Saturday, May 19, 2018

Head Fakes And Fertile Hopes

You can’t help marveling at our Marxist-Leninist and Maoist comrades. The odds were heavily stacked against unity – ideologically, organizationally and, yes, personally.
The drawn-out process almost validated skeptics who considered that promise little more than an electoral ploy. K.P. Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ were so tight-lipped about the succession of hours-long one-on-one sessions that their efforts were apt to be dismissed as mere face-saving.
Disputes over power-sharing, organizational equality, process and form, real as they were among the rank and file, were all deemed convenient covers to explain that inevitable reality: Nepal’s communists just don’t have it in them to coexist.
Then, presto, the comrades coalesced fully and formally. It really didn’t matter that they couldn’t even christen their new entity right. Having discovered that the appellation Nepal Communist Party had already been taken, the Marxists-Leninists and the Maoists creatively underlined the name and created something new.
If the main opposition Nepali Congress seemed most shocked by this development, it had good reason. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was widely seen to have planted a kiss of death on Oli. Our prime minister, excepting the lampasarbad slur, kind of went along with the narrative of political evisceration. We knew Oli had quite a reputation for sharp humor. The head fake was a new one.
The Maoist ministers, too, turned kabuki masters for a while. They collectively chided the prime minister for having marginalized their party during Modi’s sojourn, a stance that led some on the sidelines to finally rule out the prospect of unity.
The Nepali Congress is still acting as if the unification of our two biggest communist parties poses a mortal danger infinitely greater than the one posed by King Mahendra’s dismissal of B.P. Koirala’s government in December 1960. Why, the communists were never worried by the Nepali Congress’ super majority when the comrades had a paltry four seats in the first parliament, Oli reminded the main opposition party the other day.
Confronted with Nepali Congress claims that the rejuvenated communists would debase its opponents, Oli retorted that the comrades wouldn’t have time for such pettiness. Stung by growing public perceptions of defeatism in their reaction, some Nepali Congress leaders have begun putting on a brave face.
It is the smaller parties that have come up with sharpest questions. Why would Oli and Dahal plant a tree (the Nepali Congress electoral symbol) to mark the occasion instead of, say, improvise a version of ‘Here Comes the Sun’?
Wasn’t the decision to announce the unification on the 25th anniversary of the deaths of Madan Bhandary and Jibaraj Ashrit tantamount to tarnishing the ‘people’s war’, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai asked in a tweet. Dahal doubled down by recalling Bhandary’s immense contributions to Nepali communism. After all, when the Maoists rose up against the state in 1996, they did so against the late Marxist-Leninist general secretary’s people’s multiparty democracy ideology as well. But Dahal seemed to want to remind the rest of us that he had forgotten that reality.
Narayan Man Bijukchhe proclaimed that unity wouldn’t be durable. But, then, we’ll never know how the brain of the Nepal Workers and Peasants Party leader works, will we? After all, he’s the same guy who flew in to New Delhi to co-sign the 12-Point Agreement in 2006 only to fly back home to criticize it as being anti-national.
It’s okay to be skeptical – even cynical – about what led to this development and how things might unfold in the weeks and months ahead. It would be instructive here to consider the big picture.
We have a secular state where Christians say they face the worst persecution ever, Muslims can’t really feel the difference and Hindus have become, if anything, more faithful.
We have seven provinces that have neither names nor permanent capitals and whose functionaries are already complaining about having to do a lot with virtually nothing. Sure, we are a republic, but one where most are tuned to what the ex-king says and does. Yet the sun continues to rise each morning.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The L-Shaped Lump In Our Throat

What a beleaguered Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba had discharged as pre-emptive disparagement finally seems to have caught up with Prime Minister K.P. Oli.
Anticipating the post-election backlash within the party, Deuba began portraying Oli’s India policy as ‘lampasarbad’. Not that the appellation was novel by any means. Any tough talker vis-à-vis our southern friends inevitably got the tag once in the premiership. But our incumbent prime minister was still so new that the poor guy hadn’t even gone to New Delhi on his customary first foreign trip. In fact, Oli had barely begun to delineate his government’s China policy as one aimed at enhancing Nepal’s bargaining position with India.
By the time Oli returned from the Indian capital, even Deuba’s bitterest critics in the Nepali Congress had begun hurling the L word against the prime minister. The Nepali Congress refrain was that the country’s relations with India were always good. If Oli improved anything through his visit, it may have been his personal relationship with the Indian establishment.
While the L word didn’t entirely cushion Deuba against criticism from his party, it did start putting Oli on the defensive. The prime minister’s pain was becoming apparent in some of his public pronouncements.
Why Modi had to pay a return visit so soon after hosting Oli wasn’t ever properly articulated by either side. Oli’s best defense was the imperative of any prime minister to play the good host. Even the Maoists began using the Modi visit as an explanation for the delay in finalizing their unification deal with Oli’s Unified Marxist-Leninists.
An Oli visit to China tentatively planned after his return from New Delhi was put off for additional preparations. Instead, Modi jetted off for a hastily convened informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Not coincidentally, the Nepali Congress began to remember the Indian blockade just as Oli wanted to forget it.
Still, Nepalis were open to evaluating the outcome of Modi’s visit. Officially billed as a state visit, Modi landed in Janakpur saying he arrived as a pilgrim. Of course, that deflected to a degree why he would bypass the capital as the port of entry. He spent his two days Nepal more than as just a pilgrim. Yet the trip lacked the kind of surprise that might have necessitated camouflaging it with an air of informality.
After all, the inauguration of a bus service between Janakpur and Ayodhya didn’t need such a high-profile event. Nor did laying the cornerstone of a hydroelectric project the two countries had agreed to build a decade ago.
Modi wanted to pray at additional religious sites? Fine and dandy. Two public felicitations of an Indian prime minister here on his third visit in the fourth year of a five-year term? Beats us. Since he virtually invited himself in, Nepalis went along with the good-host bit. (Kind of like when Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi suddenly knocked on the door a few months ago and got an honor guard at Tundikhel.) So when Modi began resorting to his trademark devices in Janakpur, Nepalis ho-hummed.
When the Oli government began clamping down on any Nepali remembrance of the blockade, the L word acquired instant validation of sorts. True, some saw the European Union behind the resurrection of the bitterness of the blockade in an apparent attempt to derail any India-China understanding on Nepal that would edge out third parties. Given the EU election observer mission’s recent shenanigans, it would be hard to put anything past our European friends these days.
Still, the blockade was real even if the Indians never gave it that name. In that vein, even those demanding a public apology from Modi recognized the futility of seeking one. Yet the Oli government wasn’t prepared to tolerate even such a tepid articulation of Nepali sentiments as one inscribed inside the premises of a minor political party.
What happened to Oli and who are we supposed to be mad at? China?

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Beijing Via New Delhi?

If the idea of Nepal publicly felicitating Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to gall many Nepalis, it’s not hard to fathom why. The wounds inflicted by New Delhi’s 2015-2016 economic blockade are still raw.
But, then, there’s the flip side. What kind of fella could even contemplate accepting such honors with a straight face? Maybe the kind that doesn’t think the blockade was a blockade?
In some ways, we’re an odd lot. When Indian prime ministers successively ignored us in their international travels, we were sore. When Prime Minister Modi arrives here on his third trip in four years, we seem no less upset. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping continues to dangle the prospect that he might deign to visit us. Instead of anger, it’s our anticipating that keeps building.
Things have gotten so bad that Sher Bahadur Deuba, leader of the opposition Nepali Congress – not your typical India-baiter – has been describing Oli’s southern strategy as lampasarbad [‘prostratification’] with great relish. Deuba’s critics in his faction-ridden party agree on one thing: failure to call the blockade a blockade cost them votes. You can tell how stung Oli is by that appellation by his exertions in rebutting it.
The Indians, meanwhile, are working over time to project Modi’s visit as a pilgrimage. It has a pleasant ring, more than enough to assuage the most unenthusiastic host. What that could also mean is that the Indians have decided that Nepal is the best place to test their soft-power strategy. The leader of a Hindu nationalist party up for re-election can see how doubly delightful the visit can be. But what if that kinder and gentler strategy also contains a hardening of India’s commitment to pursue what it wants.
In other words, if cultural/religious affinity also means that one side can force its way to tapping into it for purely domestic reasons at will, that should be cause for concern. And all the more so when Kamal Thapa, the president of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal – the prime advocate for the restoration of Hindu statehood in Nepal – is on record criticizing Oli’s alacrity to indulge Modi’s sudden devotion to faith-based diplomacy.
It doesn’t look like we can look up north for succor in this instance. ‘Tis the season of China-India geniality, at least in terms of style. Trilateral or trans-Himalayan cooperation, call it what you will. There seems to be a pronounced proclivity in New Delhi and Beijing to treat Kathmandu jointly. Trumpian capriciousness may have become riotous elsewhere, but it has cultivated some certainty here.
The two principal protagonists may never be able to figure out which beats which in Nepal, Indian geography or Chinese history? But for the Indians and Chinese to even begin debating that, both need a field clear of a third team.
In the best of times, they say familiarity breeds contempt. Modi may want to cozy up to us all he wants, but why does Oli seem giddier than his guest? Bizarre as it may sound, one is forced to ask: Is Modi’s pilgrimage a Chinese precondition for an Oli visit to China?

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Xi-Modi Summit And Nepal

As far as we know, the following exchange didn’t occur during the Wuhan summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Maila Baje wouldn’t be surprised if it had:

Xi: Up next is Nepal.

Modi: That’s a sore one for us. And the way they’ve been rubbing it in.

Xi: You can’t blame them, though. They’re almost on an endless campaign for independence from you.

Modi: What haven’t we done for them? We built their first airport, their first highway, their first modern hospital, all those scholarships, all those jobs for Nepalis. Sure, we might have demeaned and denigrated them here and there.

Xi: It’s more than ‘here and there’, from what I hear. Across the board, they feel India can’t stand the fact that they are independent.

Modi: They can’t have it both ways, though. The king, political parties, even the communists, come running to us whenever they’re in trouble. We mediate, they get their throne/chairs back and what’s the next thing everyone does? Indians this, Indians that.

Xi: Maybe the way you micromanage things is the problem. It kind of irks us, too. Take the Maoists, for example. They were your guys throughout the ‘people’s war’. But internationally we got blamed for trying to export revolution. And the irony? Unlike me, Chinese leaders then were trying run as fast as they could away from Mao Zedong. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson had to keep reminding the world that the Nepali Maoists were giving our man a bad name.

Modi: That was smart wasn’t it?  [Chuckles] Jokes apart, we didn’t know what the palace and the parties were up to once democracy was restored in 1990. We thought the Maoists could be a check on both. But the insurgency got a life of its own, based on the corruption, inefficiencies and callousness of the Nepali state. Now, don’t you start blaming us for excesses of democracy in Nepal.

Xi: The palace massacre was a turning point for us. Birendra kind of understood us both. Look at the way he kept shuffling prime ministers. But even he slipped in 1989-90. His brother was made of a different cloth. Gyanendra meant well, was more assertive, and could have gotten a lot of things done. But he just couldn’t grasp how complex regional dynamics had become since the time of his father and brother. I don’t know about you, but we were really troubled by the way he and his people tried to project the royal takeover as Chinese-backed.

Modi: And the way he ambushed our prime minister on TV in Jakarta over the arms embargo. The antics at the Dhaka SAARC summit. We aren’t fools. We recognized that China had arrived in South Asia long before 2005. Heck, we were eying the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. But there are nicer ways of doing things. In retrospect, Gyanendra tells us he would have done things differently. And that’s a big thing for a king to say. You’ve got to give him that.

Xi: No doubt, he was a man in a hurry.  But we’re a little worried. It looks like you still have plans for him, with all this talk about Hindu statehood. Or are you just trying to keep the political parties in check? [Winks] No hurries. Let’s walk to that bridge with out cups and continue. The cameras have been on for a while now.

Modi: Not sure what to make of this Oli guy, though. In private, he sounds very reasonable about his plans for Nepal and the country’s place in the world. But this unification talk between the UML and the Maoists is really worrying us. To be brutally honest, it has your fingerprints all over it.

Xi: Whoa…

Modi: No, just hear me out. Your ambassador in Kathmandu met a former UML prime minister and openly expressed concern about the delay in the unification.

Xi: No, the Nepali media got it wrong. She did meet Madhav Nepal as part of her regular interactions with the Nepali leadership. Some of my people tell me that you guys engineered that misrepresentation in the Nepali media. But look here, after the fall of the monarchy, we didn’t have a reliable partner. Everyone was either educated or exiled – often both – in India. We thought we might turn the tables on you and even tried cultivating the Maoists. But they seemed too wedded to your intelligence agencies for a modicum of ideological affinity with us. Prachanda outdid Gyanendra in flaunting non-existent Chinese support. We had to cut him loose. After careful thought, we thought a Maoist-UML alliance would be our best bet.

Modi: And you end up choosing the very guy we tried so hard to project the most India-friendly leader in the UML. Man, all those hospital bills for his kidney treatment in Delhi.

Xi: Now that you brought Oli up. We can’t be really sure about him either, can we?

Modi: Oli’s already accusing us of ‘air imperialism’ after the lengths to which I went to be a good host in Delhi. If I remember correctly, he told one of your newspapers that he was building ties with China to extract concessions from us.

Xi: And don’t forget the reporter who interviewed him was Indian.

Modi: Okay [checking his watch], we can’t keep running in circles. You do understand why we consider Nepal to be in our sphere of influence?

Xi: Yes we do. But you, too, have to remember that Nepal was the last tributary to our Qing Court. In China, that still means a lot.

Modi: Maybe we should continue with Nepal next time?

Xi: Do we have a choice?

Sunday, April 22, 2018

What’s Leaving Left Unity Behind?

From the way things are going, it sure does look like ethereal elements are trying to prevent the unification of our United Marxist-Leninist (UML) and Maoist factions into that single imposing communist party.
Unity looked like a done deal before last year’s landmark elections. Nepali voters were so impressed by the idea that they preemptively endorsed the effort.
There was some logic there. If Nepal was to proceed irreversibly along the lines of republicanism, secularism and federalism, why not let its organic advocates lead the way? The Maoists articulated the three-pronged agenda most effectively and almost singlehandedly achieved it. After they grew out of their obsession with emulating the Great Helmsman all the way to state capture, a turning point was inevitable.
The Marxist-Leninists, for their part, had given only qualified support to the 1990 Constitution. But they had not given up on people’s multiparty democracy. Moreover, that notion had a more benign ring to it than, say, people’s war. If the new order provided such fertile ground for both, why bother why the once-bitter rivals really decided to join hands.
Alas, if only logic dictated Nepali politics. Today, both sides insist that the Baisakh 9 deadline was never written in stone. Leaders of both parties certainly didn’t sound tentative when they were touting the date till the very end. More seriously, though, they are shifting the goalposts. While senior leaders are giving the impression that they are merely ironing out minor details, their surrogates point to something more pernicious afoot.
UML leader Keshav Badal put things quite vividly the other day. “Opponents of unity are importuning Goddess Dakshinkali, ready with their sacrificial black goat.” But all Badal could do after that was to assure us that unity was unavoidable. Critics of both parties such as Mohan Bikram Singh, too, see a web of national and international conspiracies.
Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba, facing the most serious challenge to his leadership, has begun warning of the emergence of a new totalitarianism. Far from a shriek of desperation, Deuba’s warning sounds like a full-fledged rallying cry. If the Nepali Congress is good at anything, it is at fighting totalitarianism (as long as it’s not within the organization).
In the wider neighborhood, the Indians believe they embraced Prime Minister K.P. Oli tightly enough to have adequately tamed him. The Chinese must be having much more than passing interest in what actually might have transpired between Oli and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their one-on-one session.
How successful was Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali in assuring Beijing of Kathmandu’s continuing commitment to its northern engagement? That would depend on how soon Oli ends up visiting China. If early reports trickling out of the Chinese capital are to be believed, Beijing has told us that henceforth it would take into consideration New Delhi’s sensitivities before making investment decisions in Nepal.
The impact of the Modi-Xi Jinping talks in Wuhan will no doubt play out here with its own ebullient rationality. If Oli happens to find himself playing host to Modi in Kathmandu before any northern sojourn, well, that’s for then.
For now, official Beijing has reverted to praising the virtues of trilateral cooperation, while the Indians still can’t stop thinking out aloud how they can beat China in Nepal. Maybe they’ve figured out one way.