Saturday, April 30, 2016

Straight Talk About Self-Image And Identity

Regularly mocked for what many consider his craven jocularity in the midst of epic trials, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli hardly gets credit for how deftly he often deploys trivialization as a tool of political tradecraft.
Consider this example from just the other day. His government was ready to open talks with the agitating Madhesi parties on their long-standing demand for re-delineating federal provinces, the prime minister said. But those parties should also consider that the non-Madhesi population could begin demanding the redrawing of provincial boundaries along a north-south axis.
Before that latter suggestion could take on the form of pre-emption, Oli conceded that the raw emotions triggered by the recent months-long protests would take some time to settle. However, he was at a loss to explain why concerns over Nepal’s Constitution was more pronounced outside the country than within.
Oli wanted the top job so bad that the gods, too, seemed a little vexed last year. Days after he stood atop Dharahara to usher in a new national spirit in the new year, the fabled edifice collapsed into the rubble of the Great Earthquake of 2072 Bikram Sambat. That calamity should have cast a dark shadow on Oli’s political aspirations.
But the aftershocks produced enough political consensus for the promulgation of the Constitution, assuring Oli’s ascension to the premiership. The Indian ‘blockade’ stymied his next steps. A man who once seemed to bask in a pro-India label as long as it advanced his career turned out to be one of the few Nepalis to stand up steadfastly to the ultimatums of our southern neighbor.
What’s more, he brought in two inveterate critics of India as deputy premiers. Ultimately the Indians gave him a red-carpet treatment in New Delhi to let him subsequently visit Beijing. Any shift in Nepal’s geopolitical locus could be measured later and dealt with accordingly.
The Indians seem divided over the import of and implications from Oli’s Chinese sojourn. His party rivals, too, have chosen to moderate their positions vis-à-vis the premier. Former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, who until a week ago was moping over the monopoly Oli was wielding as chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist, has climbed down a bit. He now stresses the need for consensus among the three major political parties on implementing the Constitution, preferably by roping in the Nepali Congress into the government.
In public comments made in Dhankuta the other day, Madhav Nepal said the country had witnessed many aberrations and anomalies due to political instability, but was quick to assert that the government’s spirit was being dampened by some unfavorable remarks made by a few leaders from coalition partners.
The prime minister’s warning that his government would not hesitate to confront forces that were taking unconstitutional measures has the ability to enflame the situation, especially amid forebodings of gloom percolating from across our borders. Yet Oli’s straight talk might also force some of us to sit back and assess the deeper roots of our malaise.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Oh Those Garish Alien Growls

Oh those pesky foreigners. Can’t they just shut up, for a change?
It’s been hard enough to ward off snarkiness of the European Union-India joint statement on the so-called ‘non-inclusivity’ of our brand-new Constitution.
Barely had international human rights watchdogs begun growling over our treatment of one of our commissioners than the United States Department of State annual report slammed our record.
The noises Christians are making over the official de-calendarization of Christmas are beginning to be heard on quaint albeit persuasive international outlets. Guess everyone feels safe dumping on us now.
Yeah, yeah, it’s our fault. We promised the sky, knowing full well that our altimeter was screwed up from the start. Sure, we should have been a bit more careful taking in those dollars, euros and pounds circa 2005-2006. But who are we really kidding? It’s not as if those irksome aliens are somehow blame-free.
Of course, we promised to take out the monarchy. And did our bit by dragging the mainstream parties behind us. But we never made specific guarantees about what would follow.
Foreign money came in handy to turn Hindu Nepal secular when the iron was still hot. But who knew that India would get its most zealous Hindu nationalist government ever and set about imperiling republican Nepal?
We did try to tame the Tibetans. The Chinese just kept asking us for more, without stopping to ponder their own role in aggravating the situation.
Today those imbeciles centralizing power in Brussels, Washington DC and New Delhi have the nerve to tell us to move swifter on federalism. There’s a reason why all we’ve been able to do is give the provinces numbers. How can they push us to name provincial capitals already?
As the public face of the change in 2006, I recognized the pitfalls before me personally. The ‘people’s war’ had acquired such mythical status in the anti-monarchy struggle that the mainstream parties found it politically expedient to take a back seat in the months following the April Uprising. It felt good to be able tell our restive ex-fighters that we were driving the peace process. Those scalawags in those seven parties were just biding their time.
Civil society leaders, too, sung paeans to the purity of the Maoists’ pursuit of violence in defense of the people. When they contrasted it with the venal bloodthirstiness of royal army, it even began to sound real.
Did I, as supreme commander of the army that liberated the people, think I possessed phenomenal powers? Not a chance. In hindsight, though, I should have worked harder to pierce the picture that was settling in the public psyche.
Instead, I tried to break new ground as if we were all still in fighting mode. Not that I didn’t notch up successes. Within the first 100 days of assuming office, I met with the top leaders of China, India and the United States, the three principal drivers of our country’s destiny. Little did I recognize the misfortune I was incurring for myself – and for the country.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

What Else Is New?

Surely, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The coordinator of our nascent New Force is struggling hard to defend his patriotic credentials.
A riled Dr. Baburam Bhattarai told an audience the other day that his genetic code was so pulsating with pure-bred nationalism that it needed no external certification of any kind.
Critics therefore need not comb through his comments and actions to detect deficits of patriotism, the former prime minister counseled.
That admonition, however, did not stop the one-time chief Maoist ideologue from denigrating the ‘false nationalism’ of those who derided the Nepali Congress and the communists as ‘anti-nationals’.
Therein is the root of our whole novelty riddle. You can’t keep trying to become new simply by castigating the old. Of course, the Panchayat/royalist days were rotten. Isn’t that why they are history? Get over it.
Yet our exemplars of originality continue to parrot old lines. They want to make Nepal a bridge between the Asian behemoths. The last king tried but was never given a chance. (For the record, the Lichchavis had already done that.)
The votaries of newfangledness want to make Nepal economically self-reliant. Even after all the mockery the partyless ‘Asian standard’ credo engendered? Since when have jokes provided the blueprint for serious action? And the anti-corruption platform? Can anyone really say when it stops becoming that and assumes the form of a political witch hunt, perceived or real?
Or do our political parvenu think the royalists and right-wing autocrats simply were the wrong people to do the right job? After all, Dr. Bhattarai and his fellow travellers long stuck with the notion that they could set right what the likes of Marx, Lenin and Mao correctly set out to do but botched.
To be fair, Dr. Bhattarai himself has presented a clear case for newness. While parties like the Nepali Congress, Praja Parishad, the CPN-UML and the UCPN-Maoist have served the country well, they have been unable to move with the times, he has repeatedly emphasized. At least he had the integrity to ensure that the Constitution was promulgated before setting out to criticize it.
Espousing an inclusive approach, Dr. Bhattarai insists, the new entity is striving to formulate ideas and principles suitable to Nepal. This cluster of political has-beens, ex-bureaucrats and security officials and fading actors may or may not have the capacity to capitalize on the torpor in the mainstream. But there is a risk that it might be caught in one of its own. Although it has existed in a semi-institutional incarnation for a while, the new formation’s ideology bears little beyond traces of a center-left orientation.
And what’s with this insipid New Force appellation? Go get a better name first, preferably one that says something nicer. Even genes have been patented and copyrighted. The no-labels approach, if anything, is a non-starter in politics.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Now, That Would Really Hurt Our Feelings

Our government maintains that the March 30 India-European Union joint statement’s emphasis on the need for “a lasting and inclusive constitutional settlement in Nepal that will address the remaining constitutional issues in a time bound manner, and promote political stability and economic growth” has ‘hurt’ the sentiments of the Nepali people. Not so fast, says one group of Nepalis, who feel the government statement has injured their feelings.
Admittedly, the process of drafting and promulgating a constitution are essentially internal matters of a sovereign and independent country. So there is no philosophical basis to quibble with the cabinet’s assertion that the joint statement was “disruptive to the sovereignty of Nepal”. But hasn’t the ‘sovereignty’ bus long departed, at least as far as our political process goes?
You could argue – as a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement did the other day – that the constitution institutionalizes significant democratic gains. However, to say that its promulgation formally concludes the nationally-driven peace process initiated in 2006 [italics added] is a bit of a stretch.
Forget the 12-Point Agreement. For all its nationalistic push, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s government itself committed itself to a four-point agenda on addressing the demands of agitating Madhesi parties. That, too, at a time when senior government ministers were busy demonizing Madhesi leaders calling for greater inclusiveness.
Brute majority does not carry the same weight in geopolitics as it does in national politics. Perhaps that’s why those who sought to dismiss India’s concerns (which manifested itself in the border ‘blockade’) as a camouflage for its desire to restore Hindu statehood in Nepal were among those most shocked to see the prime movers of secularism allied with the most overtly pro-Hindu prime minister of India.
All this didn’t just come out of the left field. The perils of aligning our relations with India with the ebb and flow of China-India relations were amply manifested in 1950, 1960, 1990 and 2006. After the latest ‘blockade’, as we were threatening to internationalize the situation, New Delhi stepped up its global campaign against the ‘small-brotherly attitude’ of Kathmandu.
And the irony of it all? Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa, who as home minister in the royal regime in 2006 plunged the deepest dagger in the Maoist-mainstream opposition alliance by castigating its creation on Indian soil, ended up signing the four-point commitment with Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj on what was ostensibly a private visit to the Indian capital.
Condemnation of Indian interference alone – as much of the political establishment is busily indulging in – is not the way to go around, especially considering the credibility of the current process. (Why the Maldives, which also finds reference in point 17 of the joint statement, has chosen to maintain silence is beyond the scope of this write-up.)
What, if anything, are the countervailing powers/stakeholders prepared to do, when they are not allying with India on Nepal? If we are to go it alone, what do we have going for us?
And consider this. If, God forbid, another authoritarian axe were to befall our leaders any time soon, India might still offer that contrite lot physical refuge and political mediation. How much would that hurt the sentiments of the Nepali people then?

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Contending With China’s ‘Nepal Card’

Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli has done well to avoid a sense of triumphalism following his return from a weeklong visit to China. The scope of the agreements the two countries signed in Beijing has largely lived up to the pre-departure hype. Whether they mark a geopolitical shift remains in the realm of speculation, no doubt heightened by China’s own sporadic record in Nepal.
Regardless of whether that history served to temper Oli’s public demeanor, Nepali voices articulating an in-your-face ardor toward India remain unrestrained. One body of opinion has openly thanked India for having imposed a months-long border ‘blockade’ and thereby creating the domestic consensus Oli needed to reorient ties with China.
The more dominant sentiment – that Nepal long needed to diversify its relationship with China in keeping with the times and its own sovereign needs – may sound superficially neutral, but it still contains an anti-Indian tinge by implication.
India has chosen to take the moral high ground in its official reaction, stressing that no other bilateral relationship could ever contain the logic of Nepal-India ties. “[W]e are not in the comparison business,” a spokesman for India’s External Affairs Ministry said. “And even if you are, do ask yourself, is there any other country in the world which can have the kind of relationship that Nepal has with India?”
Other voices inside India are split. Some wonder whether geography, economics, culture, and social realities would ever allow China to substitute India as Nepal’s dominant neighbor. Others are worried that even this superficial advantage accruing to Beijing would be inimical to New Delhi and needed to be considered a harbinger of things to come. Some analysts have openly called for sterner – and more punitive – policies on Nepal, with the opposition even chastising Prime Minister Narendra Modi for having mishandled relations with Nepal.
Nepalis, however, must not bury the reality that China has flashed its “Nepal card”, professing, of course, its expectation that Nepal’s relations with India would continue to grow in the days ahead. After all – as has been often stressed in this space – the longer the Indians and others are preoccupied with deciphering the motives and intentions of the Chinese in Nepal, the better it is for the mandarins up north.
Pledges of benevolence and acts of magnanimity make great international headlines against protracted geopolitical contexts but require low investments. Foreign assistance that comes with no strings attached – touted as the singular tenet of Chinese benevolence – tends to cuts both ways. The donor can delay projects or disbursements or quietly pull out altogether on grounds that may not be anticipated or often explicable to the recipient.
What really counts is what happens when the pedal hits the metal. On that score, the experiences of Bahadur Shah, Bhimsen Thapa, Jang Bahadur and Chandra Shamsher Rana, Birendra and Gyanendra Shah and Pushpa Kamal Dahal become instructive. Admittedly, those were individuals with their own values, attitudes, needs and expectations. Still, they did, to one degree or another, represent Nepal and Nepalis in their dealings with China in the fullness of their times and context.
Any game by definition requires a full-fledged partner willing to play on the established terms. Let’s not go into the dynamics of Sino-India relations and the attendant global realities that might have propelled China to flash its “Nepal card”.
A more prudent way ahead for us would be to anticipate whether, when the going gets tough, Beijing’s penchant for “unsentimental pragmatism” might still entail a full disavowal of Kathmandu’s interpretation of and expectations from the bilateral relationship.