Sunday, February 18, 2018

Change Is The Only Constant

If Khadga Prasad Oli’s return to the premiership was inevitable after his party’s sturdy performance in last year’s elections, the timing of his ascension appears to have been conveniently crafted.
While the ‘China’s gain, India’s pain’ narrative will be assiduously held, New Delhi appears to have ensured sufficient safeguards against any significant ‘contrariness’ from the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) chairman this time around.
Not long after Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj invited herself to Nepal to give him that so palpably asphyxiating embrace, Oli finds himself at the helm of a minority government. The much-ballyhooed grand leftist unity is still marred by almost willful obfuscation from the principal protagonists. The Maoists could have sent a minister or two as a confidence-building measure.
Ideology, power sharing, personal predilections, or any number of other things could be standing in the way. For now, all we hear is the word ‘inevitable’. Beijing might be happy at the change of guard in Kathmandu, but it will certainly be hard-pressed to identify what there is really to cheer about.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the most formidable opposition to the UML-Maoist Center unification is emanating, not from so-called ‘national and international conspirators’, but from within the two parties. Of course, the distinction may be feebler than it sounds. But you cannot disregard the reality that others get to play only because those within allow them to.
If Oli is facing antagonism, if not outright insurrection, from factional chieftains like Madhav Kumar Nepal, the Maoists are not in exactly pristine form, either.  Once-acquiescent lieutenants like Krishna Bahadur Mahara, Ram Bahadur Thapa, Barsa Man Pun, Janardan Sharma and Top Bahadur Rayamajhi are becoming more assertive in the organization as the aura of chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal continues to fade. The fact that these second-rung leaders come from different directions and have yet to fully pursue their own rivalries only complicates matters. 
On the other hand, caretaker prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba seems to have taken enough care to ensure that Oli’s journey would be anything but smooth. How many decisions will the new prime minister have to undo before he can start taking his own ones. And, then, who really knows how many – and what kind of – other ‘inopportune’ decisions the Deuba cabinet might have taken that have not hit the headlines.
Then there’s that innately human element. Oli had really stuck his neck out long and hard northward last time. What did the Chinese do for him when the inevitable backlash arrived? He was thrown out like a door mouse. More importantly, how many of us who ceaselessly commended his ‘nationalist’ stand during the Indian blockade do to bolster him in his hour of need?
To cut a long story short, where’s the evidence that Oli won’t be a changed man this time around as far as his geostrategic orientation goes? Dahal’s 180-degree flip was softened to an extent by the distance between his two premierships. The relative closeness of Oli’s tenures will perhaps make any such somersault more extraordinary, but it will certainly be no less explicable.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Edginess, Attitude & Course Correction

Restiveness over the style and substance of the unification of Nepal’s two principal communist parties has begun to pervade the Maoist faction. The rank and file there seem to have woken up to what the rest of the country has grasped. This is not unification between two organizations in the customary sense of the term. It is a hostile takeover of the Maoist Center by the Marxist-Leninists.
Maoist Center chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ assiduously denies that differences pertaining to sharing of power and posts is impeding formal unity. The no-bridges-left-to-walk-back-on routine persists on both sides. But Dahal has also begun issuing thinly veiled auguries.
Just the other day, he said that he could embark on an entirely new course if he concluded that the current route was unlikely to take him to his destination. Never mind the elusiveness of Dahal’s destination. He’s never been one to etch one in stone. The forewarning alone should be enough to shake our body politic.
Countless one-on-one private sessions Dahal has held with Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist chairman K.P. Oli have only served to muddy the waters. Did the two leaders just spend time together in private over edibles and entertainment?
The Maoist base’s quandary is real. If Oli seems so unwilling to accommodate subgroups led by fellow UML ex-premiers Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhal Nath Khanal, why should the former rebels believe he might be eager to bestow respectful positions on them? Oli’s fellow Jhapa headhunter of the 1970s, Radha Krishna Mainali, warned us the other day how the UML chief has a habit of pledging things on credit, so to speak. The Maoists should have every i dotted and t crossed in triplicate, he counsels.
A few days earlier Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Democratic) president Pashupati Shamsher Rana was emphatic that the two communist parties could never unite. Now, you’d think Rana should be the last person making such prognostications when he couldn’t foresee the divisions so close to home. But, then, such an enduring political player must have had his reasons for saying so.
Couple that with the fact that caretaker Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has begun showing a degree of decisiveness that he lacked during his more rightful tenures over the decades. The idea that the caretaker government is even preparing to nominate three members to the upper house cannot bode well for the incoming Oli government.
The broader picture isn’t too sanguine, either. Many of the same Indian newspapers that advocated the abolition of the Nepali monarchy as a matter of their national interest today headline the ex-king’s religious undertakings in Orissa in a way that suggests he still sits on the throne.
Perhaps it would still be unrealistic to expect either faction to clearly come out against unification, at least without enough credible ground to blame the other for the fiasco. But it’s looking likelier that Oli will head the largest party in a hung parliament with all the attendant hazards Nepalis are familiar with – and much more. That would certainly suit some around us. Domestically, politics will continue to be the art of deal-making. And not an altogether bad position to be in today’s Trumpian times.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Willing The Good Of Whom?

We don’t know who invited her or why she came. Yet from most accounts emanating from her side of the border, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s recent whirlwind visit to Nepal was a success.
The series of ‘group audiences’ Swaraj granted to party leaders during her ‘goodwill’ visit lost much of its ability to revolt us. Nepalis have seen shoddier examples of collective obsequiousness before.  Nor was her breezy ‘I-just-dropped-in-on-friends’ demeanor that nauseating. Backslapping has become an inextricable parallel of the frontal variety when it comes to India’s outreach.
The disaffection expressed by some of our leaders over the ill-timed character of Swaraj’s arrival was remarkable indeed. But those raising their voices the loudest there are the ones who have the least to lose. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, although elected to parliament, is virtually a one-man show, notwithstanding his Naya Shakti gyrations. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center)’s Narayan Kaji Shrestha, who lost to Bhattarai, is a former deputy prime and foreign minister – and that’s about it.
Rastriya Prajatantra Party chairman Kamal Thapa, who as a senior member of caretaker Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s government, probably feels betrayed by Swaraj. It’s not that far away in time when, as then Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s foreign minister, Thapa and Swaraj came up with four points on a piece of paper that carried enough ambiguity to help the Indians maintain that their blockade was not a blockade.
Regardless of the validity or otherwise of his grievances, Thapa has come out as petty. He would have made more of a mark had he chosen to oppose Swaraj’s visit before she landed, even if that meant quitting the cabinet. If naiveté was behind the miscalculation of the normally astute Thapa regarding the motives of the Indians in 2015, then the less said, the better about the man who was home minister in the royal regime collapsed amid New Delhi’s shenanigans.
Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist insists that Swaraj arrived on a fence-mending visit, a stance shared by Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ as well as sections of New Delhi’s foreign policy establishment. If so, did Swaraj utter anything approximating an apology for having subjected Nepalis to collective punishment for those many months? If not, did she express any other form of contrition?
Or did she really land in Kathmandu to admonish the leaders the incoming government about how South Asia’s geo-strategic landscape had changed since the embargo? Maybe she packaged a not-so-diplomatic intimation of her country’s Doklamian-Trumpian-Quad-infused confidence that would not countenance Kathmandu’s tilt northward?
Maybe Swaraj didn’t have to do any such thing. At this point, merely sowing doubts in the Chinese mind as to what her Nepali interlocutors might have vouchsafed would count as success from India’s vantage point. If Dahal could learn his lesson and reverse his regional orientation during his second stint as prime minister, what makes us think Oli is under any obligation to stand firm?
After all – just as in Dahal’s case – the Chinese weren’t terribly eager to shield Oli from Indian opprobrium and eventual exit for having the temerity to try to redefine Nepal’s geo-strategic persona.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Taking Care Of Tomorrow

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and his Nepali Congress have improvised an innovative coping mechanism for the party’s dismal electoral performance.
By exhibiting its version of Churchillian magnanimity in defeat, the caretaker government has begun to agitate the incoming leftist administration. The series of populist measures Deuba has taken in recent weeks – including a reduction of the qualification for old-age allowance from 70 years to 65 – promises to saddle the new government with a financial burden on something that wasn’t even part of its electoral platform.
K.P. Oli, our prime minister in waiting, has vowed to reverse all such decisions. Yet the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) knows the likely perils of doing so. The Nepali Congress, having hit upon this new scope of its caretaker status, remains defiant. A party that has done so much to fatten the public treasury can certainly take care of the people in every way it deems fit, one Nepali Congress luminary was heard arguing the other day.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre, has now joined Oli in equating the Deuba government’s munificence with democratic malfeasance. For most of us, it may not be too hard to remember how the UML ushered in populism as stratagem during its short-lived minority government under Manmohan Adhikary. And it might have helped the UML secure its own majority in the elections Adhikary had called, before the Supreme Court stepped in to thwart him.
Oli, having resigned himself to the reality that the premiership still may be some time away, wasn’t probably too thrilled with the call he got from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Sure, Modi spoke to Oli in the latter’s capacity as the next premier. But the next premier of what kind of government? Of a united communist party? In coalition with other parties should unification fall through? Or one that is too busy undoing its predecessor’s acts to implement its own agenda?
The UML-Maoist Centre unity process doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, despite the hours-long sessions Oli and Dahal have held alone. Both leaders acknowledge that elements within their respective organizations may be working to subvert unification. More than a few Nepali Congress leaders have openly suggested that their mission now was to prevent leftist unity.
When Deuba asserts he had nothing to do with the removal of the monarchy and positions himself as a supporter of Hindu statehood, a private meeting between the former king and the chief minister of a bordering Indian state (albeit a man of cloth heading the largest province down south) is bound to acquire political significance. More so when it subsequently emerges that the former monarch had either sought approval from or merely informed Deuba and Oli of his brief detour across the border.
It looks like Modi made that call to Oli after being satisfied that New Delhi had done enough for now to correct the incoming Nepali government’s perceived northern tilt. The Chinese can continue funneling all the money they want into Nepal as long as the Indians keep calling the political shots.
Our three-tiered elections that were supposed to fully institutionalize the republican, federal and secular constitution have served to expose the document’s fragilities. Oli may well become the next prime minister pretty soon. But can we really be sure about the rest of the deal?

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Mergers & Acquisitions: Creating Value For Stakeholders

Just as the unification of our supreme comrades appeared to have gathered pace, the only communist ex-premier outside the process has likened it to the merger of two banks.
K.P. Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, the leaders of the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) and the Maoist Centre respectively, engaged in a three-hour one-on-one session the other day. What actually transpired during those talks remains murky, but it is nevertheless perceived as having provided a much-needed fillip to a course of unity that had begun to fizzle.
Yet, in Naya Shakti chief Baburam Bhattarai’s view, such negotiations are nothing more than something what two banks would hold to determine the post-merger chairman and chief executive officer posts.
Clearly, Messrs Oli and Dahal have a wide variety of interests in pursuing unity. Considering the recent election results, the prospect has caught the people’s imagination. If the UML seems to be the dominant force here, it’s understandable why the Maoist Centre would acquiesce. Divisions and disaffection have weakened the once formidable entity. Yet the specter of the International Criminal Court (ICC) – at least theoretically – looms as large today as it did in the immediate aftermath of the ‘People’s War’.
International supporters of the political transition in Nepal are a weird lot in this respect. The pro-accountability/anti-impunity subset wants Nepal to be a success story in their cause, now that African nations have started pushing back.
As the supreme commander of the erstwhile ‘People’s Liberation Army’, Dahal knows that this is far from an equal fight. Who really believes the international community is going to haul the state army before the ICC or any related international tribunal on equivalent charges. The Nepal Army is a primary, if less palpable, pillar of the polity. Compared to that institution, the Maoists are has-beens. Dahal’s counterpart on the battlefield, the former king, will continue to symbolize the potential for change/correction lest our political establishment veer off course internally or geopolitically.
So when Bhattarai uses the corporation analogy, he may be more right than he knows. Once the Maoists cede their existing legal existence, they will have added an extra layer of protection against prosecution. But would that be security enough?
Such apprehensions don’t seem to clutch Bhattarai as much. Unlike Dahal, he wasn’t a soldier. Like Joseph Goebbels, he was the chief propagandist of a cause. Bhattarai spilled ink, not blood. Now, that defense never got to be tested at the Nuremberg Trials because Goebbels took the easier way out by voluntarily perishing along with his boss in that Berlin bunker. However, considering that Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop – a civilian who used diplomacy to pursue his cause – wasn’t spared the noose, Goebbels wouldn’t have stood much of a chance.
Bhattarai, for his part, has rolled the dice. He recognizes how his Naya Shakti is emblematic of the eternal newness that animates the Nepali consciousness. Over the past dozen years, whenever the existing promise of newness has appeared unfeasible, he has deftly shifted the goal posts. Moreover, the extent of Bhattarai’s external benefaction is probably more enduring than Dahal’s. So if he thinks Nepal still needs him more than it does his other former Maoist colleagues – the ICC or not – could you really fault him?
And, as to the broader question, aren’t mergers and acquisitions supposed to create value for the stakeholders?