Sunday, August 19, 2018

Nepal In The Vajpayee Vortex

With the first waves of tributes to the late Atal Behari Vajpayee now subsiding, it may not be inopportune to reflect on the man through the prism of political developments in Nepal.
A steadfast friend of Nepal, Vajpayee was at ease with Nepal’s royalty and its detractors alike. Having spent much of his early political career building the Hindu nationalists into a viable electoral force, Vajpayee served as foreign minister in the short-lived Janata Party government that ousted the Indian National Congress in 1977.
Ideologically close to King Birendra, Vajpayee was a committed democrat with an affinity for B.P. Koirala and the Nepali Congress. Reconciling those imperatives was a difficult job in the best of times. The post-Sikkim-annexation environment was hardly assuring for Nepal.
As one coalition partner of Prime Minister Morarji Desai, Vajpayee was scarcely in a position to influence policy based on his Jana Sangh’s political ideology. Moreover, while Koirala allies dominated the Janata Party, they were at a loss over how to accommodate Nepal’s most prominent democrat’s quest for a return to the kingdom's political mainstream. Amid the shakiness of the Desai coalition, the best one could have hoped for was a sort of modus vivendi between the partyless Panchayat system and the Nepali Congress.
Months earlier, Koirala had returned to Nepal from exile in India, ostensibly fed up with the restrictions Indira Gandhi’s Emergency-era government placed on him. Although he alighted the aircraft with a message of national reconciliation, Koirala was a wanted man back home and was treated as such. In the near term, Koirala’s hopes of political reconciliation with the palace were heading nowhere.
With the advent of the Janata government, there were some expectations of progress and, gradually, subtle signs of movement. Vajpayee worked behind the scenes together with ideological adversary George Fernandes and personal rival Subramaniam Swamy.  King Birendra held consultations with Koirala and sanctioned his trip abroad for medical treatment over the objections of key palace advisers, some of whom were still advocating the death penalty for the man. (Asked by a reporter whether he would return to Nepal and almost certain reimprisonment, Koirala responded by propounding the famed Two Necks in a Noose Theory.)
From the break it so energetically sought to make from the overt Nehru-Gandhi overlordship of Nepal, the Janata government might have gone along with any verdict emerging from the national referendum in Nepal in 1980. By then, however, Indira Gandhi had returned as prime minister. How she could have reconciled her personal antipathy toward Koirala with a restored multiparty system that he would have dominated remained an academic question. Koirala himself made things easier for Gandhi by offering a prolix yet principled endorsement of the popular verdict, going against the prevailing mood in the opposition camp.
The next decade and a half were a period of often-convulsive conversion for both Nepal and Vajpayee. His new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) increased its legislative tally from two seats to head the federal government in New Delhi. Nepalis, emerging from shockwaves sent by the fall of the Berlin Wall, were living under a restored multiparty democracy but were growing disenchanted with the attendant political shenanigans. Maoist rebels were pouncing from the sidelines.
Vajpayee’s fortnight-long first premiership in 1996 was a dry run for the second two years later. How a Hindu nationalist-led government might engage with the world’s only Hindu monarchy was something keenly watched on both sides of the border and beyond. The early signs seemed promising. When the Vajpayee government invited King Birendra as the chief guest at the Republic Day in early 1999, many saw this as a solid affirmation of India’s recognition of Nepal’s sovereign existence.
By the end of the year, bilateral relations took their worst plunge ever. India’s RAW intelligence agents, through carefully calibrated leaks, projected Nepal as a haven for Pakistan’s spy agencies obsessed with anti-Indian subversion. A Christmas Eve hijacking of an Indian aircraft shortly after takeoff from Kathmandu was immediately cited as evidence of Pakistani destabilization. But, then, the flight went on a murky path with intriguing twists to weave a story that couldn’t be kept straight. When the ordeal ended in Afghanistan with Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh escorting the imprisoned militants the hijackers demanded in exchange for the passengers, everyone wanted the story buried.
Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, our prime minister then, isn’t around to recall the pressure he was under to incriminate Pakistan. But his foreign minister, Ram Sharan Mahat, can perhaps still remember how it was US President Bill Clinton who ended up letting him off the hook by rejecting the notion of official Pakistani complicity in the hijacking.
The succeeding year fared little better and ended with protests sparked by an Indian film star’s purported derogatory words for Nepalis. Few, if any, could confess to hearing those words or to knowing where or when they had been uttered. As Kathmandu burned, the usual suspects came up. Only this time, they were now-exiled elements of India’s underworld supported by Pakistan.
Of course, the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan and the Kargil War, among other things, had heightened regional tensions. Yet the Chinese were uncharacteristically subdued in their backing – if you could even call it that – of Pakistan in both instances. The Americans were hardening their stance against China politically and economically. Although officially US-India ties were on the upswing, privately, according to subsequently published memoirs by some key players, the Americans were having a hard time overcoming the BJP-led government’s emulation of Nehru-Gandhi-era sanctimony and moralism in an effort to preserve their strategic autonomy. President Clinton’s brief stopover in Pakistan, recently the venue of a military takeover, was more of a rebuff to India than an embrace of the Pakistani generals.
In Nepal, there was a flurry of high-level visitors from China, including Premier Zhu Rongji. That burst of diplomacy culminated in the Chinese government’s invitation to King Birendra to the inaugural Boao Forum as a special guest, followed by a state visit to the country.
Of course, sections of Indian academia and media voiced concern over this sudden surge in activity on the Nepal-China front. Representatives of some leading Western governments were said to be advising King Birendra to take a more assertive political role in view of the political parties’ ‘mismanagement’. One outgoing ambassador’s audience with the monarch was said to have turned testy on both sides when the king reminded him that his government’s undue pressure in 1990 was partly responsible for Nepal’s tumultuous politics.
Although buried in the post-9/11 narrative, American relations with China under the new George W. Bush administration were so fraught that in early April 2001 Beijing forced a US military spy aircraft to land in China and held it for three months before allowing its dismantled pieces to fly out three months later.
What was noteworthy was that, in the midst of this mayhem, the Vajpayee government was in the initial phases of striking a grand bargain with the Chinese on Tibet. Was the trilateralism we are talking about today making its first stirrings then? (Last week, the Chinese were fulsome in their praise of Vajpayee for having made “path-breaking contributions to the development of Sino-Indian relations”.) We were never to find out, the Narayanhity Carnage having intervened on the night of June 1, 2001.
Even those most convinced of India’s hand (or a couple of fingers at least!) in the palace massacre were at a loss to explain how it could have happened under Vajpayee. Reports emerging years later that the BJP-led government had opened contacts with Nepali Maoists served to underscore the cold unsentimentality underpinning our bilateral relations.
Vajpayee’s personal reaction to the massacre was no different from the official messages pouring in from world capitals. At a private gathering of party workers in Nagpur weeks later, Vajpayee was said to speak of having been presented with a fait accompli in Nepal. That cryptic clarification was extended to imply that Indian intelligence agencies, long-time foes of Nepal’s monarchy, were working on their own plans as part of competing Nepal policies being forged by Indian institutions. (Years later, after the BJP lost to the Congress, Rabindra Singh, a senior RAW agent defected to the United States via Nepal purportedly with a cache of classified files on Nepal.)
If accurate, this reasoning would not only explain the BJP’s opening to Nepali Maoists but the entire subsequent script unfolding from India.  Amid the studiousness of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government’s effort to shield its Nepal policy from any overt ideological tilt, we have come to accept it as axiomatic that India, like any other country, makes cold foreign-policy calculations in the pursuit of its national interests.
Yet during the Vajpayee years, either out of sheer Nepali naivete or belief in the genuineness of personal relationships among leaders of two countries, it was hard to grasp the tragic confluence of events of the times. It is still so.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Weight On Our Premier In Waiting

If Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ is delighting in his status as prime minister in waiting, he’s also demonstrating an impassioned longing for the job.
Ever since the unification of his Maoist stream with the Marxist-Leninists to create the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), Dahal has found himself in a fix. As the leader of a party that waged both a people’s war and peace to astonishing effect, Dahal is incapable of playing second fiddle. Yet his current status as co-chair of the ruling party alongside a man who also happens to be the incumbent prime minister constrains the onetime Maoist supremo.
Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s exertions over the past six months must have emboldened Dahal to seek to cement his status as the logical successor. In that sense, his moves are carefully crafted to defend the party but not necessarily the prime minister.
In barely veiled swipes at the government, Dahal has been warning against the emergence of a tax system that could eventually undermine federalism. He has been more candid in criticizing the government for failing to create a climate conducive to foreign investment.
The rejection of Deepak Raj Joshee’s nomination as chief justice has upheld the supremacy of parliament, Dahal said. He could not have been oblivious to the shenanigans preceding the legislative committee’s vote nor the extent of the difficulties such comments could add to Oli's.
Dahal’s assertion that talks were the only way to resolve political differences may have sounded like friendly advice to former acolyte Comrade Biplav and others against wasting valuable time and energy on futile pursuits. But couldn’t it also be construed as an admonition to the government?
Of late, Dahal appears to have been drawing support from meaningful external quarters. When outgoing US Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz paid a farewell call on the NCP co-chair, the mutual admiration they lavished almost made you forget that the Maoists were once on the US government’s terrorist list. (Or that former US president George W. Bush had advised former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, during their Oval Office meeting, to “finish them off” as part of the unfolding global war on terror.)
During their meeting in Kathmandu last month, visiting Vice Minister of International Department of the Communist Party of China Wang Yajun conveyed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s warm greetings to Dahal. And that was just before Wang thanked Dahal for the political stability maintained in Nepal following the alliance forged among the big communist parties.
And now the Indian media have been playing up Dahal’s scheduled visit to China and India in September, particularly underscoring its potential contribution to fostering trilateral cooperation. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the reporters and editors across the southern border were writing about our serving prime minister. Since there’s hardly any evidence that Oli has subcontracted that vital dimension of Nepali foreign policy to his party co-chair, it’s fair to wonder what our prime minister may be wondering.
The experience of two tenures at the helm must be enough to educate Dahal on what to expect a third time. But what is a politician without ambition? All the better if you can actually cast it as an onerous calling.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Back To School Again

As his government advances toward its six-month milestone, Prime Minister K.P. Oli must be busy wondering what has gone so wrong.
Backed by a two-thirds majority in parliament, Oli expected to lead New Nepal on its first real steps toward peace, progress and prudence. Three tiers of elections under the new popularly drafted constitution had set the country firmly on the path of republicanism, secularism and federalism.
By uniting the country’s two major communist parties, Oli had at least provided the theoretical basis to end the factionalism and instability emanating from that end of the ideological spectrum.
The early signs were impressive. Oli ended the transport syndicate that was fleecing the people, often in connivance with officialdom. His government began regulating foreign volunteer organizations to ensure what they were doing was in fact what Nepal needed.
The government stopped construction activities on cultivable land and began holding contractors accountable to their schedules. Governance may not have suddenly improved. There was the promise that it could become better.
On the vital external front, Oli succeeded in winning the confidence of Nepal’s two powerful neighbors, raising the prospect of ending a divergence of north-south expectations that had long constrained our politics. Braving opposition from countries farther afield, he forced the United Nations to close its political affairs office, deeming it an irrelevant hangover of the UN Mission to Nepal.
When some began describing him as Nepal’s most powerful leader since King Mahendra, Oli seemed to like the comparison. After all, he understood that the more politically apt B.P. Koirala analogy was practically futile, considering that a two-thirds majority eventually meant little for Nepal’s first elected premier.
And yet, our prime minister is being roundly castigated as an autocrat, if not already then certainly an aspiring one. Opposition parties are organizing protests in the defense of democracy with the decibels rising in the media echo chamber. The prime minister, struggling to regain the initiative, imparts an image of sheer helplessness.
When Oli even begins to reiterate his promise of achieving an eight percent economic growth rate and a per capita income of US$5,000 by the end of his five-year term, he provokes howls of derision. The train from China and boat rides to India entered the compendium of ‘Oli-isms’ – entertaining but empty exhortations.
It is tempting to argue that this opposition is contrived by the very domestic and external quarters Oli has alienated the most. That would only ignore the assistance the prime minister and his party are providing his opponents.
In the recent imbroglio involving Dr. Govinda KC and his hunger strike, the government’s eventual conciliation was weighed against its initial callousness. The parliamentary public hearing committee’s rejection of Deepak Raj Joshee’s nomination as chief justice may have been the inevitable outcome of broader systemic and political vagaries. Yet it is being portrayed as Oli’s egregious assault on the independence of the judiciary and democracy.
When Oli continues to speak in parables and proverbs, it can be digested as an enduring personality trait. When ministers try aping their boss – in candor and caginess alike – it creates the kind of unfortunateness the law minister found himself in vis-à-vis Nepali female students in Bangladesh.
Oli’s counterpart as leader of the unified Communist Party of Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, has invoked a vow of silence of sorts when it comes to the prime minister. When Dahal does speak, he does so in platitudes that can be hardly comforting to the prime minister.
Oli, moreover, is discovering the downside of personal preponderance. With little role or relevance on things that really matter, men like Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhal Nath Khanal and Bam Dev Gautam can’t be too enthused about defending the prime minister.
All said and done, a ruthless and relentless learning process wasn’t what Oli – or the rest of us – thought these first six months would be.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Doctor’s Dilemma – And Ours

For the all the bluster and bravado they exuded in public, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli and his allies must have been truly worried by Dr. Govinda K.C.’s latest hunger strike. This time, our serial self-starver was on his longest spell of self-abnegation that pushed him to the outer edges of his mortal existence.
Had our estimable doctor perished, there was no telling what might have ensued. Both sides were rattled by the ominous uncertainty.
At times, Dr. K.C. must have grappled with his own predicaments. He recognizes that civil society and public support for his cause is rooted in its nobleness. This time, there was a distinct political color as well. Leaders and parties that were wont to dismiss Dr. K.C. as a rabble-rouser during their time in power rallied behind him in strength.
For the first time since the elections, the Nepali Congress seemed assured of its relevance. The party may not have been able to put its house in order, but it certainly seems rejuvenated in the elected house lately. A bevy of smaller parties, too, took the opportunity to appraise their self-worth and look quite sanguine.
True, in the aftermath of the KC-government agreement, some parties have sought to clarify the extent of their solidarity with the doctor. But, then, they are also engrossed in political calculations.
Dr. K.C. knows that his heart and mind are in the right place. So he isn’t perturbed by the viciousness of some of the criticism he has provoked. One ruling party legislator even called him a murderer because of the lives lost on account of the hospitals closed as part of his protest.
What he must be pondering, though, is the pass things have come to. Here we have an elected government enjoying unprecedented support in the legislature. When the government doesn’t behave in accordance with its critics’ preferences, such broad support easily becomes a brush to tarnish it with.
The authoritarianism tag was hung on the Oli government as a preemptive strike by an opposition enfeebled in the electoral arena. Over the months, the government has made the Nepali Congress’ task a lot easier through its haughtiness and impetuosity.
Does such collective bypassing of the normal political process really bode well for us? The qualifications and character of a sitting chief justice matters. So does the foundation and future of medical education in the country. Whether people in a free society have the right to assemble freely in any public space needs to be deliberated upon. But do we really need an individual to go on hunger strike, the Supreme Court to intervene and opposition parties to get so worked up?
With internal and external contradictions papered over for more than a decade now coming to the fore, Dr. K.C. – and others sharing his noble intent – will have no dearth of causes to espouse. Political parties on the sidelines are going through internal realignments and will grasp at any opportunity to alleviate their core contestations while maintaining outward resilience.
Geopolitically, it is becoming clearer by the day that our two immediate neighbors are determined to keep those farther afield at bay. And the West, having invested here so heavily over the decades, is not about to give up without a fight.
Dr. K.C. sees many things ailing our body politic. Deep down, does he really believe he has the right remedies?

Sunday, July 22, 2018

B.P. Between Reds and Royals

Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba finally has discovered why his party’s presiding deity so consistently counseled against cooperating with communists.
Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala died an inveterate anti-communist and circumspect constitutional monarchist. As someone who was once a communist, B.P.’s disenchantment with our variant of ideologists – if not the universal ideology per se – may have arisen from what he saw up close and personal. How deep his antipathy for the dictatorship of the proletariat ran no longer matters. How much of the dislike was dictated by Cold War calculations and configurations is similarly irrelevant.
B.P.’s turnaround on the monarchy was no less vivid. From the leader of a party that joined hands with a monarch to usher in democracy and then went on to mount assassination attempts on two other monarchs – albeit failed ones – B.P. propounded the Theory of Two Necks in a Noose. Over time, that concept went on to convey how the Nepali Congress and the crown would swim or sink together.
At the time of B.P.’s death in 1982, the Cold War was in post-détente flux. Internally, the monarchy seemed firmly entrenched in the aftermath of a referendum that validated the partyless system as the preferred polity over the multiparty system.
B.P.’s role in that validation was as significant – if not more – than the 55-percent support the palace-led system garnered among the people. As inexplicable as the outcome was to him, B.P. contended, as a democrat he was bound to accept it. This posture ran counter to the predominant mood in the opposition – including the Nepali Congress – which saw the exercise as heavily rigged in favor of the victor.
B.P. probably only had to recall that the referendum, announced after weeks of often violent and unprecedented student protests, came against the background of the Janata Party government in India, which his allies populated. When the referendum was actually held a year later, the Indian National Congress was back in power.
Personal experience with the Nehru-Gandhi juggernaut over the previous two decades must have convinced B.P. that only clear evidence of massive irregularities in favor of partylessness would allow the opposition to mount a successful challenge to the popular verdict. If such massive rigging had indeed taken place, the panchas were smart enough not to leave fingerprints.
What was also unclear to B.P. was the extent of communist backing for the partyless system in the guise of the ‘active boycott’ launched by the best-organized faction (and forerunners of today’s dominant faction in power). At once, B.P.’s support for a reformed Panchayat also sealed his anti-communist credentials.
One poignant emblem of B.P.’s enduring anti-communism was his refusal to reconsider support for partylessness even when the palace and panchas immediately made it clear that their idea of reform contained no place for the Nepali Congress as an organized force.
Eight years after B.P.’s death, when anti-Panchayat protests went on to threaten the monarchy, his youngest brother, Girija Prasad, held firm as a supporter of a crown that had considered him no worthier than a candidate for cabinet minister. (G.P., we understand, was equally firm on nothing less than deputy prime minister until the first convulsions of the fall of the Berlin Wall arrived in Nepal.)
Under the restored multiparty system, G.P. instantly inherited B.P.’s title as Nepal’s principal Red-baiter. It would take two streams of communists – Marxist-Leninists and Maoists – to command G.P.’s attention. Even then, the palace’s shunt was instrumental to the requisite geo-strategic realignments. When the ultimate push came to shove, the palace recognized the perils of equating the Nepali Congress’ anti-communism with its pro-monarchism.
In contemporary terms, the lesson for the Nepali Congress has been more profound. Alliance with the communists resulted in the Nepali Congress ceding ground to them. Having spitefully ditched the monarchy, Nepal’s premier democratic party discovered the sheer difficulty of going it alone. Marginalization may have enlightened Deuba enough to currently cancel a trip to India. But selective education may not help him draw proper conclusions.
Although politically incorrect, it might be useful for us to ponder whether B.P., had he lived a decade or two longer, would still have been against communists and for the monarchy.