Sunday, February 26, 2017

Uniting For the Next Split? Let’s Hope Not

Emerging from its much-publicized unity convention, the right-of-center Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) is seeking to project the image of your normal political party. And the Big Three political parties have contributed much to the normalization process.
From the balminess and banter the Nepali Congress, Unified Marxist Leninist and Maoist-Center stacked on convention inauguration ceremony, you could easily forget that the man at the center was also at the core of the regime those parties joined hands to overthrow in the Spring of 2006.
To be sure, Kamal Thapa has long since emerged out of the persona of home minister of the royal regime to position his erstwhile party as the fourth largest in the assembly elected in 2013. The RPP Nepal did not win a single seat in the first past the post category.
Yet its rivals quickly recognized the slippery slope that would set in once you started denigrating the RPPN’s exclusivity with ‘proportional representatives’. As the leader of the new party, Thapa can now claim three directly elected representatives in his contingent.
Thapa failed in his effort to foster unanimity. Prakash Chandra Lohani of the republican faction of the former panchas broke an informal agreement to announce a challenge to Thapa. Lohani then disappointed a lot of us by withdrawing in favor of a proxy, Pradeep Bikram Rana.
It wasn’t difficult to sympathize with Lohani. As someone honed through the tumultuous graduate-constituency process of the partyless polity, critic of the ‘dyarchy’ in the early 1970s, and campaigner for the restoration of multiparty democracy, Lohani went on to join the relatively hardline Panchayat faction in the post-referendum 1980s. For much of this period, he was projected as a future prime minister.
His challenge to Thapa had a strong case. This was supposed to be unification of two parties, not a takeover of one by the other. By withdrawing, Lohani allowed Thapa to crushed a true competitor in a real contest, while Rana established his credentials at Lohani’s expense. An unfazed Thapa went on to nominate key party members with a swiftness that set a record in the annals of internal party organization in Nepal.
The united party advocates the installation of a ceremonial monarchy and the restoration of Hindu statehood. On the former, greater clarity would be required in the weeks and months ahead. Hindu statehood, however, seems to be the defining issue. In a sop to post-April 2006 realities, the RPP has accepted federalism, albeit if a little diffidently.
In its latest iteration as a responsible stakeholder, the RPP has warned the government not to push the Constitution Amendment Bill in its present form, saying such a move would prove counterproductive. Yet the party said it would not offer an amendment proposal. A cop out? Maybe. It’s looks more like the RPP is holding its cards close to the chest, considering the likely fallout from any precipitous move from any side.
The RPP can no longer be characterized solely as an amalgam of diehard royalists. Conservative Hindus with a republican bent also populate the organization, although that trait seems rooted more in expediency than in ideology.
The RPP probably has the political smarts to continue to prosper. But can it overcome its divisive history. The men and women in that part of the political spectrum tend to do well when they are united. But political power – or even the prospect of it – instantly divides them, and with an intensity far greater than what tends to split other Nepali parties.
Could that be why the leaders of the Big Three were having such a good time at the inauguration ceremony?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Gaudy Games In The Premier League

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been assuring us to the point of utter boredom that elections will be held at any cost to safeguard the political achievements of the past decade. The opposition Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) likes hearing that, but only when Dahal shuts up about amending the constitution first.
Dahal’s partial allies in the Federal Socialist Alliance (FSA) want the prime minister to go the other way around. The alliance is pressing him to first respect the identity and space of Madhesis in the setting of provincial boundaries.
Now, Dahal knows that he gave that very assurance in exchange for the alliance’s support in building the new government. Yet every time he seeks to placate the FSA by talking up the putative constitutional amendment, the UML turns tart.
The opposition party warns that any change of boundaries on the basis of ethnicity would be detrimental to social amity and national sovereignty. And when the UML does that, Dahal returns to telling us that elections will be held at all costs. The prime minister’s persistence vis-à-vis polls makes you want to forget that he heads what is still officially a Maoist party.
The Election Commissioners have long been pushing the government to announce the dates before anything else. If the premier did that without redrawing the provincial boundaries first, the FSA warns it would begin its oft-threatened protests.
Dahal is lucky that the Nepali Congress, the junior partner in the government, is torn between the amendment- and election-first proponents. As a result, relations between Nepali Congress president Sher Bahadur Deuba – the presumptive next prime minister – and Dahal are said to have soured.
Seeking his pound of flesh nevertheless, Deuba prodded Dahal the other day to convene an early-morning cabinet meeting to appoint Jay Bahadur Chand as Inspector-General of Police. Before Deuba could properly take his victory lap, the Supreme Court put Chand’s appointment on hold. Deuba, for his part, issued a formal statement disclaiming any role in the Chand affair.
Dahal felt he could comfortably resume playing off the FSA and UML against each other. But that gambit, too, appears to have run its course. Lately, the prime minister has turned to another predecessor, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, for help in untying the political knot.
Bhattarai, a one-time Dahal lieutenant who ditched the party after the Constituent Assembly promulgated the new constitution to form his own outfit, seemed concerned enough. He has taken to blaming former prime minister and UML chairman K.P. Oli for loosening his lips so lax as to embolden separatists like C.K. Raut. (Of the other two former premiers in the UML, Madhav Kumar Nepal wants Dahal to step down immediately for incompetence, while Jhal Nath Khanal accuses our head of government of being India’s puppet.)
Now we’re supposed to believe that Dahal and Bhattarai would join hands to save the nation when they couldn’t even feign unity a little bit longer to save their party. Oh these gaudy premier games!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Knights Of The Long Knives

Caught between ‘two khukuris’ – to borrow his chilling description of his predicament – Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal seems set to tilt himself toward the knife-edge of elections.
The elections will take place no matter what, the premier declared the other day. When the country’s top Maoist is so wedded to the mandate of the people, not all hope is lost.
The question, though, is whether the polls are Dahal’s real desire. He is, after all, bound by the Constitution, under which there must be three elections – local, provincial and parliamentary – by 18 January 2018. The political class is all too cognizant of the ‘or else’ part but doesn’t want to be too communicative about it.
Much time, money and energy have been invested in promulgating the Constitution. What would happen if it appeared that the drafters created a document they could not implement? You’d think the people would  be up in arms.
But we’re inured to being ignored. Thus we’ve learned to live our lives in a seemingly alternate universe. Sure, we still complain about everything as loud as we can. But we’re also thriving from a semblance of tenuous mutual tolerance.
This equipoise was struck almost effortlessly. When the drivers of a ‘New Nepal’ kept speaking in platitudes, we didn’t mind. The past was a no-go zone. The future was too uncertain to comprehend. Sure, sustainable peace, state restructuring, transitional justice and socio-economic transformation were nebulous concepts, but they were noble enough to nudge us along.
The political class bit off more than it could chew. The mainstream parties and the Maoists continued to argue over who should get the real credit for bringing down the monarchy. Scant attention was paid to the imperative of devising a successor institution to the monarchy that could not only preside over a diverse state but also navigate the geopolitical pressures of an unstable neighborhood that was fundamentally susceptible to extra-regional dynamics.
The argument over how many provinces Nepal should have proceeded before we could ever sufficiently debate whether Nepal needed to be federalized to mainstream the marginalized. The urge to denigrate Nepal’s Hindu identity by identifying it within the narrow confines of the monarchy simply ignored how religion had established itself as a way of life.
With the political tides shifting directions, outcomes of expediency have now stood starkly before the imperatives of feasibility, legality and propriety. Yet once our leaders saw how a segmented populace clung to its own relative truths, they devised novel methods of reconciliation and compromise that satisfied just enough people until the next outburst of grievances. Last-minute point-wise deals pulled us from even the most dangerous brink. To smooth the way, parties split and united inexplicably but inexorably.
The Maoist-Nepali Congress government and the opposition Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist may seem at loggerheads today. Where it really matters to them, they are in accord. The 12-Point Agreement and its merchandises must be preserved at all costs.
As long as there is peace and a process to show, the political class is comfortable with splitting the difference. And that’s good enough for us, too, notwithstanding our interminable grumbles.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Nepal First, Last And Always

Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States in early November gave much impetus to our assemblage of ‘Nepal Firsters’. The unapologetic internalism infusing Trump’s inaugural address last week is bound to have its influences and implications here.
Khadga Prasad Oli, former prime minister and chairman of the main opposition Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist, has been christened as our version of Trump by no less a personage than Baburam Bhattarai. And Dr. Bhattarai should know.
The one-time Maoist ideologue, who continues to denigrate the articulation of contrary views as a Goebbelsian art form, no doubt secretly admires Oli’s pithiness and adroitness with parables.
If you faced him directly, Oli would probably be outraged by any suggestion of similarities with Trump. As a practical matter, though, Oli probably wouldn’t mind. No other Nepali politician has undergone such a momentous transformation in his or her geopolitical persona.
Just the other day, Oli accused his successor, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, of presiding over an upsurge of anti-national activities and, worse, of seeking to codify them through unwarranted constitutional changes.
However, it fell upon Bhim Rawal, a deputy premier in Oli’s cabinet, to fire the loudest salvo. Speaking in Parliament, Rawal, a former defense and home minister, accused the Dahal government of protecting elements attacking national unity and independence.
The government remained a mute spectator when Madhesi firebrand C.K. Raut was conducting a campaign in the name of establishing an independent Madhes nation, Rawal said. Citing the so-called ‘Patna meeting’, Rawal said Dahal had tried to use it for political purposes, while efforts were on to compromise national security. Rawal demanded that the government convene a meeting of chiefs of security agencies and the main opposition parties on the issue and that the prime minister address parliament.
The invocation of Raut’s name didn’t seem to have unnerved the prime minister terribly. Madhesi leaders, however, did look stung. Bijay Kumar Gachchadar, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (Loktantrik), whose entry as deputy prime minister in the Dahal cabinet was said to have stalled at the last minute last week, has begun urging other Madhesi leaders to stop sounding and acting like Raut. Of late, Gachchadar has been pressing Dahal to take action against Raut-like behavior, in language that could have come straight from the UML script.
Mahant Thakur, leader of the Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party, has warned against lumping all Madhesi parties together with Raut’s campaign.
It’s nice to see that speaking for Nepal has become cool again. Yet to what end? The votaries of a New Nepal are still smashing the old one into smithereens. The shards are too small and prickly to raise a new edifice.
That’s for later. For now, the notion of newness is alluring. What’s so bad if the new packaging add to the attraction?

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Qualified Hope For Moral Incumbency

From the sheer timeline, it would appear that the judiciary was waiting for the executive to prove before the legislature its commitment to pull the country back from the precipice of impending calamity.
A three-person bench of the Supreme Court removed Lok Man Singh Karki as head of Nepal’s anti-corruption watchdog, allowing the legislature to bypass a motion to impeach the man.
Hours after the government tabled the Constitution amendment bill in Parliament, the top court ruled that Karki was not only unqualified for the position but also lacked the moral authority to assume it.
What was curious was the ease with which the government tabled the amendment bill in a legislature obstructed by an opposition alliance freshly enthused by its show of force on the streets.
It’s nice to see the system working in such tandem. But were the two events entirely fortuitous?
Lest we hear cries of conspiracy, let’s be clear. In nullifying Karki’s appointment, the judges ruled that he lacked requisite experience and moral character to head a constitutional body like the CIAA. In other words, the Court limited itself to the moment of Karki’s appointment. The impeachment process, on the other hand, comprised his tumultuous tenure.
The Nepali Congress, CPN-UML, Maoists and MJF (D) unanimously backed Karki as the CIAA chief in 2013. Chairman of the Council of Ministers Khil Raj Regmi, also still chief justice, strongly backed his appointment, which President Ram Baran Yadav announced. All this happened despite protests within these very political parties and from civil society. The Supreme Court rejected a challenge.
After the latest verdict, Om Aryal who had filed the original challenge and returned with the current petition, exuded a sense of vindication. “The rule of law has been re-established,” he told a reporter. “[Karki’s] appointment was against good governance, and its cancellation is a big step towards good governance.”
Now Aryal wants all those who aided and abetted Karki’s appointment to apologize. Fat chance, if you ask Maila Baje. The political establishment thought he was qualified then, and that’s that. That the CIAA turned against the establishment, with Karki as a one-man wrecking ball, is a different matter. (And we’re not even talking about the ‘foreign hand’ that supposedly eased Karki’s path.)
If the system failed us, then, there’s always a remedy. When the Supreme Court in the world’s most powerful democracy can rewrite a controversial health care law and then rule it as constitutional, who’s to decry judicial activism, right?
Karki is probably mulling his options. He could contest the next election and redeem himself through the popular vote in the manner disgraced politicians do. He could come out with the ‘goods’ he says he has on key members of the establishment. (More likely, we might start seeing leaks in the press on supposed trade-offs, blandishments and considerations that underpinned key political decisions and events of recent years.)
But you have to ask whether the Supreme Court would have revisited the case if the tide hadn’t turned against Karki so dramatically. (Surely, impeachment, merely by incorporating new facts relating to Karki’s tenure, would have made more sense.)
Now we can retroactively revisit an appointee’s qualifications and moral standing for a job he has held for years. Sure, Karki may have been a scumbag. But how would our new judicial standard impinge on an establishment comprising the likes of mass murderers, executioners and spouses of hijackers, once the public mood were to shift?
Specifically, how much influence did that pesky doctor wield in all this by threatening to starve himself to death unless Karki was shown the door? And especially when the facts on the ground had not changed, at least for the purposes of the Supreme Court?
If institutions of state are seen to be reacting to those kinds of pressures, how much reassurance do we really have on more weighty matters looming on the horizon?