Sunday, November 27, 2016

Running On The Right Track?

Kamal Thapa (left) and Dipak Bohara
Whatever the reasons behind the precipitous unification of Nepal’s two major rightwing parties last week, one thing is pretty clear. The development is not part of the wave of rightwing populism blowing across the West and elsewhere. So let’s start by not rushing to anoint our version of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen, shall we?
Then there’s the stark reality that our former panchas can neither live united nor divided. In fact, the party was born split, largely along hardline and more moderate remnants of the partyless regime that collapsed in 1990. These men and women tend to do well when united. But political power – or even the prospect of it –immediately divides them.
To be sure, the ranks of the RPP factions these day are an assortment of diehard royalists, conservative Hindus and, yes, republicans. (Although the republicans seem to be more of realists.) This time, there seems to be an ideological glue binding Kamal Thapa’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal and Pashupati Shamsher Rana’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party.
The newly unified party pledges to restore Nepal’s Hindu status in the constitution. On the major issue that divides the two factions – restoration of constitutional monarchy – the leaders have decided to let the upcoming national conference take a decision.
How democratic of them! But let’s dig a little deeper. Rana, who leads the republican faction, said the party could not accept a constitution that calls Nepal ‘secular’ when the country by all means is Hindu. “If the government does not take into account the sentiment of the majority, we will be compelled to lead a movement.”
Why, then, accept republicanism just because the constitution says so? Can the mere fact that the majority of Nepalis happened to be born Hindus be extrapolated to mean that the state’s character should be designated as such? Sure, most Nepalis are Hindus. But didn’t they vote twice for parties explicit in their secular commitment? And don’t officially atheist organizations hold the largest number of elected seats?
Granted, not every Hindu is a monarchist. (Also, are we really sure that every secularist is a republican?) But when you start talking about the restoration of Hindu statehood, you have to consider the individual/institution needed to officiate such a state.
True, our first female president has been presiding over Dasain and other religious observances with admirable gusto. But she is doing so under a secular dispensation. A Hindu state would have very little room for either institutional tentativeness or the vagaries of an individual’s temperament.
A Hindu republic by definition won’t have a king, who has traditionally solemnized Hindu statehood. We also would lack a bada gurujyu and mool purohit. We do have the mool bhatta at Pashupati, but, then, we already want someone more indigenous there, don’t we?
With 37 members in the 597-member legislature, the unified RPP would still remain the fourth largest political force. At a time when the Big Three can’t agree on amending the constitution or impeaching a recalcitrant anti-corruption monitor, surely the fourth party can afford to wallow a bit longer in some amusing ambiguity.
If you think not, close your eyes and consider this image for a moment: Kamal Thapa and Dipak Bohara are the parliamentary party leader and deputy leader of the united party in an assembly hurtling toward a new Nepal. How does that make you feel? No, seriously.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Decade Of Desultory Dominion

It’s not hard to see why an intense sense of public despondency overshadows the 10-year anniversary of the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) signed between the interim government led by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and the erstwhile Maoist rebels.
In all fairness, the CPA did succeed in ending the decade-long Maoist rebellion and restoring peace in the country. Yet the signatories had committed themselves to broader socio-economic transformation for the durability of nationhood.
The delayed promulgation of a new constitution has done little towards achieving those commitments. Nepal may have officially become a secular republic, but issues of the restoration of Hindu statehood and the monarchy have never really exited the realm of possibility. That’s because, for all the momentousness of People’s Movement II, Nepalis had not asked for doing away with the country’s monarchical and Hindu character.
When republicanism and secularism became realities, they did so without a smidgen of resistance on either count. Perhaps it is on account of those discrepancies that the dethroned king can keep asking with ever-greater credibility what the new leadership has really done for the country.
The Maoists, having at best attained ‘strategic parity’ with the state, entered the new political landscape with all the airs and egotisms of victors. Integration of a minuscule number of Maoist combatants into the national army was not what many of those lads and lasses on the frontlines had contemplated as victory. The voluntary retirement of the other ‘people’s warriors’ was, well, anything but voluntary in any sense of the term.
It was clear from the outset that the signatories spoke in platitudes for good reason. ‘New Nepal’ was a nebulous concept that contained enough nimbleness to take on its own life. It was impolitic to sound a discordant note – no matter how warranted – in the giddiness of the moment.
Restoration of sustainable peace, forward-looking state restructuring, effective transitional justice mechanisms and socio-economic transformation were high-minded objectives that sounded noble – but were little beyond that.
For far too long, leaders focused on the urgency of promulgating a new constitution. The first constituent assembly having failed in that task, the political establishment sought a technocratic artifice to prop up the legitimacy of the process. So when a constitution ample in form but absent in substance finally emerged, the collective refrain was the most predictable one: patience will eventually pay off.
The challenges inherent in institutionalizing federalism, republicanism, secularism and inclusiveness were no doubt compounded by the timorous tentativeness. Addressing them as a way of rooting out future conflict retained relevance but regressed in feasibility.
Over  time, victimhood became become a competitive undertaking, often with generous external subsidy and strategizing. New grievances are being created with such orderliness today that the old ones based on class, caste, region and gender seem tolerable.
When every group clings on so tenaciously to its own relative truths, reconciliation must be little more than a convenience attuned to the larger national inclination. Lamenting how Nepal lacks a statesman to steer the ship of state is political malpractice, especially when the people see a plethora of potentates having replaced an overarching palace.
There may be little comprehensiveness, peace or agreement around us. Yet, strangely enough, our ship continues stay afloat. And that is no mean achievement.

Monday, November 14, 2016

(Who) Won China Policy

Whatever we may think about Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s 100 days in office, the Chinese don’t seem terribly impressed. Still, that alone should be cause for celebration for our top Maoist, if you consider the circumstances that led to his ascension.
Had the K.P. Oli government not been so mystifyingly dislodged in July, Nepalis would probably have enjoyed that extra holiday earlier this month on account of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s long-awaited arrival.
Weeks into the inauguration of the Dahal government, Beijing could be heard grumbling about how stiffly Kathmandu was dragging its feet on implementing the bilateral agreements signed during Oli’s high-profile visit to China earlier in the year.
Things have gotten so bad these days that the Chinese are expressing concern over the commitment of the new government to Nepal’s long-held one-China policy. And, no doubt, it has been a double whammy.
Beijing, according to published reports, expressed serious concern over the meeting ruling Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba allegedly held with representatives of the Tibetan government in exile during a function organized by an Indian think tank in Goa.
A Chinese embassy official was also said to have registered a strong objection at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over Nepali government authorities allowing the Taiwanese flag during an art exhibition.
Deuba, for his part, has angrily denied having met any Tibetan leader and has no time for gratuitous lectures on neighborly equidistance/equiproximity. A mere picture showing him sharing space with the head of the Tibetan government in exile cannot be considered incriminating. Yet Deuba’s allies hardly did him any favor by insisting that the picture might have been Photoshopped.
But who are we really kidding here? Let’s step back a bit and try to put things in perspective. In reality, the Chinese are anxious about agreements that we all know were largely symbolic. At best, they laid the foundation for a robust partnership down the road. For that future to arrive, Beijing needs to settle things with New Delhi.
Nepal would love to have great relations with both neighbors, but it can’t afford to tether itself to the idiosyncrasies of Sino-Indian relations. You can’t advise Nepali to improve relations with the Indians and then question our motives every time the Dalai Lama veers anywhere near Arunachal Pradesh.
Oli risked much in undertaking his northern expedition. When he returned home to face India’s wrath, China – in customary fashion – professed non-interference and sought to woo his putative successor.
But Dahal’s proclivities and priorities had undergone a radical shift since those tumultuous months of 2009. Some ‘foreign masters’ are more palatable than others. Our prime minister tried his best to portray his own Goa experiment as a novel excursion into trilateralism. Yet deep down, Dahal recognized the true nature of his interaction: talks with the Chinese president under the watchful gaze of the Indian premier. (If China, as Dahal has suggested, wanted to sign significant agreements with Nepal in Goa, doesn’t that say something as well?)
If Dahal today is not too anxious to throw a lifeline to Deuba, you can hardly blame him. Who wouldn’t want to prolong his/her premiership?

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Could This Be What Really Upset Us?

Photo courtesy: OnlineKhabar
Here we were complaining for over half a generation about how the Indians thought us so undeserving of a presidential visit. Their guy comes over (almost inviting himself, if you ask me) and we go nuts all over social media.
In fairness, Pranab Mukherjee sounded all the right notes during the visit, in keeping with the dignity and decorum of his office. If Nepalis were expecting some significant breakthrough, well, he was not the man.
True, officially Mukherjee is for India what Xi Jinping is for China. But that’s the extent of what they share. The two men cannot be compared – in core or peripheral terms – vis-à-vis their ability to influence their respective countries’ policies on Nepal.
In terms of symbolism, however, Mukherjee proved to be the stronger man. Let’s not forget that this time last year, it was Xi we were expecting to host around October/November 2016.
Our national ambivalence on the Mukherjee visit cannot be fully considered without juxtaposing it with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s in 2014. Barely a year after sweeping us off the ground by his speech to the constituent assembly, Modi had Nepalis locked under a virtual economic embargo. And that, too, knowing full well how wrathfully nature had wrought its fury on us.
The point is, even if Mukherjee had exceeded his constitutional bounds and lavished us with bold promises, the bilateral context could easily have shifted any time.
So the social media outcry was in a sense valid, you’d think. Sure. Except we complained too much about the inconveniences the Nepali government inflicted on the people in the name of good neighborliness. How long before open arms begin to look like sheer obsequiousness?
Or was our collective non-official reaction to the visit emblematic of something more subliminal? A few years ago, Mukherjee as his country’s foreign minister, remember, bragged on Al Jazeera television about how and why New Delhi drove the Maoists and mainstream parties to sign that 12 Point Agreement against the monarchy. That footage stands out as the most candid official explication of events.
The years since have demonstrated the futility of that endeavor to all sides. As individuals, many Nepalis have long acknowledged as much. However, in our collective selves, we are too proud to recognize that. The Indians see that experiment as a work in progress. We do too, in our own way. If we can’t go back, move sideways or stand still, we must move forward, not matter how uncomfortable the road. And that’s not a nice place to be in.
So when wanted to be gracious hosts to Mukherjee, we couldn’t resist complaining about the hospitality our government extended to him. Does that make sense? If not, well, what does these days, anyway?

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Flashback: What Else Is New?

Surely, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The coordinator of our nascent New Force is struggling hard to defend his patriotic credentials.
A riled Dr. Baburam Bhattarai told an audience the other day that his genetic code was so pulsating with pure-bred nationalism that it needed no external certification of any kind.
Critics therefore need not comb through his comments and actions to detect deficits of patriotism, the former prime minister counseled.
That admonition, however, did not stop the one-time chief Maoist ideologue from denigrating the ‘false nationalism’ of those who derided the Nepali Congress and the communists as ‘anti-nationals’.
Therein is the root of our whole novelty riddle. You can’t keep trying to become new simply by castigating the old. Of course, the Panchayat/royalist days were rotten. Isn’t that why they are history? Get over it.
Yet our exemplars of originality continue to parrot old lines. They want to make Nepal a bridge between the Asian behemoths. The last king tried but was never given a chance. (For the record, the Lichchavis had already done that.)
The votaries of newfangledness want to make Nepal economically self-reliant. Even after all the mockery the partyless ‘Asian standard’ credo engendered? Since when have jokes provided the blueprint for serious action? And the anti-corruption platform? Can anyone really say when it stops becoming that and assumes the form of a political witch hunt, perceived or real?
Or do our political parvenu think the royalists and right-wing autocrats simply were the wrong people to do the right job? After all, Dr. Bhattarai and his fellow travellers long stuck with the notion that they could set right what the likes of Marx, Lenin and Mao correctly set out to do but botched.
To be fair, Dr. Bhattarai himself has presented a clear case for newness. While parties like the Nepali Congress, Praja Parishad, the CPN-UML and the UCPN-Maoist have served the country well, they have been unable to move with the times, he has repeatedly emphasized. At least he had the integrity to ensure that the Constitution was promulgated before setting out to criticize it.
Espousing an inclusive approach, Dr. Bhattarai insists, the new entity is striving to formulate ideas and principles suitable to Nepal. This cluster of political has-beens, ex-bureaucrats and security officials and fading actors may or may not have the capacity to capitalize on the torpor in the mainstream. But there is a risk that it might be caught in one of its own. Although it has existed in a semi-institutional incarnation for a while, the new formation’s ideology bears little beyond traces of a center-left orientation.
And what’s with this insipid New Force appellation? Go get a better name first, preferably one that says something nicer. Even genes have been patented and copyrighted. The no-labels approach, if anything, is a non-starter in politics.

Originally posted on Sunday, April 10, 2016