Saturday, August 23, 2014

In Whose Book, Fellas?

Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal seems most aggrieved from the recently published memoirs of General Rukmangad Katawal.
The former supreme commander of the “People’s Liberation Army” has used at least two occasions in public to demolish the credibility of the former Nepal Army chief. Like most people on the defensive, though, Dahal has focused less on the substance of the general’s revelations.
At an institutional level, the bad blood between the two can easily be surmised. The army could not defeat the Maoists, nor could the rebels vanquish the state. Yet Dahal emerged stepped into the public spotlight in 2006 as if he had won the world. The hatred he spewed against generations of soldiers, in the presence of the prime minister and all senior democratic leaders, could not have been easily forgotten by anyone familiar with the force.
At a political level, Dahal lost the premiership because of his failure to see through his decision to sack Gen. Katawal for insubordination. The general, who opens with a gripping narrative of that episode, portrays his complicated relationship with Dahal.
But that is a side story to the vigorous defense of the military Gen. Katawal mounts. To those who sought to establish a philosophical and practical equivalency between the state and rebel armies, Katawal makes a key point: the military was intent on pressuring the Maoists to join the political process, whereas the rebels were going for the kill. The guerillas inflicted massive losses on the soldiers and state, but the conventional army always held the ground.
Amid this stalemate, the political process took center stage, laced with the unsentimental rigors of geopolitics. Thus, a movement that began with objective of ending ‘autocratic monarchy’ ended up ushering in a republic.
Katawal’s reminiscences on the disparate personalities involved in that process are revealing. For instance, it’s hard to believe that Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, miffed by the Maoists, would urge Gen. Katawal to take over. But that goes with the genre.
On Katawal’s pages, Dahal emerges in the same way he has been seen in public. At times, daring, flexible, blustery, obsequious and adamant – in no particular order. Clearly, his self-described ‘chemistry’ with Katawal was a compulsion of the times. Since it’s Katawal’s book, the general gets the last word on Dahal’s moves and motivations. And Dahal has every right to resent Katawal’s characterization. Case closed.
But Dahal took a curious route to press his case. He castigated the general as despicable and unreliable for having ditched the monarchy.
On that score, Katawal makes fascinating revelations beginning from his first contact with King Mahendra in his home district and subsequent arrival in Kathmandu for studies under royal sponsorship.
Over the years, his admirers and detractors stretched that instance of royal sponsorship into something akin to enduring royal guardianship. But Katawal, who by chance had ended up in King Mahendra’s office on the eve of the 1960 royal takeover with barely an inkling of what was about to happen, never met Queen and later Queen Mother Ratna. He was hardly a palace boy, by that reckoning.
The country didn’t know that when Katawal rose to the top and the monarchy was in its last gasps. The national focus was on how the army – traditionally loyal to the palace – would react to the push for republicanism under a general the public deemed was all but a brother to the suspended king.
In an effort to save the monarchy, Katawal, among other things, pushed the idea of enthroning a ‘baby king’. King Gyanendra rejected that outright. (“Over my dead body,” the general quotes the monarch as saying.)
Katawal doesn’t say so explicitly, but he seemed hurt by the royal snub. Maila Baje always felt King Gyanendra had a point: You can choose between a king and a president. But you can’t choose who you want as king.
Although he emerges as a strong monarchist still – at least within the demands of Nepal’s geo-strategic precariousness – Katawal quotes Nepali politicians as well as foreign diplomats casting aspersions on the ex-monarch’s personality and predilections. His general characterization of King Gyanendra’s rule is not flattering.
Did the king drag the army along kicking and screaming on February 1, 2005? Or did the generals advise the king of their ability to take control of the situation sufficiently to put the political process on track? Katawal maintains there were two armies – the palace guard and regular force. If the national army headquarters could not prevent that infringement on its jurisdiction and scope, then all his talk about professionalism becomes moot.
Those who wonder why the palace would want to keep GHQ at arm’s length might want to go a little back in history. Our army takes pride in its roots in the national unification campaign of Prithvi Narayan Shah. Yet, decades later, when a junior officer seized power and managed to monopolize it within his immediate family for over a century, keeping successive kings virtual prisoners in the palace, the army continued to back the usurpers. Surely, Dahal knows that the army-monarchy debate transcends the Katawal-Mahendra dimension. There were other ways he could have rebutted Katawal’s version of current history – including announcing that he would write his own book.
And even if the general did betray the palace and side with the republicans, shouldn’t Dahal be hailing Katawal?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Bit Of The Man For All

When an Indian prime minister’s visit to Nepal lands him in hot water on his side of the border, you know that bilateral relations are on the cusp of change.
The questions came rolling out right away. Why did Narendra Modi have to make such a grandiose show of his devotion to Lord Pashupatinath, when he couldn’t remember to offer Eid greetings to India’s Muslims?
And that drama about reuniting his godson with his birth parents? Hadn’t the young fellow already expressed his elation over a reunion on Facebook a few years ago?
Yet here we are still in disbelief over what a difference one speech can make.
Sure, there have been murmurs of criticism locally in recent days. Modi made fun of our hills’ inability to restrain the fluidity of water and youth. (As if the plains were significantly better at doing so.)
The $1 billion credit line he HIT us with? The strings were pretty clear from the outset: infrastructure development related to water resources would get priority. Since there aren’t too many builders on this side of the border, you know which way to follow the money until the card’s maxed out.
The general drift about Nepal selling and India buying electricity? Been there, done that. And yet the waters flow on, calmly and cruelly at will.
Modi welcomed Nepal’s long-standing aspirations for changes in the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. But not before implying that Nepal has only made noises so far, with little substantial contribution toward what it really wants and expects to get.
Overwhelmingly, though, we are still in a state of thrall. Modi affirmed that Buddha was born in Nepal. Rarely has someone reaped so much by emphasizing the obvious.
He placed the drafters of our constitution almost on the pedestal of the likes of B.R. Ambedkar. The Maoists – man oh man – they left Emperor Ashok so far behind in war and peace.
The genius of Modi lay not in his oratory. It was in his ability to reach out to everyone – or, more accurately, make them think he did. Within the august ambience of the constituent assembly, he admired Nepal’s march toward a federal democratic republic. But not without conveying a sense of tentativeness and tepidness through his body language.
Moreover, Modi reminded our elected representatives to make sure they did not omit or include something in the hallowed document today that might come to haunt us a century hence. Again, he obfuscated enough in that noble sentiment to let everyone read whatever they wanted.
When he praised the Maoists for so magnanimously laying down arms and adopting peace, the former rebel leaders didn’t seem so enthused when the cameras panned their way. Maybe they felt Modi was conniving to pre-empt what they considered their inalienable right to return to jungle.
Or perhaps they – true to form – were just busy trying to figure out how to use that opening to their advantage. (Modi seemed so enamored by that line that he did a reprise in his Independence Day address the other day.)
Modi reportedly was undecided until the last minute whether to meet former king Gyanendra, someone with whom, we understand, he has built a personal rapport. The Indian establishment, we are told, was split on the wisdom of such a meeting, largely along the lines drawn in 2006. The Indian ambassador in Kathmandu, the Ministry of External Affairs’ Nepal pointman when the 12-Point Agreement was struck between the mainstream parties and Maoists, reportedly threatened to resign, claiming he couldn’t face the fallout from such a get-together.
That settled it. Still, Modi’s meeting with Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal president Kamal Thapa seems to have assuaged the royalist right.
The Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Pakistanis, everyone is playing the guessing game as far as Modi goes. At least he has graciously let each Nepali make him out in his or her own image.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Flashback: Maoist Model Of Hostile Coexistence

Abandoning his recent penchant for band-aid solutions, United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal is preparing to confront head-on his rivals in the party. Well, that’s what Dahal loyalists are letting on ahead of a crucial party meeting later this week.
The rival camp, led by Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, isn’t cooling its heels either. Bhattarai has, with increasing acerbity, taken to describing the party as a personal fiefdom of the chairman. His confidante, Devendra Poudel, has taken on Dahal by pressing him to own up to the party’s disastrous performance in the November election.
At the upcoming meeting, separate factions led by Bhattarai and Narayan Kaji Shrestha plan to forcefully raise the issue of democratizing the party leadership’s working style and transforming the centralized leadership into a collective decision-making system. Claiming that perpetual dissidence was undermining the party, Dahal is preparing to firmly implement the principle of ‘democratic centralism’, i.e., retain the party chairmanship while containing his rivals.
As someone who has basked in the party’s glories – mythical and mundane – Dahal probably knew what was coming his way after the electoral drubbing. He has blamed the installation of the non-party election government for the party’s debacle, a position Bhattarai shares.
But Dahal is too human to forget that it was then-premier Bhattarai who, by consistently opposing a successor government by political parties, paved the way for the rise of the technocrats/bureaucrats. Understandably, Dahal is in no mood to be pushed around.
Eager to establish the election results as a dilution of Dahal’s long influence, the Bhattarai faction had hoped to use candidates in the proportional representation category in the new assembly to increase its foothold in the parliamentary party. When Bhattarai and Shrestha absented themselves from a meeting convened to finalize the list of candidates, Dahal dispatched one packed with his loyalists to the Election Commission.
It’s not hard to see that Dahal’s confidence stems from his recognition of the battering Bhattarai’s image suffered as premier. In retrospect, if Dahal had really ever felt threatened by Bhattarai during their tumultuous partnership during years of war and peace, he addressed them fully by acquiescing in his rival’s elevation to the premiership. And he knows he can count on those party members who are not necessarily devout loyalists but are nevertheless miffed by Bhattarai’s ostensible efforts to establish that, in the end, the pen has proved mightier than the sword for the Maoists.
Still, it would be foolhardy to contemplate a formal parting of ways between these two men. (Maila Baje is excluding Shrestha from the broader internecine rivalries largely because of his enigmatic and erratic role in all of this.)
For one thing, throughout their partnership, Dahal and Bhattarai each have been known to encourage all kinds of compromises to keep the other in check. Dahal’s readiness to collaborate with the palace in the run-up to the February 1, 2005 royal takeover and the short-lived Dhobighat alliance between Bhattarai and Mohan Baidya to rein in Dahal are but two illustrations of their capacity for contortions.
For another, the country may not have enough room for the emergence of a viable third Maoist party. On the other hand, any realignment between the existing factions precipitated by a fresh split would no longer carry the necessary ‘oomph’ value, considering that the party has been relegated to third place in the national arena.
The upshot? Count on the factions to continue to press ahead with their crude public spectacle by conflating the personal/political, individual/ideological and procedural/practical.

This post originally appeared on January 04, 2014.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

In The Long Shadow of History

Portrait of a Nepal-Tibet battle. Courtesy: Nepal Army
The controversy sparked by Nepal’s flip-flop over the cremation of a revered Tibetan monk ended, mercifully, with another flip.
Mipham Chokyi Lodro, the 14th Shamarpa of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, eventually had his wishes fulfilled and was cremated in a special ceremony at the Shar Minub Institute he built in Kathmandu.
After the lama’s death in Germany in June, the Nepali government permitted his followers to bring his body to Kathmandu for cremation. But the government immediately withdrew that permission amid purported concerns that Tibetan exiles would use the funeral to protest Chinese rule over their homeland.
Denying reports of Chinese pressure, the Nepali government explained the reversal on account of the deceased holding Bhutanese citizenship, something it had not been aware of while granting the initial permission.
Amid growing international media coverage – mostly negative – the government restored the original decision, citing the Shamarpa Lama’s great contributions to Buddhism. In the end, there were no protests at the funeral. The geopolitics of it all turned out to have been hyped.
Does that mean the concern was wrong? Throughout the controversy, Maila Baje ruminated on the life and times of an earlier Shamarpa Lama, Mipam Chödrup Gyamtso (1742-1793).
The 10th Shamarpa Lama, a stepbrother of the 6th Panchen Lama, had hoped that the Tibetan government would reinstate his sect’s monasteries seized in the preceding century. Before anything could happen, the Panchen Lama, away on a visit to Beijing at the invitation of the Qing emperor Qianlong, died of smallpox there.
Out of reverence for the Panchen Lama, his spiritual teacher, Qianlong offered a large quantity of gold coins to the brothers and sisters of the deceased. The keepers of the Panchen Lama’s Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatze, for their part, claimed the gifts were the property of the shrine. They went on to accuse the Shamarpa of plotting a rebellion against the Tibetan government to regain his monasteries.
Breaking house arrest, Shamarpa fled to Sikkim and subsequently arrived in Kathmandu, where tensions were already brewing with the Tibetans over debased currencies and other commercial and political issues.
Prince Bahadur Shah, the regent for King Rana Bahadur Shah, appointed the Shamarpa an adviser as part of efforts to resolve those disputes. According to British and Tibetan sources at the time, the Shamarpa was said to have strenuously urged Bahadur to invade Tibet and seize Tashilhunpo’s riches in compensation for Nepali grievances.
After a series of failed negotiations, Bahadur ordered the invasion of Tibet in 1789, which soon resulted in the Kerong peace treaty. After a brief lull, Nepal accused Tibet of reneging on the terms of the treaty and sent the Shamarpa as part of negotiating team. The Tibetans, firm on their interpretation of the treaty, promptly arrested him.
Bahadur ordered a second invasion of Tibet in 1791, and this time the Nepalis sacked the Tashilhunpo monastery. An infuriated Qianlong sent troops to repel the Nepalis, chasing them all the way back to the outskirts of Kathmandu. Realizing that its appeals for assistance from British India were not forthcoming – at least not until Kathmandu granted concessions to the East India Company – the Nepali court sought peace terms from the Chinese.
As peace was being negotiated in 1792, Beijing demanded the return of the Shamarpa, his family and loyalists, as well as the plunder from the Tashilhunpo monastery. By this time, however, the Shamarpa had died. Some claimed he committed suicide, others said he had succumbed to jaundice.
With that kind of history hovering over us, were our latest fears all that irrational?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Between Babudom And Netaland

After obliquely chiding us – for all of a day – that he might have no time to visit Nepal immediately, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is officially slated to come calling early next month.
Although the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government finds itself mired in controversy over New Delhi’s latest proposals on harnessing our waters, Modi himself is the beneficiary of the doubt. It probably took a day for the man to realize that.
Those proposals, which are perceived to tighten India’s already asphyxiating grip on us, were purportedly drawn up and communicated during the fag end of the Manmohan Singh government. Moreover, as former water resources minister and engineer Dipak Gyawali suggested in a recent TV interview, the entire episode – its secrecy as well as revelation – may be a plot by India’s bureaucratic establishment to subvert any positive thrust Modi might be contemplating vis-à-vis relations with Nepal.
Gyawali concedes that his apprehensions might turn out to be nothing more than political conjecture. Surely, events will have the ultimate say there. But, Maila Baje wonders, can we afford to wait?
The Indian bureaucracy will zealously guard its ‘privilege’ to conduct relations with Nepal, which a cursory examination of recent Indian commentary reveals. Those cautioning Prime Minister Modi against listening to anyone besides the architects of the post-April 2006 framework invariably happen to be ex-babus institutionally or individually involved in the process. Particularly apprehensive at this juncture are elements once associated with India’s intelligence agencies, today populating academia and other ‘non-government’ perches.
By now, Nepalis recognize that we are living under the post-monarchy vision the Research and Analysis Wing began framing in the 1960s. It took a while for the spooks to persuade their political bosses that the palace was the problem, as far as India was concerned. The bureaucracy salivated at the prospect of widening its jurisdiction. The halfhearted faith of the Indian political class in babudom’s prescription has been evident from the outset.
The successor regime in Nepal has not proven itself capable to correct the purported flaws of the palace. It’s not just that Nepal has failed to fall in line. Too many bidders with too deep pockets are proliferating from all directions all the time.
RAW and its narrow band of benefactors, struggling for a success story after Bangladesh and Sikkim receded into the background, are intent on making sure this process lingers on. At some point, as they see it, the collective will of the Nepali nation must succumb.
The political class in India, who enjoyed the respite provided by babudom on a vital frontier as they articulated their great-power aspirations, has a different psychology. True, they don’t want to know the details of covert operations as long as the analytical and operational players produce the right results. But they certainly don’t want to have to clean up the mess in full public glare.
The former monarch, who has bucked the chronological record of his ancestors, cannot be expected to keep doing so forever. His son has publicly ruled himself out of the succession, thus sparing the people much disquiet. The grandson is still too young to be anointed the royal successor in a way that would carry much meaning in either side of the debate.
Normally, this should be something worrying Nepali royalists. But you get a sense that the architects of our destiny down south are more petrified. The restoration of the monarchy is a prospect that lives on in Nepal not because of some nefarious design of the disempowered royals and courtiers. It does so because of the inability of the successor regime to establish itself as a viable successor amid Nepal’s geostrategic precariousness. RAW officers – current or former – already have a fair idea of what they are up against here. When direct beneficiaries of India’s covert policies – such as our Maoists – begin demanding that Indian politicians should drive their country’s policies toward Nepal, you can imagine the extent of the babus’ collective mortification.