Sunday, November 23, 2014

Up, Down, Round And Round

It looks like Ram Chandra Poudel has really had it with Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
The Nepali Congress vice-president has almost begun attributing the nation’s precarious plight to the sordid mental faculties of Dahal, or something like that.
At a personal level, Poudel probably resents Dahal for having blocked what he considered his easy ascent to the premiership a couple of years ago. Over a dozen rounds of balloting in the last constituent assembly to succeed Jhal Nath Khanal, Poudel diligently soldiered on against the Maoist chairman.
When another Maoist got that job, Poudel described his valiant stand as one that saved the democratic process. But deep down, he probably is still convulsed by bouts of politicianitis: an obsession with how he could have done things better than Baburam Bhattarai and how the country lost out.
Dahal, for his part, has become increasing acerbic in holding Poudel responsible for the current deadlock. The Maoist chairman obviously ranks the Nepali Congress VP, although a decade older, as his most formidable rival in that party going head. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had entered his twilight even before entering Singha Darbar.
Sher Bahadur Deuba has the ‘doubly incompetent’ tag around him that his rivals will ensure outlasts the monarchy. With the Koirala clan embroiled in a bitter succession struggle, Poudel boasts a formidable record in the party that the country might want to test in the premiership.
For now, the bone of contention is the 1990 Constitution. Dahal has accused Poudel of conspiring to reinstate that document. Poudel has fought back, saying he never meant restoring the status quo ante.
The 1990-2006 system did not fail, the Nepali Congress VP explained in a recent newspaper interview. “If we are still trying to produce a constitution written by leaders, even after having elected representatives for that explicit purpose, then what’s so bad about the 1990 statute?” Let’s just remove the monarchy, add federalism and inclusiveness and everybody go home.
Now, Poudel knows that even if every party inside the assembly amended the 1990 Constitution to the point where it would be the founding document of a one-party Maoist state, it would still not be acceptable to Dahal.
The Nepali Congress VP thinks he stands on strong ground. His party abandoned its demand for a constituent assembly for a good reason in the late 1950s. B.P. Koirala calculated that even if King Mahendra got the constitution he liked, he certainly would not get the parliament he wanted. B.P. was correct – up to a point. But, then, geopolitics was not his strong suit. The mercury had barely begun falling on the Cold War thermometer. It would take years of incarceration and exile for Nepal’s first democratically elected prime minister to figure out what really hit him on that cold winter mid-morning in 1960.
For political convenience, Poudel still has to hold King Mahendra solely responsible for the demise of Nepal’s first experiment with democracy. But he recognizes the staying power of geopolitics. In the grand scheme of things, what Nepal and Nepalis desire may not conform to what our two powerful neighbors and others beyond want us to have. During their insurgency, the Maoists promised too many things to too many constituencies without recognizing that core reality. If the ex-rebels are struggling to keep at least some of those promises, then that’s their problem.
So here goes the Nepali Congress again: It is actively participating in the constituent assembly because it believes in the democratic process. If that process fails, you can’t blame the party because it was the first to come out with the Pandora’s Box Theory of Constitutionalism. Dahal, then, would find himself in the ranks of Kings Mahendra and Gyanendra.
If the Maoists, somehow recognizing reality as well as their responsibility to history, give accede to a consensus document, it will have been so because the Nepali Congress exercised excruciating moral pressure. And if that document were to fail, the Nepali Congress would just mount the next struggle for democracy.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mugged By Reality

For a country whose future was traditionally discussed around the constrained sovereignty of the two other Raj-era Himalayan buffer states, we have come a long way. Forget Sikkimization or Bhutanization. Nepali Congress leader Shekhar Koirala has begun drawing parallels with more far-flung climes like Crimea.
That’s not the only way in which the Nepali Congress, the country’s oldest democratic party, has been exuding its creative side. Khum Bahadur Khadka, a one-time stalwart who many had been tempted to dismiss as a has-been, warns of an impending religious war, if not now then in 20 years’ time. All this comes after Shashank Koirala, in an acclaimed address to the Nepal Council of World Affairs, sought to hold his own party accountable for at least part of the national malaise.
Promulgating a constitution – or whatever can resemble one – has become a prestige issue for the prime minister of a party that claims to have spearheaded three revolutions but doesn't want to talk about how it squandered it all each time. Sushil Koirala’s cabinet colleagues from the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist sound quite confident too. (How could they afford not to be?)
Those arrayed against a half-done document are quite formidable. Yet their divisions have provided strength to the proponents of meeting the January 22 deadline.
As frustrated as we might be, let’s not pretend we were not forewarned. After all, the mainstream parties were rejecting the Maoists’ demand for a constituent assembly on the ground that it would open a Pandora’s box until King Gyanendra began sidelining them. Antipathy toward the palace need not have translated so cavalierly into fissiparous alacrity.
Geopolitical realities conspired to take Nepal is’ aspirations for change in a different direction. The three principal external powers – India, China and the United States – were principally hedging their bets. Our wizards of smart stuck their necks out too far. Eight years down the road, the parties that could so easily agree on what was not part of the mandate of People’s Movement II – the abolition of the monarchy – cannot agree on ways of meeting its principal demand – inclusiveness.
How could they, when we are still in the process of manufacturing newer victims and victimizers?
The geopolitical equations have shifted since when an Indian coalition government trying to negotiate a strategic partnership with the United States had to appease its communist allies by outsourcing Nepal policy to them. Nor are the Chinese and Indians engaged in a zero-sum game over Nepal or South Asia. After all, the Chinese President was fraternizing with the Indian prime minister while their border guards were trading fire.
And the Americans? Tibet is a useful pin to prick China. But when the US President on Chinese soil says that he is not in favor of Tibet’s independence, you know how much the ground has shifted from 2005-2006.
One Nepali newspaper editorially suggested the other day that Nepal had moved beyond the divisive issue of the monarchy and must be allowed to reach out to the future. Six years after Gyanendra Shah left Narayanhity Palace, his private visit to New Delhi has all of us in thrall. What might be cooking the Indian capital, where legions of dishes have been produced over the decades suiting all kinds of taste buds out here?
So this is where we are. A multiparty constituent assembly is being asked to develop consensus when all of its constituent parties fought the elections on their own manifestos. Yet when the two principal ruling parties and their minor allies can muster over two-thirds majority behind their constitutional roadmap, that is called undemocratic.
That’s the kind of thing that happens when reality mugs you.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Take It Or Leave It

If you are infuriated by the political establishment’s obsession with how the new constitution should be settled, It is time to cut them some slack. There is not much by way of content that they can show. Well, maybe they can show a lot in the new document. But it won’t be what too many of us will like.
Clearly, the wrangling over the number and nature of provinces serves a purpose. Blame Indian and Chinese geopolitical sensitivities and throw around all kinds of ideas. Madhav Kumar Nepal gets to yell at Khadga Oli at the top of his lungs. Pushpa Kamal Dahal gets to head both the mechanism to manage political affairs and the alliance menacing it.
On the religious right, the Hindu state standard-bearer – Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal (RPPN) – is being forced to cede some ground to a group of Nepali Congress leaders. How and when Khum Bahadur Khadka decided to take up the mantle remains unclear. After all, he was on record rallying for republicanism in the early 1990s when Girija Prasad Koirala was still best buds with King Birendra. If incarceration and insulin somehow transformed him, it was a quiet one.
For all its posturing, this Nepali Congress faction has not been able to tell us how a Hindu republic would fare any better than the secular one we have now. The appellation certainly has some implications. A Christian or Muslim president attending the hymnal advent of spring at Hanuman Dhoka might not be palatable to many Hindu ears. But if you start barring non-Hindus from the highest office of the land just to prevent that awkwardness, wouldn’t that constitute non-royal regression?
Or are we just trying to call Nepal the world’s only Hindu republic and leave things at that just to make some of us feel good?
That’s the kind of inanity you would expect the RPPN to pounce upon. There was a time when Kamal Thapa was thought to have abandoned his campaign to restore the monarchy. For a while, he, too, blew hot and cold – and seemed to enjoy it. Now he’s angry – at the deputy prime minister for now. If passions don’t cool soon, well, don’t even think about what might come next.
It’s easy to fall back on the oh-we could-still-restore the-monarchy line. What if Mr. Gyanendra Shah likes being ex-king so much that he won’t budge from where he is? The son, despite the recent outpouring of public sympathy over his travails in Thailand, is still considered too toxic to be throne-worthy. The grandson? He’s too young and running against time to grow up. King Birendra’s daughters? The Basanta Shrawan conundrum would persist in a different way, especially if it happened to be that time of the month for the Queen.
Perhaps our political leaders’ public confidence is genuine and the constitution will be promulgated on time. Those dissatisfied will erupt in protest, but there will be too many howls from far too many directions to pose a cohesive threat to the establishment.
Prime Minister Sushil Koirala could address the nation: “Brothers and sisters, this is the best we could do. Now, take it or leave it.” He could decide toward the end of the speech whether to throw in his resignation, depending on the intensity of the fire and smoke.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

So, Which Way Is It Again?

It’s that time in the political calendar where political prestidigitations on the surface seek to convey a state of the nation that is hale and hearty.
As the first deadline for the promulgation of the new constitution under the new constituent assembly – January 22 – approaches, the political parties are making the right sounds and moves. “Sure, it’s crunch time, but we’re up to the job.” Expect more point-wise compromises ostensibly to push things forward. If certain things have to be put off to promulgate the basic law, than so be it. That sentiment is gaining some ground.
The political establishment seems so eager for a breakthrough that Prime Minister Sushil Koirala realized only later that protocol would not permit him to serve on the High Level Political Committee led by the leader of the opposition and demurred.
Employing a mixture of school-yard bullying and bellowing, Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal got what he wanted: a seat at the top table. With the Maoist chief now leading the charge, his deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, must be heaving a sigh of relief. As the person entrusted with ironing out differences on contentious issues, he had begun throwing up his hands in desperation in all directions. In the event of another fiasco, Bhattarai won’t be the only Maoist open to opprobrium.
At the other end of the spectrum, barely a year into its electoral feat, the royalist right is down in the dumps. The former king, who has outlived his ancestors, is in poor health. The former crown prince’s latest arrest in Thailand on charges of drug possession (trafficking?) has left the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal wondering whether its campaign for the restoration of the monarchy is even worth the trouble.
Kamal Thapa and Co. find themselves in the most unenviable position. Restoration of Hindu statehood – that other plank of the RPPN platform – has now been all but taken over by Khum Bahadur Khadka’s faction of the Nepali Congress. And that movement is drawing support from people associated with the atheist left.
Isn’t it funny, though, that every time the republicans’ folly is on the verge of furthering the chances of the monarchy, the dude in Thailand seems to step right into it? This is not being insensitive to the former crown prince, whose latest visage resembles almost nothing of his former royal self.
Consider how fate is playing with the nation’s collective emotions. If you want to be honest, the monarchy has not disappeared from the people’s hearts and minds. Sure, the political establishment has been kicking the ex-king around. Deep down, every Nepali these past years has known that, if pushed to the brink, there was some place to turn to.
If we want to restore the monarchy formally, time may be running out. No adult might be available to wear the crown. (Since we know how baby kings worked out for us in the past, can teen queens be expected to fare any better, notwithstanding our gender blindness?) And the irony of ironies? Greater hastiness might have to be employed to restore the monarchy than what was put into abolishing it.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pulling A Fast One In Slow Motion

In a little over two years of existence, Mohan Baidya’s Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) has succeeded in elevating the mother organization as a responsible political stakeholder.
Even in the topsy-turvy world of Nepali politics, the inconsistencies of Baidya’s men and women have stood out sharply. The party not only boycotted last year’s constituent assembly elections but also actively – and often violently – worked to subvert the exercise.
Having failed in that enterprise, CPN-M leaders rather brashly began demanding ‘respectable presence’ in the assembly, ostensibly through the proportional-representation quota won by Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) or the government-appointed lot.
When that kind of fizzled, you would have expected the comrades to sit back and take a deep breath. Instead, they began demanding a round table conference on the new constitution. And that, too, with an urgency bordering on alacrity to usurp the prerogative of the body elected for that express purpose.
Once three major parties worked out the parameters of such a conference, Baidya & Co. refused to participate. In the ensuing blame game, they are projecting themselves as the victims.
“We are an inalienable part of the entire peace process,” Baidya claimed in an interview the other day. “Thus we maintained that all important issues, including those related to the peace process, needed to be discussed at the conference. Secondly, the conference should be provided with full authority [to implement the outcome].”
In the beginning, according to Baidya, the big three parties made verbal commitments to all of the CPN-Maoist demands. He balked when the leaders refused to provide a written commitment.
On the first point, Baidya represent a part of one party to the peace process. He probably has lost track of the parts of the peace process he likes and those he doesn’t. Like the Dahal-led Maoists, Baidya & Co. has shifted the goalposts so ruthlessly that setting boundaries has become meaningless.
In the eyes of the people, the culmination of the peace process would be symbolized by the promulgation of the constitution. With a legitimate and popularly elected venue already in existence, the three parties were under no obligation to commit to actions and opinions emanating from the round table conference. (And what kind of leader works on verbal commitments anyway, in this day and age?)
From the outset, the only thing the CPN-M had going for it was the claim of ideological purity. Baidya criticized Dahal and his loyalists for abandoning the principles of the ‘people’s war’ for sheer personal political gain, which resonated among the faithful. It turns out that the ideological veneer was skin deep. Who would have thought Dr. Baburam Bhattarai would have a key ally in the Baidya group in the form of Netra Bikram Chand?
Since Baidya and Chand have now issued separate exhortations to the people to rise up against the government’s power agreement with India, we can expect the intra-CPN-M fissures to sharpen.
The politics of it all is delectable. Although the principal parties continue to promise to promulgate the constitution by the January 22 deadline, their ability to do so is diminishing by the day. If anything, they needed a convenient excuse for failure.
Baidya, on the other hand, recognized the growing marginalization his party was likely to suffer outside the corridors of power. If the constitution should come out, it should be one his party could denounce as tainted. In retrospect, his demand for a round table conference gave the mainstream parties the perfect excuse.
Try as it might, the CPN-M now cannot distance itself from the constitution, if it does indeed emerge by the stipulated deadline. In case the mainstream parties fail to deliver on their pledge yet again, they can spread the blame evenly to the CPN-M for its having squandered time and resources on convening a conference the party ultimately lacked the confidence to attend.