Saturday, June 27, 2020

Not A Maverick For Nothing

If anything of substance has emerged so far from the much-anticipated standing committee meeting of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), it has to be vice-chair Bam Dev Gautam’s demand for ‘justice’.
Rising above the din of the seating row, Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s regular vanishing acts and the virtues or otherwise of the anti-COVID-19 card, Gautam has demanded that the erstwhile Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) faction of the ruling party admit it made a mistake in taking organizational action against him over the Mahakali Treaty a quarter of a century ago.
From Gautam’s telling, the genesis of the UML’s malignancy during the ratification of the Mahakali Treaty was his group’s demand for clarity on the river’s source. Branding the treaty ‘anti-national’, Gautam and other key UML leaders abstained from the ratification vote, eventually leading to a split in the party.
Now that Nepal has issued an official map depicting Limpiyadhura as the source of the Mahakali, Gautam wants a correction of the organizational and historical record.
The NCP is not too keen on being perceived as the successor to the UML, or to the Maoists, for that matter. Both factions have endured much upheaval and excoriation in feigning unity thus far. At the same time, you could argue that the ex-UML faction already expressed some element of contrition by welcoming Gautam back into the fold.
Moreover, the fact that Gautam has been elevated to vice-chair of the NCP and is being projected as potential prime minister would serve to bolster that contention. Still, other leaders who broke away from the UML to form the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist) are in limbo, when it comes to the Mahakali Treaty. C.P. Mainali continues to head a reorganized NCP (ML), while brother Radha Krishna Mainali went on to serve as a minister in the royal government. Sahana Pradhan, who headed that party, is no longer with us.
Much water has flown down the Mahakali in other respects. Prime Minister Oli and former UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal were the leading proponents of ratification. They are bitter rivals today. NCP co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal had barely launched his ‘people’s war’ against the monarchy and parliamentary democracy. That rubric is wide enough to include the treaty. He feels he is off the hook. Another key Oli rival today, Jhal Nath Khanal, supported the treaty. But, then, he could argue he was just a loyal follower of the Nepal-Oli duo.
Then there’s the fact that the treaty was signed by a coalition government led by the Nepali Congress’ Sher Bahadur Deuba. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party ministers in that government are today leaders of a royalist party that, at least theoretically, stands in opposition to the existing polity. The third partner, Nepal Sadbhavana Party, has splintered into regional outfits that are still in an interminable fusion-fission process to assume a national identity.
Formal organizational recognition of a mistake – as Gautam demands – would do justice to all the dissenters. But, really, is that ever going to happen? Gautam’s genius lies in his attempt to turn the personal to political and eventually national. Prime ministerial material, no?

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Can Enough Ever Really Be Enough?

For a nation used to springs of change, this summer of discontent is both inspiring and intimidating.
A new generation of idealists has taken to the streets, carrying the country’s discontent with the status quo. With our youth bulging abroad or coopted in the political process, an air of dependency had gripped nation. Despite some important messages, activists, campaigners and organizers lacked the agency to alert the government and were left mired in infighting. Having exhausted almost every visible political alternative, the country was unsure of the direction of change while remaining confident in its inevitability.
So, when lads and lasses began coming out in strength saying enough is enough, they rekindled hope. But one laced with fear. Lacking identifiable leadership and an actionable agenda, the danger of activism descending into anarchy persisted. So far, the social media-driven movement has largely retained its original creativity and discipline, despite organized efforts by the government and others to discredit it. Demanding accountability from the government on money spent in the fight against COVID-19, the protesters hope to stay focused on improving the system, if not replacing it. For cynics hardened by Nepal's accumulated political experience, though, faith prevails in the phantasm of fear.
The campaign could tweak its message inward, while demanding transparency and accountability from the leaders. Have our leaders failed us, or have we expected too much of them? The contract between the leaders and the led is predicated on an implicit yet important certainty. Politics costs money and a heavily politicized polity such as ours entails even heavier expenses.
Republicanism is an institutional replacement and secularism a state of mind. Federalism was not coming on the cheap. New tiers of leaders were never going to work for free, especially at a time when politics has become a profession and privilege a key perquisite of power. When the President engages in public acts ostentation while the people are languishing in pain, the outrage is understandable. Comparisons with the abolished monarchy, too, become irresistible. But maybe we should pause to remember that it is one of us - and who we chose - who sits at the helm of the nation, not someone anointed by descent.
That a fervent royalist here is defending the decorum of the personification of republicanism should not detract from that inherent distinction. Frugality is undeniably a virtue. Still, the office of the head of state holds a dignity that demands a level of deference customarily associated with his or her peers around the world. Today, there seem to be a dozen potentates in place of one king because of the factionalism inherent in our turbulent democracy. It would be nice if the leaders we elected and defeated could get along well. It would be better if they worked, ran parties and mobilized followers for little or no money. But don’t expect them to tell us they can’t.
Amid the prevailing passions, a plea to adjust our expectations sounds a lot like a shameless defense of the political shenanigans going on. We made a choice. More appropriately, a choice was made in our name a decade and a half ago. We may not have liked a few things here or there, but we didn’t resist enough to make a difference when it would have mattered. We never want to believe that our leaders always surreptitiously set out to raid and ruin the country. That they end up doing so after each political change perhaps says more about what happens at that high perch.
Around us, we see that internal chaos and chicanery in themselves have not always stood in the way of progress. Our geostrategic position may be a bit more precarious in these increasingly perilous times, but Nepal is not the only country battling foreign intrusion and machination.
Revisiting our expectations while rallying for accountability could be an opportunity for much-needed collective reawakening.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

A Done Deal Awaiting Redoing?

The unanimous adoption of a Constitutional amendment on Saturday changing Nepal’s external boundary on its national emblem should have put an end to an issue so intertwined with our national identity.
Yet the order of things gives ominous room for reflection. After the vote, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli asserted that talks with India on the long-festering border dispute pertaining to nearly 400sq km of territory on Nepal’s northwestern border tri-junction with India and China could begin in earnest.  On the eve of the parliamentary vote, moreover, the government appointed an expert panel to collect evidence of Nepal’s ownership of the land.
It would be easy to accuse the government of immaturity. But, then, this is symptomatic of the twisted logic that has defined developments in Nepal. We ushered in ‘democracy’ in 1951 by merely letting India turn Mohan Shamsher Rana from Shree Teen into a commoner. Four decades later, the late-night parleys at Narayanhity Palace had merely ended the partyless character of the Panchayat system. But we took that to mean a full-fledged restoration of the multiparty system abolished in 1960.
In 2005, the Maoists and the Seven Party Alliance never signed a single document in New Delhi, much less agree to turn Nepal into a secular and federal republic. But here we are today. Maybe there is some sense in the Oli government-led consensus.
We aren’t terribly bothered about immediate negotiations. After all, we still need to collect evidence backing the amendment. Nor is there reason to suspect urgency from New Delhi. For decades, the Indians have lived with Pakistani and Chinese maps depicting ownership of parts of greater Kashmir New Delhi has claimed as its own. Heck, depending on the mood in Beijing, Arunachal Pradesh – a full-fledged state of the Indian Union – plays hide and seek on the Chinese map. India – much less the world – is going to use a magnifying glass while consulting our national emblem.
What we collectively hope and pray is the team collects not mere evidence – we have no shortage of that. What we need is evidence that is admissible and ultimately winnable in the eyes of both the law and evolving geopolitics.
Our challenge has been compounded by India’s assertion – based on willful ignorance of the evolution of the dispute – that Nepal has somehow raked up this issue at the behest of China. The national political consensus and public unity behind the issue have indeed thwarted India’s initial attempt to delegitimize our grievances. That setback for India has bred irritation, resentment and fury manifesting itself in outright threats. We have the will to weather the pressures from that bilateral front.
Simultaneously, we cannot afford to ignore Chinese duplicity in the matter. Without some element of Chinese acquiescence in India’s claims to the disputed territory, Beijing could not have concluded a series of bilateral agreements with New Delhi from the 1950s. Have Chinese affirmations of steadfast support for Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity merely been a convenient tool for Beijing to provoke and pressure India?
It’s tempting to demonize those asking that question as agents of India. Yet consider the origins of the border dispute. Nepal’s continual expansion under Prithvi Narayan Shah’s successors alarmed the British East India Company. Calcutta was constrained from acting because of the 1792 Betravati Treaty, under which the Chinese had undertaken to protect Nepal against third powers in exchange for our tributary relationship with the Qing Dynasty.
When Nepal appealed for Chinese help on the eve of war with the British, Beijing instead blamed Nepal and advised us to sort things out with Calcutta. We wouldn’t even be reduced to citing the Sugauli Treaty borders today but for Chinese perfidy.
No matter how much legal evidence we present to the world, a resolution would eventually have to be geopolitical. When Pushpa Kamal Dahal, breaking his long silence, claims that republican Nepal is about to reclaim territory the monarchy lost, he carries an imploring tone rather than one of affirmation. Perhaps there is a reason why we amended the national emblem, and not the far more fundamental Article 4.2. – or inserted the new map into the Basic Law.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Flashback: The SPA’s Crowning Folly

As headlines go, they were pithy. “Nepal to vote to trim king’s power.” “Nepal lawmakers demand that king relinquish control of army.” “New elected body to decide king's role.”
Western news editors carried variations of the preceding three titles, carefully keeping the essence of the nut-graph: King Gyanendra is the principal obstacle to Nepal’s democracy and prosperity.
For a world attuned to color-coded revolutions in a minute-and-a-half segments, the televised images of Nepalese government forces killing and maiming street protesters proffered the solution. Chase or vote out the medieval monarch and Nepalis can reach for the moon.
The triumphant Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) leaders should have recognized the fallacy in that prescription. By zeroing in on the Constituent Assembly as a mechanism to oust the monarchy, the mainstream opposition may have appeased their egos bruised badly over four years of palace-driven marginalization. They shouldn’t be digging their own graves in such haste, at least not until the Maoists proved they were even remotely committed to multiparty democratic republicanism.
Although they have repeatedly vowed not to repeat the mistakes of their previous stint in power, SPA leaders have already done worse. Barely a year after promising how the restoration of multiparty democracy would turn Nepal into another Singapore, Nepali Congress and communists alike had to concede their lack of preparedness to govern. The tallness of their early promises played a major role in undercutting their credibility.
Let’s say everything works out according to plan this time. The Maoists and the SPA agree to conditions guaranteeing free and fair constituent assembly elections. Let’s say 90 percent of Nepalis vote in favor of abolishing the monarchy. (For the sake of the credibility of the exercise, the assumption here is that 10 percent of Nepalis are dim-witted and wrong-headed enough to want to keep the king. Hitler and Stalin, after all, still enjoy greater support.)
Under a republican constitution, the ex-Maoists fighters and ex-Royal Nepalese Army personnel are fused into a national army. Booting out the Ranas, Shahs, Thapas and Basnets won’t solve the problem. How are we going to reconcile the traditionally disadvantaged groups on the opposite armies raised on completely different standard operating procedures?
Even if they hit it off well personally, how can Bharat Bahadur Thapa Magar of the former Royal Nepal Army, trained in conventional combat, and Maoist fighter Ram Man Pun, with all his hit-and-run agility, be expected to get along professionally? How are their divergent attitudes, temperaments, motivations and training supposed to mesh into unity of purpose?
At the political level, the SPA and the Maoists may divvy up the presidency and premiership in the true tradition of the American spoils system. The Bahuns, Chettris and Newars that dominate each side will monopolize power and extend patronage. No matter how the military-mobilization modalities are worked out under the control of parliament, someone somewhere must have the ultimate authority to order the troops out of the barracks.
Despite all the calumnies heaped on them, the former RNA men (and women) – minus the Ranas, Shahs, Thapas and Basnets, of course – might still be driven by loyalty to the country. What about the former Maoist fighters driven by hatred for everything except their cause? Will they be able to dissociate themselves from the ideological inferno that got them this far?
This is just the monarchy-military dimension of the constituent assembly in the most optimistic scenario. We haven’t even addressed economic and social exclusion, lack of distributive justice, inequitable representation in state structures and regional disparities in development and all the other issues plaguing Nepal.
Vote out the monarchy in the constituent assembly and prosper? A nice slogan perhaps, but one that could boomerang with devastating effect quite fast. No wonder Prime Minister-designate Girija Prasad Koirala, rejecting an almost universal demand from his camp, went to Narayanhity Palace to be sworn in by King Gyanendra.

Originally posted on Sunday, April 30, 2006

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Somber Questions In The Shadows

The deferral of the parliamentary vote to amend the Constitution to reflect our new map has stiffened the shadows. Not that Nepalis haven’t been left to take their most consequential decisions in the dark.
The purported arrival of Indian troubleshooter Shyam Saran, hectic bargaining within the Madhes-centric parties and the Nepali Congress (think Millennium Challenge Corporation compact) and the prevalence of palpably cooler thoughts have injected anticipation and apprehension.
The injurious insults the Indian still complain about, their candor in conveying their broader magnanimity to Nepal, and their public brazenness in postulating ways of possible retaliation have plunged bilateral relations to new lows.
The debate on Kalapani, Lipulekh and the wider swath of territory up to Limpiyadhura has certainly enlightened Nepalis on multiple disciplines. What was simplified as King Mahendra exchange of barren and treacherous terrain for two trunks of gold (or was it support for the partyless Panchayat system?) has now unfolded itself into an intricate lesson in history, geography, hydraulics, international law and diplomacy.
If an all-powerful monarch, whose mere word constituted law, gave away those vast tracts of land to India, why are we even questioning why, much less expecting to get it back? Are we also going to nationalize the ‘birtas’ and land ‘bakas’ the monarch had handed to his favourites?
Our post-1990 leadership was not stupid to rake up the issue and then let it die. The British East India Company through the Sugauli Treaty in 1816 may have accepted our sovereign territorial rights east of the Kali River. But it turns out that they began the cartographic aggression long before Indian independence.
After Warren Hastings, the first governor-general, departed Calcutta in 1785, Britain had no further relations with Tibet for nearly a century. In 1884 the Indian government prepared to send a diplomatic mission to Lhasa to define the spheres of influence of the Tibetan and Indian governments. Colman Macaulay, a secretary in the government of Bengal, was responsible for the negotiations. While Macaulay obtained Chinese assent to conduct a mission to
Lhasa, he had not gained the Tibetan government’s approval. Instead, the Tibetans dispatched troops almost 21 km into Sikkim. The British decided to suspend the Macaulay mission since its presence was the Tibetans’ argument for their occupation. Tibet’s refusal to retreat precipitates new fighting. Eventually the Anglo-Chinese Convention of Calcutta was signed on 17 March 1890, under which Tibet renounced suzerainty over Sikkim and delimited their border.
Despite Tibet’s inward turn, Britain persisted in its plans for Central Asia, cultivating so-called ‘pundits’ who traveled in disguise into Tibet also along the western routes. With their compasses and 100-bead rosaries, they secretly counted their steps to map the terrain later. British Indian maps began encroaching eastward into Nepal, as Calcutta and London sought new routes to Tibet. The imperative became more urgent amid British suspicions that Russia sought to boost its influence in Tibet, possibly with the connivance of China, widely deemed a serious menace to India.
At the turn of the century, Governor-General George Curzon, who had long obsessed over Russia’s advance into Central Asia, now feared a Russian invasion of British India. In 1903, he dispatched the Younghusband military mission to Tibet, eventually imposing the Treaty of Lhasa the following year.
The Tibetans naturally loathed the treaty, while the British realized they seemed to have misread the military and diplomatic situation. The Russians did not have the designs on India and would go on to suffer defeat at the hands of the Japanese, which further shifted the balance of power.
The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 produced a semblance of stability following the ‘Great Game’ , while the Qing dynasty headed toward collapse. Five years later, the Republic of China proclaimed Tibet a part of China but did not try to reoccupy it. In 1914 a treaty was negotiated in India by representatives of China, Tibet and Britain. Again, Chinese suzerainty over Tibet was recognized and a boundary negotiated between British India and Tibet. As the Chinese never signed the treaty, it never came into force.
As the Chinese persisted with their objections, especially their refusal to recognize any treaty between Tibet and Britain, other players became interested in the region. A German expedition arrived in Tibet in 1939, led by Ernst Schäfer, a protégé of the future Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler.
At about the same time, a Japanese mission arrived in Tibet for ‘research purposes’. Three years later, the United States government sent Captain Ilya Tolstoy, a grandson of the Russian novelist, “...to move across Tibet and make its way to Chungking, China, observing attitudes of the people of Tibet; to seek allies and discover enemies; locate strategic targets and survey the territory as a possible field for future activity.”
As the British departed the subcontinent in 1947, the Chinese communists were closing in on a full takeover of the mainland and formal annexation of Tibet. Independent India’s views on the territory currently in dispute were colored by the imperatives of cooperation and later conflict with the Chinese.
After the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, Nepal began consolidating its partyless Panchayat system and went on to forge a road link with Tibet in 1968. A confident and assertive Nepal forced the Indians to vacate their military checkposts in the Nepali Himalayas in 1969, but New Delhi went on to fortify its military position in Kalapani.
So, was the trade-off (temporary or final) related to the Cold War-driven regional rivalry that already claimed our democracy and was creeping upon our country? Maybe Kalapani was why the Kodari Highway didn’t evoke any of the much-feared punitive measures from India, which rarely went beyond verbal outbursts. If communism couldn’t come to Nepal in a taxicab, maybe it was because our extreme western flank was too fortified.
If so, was that the kind of persuasion the Indians engaged in with our multiparty and republican leaders? After having made much noise initially, did they acquiesce in India’s stand through the ratification of the Mahakali Treaty and, subsequently, on the sidelines of the 12-Point Agreement?
Furthermore, is New Delhi’s surprising hard line on an issue it has hitherto regarded as bilateral dispute stem from its displeasure at this ‘reneging’ on the part of the broad-based Nepali leadership? All good questions. But a better one is whether Nepalis will ever get answers.