Saturday, November 16, 2019

Trapped Between Time And Space

If events in Nepal tend to move in clock-like precision, they also simultaneously defy other laws like those of proportionality. In other words, we are caught between time and space.
The Kalapani controversy – shortened to its generic catchiness also to avoid the cartographic complexities involving the other two terrains of Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh – was not on our minds when soothsayers and politicians warned of a post-Dasain/Tihar conflagration against the existing political order.
Still, Newton’s Third Law prepared us for an uneasy aftermath of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit. Caught between the Belt and Road Initiative and the Indo-Pacific Strategy, Nepalis also had to contend with the fact that Xi arrived after informal sessions with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in southern India where Nepal was said to have figured in some way. This detail starts making greater sense after you recall how studiously Chinese leaders once delinked those itineraries.
India’s new political map – which triggered our latest outburst of patriotic fervor – did not change that country’s disputed status quo with Nepal. That reality may have prepared some Indians to digest the ensuing Nepali opprobrium. If their real prize was the concurrent anti-China protests – the most serious in Nepal since 1967 – forbearance has paid off.
The extent of the land the Chinese are being accused of encroaching on pales in comparison to India’s infringements. The equivalence of Nepal’s two giant neighbors as equal-opportunity plunders may have energized those Indians who roundly reject the Wuhan Spirit/Chennai Connection roadmap in favor of the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Quad. Still, those grinning the widest are constituencies farther afield who fear being edged out of the grand succession struggle in Tibet creeping upon us.
If Nepalis seemed to have a better chance of extracting payments for India’s leasing Kalapani et al than securing an outright return of those territories, the former prospect can only recede in direct proportion to the theatrics and tantrums surrounding the latter. (Just imagine how rich our coffers might have been had we set a price on the cusecs flowing south instead of just grandstanding on Tanakpur/Mahakali.)
Our territorial dispute with India has defied a bureaucratic/political solution to the point where it may have now become moot. When Nepal Communist Party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ advised us against the hastiness of internationalizing the issue, he was not shooting from the hip. The street, that other arena of practical action, is bound to lose its clout as the financial taps turn dry. Even the most profligate donors know where and when to put their money.
Locked or linked by it, fate has inextricably entwined Nepal with land. The only ‘political’ solution that can be conceived is the return of the territories as part of a grand bargain masquerading as a gesture of goodwill. Given our accumulated experience, who’s to say the solution might not end up being worse than the problem? This may be a good time to delve deeper into why Xi might have chosen to coarsen the overall cordiality of his visit with that ‘crush bodies, shattered bones’ comment.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Dark Waters, Darker Clouds

Map courtesy:
An upsurge of patriotism has united Nepalis after India unveiled an updated version of its political map. By incorporating the Nepali regions of Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulekh firmly within the Indian Union, New Delhi has reignited a territorial dispute that has been smoldering for nearly six decades.
While this is not the first time New Delhi has done so, there are some novel twists. The dissemination of a full-fledged official map has placed the dispute squarely in the Nepali public sphere. With China and Pakistan already involved as disputants in this latest instance of Indian cartographic legerdemain, Nepal’s grievances have acquired clear regional ramifications.
What next? Much will depend on how Nepalis address the issue. The familiar calumny that King Mahendra bartered the territory in exchange for Indian support for his active rule following the abolition of multiparty democracy has returned to the debate. There is little value in beating that drum apart from, say, foiling attempts to revive the monarchy as the defender of Nepali nationhood. Even there, the ploy may have run its course. The fact that successive elected governments have failed to lift a finger seeking a return of the territories has forced Nepalis to probe deeper into the context and circumstances surrounding the dispute. Given the character of the regime circa 1962 – when India is said to have begun occupying Kalapani in the context of its war with China – only one Nepali personage could best address the issue. He departed the world in 1972. The credibility of anyone claiming to speak on behalf of King Mahendra or his regime is bound to be compromised by the profound partisanship surrounding the monarch.
New Delhi cannot be expected to come clean without addressing the ‘quid pro quo’. Even if King Mahendra had bartered away the territories, the fact remains that India was the beneficiary. Given New Delhi’s consistent claims of having championed Nepali democracy, Kalapani is not a can of worms it would want to open. The wholesale rejection of the Kali River as identified as the western border of Nepal under the 1816 Sugauli Treaty would put India on a slippery slope. That treaty, which Nepal signed with British India following its war-induced dismemberment, is in a league of its own. India cannot contemplate picking and choosing its provisions without tipping the balance in favor of (Greater?) Nepal.
Despite the controversy surrounding the text of the Nepali government’s response to the publication of the Indian map, Kathmandu has made a solid assertion that it considers Kalapani as part of Nepal.  Our Foreign Ministry statement added that “any unilateral actions along the Nepal-India border will be unacceptable” since the two foreign secretaries have already been assigned by the Nepal-India Joint Commission to find a solution on the unresolved border disputes in consultation with border experts.
New Delhi, too, has accepted that latter stance. While insisting that its new map has in no manner revised India’s boundary with Nepal, a Ministry of External Affairs spokesman also conceded that the delineation exercise with Nepal is ongoing under the existing mechanism.
So far, so good. Beyond the official channels, however, there is enough potential for mischief on both sides. Within Nepal, the temptation to play politics has proved to be irresistible, especially at a time when unity of purpose is required the most. As alluring as one-upmanship can be in these politically charged times, it can hardly matter which Nepali leader raised the issue with which Indian counterpart unless government-to-government channels were activated to follow up on a solution. Nor can we afford to subvert our cause by obsessing with the fact that every political faction across party lines has been complicit in this national injury.
On the Indian side, the potential for malice has taken a new turn with the assertion that Kathmandu this time is somehow animated by third-party vested interests. Then there is the attempt by sections of the Indian media to play up the angle that China has encroached upon Nepali territory.
Granted, New Delhi has opened multiple breaches with its new map, and it must have contemplated ways of navigating them. Nepal’s stand is rooted in its understanding of the Sugauli Treaty and its delineation of its western border. If questions of ‘ridgelines’ or the ‘origin’ of the Kali River have emerged, they have done so subsequently in a way that do not impact Nepal’s understanding of and adherence to the Sugauli Treaty.
How Nepali territory ended up in Sino-Indian bilateral agreement on trade in 2015 needs to be taken up separately and together with India and China. There is already too much going on to muddy the waters externally to obfuscate the issue and present Nepal with a fait accompli. Excessive public jingoism at home at the cost of patient bilateral – and, if need be, international – diplomacy could prove extremely counterproductive.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Buyer’s Remorse, Seller’s Restiveness

We’re almost midway through the five-year term of what should ordinarily have been Nepal’s most powerful elected government. Yet, our best-case scenario is avoiding either a mid-term election or a split in the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
Certitude amid uncertainties is a treacherous trait in the best of times. We may not know how poor Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s health really is. We do know that he is fiercely determined to prove the non-existence of that much-ballyhooed premier-sharing deal with NCP co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’. Or, if it does exist, establish its irrelevance.
Dahal, for his part, is so remorseful of his decision to merge his Maoist Center with the erstwhile Unified Marxist-Leninists that he has started blaming everyone else for going along with the unification sham just because the two chairmen happened to jump off the cliff holding hands.
In his intensifying stupor, Dahal may continue to ponder the extent of his ideological bona fides and invite the sympathetic banter of his one-time lieutenant Baburam Bhattarai to our collective merriment. Deep inside, the political class knows how deep the rot runs. Although they might not be quivering publicly, they do recognize the perils of taking their placid posture for granted.
The promise of change was always nebulous. The outcome has been dear and dreadful. New taxes have been levied to fund and facilitate additional layers of the federalism-driven political/administrative machinery, with little to show for the people. Secularism is being promoted as affirmative action for a religion that has been the farthest from our roots. Republicanism has spawned neo-royalism with a pomp and splendor beating the ancien regime.
If ‘new Nepal’ is all about demolishing the old only to resurrect its worst attributes, then it’s scarcely surprising how tedious and taxing the show has become. As the Krishna Bahadur Mahara case now seems to suggest, external investors in our enterprise are doing their math. The former speaker may be their first defaulter, but chances are he is not their last.
The greatest – and perhaps only – thing going for the ruling class is the TINA factor. To be sure, there is no alternative – yet. With the three pillars of the status quo tottering so critically, however, total collapse cannot be predicated on what may or may not rise from the debris.
Today, more and more Nepalis are asking themselves whether it was worth it all. All those new compromises to protect the awful old ones. The headlong quest for inclusivity that has risked erasing our identity. Then there’s the temerity of people like Dahal and Bhattarai, who want to lead another ‘revolution’ but refuse to recognize how badly they have lost credibility the first time around.
There is much more than buyer’s remorse involved here. People are regretting their decision to take what was thrown at them in the name of hope and change. But Nepalis, like people everywhere, aren’t about to kick themselves in the teeth for having been fooled so brazenly. And certainly not when they have such ready targets. That’s what scares the political class most about ex-king Gyanendra Shah’s Tihar salvo – because he spoke from experience.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

So Not All External Affections Are Created Equal, Eh?

As Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli appears tangibly and temperamentally re-energized by the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the fraternity of former prime ministers in his Nepal Communist Party (NCP) is acting out in different ways.
NCP co-chair, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, has started becoming malleable in all directions, suggesting that politics might take any turn. While Jhal Nath Khanal has been circumspect in his appraisal of the Chinese President’s visit and its implications, Madhav Kumar Nepal is ostensibly overcome with a fresh burst of patriotism.
If Dahal felt snubbed during the Xi sojourn – as is being suggested from some quarters, including those close to him – the NCP co-chair’s comments in the aftermath certainly make it look so. One moment, Dahal yearns for an alliance with the Nepali Congress, even to the point of dismissing his party’s massive legislative majority. The next, Dahal wants to launch another rebellion, almost oblivious to how low his stock has plummeted on that floor.
After that kindergarten brawl with Oli a couple of months ago during what was supposed to have been a warm send-off to the prime minister to his hospital in Singapore, Madhav Nepal has sought spiritedly to partner with Dahal in hopes of polishing his prime ministerial prospects. With Dahal mired in his own morbidity, though, Madhav Nepal has found a refuge that tends to be associated more with, well, scoundrels.
Following Xi’s departure, Madhav Nepal, as the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs of the NCP, exulted that Nepal proved its caliber to host the head of the state of one of the most powerful countries of the world. The Chinese President’s visit had helped enable an environment conducive to investment and augmented international attention and concern toward the country, the NCP senior leader added.
Merely days after issuing that formal NCP review, Madhav Nepal warned – not too cryptically –against the abundance of affection that might flow from our northern neighbor. He didn’t have such qualms about the surfeit of India’s love in 2005-2006, perhaps because he probably still believes the 12 Point Agreement was among the finest examples of positive foreign intervention.
Indeed, Madhav Nepal was among the most prominent people who described the 1990 Constitution as one of the best in the world, until, of course, it wasn’t. Surely, he had a vested interest there, considering that he was among the principal drafters. By that standard, we can safely assume that the ex-premier hasn’t seen enough to change his mind on the extent and impact of India’s tenderness coinciding People’s Movement II. (And let’s not broach the issue of ‘vested interests’ on this count.)
Balancing the interests of all major nations with our own national interests is a key challenge, Madhav Nepal said the other day. Nepal should maintain relations with neighboring countries ensuring the principles of independence, dignity and non-interference.
No nitpicking with such noble sentiments. Still, that shouldn’t stop you from asking why Madhav Nepal thought it fit to offer such erudition only after Xi’s visit? Can’t just be tit-for-tat for Xi’s emotive – and even excruciating – enumeration of the qualities of a good communist, could it?

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Xi Said, We Said

Cutting through the customary platitudes communicated by both sides, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day state visit to Nepal has been eventful in some novel ways.
Capacity, cordiality, connectivity, containment, and commitment stood out as some of the catchwords during public pronouncements, ostensibly broadening the scope and content of the bilateral discourse. Beijing’s aspirations in and expectations from Kathmandu found suave and discreet expressions in Xi’s public engagements. More substantive issues must have come up during private discussions, including ones both sides wished to keep secret.
What was most remarkable was the robust and candid discussions surrounding Nepal-China ties at the broader public level. Smashing the staid parameters of China being a vital counterweight to India’s traditional vexing preponderance, Nepal’s relations with its northern neighbor were finally being discussed on their own merits.
The Nepal Communist Party (NCP)-led government initially seemed tempted to portray Xi’s visit – the first by a Chinese President to Nepal in nearly two dozen years – as an ideological vindication of its existence, as if its massive popular mandate were not enough.
However, the government and the ruling party wisely acknowledged the imperative of shunning such parochialism in the interest of advancing Nepal-China relations at the broadest possible level. Technically a member of the ruling coalition, Baburam Bhattarai adroitly kept urging Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s government not to go overboard, as Nepal still needed to maintain strong and friendly relations with India and the United States. (One wonders whether he might have also been speaking from his own experience as prime minister in early 2012 when he hosted then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao).
Leading an increasingly vocal constituency, the opposition Nepali Congress consistently counseled careful deliberation before embarking on new projects, particularly under the Belt and Road Initiative, lest the country lurches headlong toward the quagmire of eternal indebtedness. It would be easy to fault the main opposition party for inopportunely espousing third-party talking points, but that would not diminish the validity of the underlying argument, especially amid its pronounced global expression.
On the Chinese railway to Nepal – that unmistakable emblem of the promise as well as the practicability of bilateral ties – the joint statement said a feasibility study would be commissioned. That’s not quite a snub to the Oli government, as the prime minister and his key cohorts ceased hyping the imminence of the project after Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi issued her not-so-subtle public admonition a few months ago.
To be sure, the train from China has embodied the notion of breaking the Himalayan barrier through technological prowess ever since Chairman Mao Zedong brought up the idea as distant promise in a meeting with King Birendra in Beijing in the early 1970s (in exchange for Kathmandu immediately acting against CIA-trained-and-backed Tibetan insurgents based in Mustang, one might add.)
That Beijing eventually developed the capability to bring that train to the rugged terrain of Tibet did not necessarily mean the tracks would cross the border immediately.  It took a while for Nepalis to recognize that technical, commercial and strategic viability takes on a different meaning altogether for the Chinese – or anyone else, for that matter – when we are talking about another country. That we have done so should bode well for us and ultimately our relations with China.