Sunday, October 16, 2016

Trilateral Omission

Photo courtesy: Prakash Dahal
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.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Wages Of Crying Wolf

So it eventually had to come to this.
A decade after triumphing in their ‘people’s war’, Baburam Bhattarai is accusing Pushpa Kamal Dahal of betraying the nation in order to maintain his grip on power by signing a despicable agreement with India during his recent trip down south.
Bhattarai said the 25-point communiqué was so bad that he could not sleep the whole night after Prime Minister Dahal made it public. “This anti-nationalist agreement … is tormenting me,” the former chief ideologue of the Maoists said at a public gathering the other day.
Bhattarai’s party, Naya Shakti Nepal, went further, calling the communique ‘an act of treason’ that threatened to push the country towards regression. Point 11 in particular would lead to the ‘Bhutanization’ of Nepal, the party concluded.
Now, Bhattarai has a penchant for throwing around terms like ‘Sikkimization’ and ‘Bhutanization’ with abandon, almost to the point of deflection.
After describing the 2001 palace massacre as a conspiracy to turn Nepal into an Indian dependency a la its two other Himalayan cousins, Bhattarai soon began wooing the Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi with unspecified promises and pledges.
By mid-2005, after King Gyanendra seized full executive powers amid a change of government in New Delhi, Bhattarai almost singlehandedly thwarted a Nepal-based solution that might have worked better. So much so that sections of the Indian establishment were irked by the way Bhattarai was hobnobbing with Indian commies to precipitate a radical reorientation of India’s Nepal policy.
After Bhattarai prevailed in pushing Nepal into nebulous newness, it was natural for us to expect him to begin work on expanding Nepal’s space for independent and sovereign action. But, then, what could he do with that puny finance portfolio, right?
As prime minister, Bhattarai wasn’t too keen on reversing the Sugauli Agreement-era stranglehold of India he had so railed against. He left for an official visit to New Delhi promising not to sign BIPPA, but came back having done just that.
During the Teheran Non-Aligned summit, he snuck out to meet with his Indian counterpart without giving his deputy, and fellow Maoist, Narayan Kaji Shrestha, and inkling. And who can forget the wholesale mismanagement that gripped the brief visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao?
None of this, of course, means that Bhattarai isn’t entitled to revise his position. Maybe he should come out with a full-blown self-criticism of his approach to and expectations from India beginning from his Jawaharlal University days. Identifying people, places and perspectives would be extremely helpful.
Nepalis know that India doesn’t need to ‘Sikkimize’ or ‘Bhutanize’ our nation. New Delhi has mounted a fairly successful ‘Nepalization’ operation with no small assistance from politicos like Bhattarai and ploys like the 12 Point Agreement.
Prime Minister Dahal doesn’t seem particularly stung by Bhattarai’s accusations, does he?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Handshake And A Shakedown

Photo: Rastriya Samachar Samiti
Was Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s visit to India really as successful as is being officially characterized in both countries?
The answer would rest on whether Chinese President Xi Jinping lands in Kathmandu this year – or ever.
From New Delhi’s standpoint, at least, our prime minister’s visit helped to melt the frost that had enveloped bilateral ties during the Khadga Prasad Oli-led government. Although Dahal has not been so explicit, he feels he can go along with New Delhi’s interpretation.
Oli, for his part, has become the most vociferous critic of Dahal’s southern sojourn. The former prime minister believes Dahal did what he was supposed to: undo the work of the previous government towards strengthening Nepal’s relations with China in keeping with the times.
Accusing Dahal of stooping ‘too low’ and compromising on the independence of Nepal’s foreign policy by agreeing to work together with India in international forums, Oli said his Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) would not accept the 25-point joint communiqué.
How other key leaders of faction-riven UML take Oli’s unilateral delineation of party policy in public remains unclear. What is clear, though, is that the UML has managed its internal divisions better than our other parties.
On matters pertaining to India, ever since the UML’s fall from power, the other two ex-premiers, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhal Nath Khanal, seem to have taken an oath of loyalty to Oli. If so, that’s because the UML has decided to firmly hold the banner of nationalism aloft and make sure no one else even thinks of raising it higher.
The Indians have waxed eloquent over how Dahal, by his mere ascension, has ended the Oli-era nightmare. The visit, from their perspective, only capped that reality. One of the Maoist leader’s former Indian handlers gushed that Dahal had established himself as the only person who could lead Nepal.
No doubt, this distinguished Indian foreign policy and security analyst also feels vindicated after the lousy start Dahal made during his first innings in Singha Darbar.
During their one-on-one meeting, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was believed to have asked Dahal to keep a distance from Beijing, before hailing him at a joint news conference as “the catalyst force for peace” in Nepal.
On his return home, Dahal told reporters that the new understanding reached with India would not affect Nepal’s relations with China. Yet he is smart enough not to be taken in by the effusiveness of India’s acclaim. The way our anti-graft watchdog ordered a probe into the alleged embezzlement of more than Rs. 6 billion from funds meant for rehabilitating former Maoist guerrillas the day the two prime ministers held talks in New Delhi can hardly be deemed coincidental. Although the agency did not name names, top Maoist leaders, including Dahal, could be questioned.
The message is clear: If any Nepali politician steps out of line, there are levers of our state that New Delhi knows can easily be deployed against the offender.
Maybe that realization is what really prompted Dahal to cancel his trip to the United Nations. The Chinese, after all, are capable enough to decide whether Xi should or should not visit Nepal, without Dahal being within earshot of Premier Li Keqiang.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Curious Evolution Of A Premier’s Persona

Something eerie seems to be going on with Comrade Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
Of course, he’s trying hard this time to be humble, contrite and all that. Nothing wrong there.
The bluster and superciliousness of his last tenure as premier did not serve him well. Let the man learn his lesson and move on.
Still, something is discordant, particularly with regard to his position vis-à-vis the Indians. And it’s not just because his televised undertaking in 2009 not to prostrate before foreign deities to stay in power echoes on.
Dahal’s predecessor, Khadga Prasad Oli, is the leading the charge in depicting the current government as remote-controlled from New Delhi. Riding on the series of agreements Oli signed during his visit to China, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) is milking every drop from those nationalist credentials.
The jury is still out on whether Oli’s northern sojourn really represents a geostrategic shift, so you just have to put up with Oli.
But egging on Dahal to take on the Indians on Lipulekh and Kalapani et al during his upcoming visit to India? Isn’t that going a bit too far?
Apparently not. Dahal, for one, seems to have made an early decision not to fight the ‘pro-Indian’ tag. He keeps assuring us that he won’t sign any anti-national deals during his visit so often that you begin to see that wink-wink routine there.
In an interview with a leading Indian daily, he came out as a confidence-builder too much for his own good.
Such ‘evolution’ is fine. And it’s not unprecedented either. Somehow, those disenchanted with the Chinese for one reason or the other seem to be afflicted the most by the urgency to publicize their transformation. (If you have doubts, just refer to the speeches of former prime minister Kunwar Inderjeet Singh after he returned from his exile in China).
The pendulum can easily swing the other way. The CPN-UML continues to bemoan the tragic death of its charismatic leader Madan Bhandary as part of an Indian conspiracy against his nationalist stance. However, a few years earlier, when an extensive full-spread interview in an Indian daily launched Bhandary’s national political debut amid the anti-Panchayat movement, many of us were left scratching our heads wondering, Madan who? And Oli himself wasn’t known for firebrand nationalism before his premiership, was he?
The problem is with letting personal evolutions become emblematic of a nation’s diplomatic transformation. The most recent fallout? The ostensible postponement of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s impending visit to Nepal about which our Foreign Ministry officially knows nothing. That didn’t prevent Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara – Beijing’s ‘closest friend’ here – from springing into action. Yes, the same Mahara who several years ago was on our official most-wanted list but was comfortably talking to CNN’s Satinder Bindra on Indian soil.
The news report detailing the postponement of Xi’s visit was quite explicit – and damning to Nepal – about the reasons. Was the story a plant? If so, by whom? The Chinese or the Indians? Be sure not to ask Prime Minister Dahal. He looks like he already knows what you want to hear.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Politics of Pre-emption?

Khum Bahadur Khadka is a restless man. He has been edgy for quite a while.
The Nepali Congress luminary is said to have around half a dozen central committee members and twice that number of lawmakers in his camp. He has been seeking the party’s vice-presidency, citing the central role he played in the election of Sher Bahadur Deuba to the top job at the party convention.
Deuba, however, is wavering. The three-time premier has long been familiar with Khadka’s prowess. Without him, Deuba could not have broken away to form his Nepali Congress (Democratic) in 2002. Although that enterprise turned out to be a sheer disaster for the country in many ways, Deuba did ultimately prosper from it.
Sure, the king sacked him twice for incompetence. But that was then. Without the opportunity of leading his own party, Deuba could not have returned to the Nepali Congress so galvanized as to claim the mantle left behind by mentor-turned-rival Girija Prasad Koirala.
Khadka, for his part, knows the unreliability of Deuba. As general secretary of the breakaway party, he seemed thereby intent on establishing its primacy. Serving as Deuba’s home minister, he opposed the prime minister’s recommendation that the king postpone the parliamentary election, maintaining that the administration was capable of warding off the Maoists and organizing an exercise then deemed as central to survival of democracy.
Deuba instead got the sack and the king took over, with the deposed premier now peddling himself as the second coming of B.P. Koirala. Khadka, meanwhile, found himself imprisoned under some of the same senior police officials he was commanding. As Deuba continued playing the victim, it was Girija Prasad Koirala who would call the deposed home minister to enquire about his health and raise his political spirits. That ‘nurturing’ encouraged Khadka and core loyalists to return to the Nepali Congress in 2003.
Deuba got to become a palace-appointed premier before being sacked a second time in early 2005. His arrest and detention came late in the royal regime to really matter. Under republican Nepal, Khadka was convicted of corruption and spent one-and-half years in jail before emerging to resurrect his career.
He has been remarkably successful, one must admit. Today Khadka critics claim that rewarding someone with such a sleazy past with the vice-presidency would serve to tarnish the reputation of the party. They are missing the point. Khadka served time for his sins. If precluding a politician from politics for life just because of a criminally corrupt past made sense, those advocating might have prescribed Khadka a life (or even perhaps the death) sentence.
A man does time, paying his debt to society, and comes out to find out that he can no longer do the only job he knows how to do. How fair is that?
Furthermore, party members have trusted Khadka enough to elect him to the Central Working Committee with the second highest number of votes. Why, then, should a corrupt past be a bar to an appointive position like the vice-presidency? And if Khadka wasn’t too dirty for Deuba when he wanted the votes, should he really consider him too tainted to serve as his deputy?
Maybe the corruption argument is a ruse and Khadka critics fear him for his pro-Hindu statehood banner. Unlike the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s, Khadka’s plank is not tied to the monarchy. (At least, not overtly). Or maybe the critics remember something the rest of the country seems to have forgotten. Khadka is the last surviving leader who stepped out of that aircraft on that cold December day with B.P. Koirala seeking national reconciliation in 1976.
To many ears, B.P. and Hindu statehood probably don’t seem to go together well. Yet could they be a winning combination for Khadka – and one that his rivals desperately want to pre-empt?