Sunday, November 29, 2015

The China Ca(na)rd

A distinctive feature of this year’s Indian economic ‘blockade’ is the sternness of Nepal’s reaction. The sitting prime minister and his principal deputies are becoming ever more creative and caustic in chiding New Delhi’s neo-imperial ways.
Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist leader Madhav Kumar Nepal, who, like party chief and premier Khadga Prasad Oli, has long been considered overtly India-friendly, sounds very much like he has defected to the extreme fringes of the left.
For his part, Maoist head honcho Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been conspicuous by his reticence in criticizing India, perhaps owing to the lessons he learned the hard way circa 2009. Yet his lieutenants in power and outside alike have reverted to the People’s War-era vilification of the Indians.
Nepal, moreover, has been strident in internationalizing the unjustness of the ‘blockade’ and its calamitous fallout, although nowhere akin to the Palestinians’ successes vis-à-vis the Israelis. Just the other day, Nepali armed police personnel arrested over a dozen Indian border guards entering our territory and made much about that before releasing them. That’s called progress.
From official pronouncements and public anticipation alike, the substitution of India by China as Nepal’s most important economic partner seems to have acquired national urgency.
This brings us to the other side of the story, which Maila Baje thinks is more gripping.
There is palpable nonchalance in India’s response to Nepal’s flashing of the ‘China card’ this time. Sure, there is some wailing across the southern border over how the Hindu nationalist government has pushed Nepal into China’s arms.
Much of the bellyaching, however, is restricted to the Indian media, which, if you can read the stitches on a fastball, is aimed at providing cover to the actions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The Indian opposition, too, has been making noises. But, then, they are in dire need of an issue.
Ambassadors of third countries in Kathmandu voice concern over the suffering caused by India’s actions. But when Modi issues joint statements during visits abroad and Nepal is featured, his hosts tend to agree with New Delhi as far as our Constitution goes. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, too, sounds a little flustered these days. The humanitarian situation in Nepal is a source of legitimate international concern, but so is the issue of inclusion. The responsibility to protect comes as a package deal.
All this must have induced the mandarins up north to squirm a bit. For them, Nepal has long served as a playground where they can irritate India at relatively low cost. When it’s show time, they have always advised us to remain in India’s good books. A one-time grant of petrol, arms to crush the Maoist rebels, 600 sacks of salt – we know the drill.
Can there be any doubt that Beijing is more anxious to prevent New Delhi from embarking on its own journey to the West, amid the United States’ pivot to Asia? Containment, encirclement, call it what you will, the barbarians must be kept at a distance. More importantly, they must not be allowed to join hands.
For Nepal, though, this episode has intrinsic redeeming value. While the south has long denigrated our assertions of national sovereignty as a brazen display of the ‘China card’, the north has left us wilting in the winds.
Let’s look at it this way: If the Chinese this time put their money where their mouth is, well, fine and dandy. If the ‘China card’ finally collapses, what have we got to lose? Our southern neighbor and friends farther afield would be forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of what we say and do as a sovereign nation and people.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Forcing Newness On A Nostalgic Nation

Brushing off critics from across the ideological spectrum, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai is pressing ahead with his campaign to establish a “new force” that could save the nation.
Such an entity would be free of the ‘isms’ gripping the Nepali polity for far too long, he asserted the other day. ‘Yeah right’ wasn’t the dominant response, though. Bhattarai’s declaration seemed to attract such disparate people as Pradip Giri, Upendra Yadav and Padma Ratna Tuladhar.
When the one-time chief ideologue of the Maoists surprised everyone to leave that party with his stated intention, he prompted a palpable been-there-done-that sentiment. Weeks later, he drew a chunk of followers from the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), rousing the wrath of those who stayed behind with party president Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
What’s with the man? The notion of a ‘New Nepal’ Bhattarai so persuasively peddled to so many during the insurgency and after has liquefied into the growing nostalgia for the ancien regime. Or at least parts of it. After all, former prime minister Jhal Nath Khanal has come around to counseling a new look to converting the five development regions into provinces and putting the federalism imbroglio behind us. And that, by the way, is a sentiment enjoying cross-party, if muted, for now, support.
Is Bhattarai so addicted to the idea of perpetual revolution that novelty – regardless of its ambiguity – gives him a high? Or is there redeeming value in abandoning the field for another game when the last one is stilled being played?
Yet Bhattarai makes much sense, too. His criticism of the hastiness with which the Constitution was pushed through carries greater resonance amid the Madhes agitation and the Indian ‘blockade’. Bhattarai’s refusal to blame New Delhi exclusively for the current state of affairs was never bound to be popular. It has offered an opportunity for introspection for those with the courage and conviction to do so.
His revelation that China’s then prime minister Wen Jiabao had advised Nepal to maintain cordial relations with India because the northern neighbor could never supplant the southern may have sounded like a below-the-belt thud. In reality, it merely reaffirmed what a Wen predecessor, Li Peng, had said publicly during an official visit to Nepal during the height of the 1989-90 Indian trade and transit embargo.
For now, the upshot? Love him or hate him, but we can’t contemplate contemporary political life without Bhattarai.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Really, Is This For Real?

We seem to have decided to really give to ’em this time. Leaders such as Khadga Prasad Oli and Madhav Kumar Nepal, long perceived as pro-Indian, are castigating the Indians in unexpectedly strident tones and tenor. What’s more, two men New Delhi has long considered unfriendly – Chitra Bahadur K.C. and and Chandra Prakash Mainali – have landed jobs as deputy prime minister almost for the express purpose of raising the rhetoric levels.
As India set out to pre-empt our internationalization of their blockade by raking up, among other things, war-time atrocities committed by the Maoists, Deputy Prime and Foreign Minister very emotionally persisted in purveying the pains of a small and landlocked country at Geneva.
The protests against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi mounted by Nepalis in London supposedly surprised New Delhi, which, the Nepali media reported, prompted an investigation down south. Still, Modi got his host, David Cameron, to insert New Delhi-friendly language on Nepal in the joint communique. But that didn’t deter our foreign ministry from issuing a formal statement asserting our right to conduct our internal affairs.
So far so good. This was a fight Nepal had been itching to wage for quite a while. Yet things about it don’t pass the smell test. India’s hard line was attributed to the state elections in Bihar, which had become a prestige issue for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While we were elated by the BJP’s trouncing and the subsequent insurrection by party elders led by Lal Krishan Advani, Modi seems to have turned things to his advantage. The Bihar imbroglio has served as the Indian prime minister’s Hundred Flowers campaign, following which he things he has smoked out his detractors.
Both the Chinese and Nepalis made much about the evolving northern alliance, more us than them, of course. In the aftermath of the arrival of the first truckloads of Chinese oil in Kathmandu, Beijing has chosen to proceed carefully. Sure, we’re negotiating with the Chinese the legal and institutional arrangements needed to free ourselves from the clutches of India. Who knows how long all that might take?
While the Indian media has been jumping around that New Delhi’s policies have pushed Kathmandu into Beijing’s arms, official India seems remarkably unperturbed. That a political establishment that until the other day was thanking India for forging the mainstream-Maoist alliance against the monarchy has come around to asserting its sovereign right to promulgate a constitution it saw fit is admirable. But what of the alacrity to do so while alienating 40 percent of the population residing on prime real estate?
In view of the all this, Maila Baje is forced to wonder whether the Oli government is complicit in India’s efforts to call China’s bluff?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Enigmas of Arrival At Arm’s Length

Back in the days when republicanism was a cause even its most ardent advocates considered a practical impossibility to achieve in their lifetimes, Maila Baje often pondered a scenario: What would happen if a post-monarchy government led by the Nepali Congress found itself embroiled in political and diplomatic tensions with India.
Might a party that was born on Indian soil and depended so much on that country’s sustenance be able to assert itself on matters of core Nepali national interests? If so, how would the Indians respond, since they no longer would have the “autocratic” palace to kick around?
It took the promulgation of a republican Constitution this year – the culmination of a process driven by India nine years ago – to observe that engagement. What prompted then Prime Minister Sushil Koirala’s Nepali Congress-led government to rebuff India’s repeated admonitions to go slow on the promulgation remains intriguing.
Equally so is India’s apparent unwillingness to take into consideration the democratic nature of the government apparently flouting its wishes. Across the spectrum, some of the politicians we considered friendliest to India emerged as the most vocal critics of India’s encroachment upon Nepalis’ sovereign choice.
More serious distortions produced by the conflict are apparent. Amendments aimed at appeasing dissenting voices were ready almost hours after the promulgation. The much-awaited post-Constitution government led by the relatively moderate Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist depends on the most zealous anti- and pro-monarchy forces. The country, in the midst of an Indian blockade not everyone in our country appears ready to call by its name, is flashing the much-maligned “China card”, something that should have receded into history with the monarchy.
For a prime minister who has been waiting for the job for so long, Khadga Prasad Oli’s assumption of office has proved a yawner. After the “gentlemen’s agreement” on power sharing among the major parties fizzled during the prime ministerial election, President Ram Baran Yadav has been emboldened to campaign for a second term – through the Indian media.
In normal circumstances, it would have been easy to laugh off how Baburam Bhattarai chickened out of the field by leaving the Maoist party. In today’s setting, his move carries the aura of principle.
True to tradition, at least when it comes to Nepal, the Chinese have been dangling promises throughout the crisis. The new government must feel the same pangs of disillusionment endured by the governments of Bahadur Shah, Bhimsen Thapa, Marich Man Singh Shrestha and Gyanendra Shah.
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa of the royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party, who rushed to New Delhi for talks days after taking the oath of office, sounds a little miffed these days. His much-vaunted personal relationship with leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party failed to make a dent.
If the Indians are really infuriated this time, they may have good reason to be. The federalism rigmarole does not pose the same threat to Chinese. They have sufficiently appeased, coopted or overpowered political forces on the border to mitigate threats to Tibet. Along the porous southern border, the Indians, who see no finality in terms of their own provincial boundaries, consider tentativeness in our provincial model a far greater threat to their national security.
The Indian media is twisting and moaning over how New Delhi is pushing Kathmandu into Beijing’s arms. The Indian government, for its part, seems ready to bear that opprobrium as long as it recognizes that China’s arms aren’t that wide open.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Can We Prove The Astrologers Wrong?

Our worst fears didn’t come to pass. At least, we didn’t have to promulgate the Constitution to just to find out what it contained.
In fairness, the process, albeit delayed, was remarkably robust. Ultimately, the draft experts submitted to the elected assembly was amended after fairly forceful, if at times flashy, public input.  That text was then voted upon article by article. And when the final version of the document was put before the assembly, it commanded more than two-thirds support.
If not allowing the perfect stand in the way of the practicable is the operative standard, let’s us all breathe in relief: better late than never. But, then, there’s that pesky little thing called politics. With an entire region of the country, comprising half the population, having rejected the basic law, promises of prompt amendments appear unlikely to mollify that constituency.
What difference might a couple of days’ delay in promulgating the charter have made in terms of its legitimacy? Then, again, what guarantee was there that last-minute talks with the disparate and divided Terai-Madhes-based groups would have borne fruit, right? And let’s not forget that, from the extreme fringes of the ideological spectrum, the document ways always going to have been pronounced dead on arrival.
Much has been made of India’s apparent displeasure with the process as well as the product. Nepali leaders rebuffed New Delhi’s last-minute intervention and kept to their schedule. However, they, too, probably aren’t in a celebratory mood for having done that. When the ideologically distinct Indian media uniformly begin to lament how Nepali leaders spurned New Delhi, you can guess that the story is still being scripted.
The Indian government didn’t sound too happy in its official response to the promulgation. Because of that perceived frostiness, no one knows what New Delhi’s next move might be. The Terai might suddenly go quiet, trying to make the best of the situation now and regroup for the next round. On the other hand, things might flare up to an extent almost justifying India’s expressed anxieties. The Chinese, of course, could afford to be happier about the outcome because it’s not their porch that’s smoldering. The responses of the other different external stakeholders have been consistent with their stated positions.
As has been long stressed in this space, there was no alternative to promulgating the constitution, Great Earthquake or not. There’s no doubt the process begun in 2006 was flawed, more so because of the subsequent slapdash compromises than because of the original spirit of the “People’s Movement II”. Much time and money was spent on keeping alive the idea of “New Nepal”. No matter how nebulous, it assumed a life of its own and needed a body.
Critics like yours truly will continue to point out that out, but not wearing some sinister see-I-told-you-so smirk. The drivers of the promised change are in full control. They can no longer blame the palace for subverting a people’s quest for full sovereignty. The first rule of thumb is that an empowered people will have greater expectations from their leaders.
Most astrologers said the time the constitution was promulgated was not propitious. A secular state may need not pay heed to such antiquated analysis. Yet the essential question remains: Can we prove the astrologers wrong?