Sunday, March 01, 2015

Relevance In The Grand Game of Triangulation

Since that late-night donnybrook inside the people’s house, something seemed to be bugging Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal. What justification does the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) even have for its existence if it continues pursuing the policies it does? Why doesn’t the party merge with the Nepali Congress?
When Dahal finally posed that question in public the other day, the leaders in Balkhu went ballistic. The question was a product of a defeated mentality, one insisted. The last election result settled who was and wasn’t, another proffered. But no one seemed to provide the answer Dahal’s question merited. If Marx and Lenin, truth be told, had any way of doing it today, they would have disowned our mainstream comrades. Does that mean the UML is irrelevant? Not quite.
Maila Baje believes the UML exists because it is an important part of the tripod the Nepali polity has always been. After the country’s emergence in its modern form, the monarchy soon found itself pitted against the Thapa and Pande nobles, before the rise of the Ranas turned the battle into a two-front one. But a third front was almost immediately built via the Nepali exiles in India, until the Nepali Congress emerged to give it full and formal shape.
By the time the Rana regime collapsed, the communists had emerged to replace that leg. But the monarchy grew too assertive in its role of projecting Nepal’s independence and sovereignty for those who believed they had restored it so altruistically. Another course correction was warranted, amid the new regional and international equations.
Indeed, the Sino-Soviet split complicated things by fragmenting our Reds. The Nepali Congress was weary and worn out and the palace was able to draw members into the partyless fold.
With the communists split into royalist and republican camps – and much of the latter behind bars – the partyless system felt confident enough to withstand India’s economic retribution without weighing the true extent of Chinese support that might be forthcoming.
Yet Nepali communist leaders that would matter had yet to emerge from the shadows. Remember how we schlubs were wondering who that bloke Madan Bhandari was to have deserved an almost full-page interview in a top Indian daily as part of his coming-out party?
After 1990, the Nepali Congress, UML and the monarchy continued to represent the three legs and things seemed to be okay. But, alas, they weren’t for those around us. The Maoists emerged and wrought havoc, picking up a momentum that surprised even the starry-eyed idealists. As the geo-political equations started shifting in the late 1990s, the Maoists were deemed ready for prime time. In retrospect, the sudden influx of Maoists into Kathmandu Valley in the week before the Narayanhity Massacre made much more sense.
The monarchy was weakened but not broken – good or bad news depending on which side of the geo-political fault-lines you were on. Hard as it might be to believe, the new king consolidated his powers and position not as a power-hungry autocrat. His first intervention on October 4, 2002 barely prompted a murmur of protest from the powers that be. Everyone was busy trying to size up the man. The king must have felt he could do a better job by going the full mile, so he struck again, and harder.
With the Maoists and the monarchy now facing each other, talk of a breakthrough deal was rife. The sigh of relief that the collapse of the second peace talks sent across the southern border turned into a guttural gasp.
If anything, the king’s plan was little more than to wait and watch. His foreign adversaries would have to cobble together a coalition between the mainstream parties and the Maoists. And that was the easy part. They would have to make it work.
It would be tempting to see the 12-Point Agreement as the point where the UML merged with the Nepali Congress for all practical purposes. But even the best-laid plans go awry. The Maoists were supposed to be tamed into a distant third place in the mainstream, not leading a government that would so loudly reverse the traditional foreign itinerary of an incoming premier. If the monarchy flashed the China card in India’s face, here were the Maoists throwing the entire deck. The second constituent assembly elections finally produced the results that were supposed to have emerged in 2008. Notice how everything is running in reverse?
So, yes, Comrade Dahal, the UML is relevant – as relevant as your organization is. Lest you or any other Nepali leader start feeling comfortable, there are built-in tweaks: intra-party factionalism, formal splits and reunions, and the fluidity on fringes of the political spectrum.
As for the UML merging with the Nepali Congress, that possibility exists. It all depends on who replaces the UML in the grand game of triangulation.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Open Questions On The ‘Secret’ Agreement

Days after former king Gyanendra resurrected the ‘agreement’ in his Democracy Day message to the nation, all heads are still firmly turned to Madhav Kumar Nepal.
The second-ranking leader of the erstwhile Seven Party Alliance (SPA) has denied the existence of any such agreement in writing that had led to the restoration of the House of Representatives.
In a television a couple of years ago, too, Shah had suggested that he and the SPA leadership had agreed on political terms that were ostensibly narrower in scope than what has eventually transpired in the nation. Then, too, Madhav Nepal had rejected that suggestion outright and challenged Shah to produce the said document.
What struck Maila Baje as interesting is the difference in the political establishment’s response to Shah’s assertion. This time, the first politician to react was Krishna Prasad Sitaula of the Nepali Congress. But Sitaula’s denial can be easily discounted. Sitaula came in the picture only after the Constituent Assembly voted to abolish the monarchy. The agreement Shah refers to was already breached by then and events had careened out of the 12 Point Agreement between the SPA and the Maoists. So Sitaula’s question as to why Shah vacated the palace so willingly in 2008 becomes moot.
As to Madhav Nepal, the last time he spoke, he seemed to carry the political establishment with him. Now, the Maoists (at least the Pushpa Kamal Dahal/Baburam Bhattarai faction) and Madhesis (the Upendra Yadav faction) have pressed the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist for further clarification. Yadav, for his part, seems to be suggesting that such an agreement does in fact exist.
Clearly, one side isn’t telling the truth. No less important is ambiguity surrounding the terms of any such agreement. Did the parties provide assurances that the monarchy would remain untouched? In his TV interview, Shah pointed in that direction. This time, he was less specific. Or were both sides silent on that subject (because, at least in the palace’s view, it wasn’t even an issue)?
On the other hand, did the monarch receive explicit assurances that the SPA and the Maoists would restore peace and stability far faster in a democratic way than the three years the palace had sought so ‘undemocratically’?
Something happened after the first royal proclamation, which resulted in the issuance of the second two days later. When exactly was the ‘agreement’ said to have taken place? If it was before the first proclamation, did the monarch expect the SPA to honor it in perpetuity? Did the parties feel they were not bound to do so given the new ‘realities’ that precipitated the second proclamation?
What if both sides are right? Maybe there isn’t a written agreement in the form of a document the then king and the SPA leaders signed in the presence of witnesses. What if this debate revolves around an oral agreement?
And what if there is video recording somewhere of that, complete with extreme long shots, close-ups, tilts, pans and full ambient sound?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Everybody Has A Job To Do

Reacting to the Nigerian government’s decision to delay national elections, the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International released a graphic via Twitter the other day, depicting it as the country with the most corrupt political parties in the world.
Predictably, the Nigerian media went nuts. Nepal’s reputation, too, was sullied. We’re listed as the country with the third most corrupt parties, a record we share with Greece.
While we’re worse than, alliteratively, Italy, Indonesia and India, we are better than Mexico and Cyprus.
TI’s graphic came under the headline ‘Where most people think political parties are corrupt’, which, it turns out, was part of its 2013 Global Corruption Barometer. So everything’s a bit dated.
The Barometer is a public opinion survey that offers views of the general public on corruption and its impact on their lives, including personal experience with bribes, according to the watchdog website. The more widely known Corruption Perceptions Index and the Bribe Payers Index both rely on the views of experts.
Some 1,000 people from each of 107 countries were surveyed between September 2012 and March 2013 for the Barometer. In other words, it’s the people of each country whose saying how deep in graft their political parties are.
“Political corruption can feel daunting and remote. So can we really do anything about it?” TI pointedly asks. “If we speak out about how we’re governed, we can.”
Fine and dandy. So how do we go about it? Call on politicians and public officials to be accountable for their actions, TI advises.  Demand that they put in place regulations that would force them to act openly. And hold them to account once elected.
Civil society – from grassroots groups to big organizations – has a crucial role to play, the watchdog reminds us. They can monitor electoral campaigns and parties’ activities and report if state resources are abused.
If regulations to prevent corruption aren’t in place, people must demand them.  “By speaking out, we can show that everyone gains from honest elections and open decision-making. Even politicians.” Sounds good so far, right?
Now let’s dig a little deeper. To clean up the parties, Parliament must pass proper laws. But, according to the same survey, 79 percent of Nepalis view their legislature as corrupt. Accountability by other institutions? The judiciary is perceived as crooked by 77 percent of us.
That much vaunted civil society? Tough luck: 46 percent of that fraternity is considered tainted. What’s more, a third of the media, or 33 percent, is viewed as debased.
How about civil service and public institutions such as the Election Commission? Well a whopping 85 percent of Nepalis surveyed believe they are corrupt, just a little less bad than the political parties. Eighty percent of the law-enforcement apparatus, too, is rotten.
No, the people won’t shut up. They’ll keep exercising their democratic rights to yell, no matter how zealously everybody else protects their right not to listen.
The moral of the story? Everybody has a job to do – even Transparency International.

Monday, February 09, 2015

A Safe Landing Spot?

Even as the Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) implore them to return to the negotiating table after the night of the broken chairs, the Maoists and their allies remain agitated.
United Communist Party of Nepal (UCPN)-Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal dismissed Prime Minister Sushil Koirala’s latest impassioned public appeal as disjointed. Dahal’s deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, accused the two major parties of trying to revive the old constitution.
Part of their bluster may be aimed at papering over their internal strife. The Baidya and Biplav factions share deep misgivings over the UCPN-Maoists’ motives. The Madhesi factions are still unable to figure out who should represent the region’s sentiments. Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal (RPPN) president Kamal Thapa’s frequent visits to Dahal’s residence at odd hours have only exacerbated the opposition alliance’s suspicions fueled by Bhattarai’s effort to justify a working alliance with the royalists.
But what if serious efforts were indeed going on behind the scenes to revive the 1990 Constitution. After all, its principal architects touted it as the world’s best until they didn’t like how then-king Gyanendra exercised its provisions, particularly Article 127.
If Dahal today can insist that he would never accept a ceremonial presidency and hold the country hostage to that, what was so bad about a constitutional monarch’s conviction that he had to act boldly to salvage the basic law already mangled by the parties.
At least Dahal – ever so anxious to exercise executive power – could set his eyes on the premiership and smooth the way for the constitution-making process. The monarch, who certainly could not quit being king, appointed himself head of government temporarily to set things right assertively – a distinction that hardly mattered.
To be sure, the odds against reviving the 1990 Constitution are great. For starters, it defined Nepal as a Hindu state, a characterization the post-2006 drivers scrambled to dump even before the monarchy. Yet the withdrawal of Hindu statehood brought issues of religious identity to the fore as never before. Secularism per se should not have posed such a threat to the self-identification of so many Nepalis. The principal reason it has is the hastiness – and, as it turns out, ostensible duplicity – with which Hinduism was discarded.
The erstwhile Constitution did not even have a provision on local governance. Through the requisite laws, local bodies were created and functioned remarkably well. In fact, local governance was touted as the most successful feature of the polity until the Maoists went on their rampage promising greater participation and inclusion.
As such, they should have led the post-2006 charge to define and deliver the marginalized. Instead, they felt they completed their job by signing the peace agreement. Marginalization fueled a grievance industry that has kept adding to the list of ills the new constitution is supposed to heal.
Given the impossibility of their task, the current members of the constituent assembly might even be searching for a safe landing spot. The Nepali Congress and the UML have ownership of the 1990 Constitution. The restoration of the monarchy, an unalterable feature of that statute, would pose the greatest challenge to the post-2006 order. But, then, the drivers of that change had their chance and blew it.
The issue then would revolve around the legality of restoration. Between the Supreme Court and the United Nations Security Council, the avenues are aplenty. Moreover, turning backward more candidly would provide an incentive to the current lawmakers to make that final serious attempt to draft a new constitution.
Still unimpressed? What sounds crazier? Deleting the ‘interim’ from the interim constitution or restoring the 1990 version.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Kabuki Theater Of Ex-Premiers

The sky didn’t fall. Nor did the earth shatter.
The space in between in the aftermath? That’s quivering from absurdities of some of our prominent ex-premiers.
The constituent assembly fell into the fold of ‘status-quoists’ and ‘reactionaries’ on January 25, 2015, Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) vice-chairman Baburam Bhattarai asserted the other day. Without another progressive struggle, politics would take an unpleasant turn, he warned.
The broken chairs and uprooted mikes doubling as projectiles inside the august assembly set the stage for the subsequent rhetorical silliness from key people heading the government.
Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) maintained that the ruling Nepali Congress and CPN-UML made a mistake by tabling their nine-point joint proposal at the Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee, thereby infuriating the opposition. (Classic symptom of the liberal/left: empathize with your opponent.)
Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress accused the Madhes-based parties for nixing his marvelous idea of deleting ‘interim’ from the interim constitution and declaring mission accomplished.
Jhal Nath Khanal of the UML castigated foreign powers – explicitly excluding China – for muddying our waters. Surya Bahadur Thapa of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party cited the incompetence of the political class for non-promulgation of the constitution on the stipulated deadline.
Despite all that happened, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala is beseeching UCPN-Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal to return to the process of dialogue. Maila Baje feels Koirala is rejuvenated by the fact that he is still at the helm. But the latter insists he can’t come back to talks with the sword of majority-rule hanging over him and his folks.
And what does prime minister-in-waiting think? Khadga Prasad Oli believes the Maoists just need a few billion rupees to come back to the table.
Bhattarai’s effort to tout the progressive-reactionary divide no longer reflects – to borrow one of his favorite terms – ground realities. Who’s who depends on the time of day, if not the dynamics within factions and coteries inside parties.
Madhav Nepal has developed a disconcerting tendency to second-guess himself. If the two ruling parties were so lousy in their political acumen, well, he, too, is part of the problem.
Khanal can blame foreign powers all he wants, but they are simply seeking a return on their investment circa 2005-2006. The Chinese are far from neutral in Nepal. They only appear to be the most polite ones in public – and that’s putting things charitably.
Thapa – the most rabid republican among those with royalist roots – hardly needed to highlight the incompetence of the political class. But, then, Deuba’s proposal only served to explain why he happened to be sacked twice by the then-monarch. If anything, the Madhes-based parties, by opposing Deuba, were the adults in the room.
The man who’s making the most sense is Oli. Of course, he still spews gobbledygook such as how he would work to ensure that consensus and process proceeded together. But, if you believe him, buying off the Maoists had worked in the past. Let’s not focus too much on where the money came from.
The going rate certainly must have risen. But what’s a few billions among chums, right?