Sunday, October 12, 2014

So, Which Way Is It Again?

It’s that time in the political calendar where political prestidigitations on the surface seek to convey a state of the nation that is hale and hearty.
As the first deadline for the promulgation of the new constitution under the new constituent assembly – January 22 – approaches, the political parties are making the right sounds and moves. “Sure, it’s crunch time, but we’re up to the job.” Expect more point-wise compromises ostensibly to push things forward. If certain things have to be put off to promulgate the basic law, than so be it. That sentiment is gaining some ground.
The political establishment seems so eager for a breakthrough that Prime Minister Sushil Koirala realized only later that protocol would not permit him to serve on the High Level Political Committee led by the leader of the opposition and demurred.
Employing a mixture of school-yard bullying and bellowing, Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal got what he wanted: a seat at the top table. With the Maoist chief now leading the charge, his deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, must be heaving a sigh of relief. As the person entrusted with ironing out differences on contentious issues, he had begun throwing up his hands in desperation in all directions. In the event of another fiasco, Bhattarai won’t be the only Maoist open to opprobrium.
At the other end of the spectrum, barely a year into its electoral feat, the royalist right is down in the dumps. The former king, who has outlived his ancestors, is in poor health. The former crown prince’s latest arrest in Thailand on charges of drug possession (trafficking?) has left the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal wondering whether its campaign for the restoration of the monarchy is even worth the trouble.
Kamal Thapa and Co. find themselves in the most unenviable position. Restoration of Hindu statehood – that other plank of the RPPN platform – has now been all but taken over by Khum Bahadur Khadka’s faction of the Nepali Congress. And that movement is drawing support from people associated with the atheist left.
Isn’t it funny, though, that every time the republicans’ folly is on the verge of furthering the chances of the monarchy, the dude in Thailand seems to step right into it? This is not being insensitive to the former crown prince, whose latest visage resembles almost nothing of his former royal self.
Consider how fate is playing with the nation’s collective emotions. If you want to be honest, the monarchy has not disappeared from the people’s hearts and minds. Sure, the political establishment has been kicking the ex-king around. Deep down, every Nepali these past years has known that, if pushed to the brink, there was some place to turn to.
If we want to restore the monarchy formally, time may be running out. No adult might be available to wear the crown. (Since we know how baby kings worked out for us in the past, can teen queens be expected to fare any better, notwithstanding our gender blindness?) And the irony of ironies? Greater hastiness might have to be employed to restore the monarchy than what was put into abolishing it.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pulling A Fast One In Slow Motion

In a little over two years of existence, Mohan Baidya’s Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) has succeeded in elevating the mother organization as a responsible political stakeholder.
Even in the topsy-turvy world of Nepali politics, the inconsistencies of Baidya’s men and women have stood out sharply. The party not only boycotted last year’s constituent assembly elections but also actively – and often violently – worked to subvert the exercise.
Having failed in that enterprise, CPN-M leaders rather brashly began demanding ‘respectable presence’ in the assembly, ostensibly through the proportional-representation quota won by Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) or the government-appointed lot.
When that kind of fizzled, you would have expected the comrades to sit back and take a deep breath. Instead, they began demanding a round table conference on the new constitution. And that, too, with an urgency bordering on alacrity to usurp the prerogative of the body elected for that express purpose.
Once three major parties worked out the parameters of such a conference, Baidya & Co. refused to participate. In the ensuing blame game, they are projecting themselves as the victims.
“We are an inalienable part of the entire peace process,” Baidya claimed in an interview the other day. “Thus we maintained that all important issues, including those related to the peace process, needed to be discussed at the conference. Secondly, the conference should be provided with full authority [to implement the outcome].”
In the beginning, according to Baidya, the big three parties made verbal commitments to all of the CPN-Maoist demands. He balked when the leaders refused to provide a written commitment.
On the first point, Baidya represent a part of one party to the peace process. He probably has lost track of the parts of the peace process he likes and those he doesn’t. Like the Dahal-led Maoists, Baidya & Co. has shifted the goalposts so ruthlessly that setting boundaries has become meaningless.
In the eyes of the people, the culmination of the peace process would be symbolized by the promulgation of the constitution. With a legitimate and popularly elected venue already in existence, the three parties were under no obligation to commit to actions and opinions emanating from the round table conference. (And what kind of leader works on verbal commitments anyway, in this day and age?)
From the outset, the only thing the CPN-M had going for it was the claim of ideological purity. Baidya criticized Dahal and his loyalists for abandoning the principles of the ‘people’s war’ for sheer personal political gain, which resonated among the faithful. It turns out that the ideological veneer was skin deep. Who would have thought Dr. Baburam Bhattarai would have a key ally in the Baidya group in the form of Netra Bikram Chand?
Since Baidya and Chand have now issued separate exhortations to the people to rise up against the government’s power agreement with India, we can expect the intra-CPN-M fissures to sharpen.
The politics of it all is delectable. Although the principal parties continue to promise to promulgate the constitution by the January 22 deadline, their ability to do so is diminishing by the day. If anything, they needed a convenient excuse for failure.
Baidya, on the other hand, recognized the growing marginalization his party was likely to suffer outside the corridors of power. If the constitution should come out, it should be one his party could denounce as tainted. In retrospect, his demand for a round table conference gave the mainstream parties the perfect excuse.
Try as it might, the CPN-M now cannot distance itself from the constitution, if it does indeed emerge by the stipulated deadline. In case the mainstream parties fail to deliver on their pledge yet again, they can spread the blame evenly to the CPN-M for its having squandered time and resources on convening a conference the party ultimately lacked the confidence to attend.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Art Of The Visit

It was a stretch to have expected Chinese President Xi Jinping to land in Kathmandu as part of his current South Asian tour. Still, Maila Baje couldn’t avoid those should’ve- would’ve-could’ve gyrations.
Good neighborliness wasn’t the primary sentiment driving yours truly. It was a quest for an assurance that Nepal-China relations were moving in a positive direction.
Admittedly, China’s engagement in Nepal has steadily deepened and become more diversified since the collapse of the monarchy. But a palpable negativity has crept into the process.
Regional and international rivalries always simmered and stirred under the current in terms of our bilateral engagements. Yet, during the second half of the 20th century, there was a sense that Nepal and China had crafted and started enjoying relations as sovereign and independent nations.
Measured against the fact that it took 17 years for an Indian prime minister to return to Nepal, President Xi’s current itinerary is perhaps a bit understandable. How events on the ground can affect high-level visits was borne out in the case of Pakistan, where Xi was forced to put off his arrival amid the country’s political turmoil.
Bold Indian reiterations of New Delhi’s abandonment of its ‘one China’ policy ever since the election of the Narendra Modi government certainly have implications for Tibet and thus Nepal. China’s reluctance to overtly challenge India while having made such remarkable gains in encroaching upon India’s strategic space in Nepal is understandable, even within the ambit of Beijing’s unsentimental foreign policy.
The opportunities and ambiguities surrounding Sino-Indian relations against the backdrop of Washington’s pivot to Asia and India’s warming up to Japan and Australia point to the wider dynamics at play. All these engender tensions that should alarm Nepalis.
The current political establishment long castigated the monarchy for having brazenly played the China card at every opportunity in an ostensible effort to achieve its autocratic ambitions. That canard suited New Delhi well, as it was the principal party aggrieved by growing Nepal-China engagements.
Oppositional elements in Nepal no doubt were instinctively tempted to parrot the Indian line. But perhaps they should have been cognizant of the imperative of preserving their freedom of action if and when they assumed power.
If today’s leaders have allowed the relationship to devolve into one where Beijing feels comfortable in asserting Nepal’s independence and sovereignty only as part of its engagement with India, they have only themselves to blame.
In the best of times, democratic maturity has not automatically translated into geostrategic vision. Amid Nepal’s political puerility, foreign policy foresight remains elusive. After all, who can forget the mishandling of then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit by the Baburam Bhattarai government from start to finish two years ago?
As Beijing makes more demonstrable displays of how higher South Asia has climbed on its diplomatic priority list, Sri Lanka and the Maldives host the Chinese President for the first time. We are still in thrall over what the Indian prime minister said about our duty to constitutionalism without paying much operational heed.
Who knows? Bhutan might end up on the next Chinese presidential itinerary, while we might still be stuck with the interim constitution, condemning our tangible past and chasing a tenuous future.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

The Shapes Of Things To Come

The constitution-drafting process, stymied in its legitimate venue despite a second popular mandate, is now set to be pursued at the Track II level.
How the putative round table conference might be able to iron out contentious issues when there are so many more wrinkles outside the constituent assembly is anyone’s guess.
But the mainstream parties have demonstrated that they at least care. And in today’s liberal/left milieu, that touchy-feely approach counts for good optics.
Not to everyone though. Kamal Thapa, the leader of the conservative Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal, blasted the Big Three for trying to impose their decisions on the country.
Normally, the majority vote – which the Big Three more than represent – carries the day. As a political practitioner across three system, Thapa knows the numbers game. But, then, there’s that pesky concept of ‘consensus’ that stands in the way. Everyone inside the chamber believes he or she should have a finger in the pie.
The non-party polity could not advance the notion of every-Nepali-is-a-pancha-and-vice-versa and had to give way to groups, coteries and factions long before we restored multiparty politics. Now the purveyors of newness are striving for conformity.
Thus, while castigating the Big Three, Thapa came to the defense of the Baidya Maoists, whose political chutzpah has been startling, if anything.
To be charitable, you could argue that the political establishment has heeded Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Applauding Nepali lawmakers for having embarked on what he called an exemplary mission for the world during his address to the house last month, Modi also cautioned them to make sure no comma, full stop, presence or absence ever came back to haunt them.
That exhortation was a given when Nepalis voted in a second constituent assembly after the first fell flat. Somehow, the message was deemed so much more significant because the messenger was so mesmerizing.
The Baidya Maoists who not only boycotted the last election but also tried to subvert are going to have a say in the document. We can expect disparate groups and organizations to get a patient hearing.
This will provide another opportunity for our grievance industry to churn out new groups of victims to overwhelm the system. Saul Alinsky would certainly be proud.
To their credit, Deputy Prime Minister Bam Dev Gautam and Nepal Workers and Peasants Party leader Narayan Man Bijukchhe have pointed to the absurdity of the situation. But they are lonely voices on their perch.
Deeper down, they, too, need to expand the culpability base once the day of reckoning arrives. Still, our quest for nebulous newness can be expected to continue as long as the external sponsors of the search refuse to concede failure.
And they won’t concede because they have invested so much for diverse reasons. Those who pay the pipers will continue to call the tunes, regardless of how jarring the sounds may be to the rest of us.
So the operative question is this: Since we are a work in progress in perpetuity, why quibble over whether the table is round, square, triangular or even turned upside down?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Bonfires Of Inanities

It’s getting down to crunch time for Comrade Baburam Bhattarai.
Our Doctor of Eternal Innovation is actively tamping down public expectations, as the deadline for the promulgation of the constitution looms.
A basic law promulgated through majority vote of elected representatives would not be able to address all sections of society and therefore the nation’s needs, Bhattarai sagaciously informed us the other day.
The chairman of parliament’s Constitutional Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee also spoke of efforts under way to convene a round table conference to ensure consensus behind the document. True, such an event would go a long way toward assuaging the likes of the Mohan Baidya-led faction of the Maoists and the assortment of small armed groups. But, then, C.P. Gajurel, a luminary in the Baidya lot, has already shifted the goalposts. A few days earlier, he dismissed federalism, democracy and republicanism as India’s agenda, ostensibly pushed for diabolic purposes.
Tempting as it certainly is, there’s no time to dwell on the shamelessness of the contention of a man whose party waged a 10-year bloody war to advance that trifecta. For now, Gajurel has zeroed in on the conflagration likely to consume the country should a tainted statute be foisted upon it.
Even if Gajurel is indulging in usual theatrics here, movements on the wider stage are hardly encouraging. Bhattarai’s boss, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, continues to warn that the Maoists might pull out of the constituent assembly altogether. You can’t imagine what a man so desperate to keep his house in order might wreak.
The talk of replacing one perpetual convalescent with another in the premiership had already weighed down the process before the government finally came out with a partial list of nominated members of the constituent assembly. For one thing, the assembly is still incomplete. For another, even after such inordinate delay, one lady’s name had to be scratched out because it later emerged she was already on the proportional representation list of her party. With that kind of inattention to detail, you wonder…
From the details emerging from the drafters – and those close to them – everything the Nepali people were promised would be in the statute of New Nepal is now being deemed amendable. Republicanism, the first gift of the first constituent assembly bestowed under the aegis of an unelected, interim prime minister, will be in the preamble. So that should be unalterable, right. Well, not quite. The drafters are not sure how to deal with the beginning, so they’ve decided to leave it till the end.
Bhattarai, whose prime ministerial tenure will be remembered for the capital’s road-widening project, has stopped taking credit for single-handedly turning Nepal into a republic. Instead, he’s talking about the urgency of building a new political force. Yet we seem to be decaying.
With no constituent assembly, the interim constitution of 1951 lasted nine years. With two such bodies elected already, the current temporary statute seems set to last quite that long.
No wonder men like Chitra Bahadur K.C. and Kamal Thapa have stepped down from their respective anti-federalism and pro-monarchist perches, and want the constitution promulgated as soon as possible. Putting out those bonfires of inanities might be our more pressing task.