Monday, February 01, 2016

Hissy Fit Or Bold Diplomacy?

It had to come to this, didn’t it?
Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli threatens to make China his first official port of call if India failed to lift its ‘blockade’ against Nepal.
Okay, not quite threatens. In effect, however, normalization of situation along the southern border has been advanced as a pre-condition for our premier’s maiden trip to New Delhi, if we are to go by ruling CPN-UML official Surya Thapa.
Now, we don’t know how or when exactly it became a matter of convention for a new Nepali prime ministers to travel to India on his first trip abroad. But the practice has held – or at least is expected to be so. Upon assuming office in 2008 amid fanfare, Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ broke that practice as part of his overall Doctrine of Discontinuation. We know how that turned out for him.
Dahal tried twisting himself into a pretzel explaining how his first official visit had indeed been to India, Beijing merely having happened to be the host of that quadrennial’s Olympic Games. In New Delhi, the big hug his counterpart, Manmohan Singh, gave turned out to be fatal for Dahal. The Maoist head honcho was soon out the door – and seemingly for good.
UML official Thapa, however, has covered his bases well, stressing that Prime Minister Oli has high regards for Indo-Nepal relations. He reminded us of the chronology of things. Shortly after taking charge about four months ago, Oli had a telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who invited him to visit India.
However, if the Indians failed to show a gesture of good neighborliness, Oli’s trip to China as his first foreign destination was inevitable – also for logistical reasons. Because the day Oli spoke with Modi, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Wu Chuntai also called on the premier and handed him an invitation.
Protocol – if not precedence – might dictate that Oli visit India first. However, there was pressure on Oli from his party not to visit India first as long as the “unexpected and unimaginable” situation at the border persisted. As a good democrat, Oli could not in good conscience go against the party.
In fact, Oli himself had told a group of reporters that it would not be appropriate for him to visit India before the border ‘blockade’ was lifted. The Indians, for their part, officially shrugged off suggestions that Kathmandu had officially made such a linkage.
The latest Nepali contention – affirmed by another UML leader, Shankar Pokharel – contradicted what Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa had said upon his return from China late last year. Not only would Oli visit India first, Kamal Thapa said, but the premier would sign some agreements to implement past understandings.
So here’s what we can safely conclude. Nepal is flashing the ‘China card’ to end the Indian ‘blockade’. Is this a hissy fit or bold diplomacy? Time will tell.
It would be great to see Oli visit both India and China, irrespective of the order. Even one trip – regardless of where – would be good enough. Let’s just hope that Oli doesn’t have to leave office before having visited either neighbor.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Making Amends In Perpetuity

Phew! That was fast.
Less than four months of its promulgation, our Constitution has been amended to address the demands raised by agitating Madhesi parties. The agitators, though, aren’t terribly impressed. Even the Indians, while welcoming the amendment more warmly than the main document, seem to see it as part of a wider political process of inclusion.
In retrospect, we should have listened to our astrologers. Most of them had said way back in September that the time chosen to promulgate the long-awaited new basic law was simply not propitious. The opposing line held that a secular state need not pay heed to such antiquated analysis. Good point. The challenge, as pointed out by Maila Baje, thus remained whether the political class could prove the astrologers wrong.
Express amendments per se are not a sign of a constitution’s feebleness. The first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution, for instance, were proposed almost simultaneously with the effort to seek states’ ratification of main document. In the late eighteenth century, while we were fighting the Tibetans and Chinese, the anti-federalists in the United States were too suspicious their rivals’ drive to constrain the power of the state.
Of course, Nepalis last September were more trusting of their representatives in the constituent assembly to go the full way. As numbers mattered more than notions of nationhood, disaffected Nepalis treaded a familiar path of protest. The outgoing government, just in case, had draft amendments ready. That duplicity alienated the Madhesis and infuriated India, whose displeasure is being felt by every Nepali every day ever since.
Those expecting the streets to cease their surge of fury anytime soon may have to step back a bit. The amendment, like the constitution itself, was forced on the community and was therefore not acceptable, said Upendra Yadav of the Federal Socialist Forum Nepal. Rajendra Mahato of Sadbavana Party also claimed that the agitation would continue as the amendment had been effected without taking the alliance into confidence.
Rumblings of discontent are being heard from the other side, too. The party of Deputy Prime Minister Chitra Bahadur KC voted against the amendment, while Comrade Rohit of Nepal Workers and Peasants Party called the amendment a latter-day version of the Sugauli Treaty.
With the CPN-UML, UCPN-Maoist, RPPN and the other parties in power whistling in the dark and the main opposition Nepali Congress mired once again in internal power realignments ahead of another crucial national convention, Dr. Babu Ram Bhattarai’s ‘new force’ is sputtering to life.
The agglomeration of political has-beens, ex-bureaucrats and security officials and fading actors may or may not capitalize on the inertia in the mainstream. Despite its emergence in a semi-institutional incarnation, the new formation’s ideological hue remains nebulous beyond the centre-left identity its leaders have bestowed on it.
In any case, since Dr. Bhattarai abandoned his original ‘new Nepal’ enterprise midway, he hardly inspires the confidence his compatriots need today. Maybe it’s time to let the astrologers chart the next couple of amendments. The force of that would be something entirely new.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

National Unity: An Individual Account

Deputy Prime Minister Chandra Prakash Mainali may have done little to settle the long-running debate on whether King Prithvi Narayan Shah was indeed a noble unifier of modern Nepal or merely a ruthless and ambitious expansionist. Still, Mainali’s contribution to the discussion has served to inspire much-needed introspection vis-à-vis our collective future.
General-secretary of the now-scraggy Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist), Mainali the man still remains a valued member of our fraternity of comrades splashed across the political spectrum. His legendary past has provided enough impetus to keep him going.
When Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli inducted him in the cabinet as one of half-a-dozen deputies, Mainali’s individual persona was what largely counted. Few among us can probably recall offhand his rank (last in the ladder of deputy premiers) or the specific portfolio he holds (Women, Children and Social Welfare).
Individualism has left Mainali unconstrained in his speech. In early November, two days after being appointed, he suggested that India wanted to annex the Terai region through its blockade, prompting New Delhi to condemn his remarks as malicious.
In his latest comments, Mainali focused the touchy issue of Prithvi Narayan’s legacy on an equally contentious concept: secessionism. Regardless of whether secessionism is a clear and present danger to Nepal or only the threat of a handful of irresponsible politicians, the term today is being thrown around with too much ease for the good of anyone.
Whether a Terai region that chose to break away from Nepal became part of India or established itself as an independent entity, the prospect of a separation would merit a degree of deliberations that is sorely lacking. Would India, given its own endless restructuring imperatives and dynamics gripping large states such as West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, see advantage in the acquisition of additional real estate?
On the other hand, might a landlocked Terai, sandwiched – to borrow that hackneyed term – between still-landlocked Nepal and India have the viability to exist independently? From the current debate, it seems a rump Nepal might still adjoin at least West Bengal and Uttarakhand together with the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China.
Crude as Mainali’s assertion might sound, continuing with the national unity creed flowing from Prithvi Narayan – regardless of how contrived some might still consider it – would be the most fitting answer to the secessionists. As a political issue, restoring Paus 27 as National Unity Day failed to gain enough support within the Oli cabinet. The fact that we are still talking about it underscores the emotive power the subject wields over the very notion of Nepaliness.
Even if we concede that Prithvi Narayan failed to lay the foundation for sentimental/emotional unity among Nepalis, we are still forced to ask what role successive generations of Nepalis themselves have in that failure. If we as sovereign and free people want to make that ultimate break from the Divya Upadesh (Divine Counsels), then we would need to muster the courage and conviction to abandon Prithivi Narayan’s concept of Nepali nationhood.
Granted, that might be easier for some Nepalis than others. If anything, Mainali’s remarks have the potential of forcing the most hardened secessionists to sit up and ponder whether they may actually have a better deal within today’s national borders.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Crossing The River By Feeling The Stones

Under 100 days in office, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli has already begun hearing growls of disgruntlement from within his own Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML). Even from within his own faction.
Can you blame Oli loyalists for their restiveness? Nepal’s longest prime minister in waiting seems all too content merely having got the top job. To many in the wider populace, the proverbs and parables that pepper his pronouncements have begun to sound a bit stale.
Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa, president of the right-wing Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal, seems to be the man in charge these days. From New Delhi to London to Beijing, he is engaging with interlocutors with the flair and bearing of the chief executive. Oli, for his part, is justifying his decision to split ministries so as to accommodate coalition partners that have no business being in government.
A befuddled Baburam Bhattarai, struggling to spawn an amorphous new force, recalled the other day that Thapa – a college classmate – had not abandoned his agenda to restore the monarchy and Hindu statehood. How, then, could he be so firmly in charge of implementing the new federal, republican and secular constitutional order?
Madhesi marchers, too, are in a fix these days. After months of unrelenting – and often violent – protests against the Constitution’s constriction, there is a creeping sense in that constituency that India might be about to abandon their cause.
Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, in an ostensible effort to dispel accusations that her government had imposed a blockade on Nepal, insisted within the hallowed upper chamber of the Indian parliament that the Madhesi protesters were the people responsible for disruptions in essential supplies. Intentional or otherwise, plausible deniability on the part of official India had the effect of solid indictment this side of the border.
With more and more Indian analysts now publicly urging their government to stay the hard line on Nepal in the interest of ensuring inclusivity, our Madhesi activists suspect Prime Minister Narendra Modi might be about to ditch them in favor of geo-strategic interests.
Considering that the India-pushed-Nepal-into-China’s-arms alarm has lost its sinister chime, it is becoming increasingly easy to contemplate that Kathmandu and New Delhi entered into an elaborate campaign to test China’s real intentions in Nepal. Precious little beyond rhetorical flourish has emanated from the north as far as the mandarins’ readiness to come to Nepal’s rescue goes.
To be sure, a Kathmandu-New Delhi deal marginalizing the Madhesis would provide an opening for the Chinese. But would Beijing risk opening another front along its already volatile periphery? If you think not, think again.
In fact, the mandarins must already be up to something, considering the recalcitrance of sections of the Madhesi alliance vis-à-vis the babus’ directives on the three-point proposal. The Chinese seem to be, shall we say, crossing the river by feeling the stones. In other words, there are bound to be too many tricks left, especially when there are so many sleeves all around.
In the circumstances, shifting the goalposts while leaving everyone with enough incentive to stay in the field would maintain the fiction of the continued relevance of that pesky old 12-Point Agreement.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Questions Keep Piling Up

Almost a week after the Indian parliament debated the state of India-Nepal relations, Maila Baje cannot but marvel at both the frivolousness and factiousness with which the issue has cascaded into that country’s internal politics.
Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, responding to questions raised by members during the debate in the upper house, suggested that this was not the first time such a difficult situation between the two neighbors had existed, rebutting a recurrent opposition claim.
The wizards of smart on our side tried to underscore that purported ‘slip’ as India’s inevitable admission that it had indeed imposed a blockade on Nepal. Never mind the fact that Swaraj was merely attacking the opposition for conveniently forgetting how the Congress government led by Rajiv Gandhi had imposed a full-fledged blockade in 1989-90. Let us only hope that the fact that few on either side of the border have sought to evoke the creative engendering of disruptions in the 1960s and 1970s is not aimed at rewriting the historical record.
In fact, Swaraj never flinched from her stand that a ‘blockade’ against Nepal was in existence in so far as the Madhesi protesters had impeded the border crossing from where the largest supplies of critical items such as fuel and pharmaceuticals passed.
It was reassuring to hear Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar, a one-time Ministry of External Affairs functionary, sound a solidly sympathetic note on the plight of Nepalis. If he seemed dismissive of the Madhesi movement for greater rights and representation, it seemed to be aimed at buttressing his counsel to New Delhi to avoid taking sides in Nepal’s internal dispute. So far so good. Yet at times Aiyar’s compassion seemed aroused more by a fear of the inroads the Chinese would make in Nepal on the back of the dwindling popularity of the Indians.
As Swaraj was speaking, another opposition member could be heard from the background saying that the 1989-90 blockade was against the royal government. Understandably, the rest of the sparsely populated chamber wasn’t prepared to split hairs when the effect on the Nepali people was no less grueling then.
When Aiyar suggested that the more appropriate nomenclature for the state of affairs would be ‘Modi’s blockade’, that sound bite was sure to win a lot of Nepali hearts and minds. His refusal to give an all-party imprimatur to such a divisive approach by sending a broad-based political delegation to Nepal promised to reverse India’s traditional consensus-based foreign policy. Like all promises, however, that would be a flimsy basis for Nepal to pursue its India policy on.
Swaraj took the names of a few Nepali leaders and suggested that they had provided specific undertakings vis-à-vis India’s concerns relating to the new Constitution. Barring Baburam Bhattarai, hardly any Nepali leader has sought clarification from the said individuals on the matter.
More broadly, Swaraj implied that the Constitution was promulgated at a time when New Delhi had indications that there was still work to be done. In that context, it is relevant on our part to question the kind of the information the Indian Embassy was feeding New Delhi. But that does not answer the long-standing question as to why it was so urgent to promulgate the Constitution while alienating the Madhesi parties, all the while standing ready with amendments.
The questions, as always, keep piling up.