Monday, September 21, 2015

Can We Prove The Astrologers Wrong?

Our worst fears didn’t come to pass. At least, we didn’t have to promulgate the Constitution to just to find out what it contained.
In fairness, the process, albeit delayed, was remarkably robust. Ultimately, the draft experts submitted to the elected assembly was amended after fairly forceful, if at times flashy, public input.  That text was then voted upon article by article. And when the final version of the document was put before the assembly, it commanded more than two-thirds support.
If not allowing the perfect stand in the way of the practicable is the operative standard, let’s us all breathe in relief: better late than never. But, then, there’s that pesky little thing called politics. With an entire region of the country, comprising half the population, having rejected the basic law, promises of prompt amendments appear unlikely to mollify that constituency.
What difference might a couple of days’ delay in promulgating the charter have made in terms of its legitimacy? Then, again, what guarantee was there that last-minute talks with the disparate and divided Terai-Madhes-based groups would have borne fruit, right? And let’s not forget that, from the extreme fringes of the ideological spectrum, the document ways always going to have been pronounced dead on arrival.
Much has been made of India’s apparent displeasure with the process as well as the product. Nepali leaders rebuffed New Delhi’s last-minute intervention and kept to their schedule. However, they, too, probably aren’t in a celebratory mood for having done that. When the ideologically distinct Indian media uniformly begin to lament how Nepali leaders spurned New Delhi, you can guess that the story is still being scripted.
The Indian government didn’t sound too happy in its official response to the promulgation. Because of that perceived frostiness, no one knows what New Delhi’s next move might be. The Terai might suddenly go quiet, trying to make the best of the situation now and regroup for the next round. On the other hand, things might flare up to an extent almost justifying India’s expressed anxieties. The Chinese, of course, could afford to be happier about the outcome because it’s not their porch that’s smoldering. The responses of the other different external stakeholders have been consistent with their stated positions.
As has been long stressed in this space, there was no alternative to promulgating the constitution, Great Earthquake or not. There’s no doubt the process begun in 2006 was flawed, more so because of the subsequent slapdash compromises than because of the original spirit of the “People’s Movement II”. Much time and money was spent on keeping alive the idea of “New Nepal”. No matter how nebulous, it assumed a life of its own and needed a body.
Critics like yours truly will continue to point out that out, but not wearing some sinister see-I-told-you-so smirk. The drivers of the promised change are in full control. They can no longer blame the palace for subverting a people’s quest for full sovereignty. The first rule of thumb is that an empowered people will have greater expectations from their leaders.
Most astrologers said the time the constitution was promulgated was not propitious. A secular state may need not pay heed to such antiquated analysis. Yet the essential question remains: Can we prove the astrologers wrong?

Monday, September 07, 2015

Upsetting, Yet Understandable

In all honesty, I can’t say it doesn’t hurt. But it wasn’t entirely unexpected.
I used to tell everyone that a day would come when people would start demolishing our statues and portraits. “Come on, Girija babu, give the people more credit. They’ll never forget those who’ve been on their side all along.”
The mob that demolished my statue at Birgunj may or may not be representative of the popular mood. But it certainly had a different notion of history and accountability.
Five years after I left the mortal world, they still blame me for the mess country finds itself in. Out of loyalty, the Nepali Congress described the demolition as an “undemocratic act” that had really saddened the party and supporters of democracy. I don’t know about that. But I do wonder how the people would have felt if they saw the big picture.
In retrospect, the term “grand design” I popularized was kind of misleading. It contained too much of a sinister streak, almost an implication that everything that had gone wrong in Nepal was part of an elaborate external plan.
Things are far simpler.
I don’t believe Nepali politicians are congenitally predisposed to destruction. Hard as it might be to believe, we do think about the well-being of the people and nation. Events, ideas and perspectives drive us in different directions because they emanate from disparate levels. In an effort to outdo one another, we unleash forces that ultimate constrain our ability to act.
Personally, I never harbored hopes of becoming the first president of Nepal. The reason was simple: I never believed we could – or should – do away with the monarchy. That should have been clear enough from the “ceremonial monarchy” and “baby king” that I had been pushing. But, no, the long view was discredited as a camouflage for appeasement.
Institutionally, the Nepali Congress and the monarchy remained in antithetical existence. Deep down, each recognized how it was inextricably linked to the other. At the same time, each was most susceptible to disinformation spewed by other quarters vis-à-vis the motives of the other.
After the April 2006 Uprising, it’s no secret that we all discussed whether, in the name of sidelining the monarchy, we had unleashed forces that would ultimately consume us. Sure, Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh broke tradition and arrived at the airport in New Delhi to welcome me with the warm epithet of South Asia’s elder statesman. You think I was fooled? All I remembered then were the humiliating hours Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made me wait outside his office when I wanted to convey my opposition to his advice that we should support the king’s first takeover in the interest of national salvation.
Within the party and among our allies, there was a feeling that I was unable to grasp the generational transformation Nepal had undergone. Okay, even if we conceded that the monarchy was a political anachronism, what would fill the wider institutional vacuum? In those heady moments, who had time for cooler minds. (And what would a lanky havaldar who just couldn’t stop living know?)
Eventually, the 12 Point Agreement had to be preserved through a bevy of side deals, compromises and unspoken undertakings. There was no appreciation of the post-1990 reality that the passage of time would erode our popularity and restore faith in those we supposedly had vanquished.
I know there are many who envy my good fortune that I left the world when the going was still good. Their desire to lump every ill on me was partially realized at Birgunj. I’ll gladly take the hit – and whatever comes next – on behalf of those who thought we were smarter than your average Nepali.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

You Don’t Want To Mess With This Guy

“How could a liar like he become a doctor?” Sher Bahadur Deuba bellowed the other day. Ouch.
The question surely cut deeper into Dr. Baburam Bhattarai because Deuba is not generally known for such biting words. But, then, it only goes on to show that the Nepali Congress leader couldn’t put up with the Maoist vice-chairman’s antics anymore.
As chairman of the Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee Dr. Bhattarai seems to be doing everything but promoting those attributes, at least within the context of the federalism fracas. Don’t take Deuba’s word for that. Like any stick-in-the-mud rebel who can’t believe his rebellion is actually over, Dr. Bhattarai has had a hard time accepting responsibility for what he and his folks have done. Nine years after the Maoists’ incessant gloating over how they “won” their “people’s war”, the extent of their loss of the peace is becoming clearer. Still, they consider themselves above any culpability for the mess Nepal currently is in.
During his three terms as prime minister, Deuba recognized full well the kind of chicanery, obfuscation and deceit the chief ideologue of a discredited ideology had to engage in to rope in gullible Nepalis. (For a while, our comrades succeeded in persuading the world that the Chinese were behind the insurgency bearing the name of their Great Helmsman, all the while ensconced deep inside Indian territory.)
From the dribs and drabs emanating in the media, this much is clear: Deuba holds Dr. Bhattarai responsible for spreading the canard that he, Deuba, was somehow against the Tharus. In Deuba’s contention, opposition to splitting Kailali and Kanchanpur districts was not tantamount to opposition to greater autonomy for a community that spans the entire east-west southern belt.
Allegations of the complicity of the Maoists themselves in fanning the violence there certainly could not have appeased Deuba. If anything, they must have brought old wounds to the fore, especially as the patina of erudition and deliberation continued to shield Dr. Bhattarai. After all, anytime anyone recalled Deuba’s association – even in the loosest sense of the word – with the London School of Economics in the late 1980s, sneers and snickers immediately followed. Deuba was sent abroad by his mentor, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, so the Panchayat rulers couldn’t ensnare another promising Nepali Congress youth leader with the offer of a zonal commissionership, we were told.
Such perceptions of ordinariness went on to define Deuba the prime minister. A meeting with the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Britain during the early days of the global war on terror might not rank as an accomplishment to the left-dominated political establishment. However, many ordinary Nepalis do tend to recall those meetings as affirmations of Nepali “normalness” in the comity of nations. Especially considering that Dr. Bhattarai had to sneak past his own deputy and foreign minister for a one-on-one with then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Summit in Teheran.
To make a long story short: Deuba has an understandable ire against eggheads who deserve to have eggs splattered all over their face. Next time, Dr. Bhattarai riles him, he might want to ask something like: “What kind of architect destroys a nation?”

Monday, August 24, 2015

States Of Mind

Against the multi-pronged attacks the notion of a ‘new’ Nepal has exposed itself to, the ‘old’ nation continues to acquire its own luster.
Sure, the past carried its share of iniquities. Without real and perceived exclusion, after all, no amount of internal machinations or external meddling would have fueled the Maoist insurgency.
The end of the Hindu monarchy – the supposed starting point of our trudge to newness – instead of injecting clarity to the pursuit of a harmonious future, rendered the idea of inclusiveness even more amorphous.
In that nebulousness thrived a massive enterprise of social engineering. Each one of us proffered our two cents along the way, but what the country really needed was a single viable road map.
When we got bogged down in that search, weirdness and wackiness proliferated in the public sphere. From Brahmins and Chhettris demonstrating for fair representation to Muslims demanding the restoration of Hindu statehood, events have acquired an unparalleled ability to keep confounding us.
The pursuit of inclusiveness has long lost connection with a determination of the number of provinces Nepal might need. Appeasing one group has invariably ended up alienating several others. Things are not likely to change in that regard. A sense of belonging is a state of mind. Millions might feel comfortable within a given framework. The perils of ignoring the thousands who might not are all to clear.
We know we are Nepalis because we are not Indian, Chinese, Pakistani or Sri Lankan. But there must be something more to our identity. If Nepaliness were indeed an artificial formulation imposed by the custodians of a predatory state intent on preserving their monopoly on power, then, yes, erasing every remnant of that dark past might make sense.
But what purpose would smashing statues of Prithvi Narayan Shah serve when at the same time we set ablaze our own stores every time a Bollywood star has something nasty to say about Nepalis?
Wouldn’t fostering a spirit of belongingness during such trying times be a more worthy demonstration of our willingness and ability to build inclusiveness?
Of course, such ramblings have lost utility, as we have long crossed that bridge. If anything, we need the new constitution to be promulgated soon to mark the official failure of the experiments spawned by the 12-Point Agreement.
Perhaps then, the five development regions would begin sounding like a basis for a viable solution, instead of something to be shunned outright.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Broader Import Of A Cross-Border Tale

Philosophically, Anil Jha hit the hammer on the nail. Okay, sort of.
India would be solely responsible if the putative Constitution of Nepal did not guarantee rights to the country’s Madhesi population, the chairman of Nepal Sadbhavana Party told a recent programme organized by the Sitamadi Media for Border Harmony across the southern border in Bihar.
Speaking on the topic “New Constitution for Nepal and State of Relations between India and Nepal”, the former minister accused India of being nonchalant towards the plight of our Madhesi population.
Now, that would be news to most non-denizens of the region. But, then, who are we to know, right? “We are aware that India has great stakes in Nepal,” published reports quoted Jha as telling the attendees. “India’s say holds greater importance in Nepal. What [India] wants happens in Nepal.”
Nothing earth-shattering in those assertions. The refrain has had a menacing echo since 1950, if not before. However, Jha’s critics imply that he brazenly invited India’s intervention at a time of such prodigious political fluidity here.
But, pray, haven’t we already crossed that bridge? The 12-Point Agreement India forged between the mainstream parties and the Maoists in New Delhi in November 2005 and its copious offspring have precipitated an eight-year-long experiment that only its architects and signatories see as having continuing relevance. Thus, the show must go on.
Collectively, every Nepali should hold India responsible for our mess. According to the Pottery Barn rule, which Colin Powell famously invoked before George W. Bush on the consequences of his planned military action in Iraq: “You break it, you own it.” If everything is stuck on federalism, secularism and republicanism, then let the architect take care. 
Which begs the deeper question. Was Jha, by narrowing India’s culpability to a region, providing India cover? After all, we don’t really know where New Delhi really stands on the post-quake agreement that paved the way for the apparent breakthrough our leaders have been touting every day.
Add to the above the fact that the full geopolitical import of the Lipu-Lekh controversy has yet to emerge. Although Nepalis initially seemed annoyed by China’s sudden propensity to emulate India and play territorial mischief in Nepal, anti-Beijing sentiments have not spiraled to levels many in New Delhi must have expected.
Instead, there seems to be some realization that China, by that agreement signed during Indian Prime Minister Narinder Modi’s visit, might have succeeded in inserting itself as a legitimate party in Nepal’s territorial disputes. Given Beijing’s growing assertiveness in Afghanistan following the drawdown of the American military – and Beijing’s unexpected lack of inhibition in publicly asserting its interests in that landlocked state – Nepalis could be in for a new kind of tripartite political compromise.
For that to happen, though, we need the current experiment to run its course. Meanwhile, it would be imprudent to dismiss the comments Jha made in Sitamadi at a forum avowedly linked to border harmony.