Saturday, January 19, 2019

Talking Up The Threat To Democracy

When Sher Bahadur Deuba starts saying democracy is in trouble, well, that is saying something.
Never denounced as a dictator, the Nepali Congress president has been accused of facilitating despotism. In a political milieu so mesmerized by repetitions of history, critics often portrayed Deuba as the latter-day version of Dr. Tulsi Giri, i.e., a Nepali Congress luminary turned enabler of royal autocracy.
Temperamentally mild-mannered and at times self-deprecatory, Deuba, if anything, is a status-quoist. He began his first term as prime minister in 1995-1996 with an image of a conciliator, atop a coalition compromising votaries of the past and the future. But that label didn’t last long and the perjorative ‘Pajero’ became his legacy.
The Japanese SUV was emblematic of the corruption underlying the compromises Deuba expected to make to keep democracy alive. He had assumed office following a Supreme Court ruling that reversed the earlier, minority government’s decision to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections. The constitution emerged victorious at the price of polluting politics.
In that warped environment, Deuba’s exit was no less twisted. The prime minister was forced out of office not because he lost his legislative majority but because his own party president, Girija Prasad Koirala, conspired to prevent two crucial legislators from voting for the government.
What goes around comes around. In the aftermath of the Narayanity carnage, Deuba took back the premiership from Koirala, only to be accused of handing democracy on a platter to King Gyanendra in 2002 by first dissolving parliament and then postponing elections.
In between, Maoist leader Prachanda called him brave for declaring a ceasefire that allowed the rebels to reorganize to mount deadlier strikes against the state. Deuba declared a state of emergency, deployed the military against the rebels and set prices on their heads. When Deuba dissolved parliament and called fresh elections, that automatically disqualified him as a democrat for the Koirala faction of the ruling party. Deuba walked out of the Nepali Congress to form his own party. When Deuba postponed the elections, he got the royal sack. But he kept protesting that he wanted to hold the elections but was pressured by other parties to put them off. If anything, he pleaded, he was a latter-day B.P. Koirala. The country didn’t have the time or patience to hear him out.
As the opposition alliance refused to recognize him as part of them, Deuba returned to the premiership as a royal appointee. He stood accused of enabling a more assertive palace takeover by, it turns out, doing nothing. Never mind that the king had dismissed Deuba both times for incompetence (and resurrecting the real Tulsi Giri in February 2005).
After the April 2006 Uprising, Koirala seemed to have come to his (political) senses: If he could do a deal with the Maoists, Koirala could certainly afford to allow Deuba back into the Nepali Congress. The logical successor stepped in when the old man departed. Not many people were thrilled. And that’s always been the crux of Deuba’s woes.
You sense almost a visceral feeling in some Congress sections that Deuba never deserved to be where he is. Not quite a usurper, but something very close. Those with a Koirala pedigree have an obvious dislike. Others hate it that Deuba became the most prominent commoner Congressi who married into the reviled yet secretly coveted Rana clan. Poor diction and a drought of original though never stopped others, but they always counted against Deuba. In the post-2006 milieu, he has worked with the Maoists with the same facility he once worked with the monarchy. (Although he’d never admit it in public, Prachanda has probably wanted to repeat the B word.)
The Nepali Congress blowout in the last election was supposed to spell the end of Deuba. His critics have turned out to be their worst enemies. There are too many people ready to step in with the same eagerness they have in blocking everyone else. Ideologically, too, the party can’t figure out which Koirala brother to emulate: the newly republican Girija Prasad or the constitutional monarchist Bishweshwar Prasad. The Hinduism caper at the recent party conclave may have camouflaged that dilemma for now, but the Congress will have to make a choice sooner rather than later.
Ram Chandra Poudel seems to be the most aggrieved Congressi around. And he has good reason. When it came time to contest for the premiership amid the deadlock in the constituent assembly, the party put him forward over a dozen rounds of voting. From Poudel’s vantage point, being an incompetent prime minister twice may be better than not becoming one at all. But Deuba may never forget how Poudel promised to assume the presidency of his new party in 2002 before caving to Koirala.
The wide-body aircraft scandal has come in handy for Poudel. He’s been trying his best push Deuba into the net that has ensnared Oli and Dahal. Yet Poudel has the class to share the stage with Deuba to rail against the threat the communist government now poses to democracy.
Deuba might find that comforting, too.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

What’s Going On Upstairs?

He wants to do something good for Nepal for a decade and ‘go upstairs’.
At one go, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ has sought to silence the term-limits crowd and shore up the standing of his profession. If he succeeds, it would be a heck of an accomplishment. Even to attempt it is no mean feat.
Yeah, you could quibble over our former Maoist supremo’s audacity to aspire to the abode of the angels, given his official atheism and blood-soaked legacy. But, then, the man does deserve a break, given all that he has gone through.
No longer the inscrutable Fierce One, Dahal has molded himself to the times with such facility that we’ve stopped counting his flips and flops. Gone is the I-won-the-world insolence of 2006 in the afterglow of the April Uprising.
Of course, you can’t read his mind. But some things are clear, even from deep within his recesses. The sad part wasn’t that that Nepal’s first elected republican prime minister couldn’t fire an army chief he thought was insubordinate. Nor was it Dahal’s decision to resign in 2009, citing his refusal to kowtow to ‘foreign masters’. It was the reality that few Nepalis took seriously what he considered a principled stand.
If rigidity could prove so costly, why not change course? Indeed. And Dahal’s dexterity has been dazzling. Flexibility has allowed him to flex his muscles no less formidably than firearms once did. Amid the never-ending compromises under the peace accord and his departure from the premiership, ideological drift began endangering Dahal’s hold on the Maoist party.
His return to the premiership in 2016 did little to reverse the damage done by party splits. Before his detractors could force him to cede control, Dahal mounted a hostile takeover of the rival communist party. He lost his only son and perhaps closest confidant, Prakash, at the height of the election campaign. But he carried himself stoically in public events, eventually helping the unified communists to win a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Today, as Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli muddles on atop the communist government, his party co-chair is consolidating power among Oli’s erstwhile Unified Marxist-Leninists. When the Bam Dev Gautam trial balloon burst last year, Dahal didn’t resort to recriminations. He has left us guessing about his next move.
It’s hard to overlook the fact that each Oli misstep emboldens Dahal. But Dahal is in no hurry to jump in, at least not going by his public posture. Instead, he lashes out against the former monarch’s personal affairs, reaches out to the opposition Nepali Congress in a spirit of conciliation, and speaks out soaringly about tomorrow.
Dahal says the Communist Party would have no meaning if it failed to make the country prosperous. Moreover, he says, prosperity is not possible from the government’s effort alone. Deng-ism alright, but heresy without doubt. And not for the first time – or last.
Someone who spoke incessantly of ‘discontinuities’ during his first term as premier, Dahal is stringing together the past, present and future seamlessly. Maybe he means the same thing. But it does sound better now.
Dahal is good at learning from his mistakes. Perhaps he even takes pride in that, which may help explain his heavenly aspirations.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

When We Live In Different Worlds

A populace anxiously awaiting its government’s response to vital questions of the day ends up with an earful of prime ministerial censure of the very notion of criticism. Maybe that’s what you get when the governors and the governed live in different worlds.
The country speaks in specifics; the government responds in generalities. In his hour-long speech to parliament, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli mounted a spirited defense of his 10-month government. He blew his opportunity to assuage the opposition – if not the nation per se – by failing to mention such burning issues as the controversy surrounding the purchase of a wide-body aircraft for the national carrier.
Firm on fulfilling his pledges on developing rail and sea transportation, our prime minister seemed quite embittered by the mockery and ridicule criticism of his government has sometimes bordered on. But, then, Oli has distinguished himself through the efficacious use of sarcasm and satire as a tool of public speaking. If he can’t take it, maybe he shouldn’t dish it out.
To Oli, criticism of the president is tantamount to criticism of the republic. Just because that rule seemed to work against the monarchy doesn’t mean it is applicable today. Questioning the unmerited perks and privileges some in power have been tempted to enjoy does not sink the system. It’s meant to cleanse it.
A government enjoying a two-thirds majority in parliament has been on the defensive since its formation. Communist rigor and regimentation have not been able to check the ruling party’s inner turmoil. That turbulence tends to define the government’s response to events. Instead of solving the rape/murder of a hapless teenager, the government resorts to harassment and obfuscation.
Questions prompted by reasonable suspicions of sleaze in the purchase of the wide-body aircraft results in a crude display of the narrowness of the government’s mind. In the 1990s, the Unified Marxist-Leninists had used the Dhamija and Lauda scandals to denigrate the entire Nepali Congress. Today, when the tables are turned, everything becomes a conspiracy against the system.
Sure, aspects of the parliamentary investigation were bungled, such as the fingering of the home secretary who as tourism secretary (and Nepal Airlines Corporation chairman) had actually attempted to strengthen transparency and accountability in the purchase. Such investigative malpractice should have counted against the principal investigator, the Nepali Congress.
The government’s strident defensiveness, however, has emboldened the main opposition party. And not just on this issue. A party routed at the polls and riven by deep factionalism is showing signs of new life among the wider public. So much so that Oli’s party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ has started warning the government that its insensitivity to public grievances could doom the system.
The system can only be as good as the people running it. Oli keeps stressing that his government is not your usual revolving-door variety. He compares it with the ones formed after the 1959 and 1991 elections. And how well did they turn out!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Government We Deserve…

Candor is not uncharacteristic of Dr. Baburam Bhattarai when it comes to public pronouncements. It’s just that our former prime minister usually trains it on those governing us.
This time he has challenged the governed to assume our portion of culpability for the rampant malgovernance we have been complaining about.
Paraphrasing words variously attributed to the likes of Joseph de Maistre and Alexis de Tocqueville, Dr. Bhattarai ostensibly limited his remarks to the ongoing clean-up campaign in and around the Ring Road. (Don’t expect the government to keep picking up every cigarette butt you abandon, or something.) His colleagues in the political fraternity are probably relieved that someone has finally told us as it is.
Granted, it is difficult to acknowledge – much less appreciate – the exasperation collectively gripping our political class. After all, we choose them to do what they promise to do and pay them quite decently for trying. In addition, our taxes fund their housing, travel, communication and everything else they need to do their job properly.
Top, mid-level and rookie leaders alike prosper in the public limelight to the point that many end up making a career out of public service. If brickbats happen to exceed the bouquets they get, it’s more than likely because they aren’t doing a wonderful job.
Consider things from the politicians’ point of view, though. Sure, voters elect them to do their assigned job. But what kind of job is it? It’s hard to be held accountable to specific and binding pledges when the electorate doesn’t know what it wants. Over the last seven decades, we’ve been struggling to figure out the political system we can live with. In the national trial-and-error mode, maybe the best politicians can do is try and err?
Today a unified communist government enjoying a two-thirds majority in parliament can’t seem to sustain the republican, federal and secular edifice that is new Nepal. We can blame Oli, Dahal et al all we want for this sordid state of affairs, but they can take only their share of the responsibility.
For every egghead who saw in this three-pronged prescription a cure-all for our accumulated ills, there was another who counseled extreme caution. Yet newness was so eclectic a proposition that we missed it nebulousness. If Dr. Bhattarai has been able to establish himself as the prime sustainer of the eternalness of newness, it’s because our entrenched perplexity has allowed him to shift the goalposts with utmost ease.
It took a decade and two constituent assemblies for our political class to produce this constitution. We may not have names and capitals for every province yet, but we do have a basic law that seems to be functioning amid all the domestic acrimony and geopolitical jockeying.
Instead of contemplating ways of doing things better, many of us are having second thoughts about the very enterprise. Callous as they might seem, the political class can’t call us out. So they are going through the motions: internal party conferences, external war of words and inelegant pledges to perform better.
No, our politicians don’t have the temerity to request hardship allowances and probably never will. A little appreciation would be nice, though.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Antsiness In An Unsettled Arena

It started all over again with an innocuous dance.
Former king Gyanendra Shah took some time to sway in mirth and merriment at what he considered was a private party. The management of the restaurant where the family gathering took place chose to release a few pictures.
Nepal Communist Party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ wasn’t too thrilled by the ex-royal motions. Unable to shield himself from the splatters of derision and mockery provoked by a government his party predominates, Dahal saw a conspiracy of sorts.
Public response to Dahal’s reaction probably forced the ex-Maoist supremo to wonder why chose to speak at all. If a federal and secular republic of Nepal couldn’t withstand a few gyrations by its last monarch, perhaps it is the fault of new Nepal’s architects.
The Vivah Panchami celebrations in Janakpur attended by India’s most vocal advocate for the restoration of the monarchy and Hindu statehood in Nepal, the anti-republic slogans raised by supporters of the former king at Pokhara airport and the signature campaign in favor of Hindu statehood at the Nepali Congress mahasamiti meeting provided the background for claims of a vast right-wing conspiracy. Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, under fire within his own party for hobnobbing with a controversial Christian organization, warned the ex-king to, so to speak, curb his enthusiasm.
If Oli was tepid in his admonition, it was probably because he is the only person party rival Madhav Kumar Nepal could credibly accuse of being pro-monarchist. (Remember that episode when Nepal cut short a foreign visit after learning that Oli had met the then monarch in what was seen as an effort to legitimize the first royal takeover. Nepal’s ‘offense’ was that he merely applied for the premiership as common candidate of the agitating parties.)
Never one to let go of an opportunity, Kamal Thapa of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal sought to burnish his monarchist credentials after having let the Hindu-statehood part of his dual agenda predominate. After meeting with the former king in Pokhara, Thapa declared that the agitation his party had already announced for February would now include the restoration of the monarchy.
Gesticulations in and around the crucial Nepali Congress meeting prompted Dahal to remind the party of its three illustrious premiers’ commitment to secularism. Bisweswar Prasad, Girija Prasad and Sushil Koirala all took religion out of the politics they preached and practiced. What were today’s Congressis smoking? Dahal’s gambit fell flat on Nepali Congress secularists, who seemed fonder of the Koiralas’ staunch anticommunism. The party’s spokesman retorted that the Nepali Congress didn’t need lectures on religion from communists.
The death of Tulsi Giri while the Nepali Congress was engrossed in its conference gave that party a respite from an uncomfortable situation. A former Nepali Congress stalwart, Giri served three monarchs during the height of their assertiveness. Ideologically and temperamentally, he was more monarchist than those monarchs. As head of government, Oli offered his condolences on the passing of a predecessor. But Giri had preemptively declined state honors, cementing defiance as part of his legacy.
As we move ahead, Oli’s outreach to the Americans amid this tumult remains a key imponderable. First, it’s unclear who reached out to whom. If the Americans want Nepal’s help on North Korea – and assuming we can do something – that’s Madhav Nepal’s province, counting the number of times he has visited Pyongyang. If Oli wants to empower Madhav Nepal, it would be merely to emaciate the Dahal-Bam Dev Gautam alliance. Our prime minister realizes that it is best to let the wider geopolitical ramifications to play out among the principal external protagonists.
The fact that India and China haven’t reacted significantly to the American outreach doesn’t mean they are apathetic. The United States may consider Nepal an important component of its Indo-Pacific strategy, but New Delhi and Beijing won’t be distracted from the Quad, ASEAN and the vast expanse of salt waters. This reality dawned on Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali who sought to parse the US State Department’s official tweet after his meeting with Secretary Mike Pompeo into the geographical and strategic dimensions of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’.
For our immediate neighbors, the immediate interest here has been and always will be Tibet. So, any Indian and Chinese response – individual or collective – to the latest American overtures will be tailored to exigencies in the context of the advancing age of the 14th Dalai Lama. Ironically, Washington’s erratic policies have encouraged Beijing and New Delhi to work toward stabilizing bilateral relations as far as Tibet goes.
What all this suggests is that nothing is settled here. We can continue searching but we won’t get it without knowing what it is that we want, regardless of our jives, jibes or jinks.