Saturday, August 20, 2016

Running In Circles Around Overlapping Spheres

Who would’ve really thought the Indian and Chinese presidents one day would be vying with each other so feverishly to visit Nepal first. Okay, neither Pranab Mukherjee nor Xi Jinping seems that desperate. But you get the drift.
Watch for what is said as well as what is not. The Indians never felt the need to deny that K.P. Oli had to exit Baluwatar because he coveted that northern alliance a bit too much for his own good. Their sense of triumphalism says it all.
When Nepal flashed the ‘China card’ in the past, the Indians could easily mock the palace for indulging in such a blatant anti-people ploy. The mandarins up north weren’t exactly helpful, either.
When the Indians locked Nepal in that economic stranglehold in 1989-1990 for having bought anti-aircraft guns from China, lost in the story was the fact that Beijing had tempted us with lucrative prices. When the Panchayat system collapsed as a result, the Chinese joined the chorus denouncing how despicable the partyless system was.
After the royal takeover of February 2005, Beijing was no doubt the principal external beneficiary. Tightening the noose on Tibetan exiles, the palace-led government sought to correct Nepal’s southern and western drift the Chinese had begun grumbling about in public.
Beijing got observer status in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. What did the Nepali government that had so strenuously pushed China’s case get? Zero, zip, zilch, nada. Once the royal government collapsed, the Chinese swiftly changed their ambassador so that he could be the first foreign envoy to present credentials to the prime minister, who was officiating as head of state.
Republican Nepal didn’t fare much better. When Pushpa Kamal Dahal as prime minister attempted to publicly reconfigure Nepal geopolitical locus, the Indians didn’t seem too bothered. The seven parties arrayed against the monarchy were still available to tame the Maoists. After Dahal’s departure from Singha Darbar, Beijing seemed to cultivate the hardliners in the Maoists, eventually emboldening them to break away.
Oli’s ‘China card’, however, proved to be different. From the outset, it reminded the Indians that the game had two players. Beijing seemed anxious to demonstrate that this time, it meant business. Sure, things are still pro forma on the Sino-Nepali front. The legacy of distrust on both sides may not be at the level of Nepal-India relations in scope as well as in public rancor. But suspicions and skepticism do persist.
Yet the agreements the two governments signed during Oli’s visit to Beijing do provide the basis for concrete action on meaningful cooperation in the event of requisite political commitment. It is Xi’s visit to Nepal everybody’s talking about, not President Bidya Bhandari’s to China. Thus, the immediate task for the Indians is to scuttle a Xi visit, at least before Mukherjee makes a trip, in terms of the battle of perceptions.
This time, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is not in two minds about which neighbor to visit first. But he still has to figure out which neighboring leader to host first. As for Nepalis, they understand better why they are feeling the squeeze.
The title of being the last tributary to the Middle Kingdom comes with a price, especially when the successor regime draws inspiration from the same imperial ambitions. On the other side, the Indians see Nepal as the unfinished business of independence. These competing claims of sphere of influence aren’t going to be resolved any time soon.
So how’s this for a deal? Let Mukherjee and Xi alight the same aircraft, together, hand in hand, either before or after the Goa BRICS summit in October. The least we can do is provide the plane.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Is It Adjournment Or Abandonment On The Right?

Where does the unification effort between the two factions of the right-of-center Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) stand today? RPP chairman Pashupati Shamsher Rana insists that the amalgamation announcement set for August 9 could not take place because of the parties’ failure to agree on ‘balance of power’. He contends that the door remains very much open.
RPP-Nepal Chairman Kamal Thapa, however, earlier unleashed a public tirade against Rana for having exhibited sheer dishonesty and fallen under the influence of a foreign power center (read India) to thwart what had been an elaborately negotiated unification.
A palpably aggrieved Rana shot back, refuting those allegations as unbecoming of a leader of Thapa’s standing. He has since demanded an apology from Thapa as a precondition for unity. Meanwhile, luminaries from Rana’s RPP have joined Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s cabinet, at a time when Thapa’s party has assiduously chosen to remain part of the opposition.
Intemperate though they may have been, Thapa’s public comments were understandable, given his version of the turn of events. Rana ostensibly pulled the plug unilaterally at the last minute, without – in Thapa’s words – exhibiting the “courtesy, decorum and political character” of consulting with the RPP-Nepal on such a two-pronged matter. Rana’s equally unflinching demand for a public apology from Thapa underscores the deep personal antagonisms that have set in.
All along, the unification hype failed the basic smell test. Admittedly, the RPP-Nepal and RPP today seem to be united by a desire to see the reinstatement of Hindu statehood. Beyond that, the latter is still wedded to republicanism and views the RPP-Nepal with abiding suspicion on that front (or at least gives a public posture of such).
Thapa, for his part, has come under criticism from loyalists for having discarded the agenda of restoring the monarchy. No longer on the defensive, though, the former deputy prime minister has placed the monarchy as the driver of its broader nationalist agenda. Asked to comment on perceptions that the former monarch himself was displeased at the party’s ostensible dilution of the pro-monarchy plank, Thapa told a leading Nepali newsweekly: “The RPP-Nepal is not a committee created for the restoration of the monarchy”.
The RPP signed on the new secular, republican constitution, while the RPP-Nepal was the only party that voted against it. Yet both parties became part of the K.P. Oli-led coalition. In the intervening months, Thapa appears to have beaten back factionalism within the party, while Rana still faces lingering divisions within. (Key RPP members originally expressed anger-tinged surprise at the scuttling of the unification effort, before subsequently going silent).
Yet we were somehow supposed to believe that the two groups – with their demonstrable history of fission and fusion –would join hands for the greater good of the nation, leaving it to the general convention to iron out their underlying differences.
According to Rana’s latest – and hitherto most specific – explication, the unification effort was dropped after Thapa failed to agree to an equitable balance of the functions, duties and rights of the national chairperson and executive chairperson of the proposed new party. (A contention Thapa, one might add, seemed to publicly refute even before Rana had advanced it.)
Still, if things are in the works as Rana says, Thapa’s stance doesn’t seem to give that impression. He is still busy singing paeans to the nationalist credentials of the last government and scolding the successor for encouraging blatant external intervention.
Even if the two groups were to unite sooner or later, wouldn’t the storyline be the same? How long before they split again?

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Humility: Making Sense Of Dahal’s Makeover

Photo: RSS
For someone who stepped down from the premiership so rancorously seven years ago refusing to ‘prostrate’ before ‘foreign gods’, Pushpa Kamal Dahal is trying hard these days to illuminate his halo of humility.
To be sure, Nepal’s top Maoist no longer projects the ferocity of yore. Open politics has provided him none of the safeguards of the subterranean schemes that characterized the ‘people’s war’. Especially not when you no longer have your own army and when the sword of the International Criminal Court hovers above you incessantly.
So Nepalis may be forgiven for looking past the fact that Dahal is the only communist leader fortunate enough to have returned to the premiership.
Our new prime minister’s early pronouncements have been akin to excuses for impending failure. Gone is the bluster about institutionalizing discontinuities in the affairs of state. The cabinet’s decision to withdraw the nominations of 14 ‘political’ ambassadors, while superficially bold, seems to have been a sop to the Nepali Congress.
How far such demonstrable overtures of a break with K.P. Oli government would go towards placating the coalition partner remains unclear. Mindful of the disarray within the Nepali Congress, Dahal has rejected any notion that he is under any deal to stay for a mere nine months.
The seven intervening years have been instructive to us all. During 2008-2009, Dahal stuck out his neck so northward that it almost snapped. Instead of providing him cover, the Chinese bolstered the more hard-line Mohan Baidya faction, emboldening it eventually to break away.
True, the Americans met Dahal more than halfway, but, in retrospect, only to undermine his revolutionary credentials. In the end, navigating the factional dynamics in India turned out to be most important – and intractable.
Having failed to sack a supposedly insubordinate army chief, Dahal chose to resign and wage a battle to preserve the principle of democratic supremacy. His domestic opponents laughed him off. Separation of powers? Coming out of the mouth of a Maoist? The army was disbanded, the party split and the next election was lost. Much of the party has come back together, but the country is in tatters.
Isn’t it interesting how Dahal undertook a public transformation coinciding with the change in government in India? We did hear of how Nepal’s Maoists opened their first serious contacts with official New Delhi during the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Atal Behari Vajpayee government around 2002.
Almost as if in response to Dahal’s ascension, a senior BJP leader just the other day ruled out the return of the monarchy in Nepal. (His point: “How can the people want to bring back a king who slunk away from them during their hour of greatest need?”)
Friends and foes alike may ruminate all they want about the extent of Dahal’s transformation. What matters is the extent of the bases he has covered where it matters. So keep your eyes on how the transactional dimensions of Nepal-India political relations evolve in the weeks and months ahead.
This is not to say that our prime minister is in an untenable position. If Dahal was able to show an Indian hand behind his departure last time, who’s to say he can’t benefit from perceptions of New Delhi’s role in his resurrection? Heck, former prime minister Oli can still keep regaling us with his aphorisms.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

It Hasn’t All Been Said Yet

The euphoria gripping the Indian media following the resignation of Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli evidently stems from New Delhi’s apparent triumph in having returned to the driver’s seat of Nepali politics after a hiatus of nine months.
Granted, reporters and commentators across the southern border have made some effort to portray the difficulties that lay on the path ahead. But that endeavor has been grudging, at best. The operating principle for the moment seems to be: what happens next can be taken care of later; Oli’s ouster merits its own full-blown carnival moment.
The reasons for this rejoicing are as predictable as they are routine. Oli was losing popularity as his government exhibited a greater preference for China over India, one argument goes. His government’s hardline stance against Madhesis had led India to step in to prevent a spillover of tensions, insists another.
Oli the man was an out-and-out ingrate, it was pointed out somewhere, especially after New Delhi, among other things, funded years of his medical treatment at the best Indian hospitals, financed development projects in his constituency, and offered him political support against rivals within the Communist Party of Nepal-Marxist-Leninist.
For now, the irony inherent in the fact that the leading contender for the premiership is the man who India was instrumental in dislodging seven years earlier amid equal rancor must be ignored. How Nepal Communist Party (Maoist Centre) supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s ascension could be described as a victory for Indian diplomacy remains unclear. All the more so after considering how blatantly Dahal flouted the political, diplomatic and even material support New Delhi provided the Maoists for over a decade to cozy up to China during his premiership in 2008-2009.
However you slice it, the prevailing narrative about an Indian diplomatic triumph says more about the level of New Delhi’s thinking that about the geopolitical predilections of the man. An Indian kiss to the Maoist Centre and the Nepali Congress amid the tumultuous battle of perceptions can only be one of death, regardless of how emphatically those two parties insist they would honor all the agreements Oli’s government signed with China.
The notion that Beijing somehow advised Nepal’s political establishment to patch up with India after Chinese officials and diplomats failed to stop the hemorrhage in Oli’s coalition must be seen against Dahal’s recent public assertion that Beijing would be happy to see him return to the premiership.
Now, the Maoist Centre leader could have been indulging in a woozy head fake characteristic in Nepali politics, fortifying his flank, or clueing us in on the next moves on the regional chessboard. Regardless, it would not take long for New Delhi to discover the true cost of its ‘triumph’.
Dahal described Oli as a ‘genuine statesman’ as the prime minister stepped down from the podium after announcing his resignation. In the weeks and months ahead, that description could take on far greater import in ways that Dahal – or anyone else – could care to contemplate today.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Bright Spot In The Yard

Maila Baje has always been intrigued by the ease with which Khadga Prasad Oli could shed his ostensible ‘pro-Indian’ tag and win plaudits as a ‘nationalist’ prime minister.
Within the post-Madan Bhandary Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist quartet, Bam Dev Gautam sought and temporarily retained the nationalist mantle. But his personal ambition drove him to the background. For whatever reason, Jhal Nath Khanal did not draw the geopolitical spotlight in such a way. It looked like Madhav Kumar Nepal and Oli – when they were allies or adversaries alike – were almost flaunting their competition for the good graces of the southern establishment.
It becomes irrelevant to discuss whether Oli’s transformation is entirely unaffected or whether it is personal, political or event-driven. The perception that India has been out to dislodge a prime minister who refuses to toe the southern line has persisted among enough Nepalis.
That reality seems to be reflected in New Delhi’s response to Oli’s very public accusation of Indian complicity in Nepal’s latest political affairs. The seriousness of Oli’s charge was underscored by the venue where he made it so openly. Addressing a national security conference, Oli not only said India was behind the withdrawal of support by the Maoists to his government but also that New Delhi was in a palpably celebratory mood over the turn of events.
Ordinarily, the Indians could have shrugged off Oli as just another in a line of politicians who have sought the proverbial last refuge of scoundrels. New Delhi’s early reaction, at least, suggests that it has been stung by our prime minister’s outbursts.
India did nothing to destabilize the Oli government, a ‘high-level’ source was quoted as saying in New Delhi. Not only that. “[Oli] could not deliver and the coalition government fell down. The fact that he still wants to stick to power despite not having the numbers in Parliament is totally undemocratic,” the source was quoted as saying in a leading Indian daily.
Significantly, the anonymous source went on to add that Chinese officials in Kathmandu were busy trying to win over members in each political party to save the Oli government. It would not be irrelevant to juxtapose here Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal claim of having received credible information that Beijing would be pleased to see him as Oli’s successor.
This very public display of Indian-Chinese rivalry in Nepal’s internal politics mirrors the unrestrained contention between the Asian giants in the aftermath of New Delhi’s botched bid to secure membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The subsequent eagerness of some sections in India to extrapolate the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the South China Sea to China’s historical claims on other disputed territories is portentous for us.
The Chinese have no doubt raised the stakes. Although they have not asserted so publicly vis-à-vis Nepal, the mandarins up north are votaries of a tradition-driven foreign and security policy that considers us the last tributaries to the Qing dynasty. If the Chinese signal a readiness to maintain their skin in the game by, say, trying to bail out the Oli government in the legislature, the Indians, for their part do not seem likely to back down. Amalgamation of the Tibet-Taiwan planks into a coherent diplomatic narrative challenging the ability of a rising China to become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ would have local ramifications.
The propensity of our political leadership to trivialize such grave concerns in their public pronouncements no doubt continues to infuriate many Nepalis. Yet there might be some promise here, especially if our leaders succeed in precipitating a decisive outcome from this long-running turf war between the Asian behemoths.