Monday, March 30, 2020

Never Let A Crisis Go To Waste

Not one to squander an opportunity, Comrade Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ sent a letter congratulating Chinese President Xi Jinping for the swiftness with which his country controlled the deadly coronavirus outbreak. Locally, however, the missive seems to have boomeranged big time on the co-chair of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
Social media posts and comments have ranged from the merciless mockery of Dahal’s English prose to a relentless questioning of his standing to write such a letter in the first place. Admittedly, Dahal could have used the definite article properly in more places. A Grammarly or ProWritingAid add-in to his document toolbar might have suggested more appropriate synonyms.
As to protocol, Dahal did address Xi as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) before president, didn’t he? Moreover, as executive co-chair of the NCP and (our one-time Maoist supremo to boot), Dahal must have felt competent enough to string along a few sentences.
Amid the languidness of the lockdown, Dahal probably couldn’t run the final document by the party’s official copy editor and chose instead to defer to the earnestness of his purpose. Even then, he should have known he wasn’t going to get a pass. Dahal may have his reasons for retaining his war-era nom de guerre as part of his formal name, but it no longer evokes the ferocity and sternness it once did.
On the face of it, you could say Dahal took the initiative to reaffirm party-to-party relations by writing to the head of the CCP who also happens to be the head of state. At the same time, he sought to mobilize Chinese assistance to Nepal during these trying times. For someone accused of undermining a government led by his own party, Dahal could also have been seen taking some pressure off Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli and Foreign Minister Pradip Gyawali so they could focus their energies better on other pressing areas.
Granted, it’s difficult not to ascribe more self-interested motives to any politician, not to speak of one with a surfeit of chameleon-like qualities. Dahal, after all, had to put off a visit to China recently for reasons that are still largely unexplained. Subsequent weeks saw him blowing hot and cold on the controversial American Millennium Challenge Corporation grant, with his position ultimately veering toward legislative endorsement of the agreement “in the nation’s interest”. Such gyrations couldn’t have gone down well up north.
Still, if the global pandemic could step in to give a respite to Prime Minister Oli’s government, put off a widely expected split in the ruling party and cushion the political system from all-round attacks, surely it could help Dahal repair his relations with Beijing. Yet here we are laughing him off.
Does that matter? The letter wasn’t primarily intended for us. And the Chinese are the only ones so far that have emerged more confident out of this experience. If Xi can be magnanimous enough to win over US President Donald J. Trump over one phone conversation, you surely can’t say Dahal’s written words – regardless of their clumsiness – don’t stand a chance, can you now?

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Why The System Seems Stronger Than It Is

It’s simultaneously amusing and appalling to witness the political establishment and its opponents wallow in the almost same aimless self-assurance.
At least some elements in the power structure are candid enough to acknowledge their malaise and drift. Not that discounting their inability to unwillingness to do anything about it does us much good, though.
The biliousness in the camp of campaigners and activists that have proliferated to proffer alternatives to the system is aggravating. Generally operating under the banner against corruption, these organizations, associations and individuals represent a broad swathe of expertise and opinion.
Former generals and administrators have joined academics and professionals in calling for a radical overhaul of institutions and ideas to prepare Nepal for its real challenges and opportunities. The fact that this motley community includes many people who were at the forefront of the April 2006 Uprising perhaps enhances its general credibility. Largely shunned by mainstream news outlets, their declarations, entreaties and remedies dominate the new media in the full robustness, instantaneity and – yes insolence – that technology provides.
A popular assertion emerging from that quarter is that the existing system perforce lives on institutionalized corruption. Might a directly elected president or prime minister work better? With federalism having done little else beyond adding to the public tax burden, do we need tweaks or a complete reversal?
If republicanism has only raised political partisanship to the highest level of the state in addition to retaining the pomp and ostentation of the royalist past, shouldn’t we be rethinking things? Secularism having become so socio-culturally shattering, isn’t an honest reconsideration of the religious identity of the state be in order?
The state, in contrast, sees change in terms of amending the constitution to allow a politician defeated in elections to the lower house of parliament catapulted to the upper chamber and made eligible for the premiership just to maintain the balance of power in the ruling party. No wonder the incumbent premier, otherwise generous with patronage, can’t name a caretaker even while undergoing high-risk organ transplant.
Ordinarily, you would think our campaigners and activists shared enough commitment and purpose to unite under a broader alliance for change to gain credibility and effectiveness and eventually results. Instead, in recent months, many prominent ones have seen it fit to squander much time and energy undercutting one another’s motives and intentions.
Rather than weigh the feasibility and integrity of much-needed alternative solutions, the general public is left wondering whether and how much foreign money is at play here. Are ex-officials merely trying to cover up their own past complicity in our growing malady? Are ambitious individuals only to trying to circumvent the political process to gain power and privilege? Have people shunned by political parties found a platform to hit back at former allies?
Where discussions have tried to focus on substance, we have been sidetracked by doubts over whether the change being proposed is really forward looking or just an attempt to revive the past. Maybe that’s why the political establishment is stronger than it seems.

Friday, March 06, 2020

What Will It Be? Let’s Wait And See

Why did Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli choose to undergo such a risky kidney transplant in Nepal considering that he flew abroad for the most innocuous follow-up medical consultations? Why didn’t he designate a caretaker while absenting himself for days? It’s hard to figure out which question is harder.
Maybe our collective circumstances have desensitized us to painful probing. After all, those most strongly ridiculing the idea that our former monarch met the Indian premier and US president in New Delhi either individually or jointly seem to be the ones strongest in their conviction that something is on the so-called regressive right.
Moreover, the otherwise amiable Chinese ambassador in Kathmandu is accused of exceeding diplomatic propriety in her dealings with the Nepali media, but it’s our bloke in Beijing who is recalled for reasons unknown. The new Indian ambassador, minutes into his official tenure, begins hectic political parleys.
Our inability to form something even remotely resembling common opinion on anything these days leaves us individually flustered. We have long rested in the comforting knowledge of the futility of worrying about our political fate. The upside of having external drivers of change lies in knowing that it’s their job to validate, legitimize and sustain the transformation.
Do we still have that luxury? Despite the accepted wisdom of the existence of cross-party consensus and continuity in Indian foreign and security policy, the incumbent government in New Delhi is not an all-embracing stakeholder of the transformation of April 2006. For one thing, it saw the discarding of Hindu statehood along with the monarchy as the proverbial throwing of the baby with the bathwater. And that vision, moreover, tends to define pretty much everything.
Today’s Chinese leadership, too, is a far cry from the one that existed 14 years ago. Then, a president schooled in the geopolitics of our fringe during his earlier tenure as party chief of Tibet, sought to organize a flawless Beijing Olympics as evidence of his country’s integration into the global order. Today’s president is neo-Maoist whose visions of grandeur approximate those of the Great Helmsman. And he has far greater resources at his disposal than did the earthy moon-faced titan from Hunan in his shared quest to redefine the global order.
Then there’s our sole superpower. A neo-conservative US administration in 2006 initially couldn’t countenance the anointment of a Maoist takeover in Nepal but was sufficiently allured by the prospect of a civil nuclear deal with India to speak of a ‘messy abdication’ at Narayanhity. The current White House occupant loves to shock and awe far more – but in his own way.
Wars are still being wage and bombs are still falling, but paleo-conservatives wedded to American national interest rule the roost. As the international dimensions of ‘America First’ are still taking shape, there are possibilities galore that we can ignore at our own peril.
Among the other players, the Europeans have pretty much exhausted their narrowly defined options. The Russians still want to keep everyone guessing about their intentions. Amid all this, it is natural for our political players to wait and see. As the highly evolved political animals they are, their antics are but an expression of their inability to stand still. Their real trick is to stop us from finding out what they are waiting for and seeing.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Splitting The Difference Within The Split

Like much of what has been going on in the country, the severity of the latest eruptions inside the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) tends to depend on who you are asking. Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, the putative senior co-chair of the ruling party, and his partisans see a vast conspiracy brewing against the government. Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, the NCP’s executive co-chair and titular head of the rival faction, considers these developments a customary character of a democratic party.
The proximate causes for the discontent that has gripped the NCP since its creation two years ago through the amalgamation of the mainstream Maoist and Marxist-Leninist factions keep changing. The underlying reason is the sheer fraudulence of that unity that is obvious to the point of obliviousness.
While maintaining the fa├žade has served the protagonists, the putrefaction continues to ooze out of sundry orifices. Bam Dev Gautam, recently promoted to party vice-chair, wants a seat in the upper house of parliament, despite having lost the last election to the lower chamber. The recent elevation of NCP spokesperson Narayan Kaji Shrestha to the upper chamber despite having also lost the election to the lower house may boost Gautam’s claim. But, then, the latest brouhaha cannot be comprehended without appreciating the shifts in the goalposts.
The last time the issue came up, Gautam had memorably refused to enter the upper house without a guarantee that he would also become prime minister. This time around, Oli torpedoed Gautam’s prime ministerial ambitions by thwarting the NCP’s scheme to devise the necessary constitutional amendment. But the premier seems to have suffered a setback in his effort to block Gautam’s path to the upper house.
Dahal et al., citing the NCP’s secretariat’s overwhelming decision in favor of Gautam, have made the issue one of insubordination if Oli refuses to recommend Gautam’s name to President Bidya Bhandari for formal nomination. Oli continues to demur, insisting that he had forwarded Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada’s name to the president well before the NCP secretariat’s decision.
However, Deputy Prime Minister Ishwar Pokharel – a steadfast Oli loyalist – has confirmed that the government would follow the party decision, but conveniently left out a timetable. And not before Surya Thapa, Oli’s press adviser and the man Gautam blames for engineering his electoral defeat, wondered aloud why the NCP has become so capricious since Dahal became executive chair.
Of the Dahal-Madhav Kumar Nepal-Jhal Nath Khanal-Shrestha-Gautam quintet arrayed against him, Oli sees Nepal as the most malleable link. But Nepal is proving to be a harder nut to crack this time. Dahal has raised the stakes by issuing his most direct statement against the Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement with the United States which Oli is pressing parliament to endorse in its original form.
Pushed so tightly against the wall this time, Oli has not lost his inventiveness. He has put such a price on loyalty that it has become the sole arbiter of who is and isn’t corrupt and malfeasant. Moreover, if Oli sees this period as the most propitious for his much-needed kidney transplant, his instincts can’t be faulted.
Will a chastened Oli ultimately succumb to his rivals? Or will he dissolve parliament and call fresh elections, giving himself as well as Khatiwada a six-month reprieve in a devious tweak to the NCP’s ‘win-win’ compromise? What about President Bidya Bhandari, who is said to support Oli? Whatever she decides, she won’t find the aftermath entirely ceremonial.
President Bhandari may not go to the extent of imposing a state of national emergency – although, in all honesty, the body politic increasingly warrants one. The head of state could seek the advice of the Supreme Court on whether someone defeated in direct elections to the lower chamber can be constitutionally appointed to the upper house during the same legislative term. Shrestha, after all, was elected indirectly. Determining whether Gautam’s elevation through presidential nomination represented the apogee of arbitrariness or routine administration of state might even help plug a major breach in our constitutional edifice. How many new ones it may create is a different matter.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Sleaze, Sophistry And Systemic Succor

The man may have infuriated much of the country through his spoken and body languages, but you couldn’t deny that he always went all the way in defending the government. Maybe that’s why Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli seemed more loyal to Communication Minister Gokul Banskota than the other way around.
It must have been with a heavy heart that Oli showed Banskota the door after the minister was heard negotiating millions of dollars in kickbacks in an old audio recording freshly leaked by the would-be briber. At a deeper level, the sympathy for Banskota – no doubt a smidgen at best – is perhaps understandable. Could he have had the audacity to do what he did without confidence in his mentor's support?
Without that audio recording of a conversation between Banskota and Bijay Mishra, the local agent for a Swiss company vying for a government contract regarding the security printing of passports and other sensitive material, we would still be talking about the acquittal of former speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara of allegations of attempted rape.
Even before the court delivered his verdict, Mahara was the beneficiary of growing public perceptions that he was being punished for refusing to put the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact to a parliamentary vote.
The criminal justice system’s refusal to entertain the alleged victim’s claim that she had made the allegations against Mahara only under duress, too, helped the cause of the accused. As Mahara charts his political rehabilitation, we cannot forget how he was caught in a leaked recording of a telephone conversation with a Chinese individual on the money needed to ‘manage’ legislators in changing the government.
There is little – if any – evidence of a connection between the fresh cases of Banskota and Mahara. Still, it is hard to escape is the similarities between the men in terms of their respective relationships with Prime Minister Oli and Nepal Communist Party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’. Both were not only fiercely loyal to their individual mentors but were also important bagmen.
If Dahal and Oli have any reason to feel they are now ‘even’, the former Maoist and Unified Marxist-Leninist satraps are not showing such a sentiment. While Dahal laments how power has tended to corrupt Nepali communists, Oli touts his firm and unequivocal record on ensuring good governance. Neither seems to see himself as part of the problem.
Thus, it is the alleged would-be briber who makes the strongest case for ending systemic corruption. By inflating costs, rejigging specifications and other contractual legerdemain, the political-bureaucratic nexus generates kickbacks that are intended primarily not to line their pockets but to lubricate the body politic.
The centrality of sleaze to a functioning state system has long been the subject of casual conversation. An elected official effortlessly narrates how he won a seat in parliament spending less than what he did earlier on a losing mayoral race. Another expresses his readiness to relinquish his public office if he were to be reimbursed the millions he spent to get elected.
Maybe there is logic to why two former prime ministers and the incumbent general secretary of the ruling party evaded prosecution in the Balwatar land scam while people tangentially involved were caught in the anti-corruption dragnet. Despite heavy suspicion of guilt, the big fish are too important to the well-being of our political system.
Subliminally, then, that may also explain why Nepalis who rail against the party in power are also those who vote for it in the first by-elections.
A whirlwind of a week this was indeed – and a teachable moment as well.