person. As such, when he says the constitution will be delivered on schedule, we are not supposed to sneer and jeer.
Lest we forget, Gautam not too long ago denigrated Mahendra as having sold Kalapani to preserve his throne. Remember the march on Kalapani he directed his lads and lasses on while whipping the reservists into a frenzy demanding that King Birendra strip Prince Para Shah of his royal title and privileges?
On the legislative side, Speaker Subash Nembang prompted much ridicule when he asked the squabbling parties to give him the right to draft the constitution. The fact that he gave his plea some religious-altruistic cover did not fool many. In fact, people like Krishna Prasad Sitaula of the Nepali Congress, who initially appeared to laud Nembang’s breakthrough gambit, did a quick 180 and began describing it as part of – yes you got it – a ‘grand design’.
Former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist has gone on a now-or-never mode, without explaining why. But look at his dilemma. Failure to deliver would further sink the credibility of the political class. But meeting the January 22 deadline would also elevate party president Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli to the premiership.
The lower you go on the political ladder, the more you hear ifs and buts emerging, but not much nail-biting. So are we doomed? Not exactly. Prime Minister Koirala himself has asserted that failure is not an option. The corollary? Succeed we must. A partial draft or a pleasant excuse is still possible by that date.
In the first case, not too many people would like what they find in the text, draft or not. Members have begun speculating about the fieriness of the opposition within the constituent assembly premises.
As for a credible excuse, it better go beyond the constitution and help maintain the myth that the 12-Point Agreement is alive and well.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Con, Sense And Us

Dear Consensus,

Why dost thou so tormentest us so sore?
Our destiny is so inextricably tied to your appearance. At times, you have been within our grasp, only to slither away into oblivion.
We’ve heard so much about you in the last eight years. But do we really know you?
General agreement, we thought you were. Or was it concord? The variants – harmony, concurrence, accord, unity, unanimity, solidarity – all have that positive ring.
What is it that you actually embody – general opinion, majority opinion, common view? Or do you arrive – to paraphrase Abba Eban – when everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually?
We’re not the only ones debating your character, you may say. Take climate change, and humanity’s role in it. The world is still unable to agree on how conclusive computer models are that they should be allowed to regulate our behavior. But that’s all in the future.
We’re in the here and now. Our new constitution is struggling to emerge on account of your adamancy. The ruling parties have the votes to promulgate the statute by a two-thirds majority. We can understand why the Maoists don’t want that to happen. But why are the two principal democratic parties appeasing the former rebels?
The Indian prime minister, too, tells us not go for a majority-backed constitution. Loyalists in his country are acting as if they represent a one-party theocracy. But, no, we have to have everyone on board.
Forget the number of provinces, for a moment. We have a polity that spans the hard secular left to the religious right. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal may or may not want a return of the monarchy, but it certainly wants the reinstatement of Hindu statehood. The leader of the original Rastriya Prajatantra Party has gone on record that he wants a Hindu republic.
The ranks of anti-secularists are said to be burgeoning in the Nepali Congress, while a few luminaries close to the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist have been spotted at pro-Hindu-state conclaves. (And who knows how many Maoists in their splintered existence might acquiesce in Hindu statehood just to settle scores with rivals?)
As a non-party polity, the Panchayat system could not enforce its every-Nepali-is-a-Pancha-and-every-Pancha-is-a-Nepali credo.  Nor could the repression of the Rana regime, before that, enforce conformity in perpetuity. Yet, we are told that a popularly elected multiparty assembly cannot promulgate the new basic law without your august arrival.
Pity our leaders. They got what they wanted without really wanting it. They play-acted their way toward opening that Pandora’s Box fully realizing what lay within. Today, they are ready to acknowledge failure, but only after devising a formula that equitably apportions responsibility.
That’s not likely to happen soon, especially when the parties are using their last fig-leaf: a new power-sharing blueprint.
So, as hard as it is to say, it’s up to you to make a grand appearance. Tell us, unequivocally, that you are entirely unachievable. The pols would be forced to deliver or craft a more credible excuse. As for the people, our belief that we have been conned for so long will have been validated.
And the constitution, you might still ask. With you out of the way, we’ll keep trying with a new sense of earnestness.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Finding Faith In Alien Encounters

There are times when you wonder whether our foreign friends really want us to get a new constitution. British Ambassador Andrew Sparkes’ recent open letter advising the drafters to ensure that religious conversion is enshrined as something approximating a fundamental right is one of those times.
The substance of his letter is not the point here, conforming as it does to Western nations’ eagerness to promote Christianity and its Good News in our hapless homeland. Nor is the question why the top representative of a putative ‘Englistan’ emerging from fertile ground of hedonistic secularism would so brazenly ignore developments at home.
The timing of the ambassador’s letter is what inspires Maila Baje to question his motives. Our political class has enough on its hands with its self-imposed constitutional deadline looming. The Hinduism/secularism has the potential to create problems that would dwarf those stemming from federalism. In fairness, the British envoy advocates religious freedom in general. But you don’t need special skills to detect the Christian tone of that dog whistle.
Sparkes wasn’t the only alien muddying our waters. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did that by advising us to devise a consensus-based constitution instead of a numbers-driven one. That pleasant plea basically provided a paradigm for prolonging the stalemate, given that each political party in the constituent assembly won seats on the basis of their own manifestoes on the constitution.
With such incongruities having stepped in, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) have reverted to what they do best: devising a new power-sharing platform. In other developments, Nepali Congress leader Khum Bahadur Khadka has seized the Hinduism banner from Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal (RPPN). The latter party now has only the monarchy as its exclusive agenda. With RPPN President Kamal Thapa’s personal relations with the last monarch said to have cooled, factional rivalries have overtaken that organization. Leaders have taken to defending their lethargy to the former monarch’s apathy toward a restoration.
So entreaties for the status quo ante have started coming from the ostensible purveyors of newness. Weeks after Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel publicly defended the intrinsic virtuousness of the 1990 Constitution, CPN-UML leader Oli advocated its modification into the new one.
Although both leaders tried to walk back their comments, the mere articulation was enough for the Maoists to begin twisting themselves into pretzels. Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal claims that he is shrewdly manipulating the two principal parties, while his deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, insists having a basic outline of the constitution by January 22 would be an achievement.
The teeth have long since come off the Maoist tiger, and it will ultimately accede to anything as an act of self-preservation. But comrades have to act as if they are putting up a fight. Bhattarai thus claims his people can accept the Nepali Congress-UML concept of federalism so long as the two main parties can persuade the janjatis of its merits. (What about the madhesis, comrade?)
A President Sushil Koirala and a Prime Minister Oli might even try doing that in earnest, if only those pesky foreigners just knew when to shut up.