Sunday, March 19, 2017

Making Sense Of Our Sensibilities

Lost in the turbulence of our wider politics last week was a candid appraisal made by a former bureaucrat/aspiring politician of what really does seem to ail us.
Rameshwar Khanal, a former finance secretary who became a prominent member of the Naya Shakti, took the usual course of castigating political parties as being full of people interested only in sowing divisions and perpetuating conflicts. But Khanal didn’t stop there. He also had some harsh words for voters – as in, us – who he said were easily influenced by money.
Khanal’s remarks came in response to questions as to why he chose to leave the Naya Shakti, led by former Maoist chief ideologue Baburam Bhattarai. The interviewer admitted that Khanal spoke after much cajoling, and the interview centered on Naya Shakti and Dr. Bhattarai. Still, his indictment rang true across the political spectrum.
Why are our leaders who and what they are? Because of the people?
That patronage (i.e., corruption) would be the elixir of a restored multiparty democracy was a key talking point of the panchas throughout the dying days of the partyless system. The other side had a ready retort. The autocratic panchas would pocket 90 percent of what they stole, whereas democrats would keep, at most, a tenth of the loot after spending the bulk on greasing the wheels of democracy.
But, then, multiparty democracy would raise corruption to unprecedented – and perhaps unsustainable –levels, the panchas argued. Since the same percentages would hold, the counterargument went, pilferage associated with patronage was far superior morally and ethically. At least there would be value for money.
By the mid-term election campaign in 1994, Nepali Congress candidates could be heard complaining about how expensive it had become to mobilize workers and supporters. A fare of aloo-chiura and water had long given way to chicken and beer to fuel the machine from one stop to the next, and you still couldn’t be sure.
The conspicuous cost of patronage may or may not have consumed Nepal’s second experiment with multiparty democracy. Yet today’s politicians have decided to carefully shun its most egregious excesses and become more creative in the acquisition and disposal of resources.
For one thing, political representation has been increased for every significant articulation of grievances. One effect has been the mutual tolerance exhibited by politicians and the people. Our leaders have defined their project as a perpetual work in progress, where periodic knocks are papered over by multi-pointed agreements. The people, having subliminally accepted that this is the best they are going to get, have reserved the right to oppose without being outright obnoxious.
Consider where we are today. Before the Madhesi alliance withdrew its support from the government, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal fortified his flank by inducting Rastriya Prajantatra Party (RPP) president Kamal Thapa as his senior deputy. The Madhesi parties barely got to contemplate why the revolutionary Dahal would award the federalism portfolio to Thapa, a vocal advocate of going back to Hindu statehood and monarchy, two of three pillars of New Nepal.
The Election Commission then ordered the RPP to drop those two agendas from its charter if it wanted to contest the elections. As Thapa threatened to resign on the eve of Dahal’s crucial trip to China, the other deputy prime minister, Bimalendra Nidhi grumbled that he couldn’t play second fiddle to Thapa, who tabled a constitutional amendment proposal to restore Hindu statehood.
As the agitating Madhesi alliance began thinking about rethinking its approach to the Dahal government, a key Madhesi leader Bijay Kumar Gachchaddar pondered returning to the Nepali Congress. (A party, in the laconic words of leader of the opposition, Khadga Prasad Oli, that is a buffalo that can barely carry the load of a goat.)
Before you could grapple with this snarl, a hardline Hindu man of the cloth became the leader of the most populous Indian state, which adjoins a large part of our southern border. The operative question then became: did Thapa and his party deliberately keep the monarchy out of the latest amendment proposal? The ongoing or planned visits by the head of the US military’s Pacific Command, the Chinese defense minister and the Indian army chief have heightened the geo-strategic dimensions of our national existence.
Perhaps the blame game between politicians and people should gather pace. After all, it’s the easiest way to make sense of our sensibilities.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Ambassador Supreme And Mission Creep

Manjeev Singh Puri
If India was expecting to reset its relationship with Nepal with the appointment of a new ambassador, then the omens are not good.
The reverberations of protests along the border, a day after Indian security forces fatally shot a Nepali man who was protesting their presence on disputed territory, continue.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, teetering from the threat by the United Madhesi Democratic Front to withdraw support over the police action against protesters in Saptari, inducted the Rastriya Prajatantra Party’s Kamal Thapa as deputy prime minister. As if that was not astonishing enough, the appointment of Dil Nath Giri, perhaps the most vocal pro-monarchist in that party after the late Padma Sundar Lawoti, can only be emblematic of new options Dahal may be prepared to espouse. (The departure of Prakash Chandra Lohani from the RPP being portentous for Thapa, of course, depending on how developments unfold in the weeks ahead.)
The new tension in western Nepal has given an opening to the entire political spectrum, which has reverted to accusing India of high-handedness. In declaring the deceased, Govinda Gautam, a martyr, Nepal has drawn a line in the sand for the near term. Manjeev Singh Puri, India’s ambassador-designate, thus has his work cut out for him.
The scope for broad ruminations has not been exhausted, though. Puri has not been identified with the agglomeration of foreign policy managers who have established and overseen India’s post-April 2006 approach to Nepal. (Unless, of course, you count Puri’s tenure as deputy permanent representative at the United Nations, during when the Security Council established and oversaw the special political mission in Nepal.)
Puri’s UN tenure, and his subsequent term as India’s representative to the European Union, should provide him with a broader global perspective on Nepal and its place in the region and world. For instance, he could take a fresh look at his statement defending New Delhi’s decision to abstain from the March 2011 Security Council vote on the Libya no-fly zone (particularly part pertaining to his government’s “unwilling[ness] to support far-reaching measures” in the absence of credible information on the situation on the ground. This is not to underestimate the uphill task for Puri – even if he wanted to – to break free from the Ministry of External Affairs’ viceregal orientation toward Kathmandu.
Speaking of Puri’s tenure at the EU, how can we forget the brouhaha of almost exactly a year ago? Our government maintained that the March 30, 2016 India-European Union joint statement’s emphasis on the need for “a lasting and inclusive constitutional settlement in Nepal that will address the remaining constitutional issues in a time bound manner, and promote political stability and economic growth” had ‘hurt’ the sentiments of the Nepali people. Another group of Nepalis felt that the government statement had injured their feelings.
We cannot gauge the full implications of Puri’s appointment amid the fact that Nepalis are pretty much discussing that same issue. What can be said, though, is that the generational shift Puri represents may discourage him from punishing Nepal for the foothold the Chinese have made here since the country’s turn to republicanism, federalism and secularism.
New Delhi’s desire to begin confronting Beijing amid the shifting global power equations might make much strategic sense. In specific terms, the collision of competing spheres of influence reinforced by history and geography would require full and unwavering commitment to a credible objective.
Amid the upsurge of anti-Indian sentiment on the foundation of lingering distrust of New Delhi’s motives in Nepal’s prolonged transition, Puri would also have to articulate and inhibit the imponderables stemming from the election results in the two key border states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
The ambience certainly won’t change for Puri but the undercurrents always open up possibilities – good or bad, depending on your point of view.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Oli Wants Back In: Will He Be The Same Man?

Taking a leaf from former king Gyanendra, ex-premier Khadga Prasad Oli the other day sought to plant new seeds of national reassurance.
“Some forces may have succeeded in removing the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist from power, but they have not been able to remove us from the people’s hearts and minds,” he declared the other day.
From the turnout at the recent legs of the UML’s Mechi-Mahakali Campaign, Oli can’t be entirely derided. In fact, the man continues to draw our collective attention, if not our unrelenting empathy.
In the election-vs-amendment rigmarole, Oli has gotten the upper hand – for now.  Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has adopted an entirely uncharacteristic Dhristarashtra-like aura of resignation in his current tenure on almost everything of substance. On the question of elections, however, he retains the revolutionary’s defiance in favor of the sanctity of the popular will.
Expecting to ride high on a nationalist agenda, the UML can’t wait for the elections. Its rivals see this antsiness with a mixture of trepidation and disdain.
During times like these, count on former Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai to eke out relevance from the margins of seeming idleness. Oli and C.K. Raut are two sides of the same coin, Bhattarai posited the other day.
Whether Bhattarai – who is battled disgruntlement within his new Naya Shakti – has exposed himself to charges of sedition in having sought to elevate the separatist Madhesi leader to the status of the leader of the opposition is perhaps immaterial to Oli.
Nor does the UML chief seem too bothered by Bhattarai’s other insinuation – that Oli is the most prominent anti-Madhesi figure in the political firmament. A Gorkhali castigating a Jhapali on that count does defy Nepali political geography.
Still, Oli has something better going for him. The last time Maila Baje checked, Oli had never advocated the full and complete separation of the northern Nepali heft as an or-else proviso of his political program.
For now, Oli’s parables are focused on the what-might-have-been strand of national prognostication. His government’s ‘northern expedition’ retains much of its original public popularity amid persistent cheap shots of the Maoist-Centre and the Nepali Congress and the official cold-shoulder extended to the Chinese.
Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress is no doubt itching to take over from Dahal, citing the incumbent’s ineptitude. (Hah, ineptitude.) Dissidence building under the leadership of Ram Chandra Poudel doesn’t seem to have dampened Deuba’s ambitions.
Oli, however, is intent on invoking the full deal. For him, the Dahal-Deuba power-sharing accord was predicated on a successful Maoist-Centre-led tenure paving the way for the Nepali Congress’ leadership. Dahal’s current ineptitude, in Oli’s formulation, should block Deuba’s rise to the premiership.
Oli’s ousting as premier last year has only served to strengthen his position within the UML. Former premiers Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhal Nath Khanal don’t look like men in a hurry to return to the lucrative perch inside Singha Durbar.
Oli served the longest as premier in waiting. He is also benefiting the most from his perceived successes in office. The man may not be saying it in so many words, but Oli certainly wants back in. The question is: will he be the same man in his second avatar as prime minister?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Uniting For the Next Split? Let’s Hope Not

Emerging from its much-publicized unity convention, the right-of-center Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) is seeking to project the image of your normal political party. And the Big Three political parties have contributed much to the normalization process.
From the balminess and banter the Nepali Congress, Unified Marxist Leninist and Maoist-Center stacked on convention inauguration ceremony, you could easily forget that the man at the center was also at the core of the regime those parties joined hands to overthrow in the Spring of 2006.
To be sure, Kamal Thapa has long since emerged out of the persona of home minister of the royal regime to position his erstwhile party as the fourth largest in the assembly elected in 2013. The RPP Nepal did not win a single seat in the first past the post category.
Yet its rivals quickly recognized the slippery slope that would set in once you started denigrating the RPPN’s exclusivity with ‘proportional representatives’. As the leader of the new party, Thapa can now claim three directly elected representatives in his contingent.
Thapa failed in his effort to foster unanimity. Prakash Chandra Lohani of the republican faction of the former panchas broke an informal agreement to announce a challenge to Thapa. Lohani then disappointed a lot of us by withdrawing in favor of a proxy, Pradeep Bikram Rana.
It wasn’t difficult to sympathize with Lohani. As someone honed through the tumultuous graduate-constituency process of the partyless polity, critic of the ‘dyarchy’ in the early 1970s, and campaigner for the restoration of multiparty democracy, Lohani went on to join the relatively hardline Panchayat faction in the post-referendum 1980s. For much of this period, he was projected as a future prime minister.
His challenge to Thapa had a strong case. This was supposed to be unification of two parties, not a takeover of one by the other. By withdrawing, Lohani allowed Thapa to crushed a true competitor in a real contest, while Rana established his credentials at Lohani’s expense. An unfazed Thapa went on to nominate key party members with a swiftness that set a record in the annals of internal party organization in Nepal.
The united party advocates the installation of a ceremonial monarchy and the restoration of Hindu statehood. On the former, greater clarity would be required in the weeks and months ahead. Hindu statehood, however, seems to be the defining issue. In a sop to post-April 2006 realities, the RPP has accepted federalism, albeit if a little diffidently.
In its latest iteration as a responsible stakeholder, the RPP has warned the government not to push the Constitution Amendment Bill in its present form, saying such a move would prove counterproductive. Yet the party said it would not offer an amendment proposal. A cop out? Maybe. It’s looks more like the RPP is holding its cards close to the chest, considering the likely fallout from any precipitous move from any side.
The RPP can no longer be characterized solely as an amalgam of diehard royalists. Conservative Hindus with a republican bent also populate the organization, although that trait seems rooted more in expediency than in ideology.
The RPP probably has the political smarts to continue to prosper. But can it overcome its divisive history. The men and women in that part of the political spectrum tend to do well when they are united. But political power – or even the prospect of it – instantly divides them, and with an intensity far greater than what tends to split other Nepali parties.
Could that be why the leaders of the Big Three were having such a good time at the inauguration ceremony?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Gaudy Games In The Premier League

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been assuring us to the point of utter boredom that elections will be held at any cost to safeguard the political achievements of the past decade. The opposition Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) likes hearing that, but only when Dahal shuts up about amending the constitution first.
Dahal’s partial allies in the Federal Socialist Alliance (FSA) want the prime minister to go the other way around. The alliance is pressing him to first respect the identity and space of Madhesis in the setting of provincial boundaries.
Now, Dahal knows that he gave that very assurance in exchange for the alliance’s support in building the new government. Yet every time he seeks to placate the FSA by talking up the putative constitutional amendment, the UML turns tart.
The opposition party warns that any change of boundaries on the basis of ethnicity would be detrimental to social amity and national sovereignty. And when the UML does that, Dahal returns to telling us that elections will be held at all costs. The prime minister’s persistence vis-à-vis polls makes you want to forget that he heads what is still officially a Maoist party.
The Election Commissioners have long been pushing the government to announce the dates before anything else. If the premier did that without redrawing the provincial boundaries first, the FSA warns it would begin its oft-threatened protests.
Dahal is lucky that the Nepali Congress, the junior partner in the government, is torn between the amendment- and election-first proponents. As a result, relations between Nepali Congress president Sher Bahadur Deuba – the presumptive next prime minister – and Dahal are said to have soured.
Seeking his pound of flesh nevertheless, Deuba prodded Dahal the other day to convene an early-morning cabinet meeting to appoint Jay Bahadur Chand as Inspector-General of Police. Before Deuba could properly take his victory lap, the Supreme Court put Chand’s appointment on hold. Deuba, for his part, issued a formal statement disclaiming any role in the Chand affair.
Dahal felt he could comfortably resume playing off the FSA and UML against each other. But that gambit, too, appears to have run its course. Lately, the prime minister has turned to another predecessor, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, for help in untying the political knot.
Bhattarai, a one-time Dahal lieutenant who ditched the party after the Constituent Assembly promulgated the new constitution to form his own outfit, seemed concerned enough. He has taken to blaming former prime minister and UML chairman K.P. Oli for loosening his lips so lax as to embolden separatists like C.K. Raut. (Of the other two former premiers in the UML, Madhav Kumar Nepal wants Dahal to step down immediately for incompetence, while Jhal Nath Khanal accuses our head of government of being India’s puppet.)
Now we’re supposed to believe that Dahal and Bhattarai would join hands to save the nation when they couldn’t even feign unity a little bit longer to save their party. Oh these gaudy premier games!