Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Ins And Outs Of It, Here And There

Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and his Naya Shakti barely lasted a week in the new left alliance.
If anything, that record gives some respectability to Pashupati Shamsher Rana’s desire to reunite his faction of the Rastriya Prajantra Party (RPP) with Kamal Thapa’s group, merely two months after breaking away.
As Thapa returned to the cabinet as Deputy Prime Minister, with seven loyalists in tow, Bijaya Kumar Gachchaddar’s formation is returning to the ruling Nepali Congress.
The RPP nominee who became deputy speaker of parliament, Ganga Prasad Yadav, marked the formal expiry of the body by joining the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist. You may be forgiven if, in all of this churning, you missed the news that Keshar Bahadur Bista left the RPP faction led by Prakash Chandra Lohani to join Rana’s group. (Lest you forget, Lohani himself broke away from the RPP shortly after its much heralded unity convention).
Although President Bidya Bhandari was expected to do a Katuwal and block Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s decision to expand his cabinet, she pulled back at the last minute. Not that she could have done much, at least after Chief Election Commissioner Ayodhee Prasad Yadav certified that the expansion did not violate the election code of conduct. All that whining and moaning in the past? Well, don’t ask.
Deuba had little to lose. He has been insisting that the size of the cabinet is the prime minister’s prerogative. And it’s not as if his image of affinity for elephantine ministries created circa 1995-1996 was going to go away just because he suddenly turned lean and mean.
How all this will play out is anyone’s guess. The government is working overtime to tamp down fears that the provincial and federal elections might be put off.
It’s useless to fret over the prospect of  a combined communist juggernaut taking over Nepal. What are they going to do with all that power?  Divided, our comrades couldn’t be expected to stand. In unity, too, they are hobbling.
The alacrity with which the Nepali Congress – or at least the ruling part of the party – has turned rightward has raised new possibilities from that end. But the options being talked about there have not really been off the table since April 2006.
External stakeholders – state and non-state alike – seem equally baffled. And they may not be faking it. The Chinese ambassador in Kathmandu has been telling everyone willing to listen that her country had no hand in the sudden realignment on the left.
Maybe so. But that has not stopped the Indians from mounting their own version of an anti-access/area denial campaign. Could Bhattarai’s hasty exit from the left alliance suggest something here? Perhaps. But what if New Delhi engineered the Dasain surprise?
The right hand is free not to know what the left hand is doing – or not to want to know. There’s no rule saying you have to be inside the country or outside to display such obliviousness.
Our national transition has acquired a momentum of its own, based on exigencies and imperatives that are not entirely our own. Let these dynamics play out as they will as part of an open-ended process. We can all take turns feeling good and bad, regardless of who’s in or out. What could be fairer for those here and there?

Saturday, October 07, 2017

But How Real Is Our New Reality?

In retrospect, that Dasain picture spoke a thousand and one words.
Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ observed tika festivities after a hiatus of 22 years but left it to son, Prakash, to publicize the affair via social media. Our estimation, before the pictures emerged, was that Dahal, as usual, would have goat slaughtered at home and pretty much stay indoors.
Our collective astonishment focused squarely on this phase of the ‘normalization’ of Dahal, and he played along very shrewdly. That must be why we’re having a hard time making sense of the dramatic realignment that has gripped the left.
Dahal’s one-time deputy, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, who broke away to form his Naya Shakti, was defiant against ever joining hands again with the Maoist Center chairman, at least in this life. Yet there Bhattarai was, jubilant amid Dahal and another fellow ex-premier he routinely berated, Khadga Prasad Oli, chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist. Wonder of wonders, the erstwhile people’s warriors consented to playing second fiddle to the half of the parliamentary duo they rose up against.
The master hair-splitter he is, Bhattarai may be technically correct in claiming that he has not joined Dahal or become a full-fledged communist again (he is merely contesting the upcoming election on the UML symbol). The other groupings that have gravitated toward the UML-led alliance recognize which side their bread is buttered. More entities and individuals are bound to do the same in the days and weeks ahead.
The Nepali Congress, for its part, is torn between indifference and apprehension. Some leaders see the development as a natural outcome of our choppy politics as it seeks equilibrium. Other Congress leaders fear for the future of Nepali democracy. The divergence of opinion therein merely means that the Nepali Congress still hasn’t been able overcome its decade-long identity crisis. It is being pushed toward forming one faster than party leaders wish to acknowledge.
Lest we worry about the fallout from the latest development, Chief Election Commissioner Ayodhee Prasad Yadav has urged us to remain confident that the elections would be held according to schedule. We have to believe him, at least, for now.
With two successive legislatures hung in the midst of over a dozen political formations, Nepalis might be forgiven for any temptation to put faith in a two-alliance system. Since the putative Nepali Congress-led grouping remains in the realm of possibility, it would be germane to focus on what impelled the realignment on the left.
We have it on the good authority of UML leader Bishnu Poudel that this was the culmination of a decade-long process. If so, the secret confabs the UML’s then general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal held with Maoist leaders on Indian soil and the two royal takeovers they supposedly precipitated start to make greater sense.
True, the imperative of taming the Maoists gained urgency after 11 p.m. on June 1, 2001 after it became clear who didn’t survive the Narayanhity Carnage and who did. Taming, by definition, entailed relegation to second or third place. But the Maoists ended up gaining strength under royal rule, eventually ousting the monarchy, enflaming the southern plains, and emerging the top vote getters in elections certified as free and fair. The job of Messrs. Poudel and Co. just became harder. But they had to persist.
On the geopolitical front, things were in flux. Since Tibet and the Olympics were of paramount concern to the Chinese, their alacrity in abandoning the old and allying with the new was understandable. As our transition got murkier, second, third and fourth thoughts began to emerge up north.
The Indians didn’t want the Chinese veering too deep inside Nepal, but they were more interested in keeping third countries out, a desire shared by Beijing. The UN special political mission came in handy as a temporary fix but was soon coopted by the very third parties and overstayed its welcome. The Chinese, for their part, began sending representatives to conferences of Terai-based parties.
While the Dragon and the Elephant succeeded in evicting the United Nations, they had a harder time figuring each other out. Someone had to take that one bold step, but neither side wanted to be the one. The Chinese had more lucre, level-headedness, and luck while the Indians had more laments. Still, neither side would take the plunge. Then came Doklam, which really hasn’t gone away.
As geopolitical dynamics cut across our two political formations, we can brace for a proxy rivalries that would dirty only our hands. The search for a new equilibrium will have begun in earnest, everyone will have ducked blame, and our hopes will have sputtered into life for another stretch. But, then, all this would depend on how real our new reality is.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Between Self-Congratulation And Smugness

The Dashain-Tihar interregnum will no doubt produce sustained streams of self-congratulation over the positivity powering the national psyche in the aftermath of the staggered local elections.
The three-phase polling for village and municipal entities, conducted by two governments representing the same ruling coalition, was a significant achievement. Cabinet expansions, administrative transfers and other knotty interventions in between – regardless of whether they actually violated the Election Commission code of conduct – have not tarnished public faith in the democratic exercise and its aftermath.
The principal protagonists have largely accepted the popular verdict, vowing to learn the right lessons, and are preparing themselves for crucial provincial and national elections. As established tangible preconditions for the full implementation of the new Constitution, the country – the leaders and the led alike – will need to proceed with utmost judiciousness and solemnity.
Once that milestone has been crossed, however, the concept of ‘implementation of the constitution’ will have acquired a new sense and significance. From a destination, that juncture will have become a point of departure in a persistent process of alertness and application.
Ensuring concord and coherence in structural and operational spheres among the local, provincial and central governments will be something new to us. So would the imperative of sensibly allocating power and resources, simultaneously managing the purse and expectations. Forgoing the naming of provinces and determining their capitals in the interest of holding elections made sense as an act of political maturity. Those very imperatives have the potential to assume far less pacified dimensions. In all this, Nepalis will have to learn by doing.
More portentously, mismanagement, corruption, favoritism and the other banes blighting our modern polity – and systems around the world – will acquire renewed focus. Perceptions of foreign meddling – pronounced at the most sanguine of times – would exacerbate the challenges of those governing as well as the governed.
Should the going get inordinately rough, it won’t matter whether foreign powers are really conspiring to perpetuate conflict among our diverse ethnicities, cultures, languages, religions – and yes, political ideologies. Nepal’s precarious geo-strategic position and more than a century and a half of a hemmed-in mentality provide enough combustion.
No one will uncover incontrovertible evidence of plots to tear apart the country because no one will demand it. When perceptions flow along a reality-like narrative, prophecy can easily become self-fulfilling.
Fortunately, the flaws naysayers like yours truly have identified in the Constitution ever since its promulgation have not been able to stop our political momentum. Yet our own experience has taught us how ambiguities and uncertainties can emerge when we least expect them. Worse, they can be contrived with little exertion, given the right political circumstances. The amalgamation of the personal and political is a double-edged sword. If it can be a sign of abiding commitment, it can also be a catalyst for convulsion.
In the prevailing celebratory mood, it is tempting to dismiss such warnings as irrelevant or, worse, revolting. But the complexities defining life in general today are bound to deepen intricacies on both sides of the political contract.
Today’s constitutional clarity can revert to elusiveness so easily because of the abstraction national stability, prosperity, unity and similar concepts have become.  Amid all-round fluidity, the road from self-congratulation to smugness can only be a slippery one.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Don’t Let Them Make You Feel Small, Comrade

Revolutionary Maoist chairman Mohan Baidya has firmly ruled out the possibility of his party’s merger with the once-formidable mother party, citing lack of ideological affinity with its supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
Baidya seemed too indignant to stop there. “Let Dahal and his Maoist Centre merge with the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninist, since he seems far more comfortable hobnobbing with them”,  he said.
The Revolutionary Maoist chief was responding to Dahal’s incessant pleas for the unification of all Maoist factions. These days, the onetime Fierce One seems miffed at having to almost grovel before his erstwhile comrades. His supplications have started to sound like threats.
“Baidya, Baburam and Biplav will be wiped if they do not return to mother party,” Dahal said a few weeks ago, referring to the breakaway factions led by Baburam Bhattarai and Netra Bikram Chand.
Having emerged as the strongest Maoist entity in the nearly dozen years since the end of the ‘people’s war’, Dahal is obviously ashamed at having become the third political force in the country.
Speaking in Rukum, part of the Maoist heartland, the other day, Dahal said his party, which was the largest in the first Constituent Assembly, faced a severe beating owing what he called its ‘arrogance’.  “We were together with the people during the ‘people’s war’, but failed to reach people after the peace process.”
Nothing bad in being penitent. Yet Dahal seemed to imply that repeated splits in the party were responsible for its woes. If everyone just got back together, everything would be the way they used to be.
Not so fast, says Baidya. Since Dahal had betrayed the people’s revolution, Baidya insists, Nepal needed another revolt to uphold the cause of national independence, people’s republic and development. Bhattarai and Chand, too, have rejected the notion of unity more or less on the same grounds.
Baidya has more credibility on the betrayal banner. After all, the ball of the Maoist-mainstream alliance got rolling while Baidya – like his party colleague Chandra Prakash Gajurel – was in the custody of Indian authorities. It was almost as if the release of Messrs. Baidya and Gajurel was predicated on their acquiescence in the Indian blueprint for Nepal.
Now, we can’t say for sure what difference the duo could have made had they been free. For the first few years after the 2006 12-Point Accord, they seemed alright with the course Dahal had embarked on.
Bhattarai, on the other hand, was the catalyst that drew Dahal away from the palace and towards New Delhi after the royal takeover of February 2005. Chand, a Dahal loyalist who went along with Dahal for a while, was later too disgusted by the chairman’s tilt. Matrika Yadav broke away once the dynamics of the Madhes movement became clearer. The other splinter groups were more personality driven, so much so that they hardly merit Dahal’s individual mention.
Like your average brainbox anywhere, Bhattarai wants the country to look at his intentions, not the results of his actions. If the Maoist experiment fizzled after they laid down their weapons, it was the party chairman’s fault. Such brazen abdication of responsibility was galling to most people. No wonder Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti hasn’t been able to get off the ground.
Dahal, for his part, should try to build on what he has. Trying to woo back those who left would only serve to alienate those who are still with him. “Those who accused me of lampasarbaad [capitulation] have come around to praising my statesmanship,” Dahal recently said of his second term as prime minister. It would have been nice if he weren’t the one making that point. Still, that fact alone should not undercut the underlying validity of the assertion.
Having taken turns allying with the UML and the Nepali Congress is not something he should be ashamed of. That’s what the hard reality of Nepali politics has dictated. The post-2006 experiment is a work in progress. Consider how we’re told that the rightists could restore the monarchy. Or that the mainstream parties could do away with federalism.
Despite its truncated status, Dahal’s party has secured its ground as the guardian of our gains. In the ultimate campaign of pursuing our nebulous newness, no one else can play that part, even if that entails running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Some Things Seem Like They Are Just Made To Last

The fellas scattered across the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) factions just can’t stop twirling to their own tunes.
Here we have the Chinese doubting the depth of our commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative and the Indians deliberating how far we have slipped out of their grasp. The country is surprised at how the devastating floods could have caught us by such surprise. The penultimate phase of institutionalizing the ‘newness’ ushered in almost a dozen years ago is just around the corner.
Yet the boys in the RPP are interminably rallying the Supreme Court, Election Commission and whatever state institution they can find to their respective causes.
RPP chairman Kamal Thapa blames the government for splitting his party last month. As if to lend credence to the allegation, the rival RPP-Democratic of Pashupati Shamsher Rana is salivating to join Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s administration.
The RPP-Nationalist of Prakash Chandra Lohani, who broke away days after the much-ballyhooed reunion of the ex-panchas earlier in the year, derides those in power as no less than looters.
So how could loot – or at least allegations of it – stay out of the latest brouhaha? When Thapa pressed Deuba to investigate the latest scandal gripping the Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), he wasn’t training his guns on Gopal Bahadur Khadka, its already beleaguered chief. The prime minister is now is hesitant to induct Deepak Bohara, a leading member of the Rana-led RPP as a cabinet member, because of his earlier tenure as supplies minister, which the NOC comes under.
Bohara, like Thapa, is a first-generation pancha. Both were instrumental in the creation of the controversial student wing of that birdie called partylessness. The student organization could barely take flight, but Bohara and Thapa by then had cemented their respective political careers. That they continue to dominate our political discourse must testify to their impressive political skills. But they still act like parties are still banned in Nepal.
Rana, in deference to Deuba, has reportedly withdrawn Bohara’s name from consideration. With clockwork precision, an enraged Bohara is said to be threatening to split Rana’s party.
The Rana-led RPP committed a blunder in flaunting how all the three directly elected legislators in the united party had come over to its side. That might have been a clever move in the context of the party’s internal battle for legitimacy.
When you start making such distinctions in an assembly that is dominated by members elected through the proportional representation system, you’re on a slippery slope. After all, it’s not as if PR members are akin to palace-nominated Rastriya Panchayat members of yore.
Sure, Nepalis may not have given their votes to those members on the basis of their personality, but they did so based on party platforms. Institutionalizing a class system within the elected legislature throws a monkey wrench into an assemblage that resembles primates that don’t know what to do with they coconut they already have.
When will the RPP factions learn to become relevant to the times? Or maybe, judging from their success in continuing to grab our attention, there is a more pertinent question: Will Nepalis ever break free from the past?