Sunday, December 14, 2014

Finding Faith In Alien Encounters

There are times when you wonder whether our foreign friends really want us to get a new constitution. British Ambassador Andrew Sparkes’ recent open letter advising the drafters to ensure that religious conversion is enshrined as something approximating a fundamental right is one of those times.
The substance of his letter is not the point here, conforming as it does to Western nations’ eagerness to promote Christianity and its Good News in our hapless homeland. Nor is the question why the top representative of a putative ‘Englistan’ emerging from fertile ground of hedonistic secularism would so brazenly ignore developments at home.
The timing of the ambassador’s letter is what inspires Maila Baje to question his motives. Our political class has enough on its hands with its self-imposed constitutional deadline looming. The Hinduism/secularism has the potential to create problems that would dwarf those stemming from federalism. In fairness, the British envoy advocates religious freedom in general. But you don’t need special skills to detect the Christian tone of that dog whistle.
Sparkes wasn’t the only alien muddying our waters. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did that by advising us to devise a consensus-based constitution instead of a numbers-driven one. That pleasant plea basically provided a paradigm for prolonging the stalemate, given that each political party in the constituent assembly won seats on the basis of their own manifestoes on the constitution.
With such incongruities having stepped in, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) have reverted to what they do best: devising a new power-sharing platform. In other developments, Nepali Congress leader Khum Bahadur Khadka has seized the Hinduism banner from Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal (RPPN). The latter party now has only the monarchy as its exclusive agenda. With RPPN President Kamal Thapa’s personal relations with the last monarch said to have cooled, factional rivalries have overtaken that organization. Leaders have taken to defending their lethargy to the former monarch’s apathy toward a restoration.
So entreaties for the status quo ante have started coming from the ostensible purveyors of newness. Weeks after Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel publicly defended the intrinsic virtuousness of the 1990 Constitution, CPN-UML leader Oli advocated its modification into the new one.
Although both leaders tried to walk back their comments, the mere articulation was enough for the Maoists to begin twisting themselves into pretzels. Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal claims that he is shrewdly manipulating the two principal parties, while his deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, insists having a basic outline of the constitution by January 22 would be an achievement.
The teeth have long since come off the Maoist tiger, and it will ultimately accede to anything as an act of self-preservation. But comrades have to act as if they are putting up a fight. Bhattarai thus claims his people can accept the Nepali Congress-UML concept of federalism so long as the two main parties can persuade the janjatis of its merits. (What about the madhesis, comrade?)
A President Sushil Koirala and a Prime Minister Oli might even try doing that in earnest, if only those pesky foreigners just knew when to shut up.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Speak Up, Dear Leaders

By now, it is pretty much clear that if we do indeed get a new constitution by January 22, it will have been merely because of our political class’s fealty to its self-imposed deadline. The document will not be able to appease every constituency, address every grievance, and anticipate every impediment to future we all want.
Why let the perfect stand in the way of the good, right? Why indeed. But what after January 22? Will we have a mechanism in place to revisit constitutional issues, say, every ten years? If so the number and structure of states should not be too big of an issue. Maybe we can try either a presidential and prime ministerial system first and come back to change it if we don’t like it. But will mere pledges made today be enough to placate the disaffected, whose ranks are only bound to grow?
Then there’s the school of thought articulated most recently by Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal. What is so sacrosanct about January 22? After all, it was a deadline imposed by lawmakers, chastened by their failure to complete their job the first time around. Call it a case of entanglement by eagerness.
No, the sky didn’t fall when the last constituent assembly repeatedly missed its deadlines and eventually died on us. But, then, Dahal, too, needs to address a couple of things. Why is consensus being forced upon a political process that has, at its roots, multiparty competition? Wasn’t conformity and the other cousins of consensus supposed to be the hallmark of polities like the maligned partyless Panchayat system we had long ago cast aside?
The numbers game need not necessarily be bad if what the Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist and others are intent on push through corresponds to their respective platforms during the election campaign. Shouldn’t elections have consequences?
But, more importantly, why does Dahal think the ruling parties are so averse to consensus. Forget the master-slave routine he is spouting at every turn and focus on the substance. If the insecurities of political parties revolving around state restructuring and mode of governance have become so entrenched, what is to say that those same fears won’t perpetuate a stranglehold on the new system? If the fate of districts like Jhapa and Kailali are so stuck on considerations related to the commingling of India’s state and international borders today, what else might go up in the air tomorrow?
But who are we kidding, right? Such questions became irrelevant about two years after the first constituent assembly was elected. After that, we bungled into a series of side deals to keep up the fiction that the 12-Point Accord was alive, primarily for the benefit of its sponsors.
Maybe our politicians should finally come clean and throw at us what resembles a constitution on January 22. Before we can catch the booklets to start burning or ripping them, our pols should scream at the top of their lungs: “As your elected representatives we tried our best to reconcile everything you’ve been asking for. This is what we’ve got, and we’re sick and tired. Now, take it or leave it, coz we’re going home.”  How newer could Nepal get?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Modi Act II: Advise And Dissent

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi advised our political class to draw up the new constitution by consensus – not brute numbers – the Maoist leadership immediately rose up exuding a profound sense of vindication.
Individual Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) leaders immediately began muttering and moaning against Modi’s gratuitous advice.
Rastriya Janamorcha Party President Chitra Bahadur KC, reflecting the schisms in the hard left, issued a statement deploring Modi’s stance, saying he had not only interfered in the internal matters of Nepal but had also crossed all diplomatic limits.
And KC didn’t stop there. “[Modi] is clearly against drafting constitution by the constituent assembly. He has stood against world acclaimed democratic process but has also dared to undermine Nepal’s constitution. His statement has pushed Nepal’s constitution drafting process to uncertainty.”
Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, being the good host, reacted only after Modi’s departure. And that, too, after scribes quizzed him. Rejecting suggestions that Modi had applied any pressure for consensus, Koirala stated that how the constitution would be promulgated and what would be in it were entirely within the remit of Nepalis.
Before the original exultant Maoist leaders could hit back with their rebuttal, one functionary struck a cautionary note to the organization and the nation. Gopal Kiranti believed Modi’s remark was part of grand Indian conspiracy to defuse the protest programs planned by the opposition alliance to pressure the ruling parties to heed their demands. “Outwardly, it seems that [the Indians] favor unity between Nepalis but in reality they are there to strangle us,” Kiranti said in public comments.
When Modi insisted, at the inauguration of a trauma center in Kathmandu, that the constitution should be built through consensus and then could be amended through a two-thirds majority, it left many Nepali scratching their heads. How could you talk about a consensual document and a two-thirds-majority-based amendment in the same breadth? Perhaps someone somewhere on the Indian side bungled big time while were neck-deep in the Janakpur-Lumbini Modi itinerary fiasco.
But Modi seemed to double down in the evening. During individual meetings with leaders of the Nepali Congress, the CPN-UML, the Maoists and the Madhesi parties, Modi said he hoped to get telephone calls from them on the morning of January 21 so that he could congratulate them on the successful completion of the process.
No, that was not something leaked from the meeting room. Indian Foreign Office spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said so briefing reporters, although he was careful to assert that India was not prescribing any bottom line to an independent and sovereign country.
Other sources, however, let it be known that Modi had fine-tuned his message for his audience. While impressing upon Nepali Congress and CPN-UML leaders the virtues of consensus, he expounded on the merits of compromise with the Maoist and Madhesi leaders.
With the Indian prime minister so ebullient in his bilaterals with Nepali leaders, could he have restrained himself during the SAARC retreat? No wonder Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the only leader in Kathmandu not to have held a one-on-one with Modi, is wearing that exception as a badge of honor.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Up, Down, Round And Round

It looks like Ram Chandra Poudel has really had it with Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
The Nepali Congress vice-president has almost begun attributing the nation’s precarious plight to the sordid mental faculties of Dahal, or something like that.
At a personal level, Poudel probably resents Dahal for having blocked what he considered his easy ascent to the premiership a couple of years ago. Over a dozen rounds of balloting in the last constituent assembly to succeed Jhal Nath Khanal, Poudel diligently soldiered on against the Maoist chairman.
When another Maoist got that job, Poudel described his valiant stand as one that saved the democratic process. But deep down, he probably is still convulsed by bouts of politicianitis: an obsession with how he could have done things better than Baburam Bhattarai and how the country lost out.
Dahal, for his part, has become increasing acerbic in holding Poudel responsible for the current deadlock. The Maoist chairman obviously ranks the Nepali Congress VP, although a decade older, as his most formidable rival in that party going head. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had entered his twilight even before entering Singha Darbar.
Sher Bahadur Deuba has the ‘doubly incompetent’ tag around him that his rivals will ensure outlasts the monarchy. With the Koirala clan embroiled in a bitter succession struggle, Poudel boasts a formidable record in the party that the country might want to test in the premiership.
For now, the bone of contention is the 1990 Constitution. Dahal has accused Poudel of conspiring to reinstate that document. Poudel has fought back, saying he never meant restoring the status quo ante.
The 1990-2006 system did not fail, the Nepali Congress VP explained in a recent newspaper interview. “If we are still trying to produce a constitution written by leaders, even after having elected representatives for that explicit purpose, then what’s so bad about the 1990 statute?” Let’s just remove the monarchy, add federalism and inclusiveness and everybody go home.
Now, Poudel knows that even if every party inside the assembly amended the 1990 Constitution to the point where it would be the founding document of a one-party Maoist state, it would still not be acceptable to Dahal.
The Nepali Congress VP thinks he stands on strong ground. His party abandoned its demand for a constituent assembly for a good reason in the late 1950s. B.P. Koirala calculated that even if King Mahendra got the constitution he liked, he certainly would not get the parliament he wanted. B.P. was correct – up to a point. But, then, geopolitics was not his strong suit. The mercury had barely begun falling on the Cold War thermometer. It would take years of incarceration and exile for Nepal’s first democratically elected prime minister to figure out what really hit him on that cold winter mid-morning in 1960.
For political convenience, Poudel still has to hold King Mahendra solely responsible for the demise of Nepal’s first experiment with democracy. But he recognizes the staying power of geopolitics. In the grand scheme of things, what Nepal and Nepalis desire may not conform to what our two powerful neighbors and others beyond want us to have. During their insurgency, the Maoists promised too many things to too many constituencies without recognizing that core reality. If the ex-rebels are struggling to keep at least some of those promises, then that’s their problem.
So here goes the Nepali Congress again: It is actively participating in the constituent assembly because it believes in the democratic process. If that process fails, you can’t blame the party because it was the first to come out with the Pandora’s Box Theory of Constitutionalism. Dahal, then, would find himself in the ranks of Kings Mahendra and Gyanendra.
If the Maoists, somehow recognizing reality as well as their responsibility to history, give accede to a consensus document, it will have been so because the Nepali Congress exercised excruciating moral pressure. And if that document were to fail, the Nepali Congress would just mount the next struggle for democracy.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mugged By Reality

For a country whose future was traditionally discussed around the constrained sovereignty of the two other Raj-era Himalayan buffer states, we have come a long way. Forget Sikkimization or Bhutanization. Nepali Congress leader Shekhar Koirala has begun drawing parallels with more far-flung climes like Crimea.
That’s not the only way in which the Nepali Congress, the country’s oldest democratic party, has been exuding its creative side. Khum Bahadur Khadka, a one-time stalwart who many had been tempted to dismiss as a has-been, warns of an impending religious war, if not now then in 20 years’ time. All this comes after Shashank Koirala, in an acclaimed address to the Nepal Council of World Affairs, sought to hold his own party accountable for at least part of the national malaise.
Promulgating a constitution – or whatever can resemble one – has become a prestige issue for the prime minister of a party that claims to have spearheaded three revolutions but doesn't want to talk about how it squandered it all each time. Sushil Koirala’s cabinet colleagues from the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist sound quite confident too. (How could they afford not to be?)
Those arrayed against a half-done document are quite formidable. Yet their divisions have provided strength to the proponents of meeting the January 22 deadline.
As frustrated as we might be, let’s not pretend we were not forewarned. After all, the mainstream parties were rejecting the Maoists’ demand for a constituent assembly on the ground that it would open a Pandora’s box until King Gyanendra began sidelining them. Antipathy toward the palace need not have translated so cavalierly into fissiparous alacrity.
Geopolitical realities conspired to take Nepal is’ aspirations for change in a different direction. The three principal external powers – India, China and the United States – were principally hedging their bets. Our wizards of smart stuck their necks out too far. Eight years down the road, the parties that could so easily agree on what was not part of the mandate of People’s Movement II – the abolition of the monarchy – cannot agree on ways of meeting its principal demand – inclusiveness.
How could they, when we are still in the process of manufacturing newer victims and victimizers?
The geopolitical equations have shifted since when an Indian coalition government trying to negotiate a strategic partnership with the United States had to appease its communist allies by outsourcing Nepal policy to them. Nor are the Chinese and Indians engaged in a zero-sum game over Nepal or South Asia. After all, the Chinese President was fraternizing with the Indian prime minister while their border guards were trading fire.
And the Americans? Tibet is a useful pin to prick China. But when the US President on Chinese soil says that he is not in favor of Tibet’s independence, you know how much the ground has shifted from 2005-2006.
One Nepali newspaper editorially suggested the other day that Nepal had moved beyond the divisive issue of the monarchy and must be allowed to reach out to the future. Six years after Gyanendra Shah left Narayanhity Palace, his private visit to New Delhi has all of us in thrall. What might be cooking the Indian capital, where legions of dishes have been produced over the decades suiting all kinds of taste buds out here?
So this is where we are. A multiparty constituent assembly is being asked to develop consensus when all of its constituent parties fought the elections on their own manifestos. Yet when the two principal ruling parties and their minor allies can muster over two-thirds majority behind their constitutional roadmap, that is called undemocratic.
That’s the kind of thing that happens when reality mugs you.