Saturday, October 13, 2018

Another Punctured Trial Balloon

As trial balloons go, this one wasn’t supposed to come crashing down – at least not so spectacularly.
Fully inflated and activated, this blimp had shed traces of tentativeness before it was floated. The sitting Communist Party of Nepal (NCP) member for Kathmandu-7 constituency, Ram Bir Manandhar, resigned to make way for party leader Bam Dev Gautam’s candidacy in a by-election.
This blatant crystallization of the Gautam-Pushpa Kamal Dahal alliance in the ruling party followed serious rumblings within a party that once took pride in its discipline. Barely had Dahal’s high-profile geopolitical sojourn faltered in its original purpose than Madhav Kumar Nepal took advantage of Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s absence to mount a virtual insurrection.
Oli, for his part, sounded least bothered and continued on to Costa Rica after addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. When he arrived home, he did so with a countenance that conveyed everything was in order. Days later, when key Madhesi leaders met the prime minister, one interlocutor couldn’t help telling reporters how wearied he had found Oli.
Now, even if the burdens of his second premiership were so unbearable, Oli wouldn’t be one to chicken out, would he? Wouldn’t he benefit from a party coup – even one he could easily quell? After all, a casualty is far more respectable than a coward. So you’re force to wonder whether this whole Bam Dev thing had Oli’s imprimatur all along.
Who really knows? But our premier certainly seemed to let Messrs. Dahal, Nepal and Gautam feel that way, while went sniffing around the neighborhood. Predictably, the Bishnu Poudels and Ishwar Pokharels were up in arms. Raghubir Mahaseth endorsed the sordidness of inflicting a costly byelection, saying he, too, would be prepared to quit if the party asked him to.
As the notion of a Mahaseth speaking for a party of proletarians had long ceased to be amusing, Gautam’s assertion that he wanted to enter parliament to speed up development didn’t spark too many uncomfortable smirks among his peers. (To be fair, Gautam seems to have retained much of his 1990s-era ebullience, going by his full-blooded rebuttal of parts of former Inspector-General of Police Achyut Krishna Kharel’s newly published memoirs.)
Oli allowed the balloon to float for a few days more, enticing the principal players closer to what they considered a fait accompli and allowing the public mood to sour further. Whether Gautam felt the first intimation of doom in Bibeksheel Sajha Party convener Rabindra Mishra’s impending electoral challenge is unclear. But the former deputy prime minister was smart enough to read the real message in Oli decision to postpone a crucial party meeting that was to have finalized the matter.
Gautam bowed out, giving Dahal an easy exit as well. The ever-wily NCP co-chair instantly went into damage-control mode, praising the great things the Oli government had accomplished but had not been credited with. Manandhar, a onetime Oli loyalist, learned the bitter lesson of prematurely switching camps as others continue to take in the message in different ways. 
Wearied or not, Oli has worsted his critics. For how long is anyone’s guess, though. If he’s smart, he’ll keep us all guessing.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Flashback: All Worked Up By Works In Progress

If reality is a work in progress, our polity surely encapsulates the perpetuity of the process. With too many experiments going on at the same time – in parallel as well as in conflict – every appearance of arrival only advances our destination.
After plodding on for a dozen years, the assorted architects of our collective destiny finally seemed to have reached an equilibrium. On the bedrock of republicanism, secularism and federalism, Nepalis could find their equipoise. Sure, the Constituent Assembly turned out to be a Pandora’s Box – and twice. We’re still not sure what came out of it or what’s still inside. But the lid was shut. Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli has a hard time keeping it shut.
Oli heads a unified communist party that predominates that end of the spectrum as well as a government that enjoys two-thirds majority support in the elected legislature. Yet those you’d expect to be hailing this relief from fractiousness of the past see in Oli a single successor to the dozen ‘potentates’ that replaced the maligned monarchy.
The practical dimensions of federalism have provided the first validation of critics of this variant of devolution and decentralization. Provinces are still named numerically, as in the Rana era. Provincial officials complain of poor compensation and lack of conveyance. Centre-state conflicts have been largely in check because the people haven’t begun speaking yet.
Early on, secularism energized the faithful. After an initial victory run, Christianity seems to be on the defensive, if you read foreign Christian publications. Hinduism was never this ebullient even when Nepal was the world’s only official Hindu state. Where we have bucked the global trend is in the placidity of our Muslim brethren. In term of inclusion and representation, we have come out ahead numerically. That should count for something when we don’t have any other yardstick over the short to medium term.
Yet the Oli government is besieged. The Supreme Court tends to reverse almost every decision it makes. And that’s even before we have a permanent chief justice. Civil society tends to act as if nothing has changed since the final decade of the partyless Panchayat system. A prominent media house changes its key editors in a decision tenuously linked to the supposed appointment of a senior Indian management executive and we begin debating how that affair might affect our national destiny. An activist medical doctor with a penchant for Gandhian deprivation of nutrition chooses a remote district to make his valiant stand against the government. And the government and the doctor’s supporters both act as if the sky is about to fall.
Oli & Co. should be enthused by the new respectability their ideology, at least its socialist variant, is commanding among millennials in the West. Instead, our elected comrades are being demonized as crude incarnations of Stalin, Mao, Beria and Kang.
The roots of this apathy lay in the amorphousness of the April 2006 Uprising. For all outward appearances, it was a massive popular uprising. The principal trigger was the people’s desire to see the monarchy shed its authoritarianism and the Maoist rebels come into the mainstream. Beyond that, it was a blank canvas. Diverse interests drove their own narratives which easily set the national agenda.
The external dimensions of the distortion were starker. By the end of it all, the Chinese – who backed the monarchy against the Maoists until the last moment – welcomed the new constitution in 2015. The Indians, who set the ball rolling through the 12-Point Agreement on their soil, couldn’t come out with anything more than a tepid acknowledgement of the change in Nepal.
The Americans, Europeans and, yes, the Russians couldn’t be expected to relinquish the ground they invested in so carefully since 1950. For some further afield, our landmark elections were not representative enough. Others don’t see enough new rights upheld. Still others have their fingers firmly on the pulse to detect the outbreak of Cold War 2.0, if it hasn’t already. How could Nepal not be part of this Second Coming?
The Indians and Chinese want to turn their contest over Nepal into a neighborhood brawl. When they try to split the difference, others far afield are naturally agitated. What they lack in geographical proximity, they more than make up through money and other instruments.
Like us, the external players don’t like what Nepal has become. Again, like us, they don’t know what they want it to become. A work in progress by definition embodies eventual achievement of clearly defined and implemented initiatives. Equally, it can be an undertaking subject to the vagaries of attitudes, intentions and resources. With perplexity so entrenched in the internal and external environment, how can we not be so worked up?

Originally posted on Saturday, July 14, 2018

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Rising Up From Hurt And Hubris

Is Madhav Kumar Nepal’s near-insurrection against K.P. Sharma Oli’s leadership at a time when our prime minister and ruling party chief is abroad an act of cowardice? Or is it a brilliant incursion based on the perfect convergence of time, context and personalities? It’s hard to say.
What you can’t say is that it wasn’t coming. The creation of an overtly formidable communist party through the amalgamation of the influential Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) and Maoist factions was hailed as a harbinger political rejuvenation.
The jubilation seemed inherently contrived, though. The leaders of the two factions sat together in secret for hours over several sessions and couldn’t agree on much. Then, presto, they resolved everything, including ways of massaging their massive egos. Other egos were bound to be bruised.
The grumbling on the Maoist side was gaudier. As the newest kids on the block, the erstwhile ‘people’s warriors’ had a greater incentive to rue what they had become. The disaffection on the UML side sounded more substantive and cerebral. More experienced in power and patronage, these comrades were bound to ruminate more on the erosion of influence than on that of idealism.
The united communist party held critical decisions in abeyance. The co-leadership of Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal couldn’t even get the new party’s name right for registration purposes. So, they added the abbreviation as part of the proper noun to fulfill the imperative of novelty. Individuals shunted out of the party hierarchy had to be accommodated accordingly in the government.
Dahal had it a bit easier. His principal challengers like Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and Mohan Baidya were outside the party. Oli, on the other hand, had to keep in check the restlessness and desires of former premiers Nepal and Jhal Nath Khanal from within the party. With perennial deputy premier Bam Dev Gautam as motivated and malleable as ever, that task became all the more daunting.
Once the contradictions grew thicker, Dahal sought to strike the first blow through his much-hyped Indian and Chinese trips. Through their egregiously hospitality, the Indians ended up thwarting Dahal. If the Chinese were ever planning a warmer reception to our erstwhile Maoist chief, they must have been dissuaded by the Indians.
Clearly, Madhav Nepal saw his opportunity. The Nepal-Oli camaraderie that was at its apotheosis in the months immediately before and after the tragic death of Madan Bhandary never concealed the Jhapali v. non-Jhapali rift gripping the Marxist-Leninist faction. As men like Oli were either hunting other heads or scratching their own behind bars, other comrades were leading double lives to evade arrest. Oli and Nepal were entrenched on opposite ends of that divide, regardless of whatever came after.
With the Oli government under siege, the opposition Nepali Congress has built enough momentum to make us forget its drubbing in the last election. The media – social and the traditional variant – amplifies every act of government dereliction, real and otherwise, pushing the government further on the defensive.
Amid all this, Oli sounds unruffled. Brushing aside the hullabaloo back home, he headed to Costa Rica from New York City. How can the prime minister afford to be so blasé? Or is he merely putting on an act – for the next turn in our interminable spectacle he, too, so assiduously awaits? 

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Guinea Pigs That Went To School

Even in exasperation, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli excels at enlivening things.
“Attempts to make the country a guinea pig to experiment rights and make it a playground for elements with untoward objectives cannot be accepted,” he declared on Constitution Day. The phase of experimentation in Nepal was over, asserted Oli, with a proviso: “If anything is yet to be experimented here, they are models of speedy development.”
Implementing our new Constitution was not going to be easier than drawing it up. Still, we are in a ditch that is deeper than anyone could have determined. Obstacles – perceived and real – seem to emerge from every corner.
Of new Nepal’s three props, republicanism and secularism were going to be contentious. The monarchy and Hindu statehood never stood a fair chance in the political climate whipped up during and after People’s Movement II. Advocates of republicanism and secularism – domestic as well as external – knew they had to strike the proverbial iron when it was hot. Even in the heat of the moment, they had to sneak in such sweeping changes through the backdoor.
True, more than 90 percent of the elected assembly eventually endorsed the Constitution. But, then, this overwhelming support emanated from the only constituency that was allowed any consequential participation in the political process. Demonization and defamation were scarcely conducive to collective coolheadedness. The surprise, then, is that the constitution did not receive 100 percent endorsement.
The monarchy and Hindu statehood, to be sure, were not established as a political reality based on the popular vote. So it is disingenuous at one level to rue their departure without direct popular sanction. Still, a country that has practiced seven constitutions in 70 years also comprehends how everything eventually becomes political – in aspiration as well as appraisal.
It is confounding how precipitously the third peg – federalism – has fallen into disrepute. Oli’s present position and scope of participation in the past might have precluded him from greater candor. The occasion and venue of his remark have certainly amplified his message. Debating whether federalism was right for the country was useless, he said, stressing that leaders had to implement decisions that had been made.
The guinea pig analogy is vivid enough to encompass our times as well as those bygone. Counterfactuals are invariably entertaining. In this case, they may even be instructive. Take, for example, our 1950-51 revolution. With the benefit of Indian, British and American archival material, it would be fair to wonder whether King Tribhuvan would have been restored to the throne had British and American communication and forward-deployment abilities been able to compensate for India’s geographical advantage.
Conversely, had the British and Americans proceeded to act on the imperative that Nepal was vital to upholding their common interests in South Asia in the aftermath of the Raj, might the Indians have kept quiet? In the worst case, would the 1950 Treaty have receded into the irrelevance Nepal’s full incorporation into the Indian Union would have dictated?
History has a cold logic that engenders an abundance of ‘what ifs’ that looks backward and forward. Nepal has not lacked for a string of seemingly unrelated events in and around the neighborhood that have created fertile ground for experimentations of all sorts for those with the will and wherewithal.
As the Red Scare provoked the Free World to contrive an alternative that drew enough from tradition to preserve the present and pinpoint the future, the two communist behemoths weren’t sitting idly by either. If international communism could co-exist with the monarchy in Nepal, could those staid and stolid comrades be that all that bad?
Basic democracy, guided democracy, partyless democracy were all local variants of initiatives funded Рif not entirely fashioned Рby the leading democracies in search of a halfway house in a turbulent world. Stalin and Mao had their communes, we got our American-funded cooperatives. Such consideration makes it easier to comprehend the correlation between specific episodes of d̩tente and those of liberalization of our Panchayat polity.
When the Berlin Wall came crashing down, things perforce took another turn. Amid the hubris of the ‘end of history’, democratization had to be pursued at all costs. Again, the imperative was to strike when the iron was hot. China after the Tiananmen Square massacre and a Russia smoldering in the wreckage of the Soviet Union provided a rare window of opportunity. If liberal democracy could succeed in places like Poland and Nepal, well, then, history could be deemed to have truly ended. Structural adjustment and macroeconomic stabilization were bold supplements. Except that the Fukuyamans failed to appreciate that the Russians and Chinese weren’t going lay low forever. Nor were the likes of RAW and ISI to lack new missions.
As the Maoists complemented the Marxist-Leninists in our communist contingent amid democracy’s discontents (while Poland’s comrades reincarnated themselves as the Democratic Left Alliance), new thinking was required. Could development and security be somehow integrated to the satisfaction of all? How about a separate Armed Police Force to maintain internal security? Might an integrated command of security forces work better? We tried those and more and ended up with a still unexplained massacre in the heavily fortified palace.
Long before King Gyanendra dismissed him the first time, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba ended up a helpless bystander as US Secretary of State Colin Powell proceeded to discuss Nepal’s needs directly with the monarch and the military chief. The global war on terror was as ambiguous as it was all encompassing. Defensive imperialism and enabling the state were ideas desperately in need of a laboratory.
When the axe did fall on Deuba, most influential foreign governments supported the palace. Our ground had lost none of its fertility. But, this time, external agents were more than willing to and capable of experimenting at cross purposes, and far beyond Nepal’s carrying capacity. No surprise, therefore, that Deuba’s second dismissal prompted such severe condemnation.
In view of those and subsequent developments, Oli perhaps want us to pause and ponder. If we want to keep contriving victimhood, manufacturing grievances and inventing new rights, we certainly won’t lack external patronage and pelf. We can still marvel at how a movement against autocratic monarchy ended up producing republicanism, secularism and federalism and where else it might take us. But at some point, we need to get real. We have what we have and must at least try to make it work.
As for guinea pigs, they have to be very fortunate to survive the experiments and live the aftermath. Human beings – and nations – need more fortitude.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Flashback: Trilateral Omission

Darn it, they couldn’t let our exhilaration last a little longer.
When news broke of the surprise trilateral meeting between the leaders of Nepal, China and India on the sidelines of the Goa BRICS summit, it really felt, well, good, to say the least.
Finally, our two closest friends seemed to have gotten together to help us get our act together – and in full public display. Instead of continuing their perennial turf war over a sliver of mostly stony real estate, China and India seemed to have decided to join hands to keep the ‘distant barbarians’ out of the arena.
The initial details, too, were credible enough. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Chinese President Xi Jinping were engrossed in bilateral talks when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly dropped in. (Of course, you could impute any motive here, but let’s be charitable for the purpose of this post.)
The trio continued talking as the fourth person there, our premier’s wife Sita Dahal, looked on. (Although she still had her arms folded, Madam Dahal seemed a bit more engaged with the goings-on than she was at Rastrapati Bhavan in New Delhi a month ago. Moreover, her multi-hued handbag on the coffee table sat well with the adjacent flowers and provided a quaint harmony to both Xi’s and Modi’s jackets and the sofa pillows.)
Then the next batch of details trickled in. Xi and Modi responded positively to a proposal Dahal had made earlier on enhancing trilateral cooperation among the three countries. Emphasizing the need of tri-party strategic understanding, Dahal said Nepal’s unique geography positioned it as a ‘dynamic bridge’ between the Asian giants.
Modi and Xi agreed, but Dahal hadn’t finished. He seemed to suggest that Nepal could help to maintain cordial relations between India and China. Xi, for his part, praised Nepal’s role in maintaining equidistant relations between China and India, while Modi acknowledged the geographical, emotional and cultural relations among the three countries.
What happened? Weren’t we told that the Chinese president had cancelled his visit to Nepal (scheduled around this time) because he considered our government too India-friendly, or something like that? And hadn’t the Indian prime minister conspired with Dahal to oust the K.P. Oli government because it was too China-friendly?
Okay, Pakistani-backed incursions into Kashmir precipitate Indian military action inside Pakistani territory. The Russians seem to tilt towards Islamabad as Donald Trump assiduously courts the Hindu vote in the United States. And what? Xi and Modi suddenly decide to sit in a joint meeting with Dahal?
Man, this was nail-biting stuff but also sounding too good to be true. Alas, it was. A spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said that the meeting was ‘informal’, entirely coincidental, and just a ‘little chat’.
Describing the sequence of events, the spokesman said that after their bilateral meeting, Dahal and Xi were waiting in the lounge to go to the informal dinner. (Gosh, what’s with this obsession with informality?) Modi also happened to be there. So, the Indian spokesman said, there was no reason to call it a trilateral meeting.
All that high-minded sentimentalizing, nodding and elevating of eyebrows amounted to nothing? Nah, somebody somewhere just cast an evil eye. And, yes, that’s being charitable.

Originally posted on Sunday, October 16, 2016