Friday, December 30, 2005

Speaker's Solicitude

House of Representatives Speaker Tara Nath Ranabhat has advised King Gyanendra to hand over power to the political parties -- for a different reason. He believes that's the only way the monarch can rise above controversy.
Ranabhat provides a refreshing contrast to luminaries ranging from U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy to Indian M.P. Sita Ram Yechuri, who have been warning King Gyanendra to relinquish absolute power to preserve his throne.
Maila Baje can hardly quibble with Ranabhat's contention that the constitution does not recognize the current government.
In the esteemed view of our Right Honorable Gentleman from Kaski, the monarch must work to normalize the constitutional process either by reinstating the House of Representatives or by holding fresh parliamentary elections.
Maila Baje has long stopped taking Ranabhat's words lightly. While much of the country was mocking his "rat-tat-tat-tat…" while presenting the official inquiry report on the Narayanhity carnage three years ago, Maila Baje lost no time in crediting him with pre-empting any massive public disorder such a highly sensitive subject would almost certainly have ignited.
In recent years, Ranabhat has set a record of sorts in the annals of parliamentary practice. Technically, a fraction of the Upper House exists. But it's the speaker of the lower house – dissolved over three years ago -- who retains his position.
Ranabhat, moreover, has been representing Nepal at countless international parliamentary conferences while the monarch has been battling criticism for having dispensed with representative governance.
If the Nepali Congress had remained a cohesive entity, the lower house of parliament would have completed its natural life last year.
Say the UML, RPP and the smaller parties had observed full parliamentary decorum as King Gyanendra outlined the annual policies and programs of an elected government in three successive speeches from the throne.
Would the country have been able to hold elections by May 2004? Probably not, unless the mainstream parties could've pulled off their 12-point deal with the Maoists then.
One thing is clear, though. Ranabhat's position would have remained unaffected today regardless of whether executive power flowed from Narayanhity or Singh Durbar.
Legally, we are told, the speaker retains his job until the moment he files his nomination papers for the election. Ranabhat seems to eschew that view.
He insists he remains in office only because of the good graces of Girija Prasad Koirala. (Incidentally, it was Koirala who, as pro tem speaker, oversaw Ranabhat's election to the full post in June 1999.)
Evidently, the Nepali Congress supremo, who Ranabhat was instrumental in ousting as premier in 1994, wants to preserve that last link to democracy.
Maila Baje, however, feels there is another Koirala-linked strand to the story on how Ranabhat came so close to becoming prime minister twice after King Gyanendra's October 4, 2002 foray into active politics.
That strand may have some relevance to Ranabhat's latest remarks.
In seeking to raise the monarch above controversy, Ranabhat might be aiming for much more than self-preservation.
The restoration of the house – which Maila Baje feels is Ranabhat's first preference – would logically restore Sher Bahadur Deuba's government.
More importantly, it would unleash a fresh round of horse-trading between the Koirala and Deuba factions of the ruling Nepali Congress, which technically remains undivided in its "parliamentary-party" form.
In the ensuing free-for-all, only Ranabhat would succeed in staying above controversy, wouldn't he?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Fine-Truth Comb?

The Royal Nepalese Army (RNA)'s latest combing operations against the Maoist rebels in their stronghold of Rolpa will no doubt be brushed off by many as another ploy by Kathmandu-based autocrats to strengthen their grip on power.
If not, why has the royal government gone on the offensive when the Maoists' unilateral ceasefire technically still remains in force?
Is King Gyanendra, as supreme commander in chief of the RNA, prepared to take full responsibility for a resumption of a full-scale conflict?
As far as the army is concerned, such questions are irrelevant. The generals refuse to consider the last four months a period when the rebels really ceased their fire.
The RNA press directorate puts out daily bulletins on how the Maoists have continued their acts of violence, intimidation and threats, looting and abduction against innocent civilians.
Organizations critical of the royal regime have highlighted how Maoist-led killing have "come down" during the truce. They, too, point to continuing killings, abductions and other acts of intimidation.
Could this be why the peace constituency isn't as vociferous as it was last month in urging the Maoists to extend their truce?
The political parties have an interest: a truce extension would make it easier for the government to hold the municipal elections.
Has civil society, too, reconciled itself to armed conflict's redeeming value?
As for the Rolpa offensive, one anonymous source was quoted as saying that it would be the "deadliest" the RNA has unleashed so far. Are we bracing for a fight to the finish?
Army HQ is tight-lipped on the matter. Unofficial reports – some attributed to anonymous military sources – suggest that the offensive has three objectives:
(a) to contain the Maoists in the Rolpa region to forestall their announced campaign to attack Kathmandu,
(b) to destroy the rebels' military infrastructure in the region; and
(c) to capture senior Maoist leaders believed to be in and around Rolpa
Maila Baje would like to add a fourth. The army has learned its lessons from the last two ceasefires. In 2001 and 2003, the Maoists pulled out of the peace process as Nepalis were awaiting word on the venue and agenda of the subsequent round of talks.
Were the attacks on the Dang barracks and the murder of that general in Baneshwar really products of intelligence failure or excessive faith in the rebels' peace pledges?
By pre-empting the Maoists this time, the RNA evidently feels it can regain the initiative. Who wouldn't after all that bad press compressed in a month?
The timing, no doubt, raises serious questions about the RNA's real motives.
But, then, if the insanity of one soldier – or even a group of soldiers – in Nagarkot is allowed to become such a hot political issue, what's the harm in risking lives and limbs in an official pursuit of peace?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Realignment Routes

With the 12-point memo between the mainstream parties and the Maoist rebels having fallen flat on its own haziness, is Nepal on the verge of another churning process?
Probably. The harder thing to figure out is the shape or form of a putative realignment.
After weeks of defiant noises from government ministers on the inevitability of February's municipal elections, King Gyanendra's No. 2, Dr. Tulsi Giri, has indicated they could be postponed if the mainstream parties agreed to join reconciliation talks with the government.
How much Dr. Giri's overture was a response to the olive branch extended by Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala -- who offered talks with the monarch if he postponed the polls – is unclear. (How much of an overture was Koirala's stand, for that matter? He is, after all, under pressure to democratize his party's student wing and needed a diversionary ploy, right?)
Then you have UML leaders like Pradip Nepal suggesting that the seven-party alliance would boycott the polls, but not disrupt them. Does this suggest that lesser known UML figures would contest as independents, like, say, the way the Reds entered the Rastriya Panchayat in the 1980s?
Before you get carried away by a mainstream-monarchy rapprochement, consider the subtle hints of reconciliation on the other flank. Ministers have been suggesting behind-the-scenes contacts with the Maoists. One member of the Human Rights Commission has suggested that informal talks were already under way.
While threatening to return to full-scale war after the ceasefire expires next week, the Maoists have exercised great care in responding to a letter by Ian Martin, the U.N. human rights czar in Nepal.
The Maoist leaders, we are informed by Martin, have insisted their threat of "people's action" to thwart the municipal polls does not mean they have ordered cadres to take physical action against those involved.
Now, violence is the best instrument the Maoists have thrived on. Why have they foreclosed that option – if that indeed is what they have done – to an international entity?
Plausible deniability -- so that any violence could be automatically blamed on rogue elements?
Or does the categorical assurance suggest that the Maoist have opted to emulate some of the revolutionaries of the 80s that make up today's UML?
That group called for an "active boycott" of the national referendum in 1980. As it happened, their "protest" consisted of voting in favor of retaining the Panchayat system "with suitable reforms".
(Maila Baje remains convinced that the Panchayat camp won the referendum precisely because of this "boycott". Then-prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa's post-ballot dexterity has been highly overrated.)
So which way is Nepal headed? Palace-mainstream or palace-Maoist? Or still mainstream-Maoist? The Nepali Congress's Ram Chandra Poudel, let's not forget, has been insisting that the end of the Maoist ceasefire would not affect the mainstream's understanding with them.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Gopal Man's Gift To Girija

With a single statement, Gopal Man Shrestha has done much more to enhance the stature of Girija Prasad Koirala that the astute octogenarian's entire party could in the 11 months since Nepal became an executive monarchy.
When the five-time premier stated in his hometown that he would be open to talks with King Gyanendra if the government put off the local polls, Koirala opened the way to a feverish cycle of speculation, insinuation and calculation.
But the acting president of the Nepali Congress (Democratic) stepped in with his own script.
Shrestha, just back from New Delhi where he was believed to have held consultations with Maoist leaders, sounded like an avid convert to republicanism in advance of his party's crucial convention next month.
The Nepali Congress (D) would vote for a republican setup, Shrestha rumbled, unless King Gyanendra corrected his "mistake" – of imprisoning party president Sher Bahadur Deuba and member Prakash Man Singh.
The other six members of the mainstream alliance have proffered more or less the same repentance-republic tradeoff. However, Shrestha's version made the Nepali Congress, Unified Marxist-Leninists and the smaller constituents sound like hugely principled entities.
Now don't get Maila Baje wrong. He really feels for Deuba and Singh. The two men are under detention on allegations of corruption while the royal regime has allowed much more tainted politicians to reinvent themselves as crusaders for democracy.
But why should King Gyanendra – and the rest of the country, for that matter – have to confront such a cheap challenge? Can the fate of two individuals really determine the ideology of a party and become part of the nation's larger agenda?
Part of Shrestha's motive may be organizational. When Deuba broke away from the Nepali Congress and formed his own party, many had expected the move to herald a generational shift in Nepalese politics.
The gerontocracy guiding the Nepali Congress was incapable of seeing how much the world had changed since 2007 Sal. Democracy in the Nineties was held hostage by two politicians in their late 70s bickering like kindergarteners.
Deuba, after all, was Nepal's first premier to have been educated in the West. What he specifically did or learn at the London School of Economics may be unclear. But he did succeed in roping in a band of young and energetic Nepali Congress politicians who either by education or outlook seemed capable of moving beyond a political legacy built in Benaras and Calcutta.
Soon Nepalis realized what Koirala had recognized all along. Deuba's party was united by nothing more than hatred for the Koirala brand name. Girija may have been an autocrat in his party, but he was also a human being with a personal touch.
Khum Bahadur Khadka, that seemingly invincible Dangali who had two dozens MPs in his pocket at any given moment, was the prime mover of the Congress split. When Khadka found himself in the gaol after Deuba's first dismissal, it was only Girija who telephoned him with words of encouragement.
Once set free, Khadka dumped Deuba to return to Koirala, although we don't know precisely what came out of it for him politically. Personally, for Khadka, it must have been a fitting way of hitting back at Deuba.
In reversing his stand that he would not hold talks with King Gyanendra unless he restored the Feb. 1 status quo ante, Koirala was being pragmatic -- and not because he was paying close attention to Dr. Tulsi Giri's latest remarks.
Koirala knew that the rest of the country would perceive him as having made a pointless climbdown in exchange for a postponement of a ballot he was already boycotting.
But he wasn't that myopic not to have recognized the political space created by the kingdom's two dominant communist factions cozying up – and, of course, the fact that Gopal Man Shrestha was the last prominent leader to visit New Delhi.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Which Pandey Will It Be?

The mainstream parties have boxed themselves in faster than you would have thought, say, until last week.
Their alliance with the Maoists was bound to come undone after Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran studiously avoided mentioning it in public during his recent Nepal trip.
By refusing to delve into the details of his discussions with King Gyanendra, moreover, Saran left all sides wondering which way the scales were about to tip. (Some things in South Block just don't change.)
Dr. Baburam Bhattarai's interview refusing to bestow on India the honor of honest broker in Nepal was indicative of much more than the Maoists' repudiation of a key premise of the 12-point accord. The power struggle in the rebel leadership continues and New Delhi is at the center of it all.
Conclusive evidence of a hardening of the Maoists' stand wasn't long in coming. "Physical action" became such a provocative term that a large chunk of the royal regime's most merciless critics seemed to recognize the roots of its refusal to reciprocate the rebels' truce.
The mainstream alliance's rejection of the Maoists' "physical action" route to thwart the municipal elections – which they have vowed to boycott – has had the effect of diluting the accord.
In allowing local Maoist cadres to inflate their recent political meetings, the UML must have thought it was doing little more than rolling the welcome carpet to ex-members who had jumped to the more ideologically militant comrades a decade ago.
It fell upon King Gyanendra's much-maligned executive deputy, Dr. Tulsi Giri, to urge Nepalis to ponder the real question: Why were UML crowds across the country suddenly fattening faster than the Nepali Congress'?
Madhav Kumar Nepal may have established himself as the premier candidate to head a government of national reconciliation. But a Madhav Nepal on the extreme left is hardly something the country needs when it has a wide range of choices in the jungles.
Dr. Giri's contention may not have encouraged Nepali Congress and UML leaders to hold emergency sessions on the future of their protests. But the cracks had begun emerging in full public view a few days earlier.
Sujata Koirala stunned her fellow speakers at a recent public function by suggesting that the Nepali Congress could accept a constitutional monarchy (mark her adjective) if King Gyanendra apologized to the people for his recent conduct.
What would constitute such an apology? A formal radio and TV address to the nation accepting that he erred in seizing control on Feb. 1? Or an invitation to the Nepali Congress to head a national government? (Of course, our preeminent democrats would need open-ended sessions to settle on a candidate for prime minister.)
To be fair, though, things are not that easy for the mainstream parties. They have stuck their necks out too far on the republic-total-democracy-ceremonial monarchy scale.
No doubt, the danger of repudiating the pact is great from the Maoists. It's greater from civil society leaders, who have stepped up their warning to the mainstream leaders against jumping to the palace's bait. There's no telling what the country would have to endure if civil society entered into its own 24-point accord with the Maoists.
A political outlet, therefore, would depend on whether the Nepali Congress is swayed more by Devendra Raj Pandey or Ramesh Nath Pandey. And, yes, don't discount the UML's capacity to play the spoiler.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Physical Policy

The last 48 hours have provided important insights into King Gyanendra's refusal to reciprocate the Maoists' ceasefire.
Even if you discount the Royal Nepalese Army's contention that the Maoists used the first three months of the ceasefire to buy weapons, two unlikely quarters have apparently vindicated the government's stubbornness.
The reality that terrorist activities continued during the first-phase of truce was documented by Insec, an NGO that could hardly be considered an ally of the royal regime.
True, 62 people were killed by the security forces and 13 by the Maoists during the truce period, according to Insec. But, then, it wasn’t the government that declared the ceasefire.
More importantly, 13 deaths and thousands of abductions hardly represent a diminution of Maoist terrorism – unless you count body bags as the sole determinant.
No less revealing was the letter Ian Martin, the United Nations' human rights czar in Nepal, wrote to the Maoists seeking clarification on "physical action" they have vowed to use to sabotage municipal polls scheduled for February.
Martin could be genuinely flustered. Could the rebels mean they would start picketing polling centers at dawn to prevent voters from getting in? Or block ballot boxes from leaving the polling centers at the end of the day?
Alas, the Maoists have earned such a reputation that few sane minds seem ready to credit them with any capacity for peaceful resistance.
For many Nepalis, "physical action" means murder and maiming. Kuber Sharma of the Hariyali Party – a minister of the first cabinet King Gyanendra formed that held the second peace talks with the Maoists – has advanced a very selfish reason for not participating in the polls. "No candidacy at the cost of life," one newspaper headline summed up Sharma as saying.
Kesar Bista, chief of the brand-new Democratic Party, registered his organization with the Election Commission but doubted the government's ability to hold the polls. But that was before he joined the council of ministers. Responsibility must have led him to revise that view.
Forget about Afghanistan, Iraq or Kashmir. Parallels can't stand up to common sense. The constitution is virtually silent on local bodies. There is no mandatory minimum turnout for an election to be considered valid. When you count the number of votes a candidate or party gains purely on the basis of the number of ballots cast, end of story. All the state media need to focus on is the percentage of votes won.
Unless the mainstream parties can touch off their much ballyhooed tsunami in time to block the election, they would probably be better off on the sidelines. Having key adherents elected as independents or as members of smaller parties would be a bonus.
An extended period in the opposition has its redeeming value. Ordinary Nepalis who celebrated the parties' triumphant homecoming in 1951 weren't too bothered when King Mahendra showed them the door nine years later.
Three decades later, the people celebrated the demise of the partyless system only to hail the dismissal of a democratically elected government 12 years later. It is axiomatic in Nepal that the government of the day is always worse than the one it replaced.
What about the Maoists? They took their chances with the king and later with the parties. They have warmed up to international aid agencies by pledging to work in the country's impoverished areas where they hold sway. Of course, much would depend on how much control Prachanda has over local cadres who have thrived demanding money from aid agencies before forcing them to scale back projects. For now, the United Nations folks are thrilled by the rebels' vow to adhere to the their Basic Operating Guidelines for aid and development work.
Crafty as they are, the Maoists might persuade Martin of their peaceful intentions without having to formally extend the ceasefire. What if they don't? They have used peace as a façade so many times that if and when their genuine sincerity starts surfacing, it might not count for much. The royal regime would probably still be castigated, but not enough to turn into frowns the grins key members would be wearing.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Leahy Lateralism

This week the gentleman from Vermont rose in the Senate chamber to speak on Nepal's downward spiral for the third time in six months. His 1,012-word diatribe was focused on familiar targets: the military and the monarch that heads it.
But there was a difference. Leahy sounded impressed at the headway his effort to drive a wedge between the palace and Army HQ has made in recent months. India, Girija Prasad Koirala and Madhav Kumar Nepal have all picked up that theme, although it's becoming harder to make distinctions among the three these days.
Actually, Maoist thinker-in-chief Dr. Baburam Bhattarai introduced that debate publicly in his famed opinion piece in Kantipur after the Narayanhity massacre. He probably wouldn't mind Sen. Leahy taking credit if it helps to produce the desired effect.
In a speech to the Senate on December 21, Leahy sought to build on his platform of persuading the army to choose between the crown and the country. The following excerpt is revealing:
"Only the army has the ability to convince the King to abandon his imperial ambitions, but time is running out. The army’s chief of staff, General Pyar Jung Thapa, was privileged to receive training at the Army War College and he has participated in other U.S. military training programs. He has led Nepali troops in UN peacekeeping missions.
"He knows, or he should have learned, that the function of a modern, professional military is to protect the rights and security of the people, not the privileges of a dictator who has squandered the moral authority of his office. It is not only in the interests of Nepal, but in the army’s long term self interest, to show real leadership at this critical time.
"The United States should do everything possible to encourage the army to announce its own ceasefire, to accept international observers as the Maoists have said they would do, and to support a broadly inclusive political dialogue with or without the participation of the palace."
Maila Baje can't help wondering what drives Sen. Leahy's concern. Peace and democracy? If that consideration alone were the factor, it should have inspired a unanimous Senate resolution.
Personality? Sen. Leahy, after all, was first elected to the Senate in 1974 the same year he was named one of three outstanding prosecutors in the United States. Experience on the Hill must have compensated much more than age could have taken away from that fighting zeal. (Vice-President Dick Cheney, president of the Senate, dislikes half the chamber. But he, too, could reserve the F word only for Sen. Leahy.)
Temperament alone cannot explain why the seventh most senior Senator – and the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee – feels so much for Nepal. Maybe there's something in his congressional record.
One of the most prominent U.S. officeholders in the international campaign against the production, export and use of anti-personnel landmines, Sen. Leahy couldn't have missed how Nepal bucked the international trend and registered an increase in killings linked to those weapons.
One of the first members of Congress to go online – and the second senator to post a homepage – Sen. Leahy must have been stunned by the way King Gyanendra could disconnect Nepal from the outside world for days in this heavily wired (and wireless) world.
One of only two politicians ever awarded the John Peter Zenger Press Freedom Award, Sen. Leahy's temper must have gone through the roof when King Gyanendra's government introduced that maligned media ordinance.
Ranked among the top environmental legislators by the nation's foremost conservation organizations, the senator probably has a deep-seated grudge against the monarch. If King Gyanendra is so resolute about his objectives – something the monarch's fiercest critics acknowledge in private – how could Nepal get its worst environmental record when he, as prince, headed the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation?
Then things started falling into place: Tibet. The Congressional Record shows that Sen. Leahy's record on Tibet is second only to Dianne Feinstein's. You're likely to find Leahy's name far ahead of Joe Lieberman, Carl Levin, Barbara Boxer, Russ Feingold and even Edward Kennedy when it comes to matters concerning the arid plateau north of Nepal.
Maybe King Gyanendra is merely the lateral route through which Sen. Leahy seeks to bludgeon China. If the monarch hadn't shut down the Dalai Lama's offices in Kathmandu before appointing himself prime minister, would Sen. Leahy be singing paeans to royal resoluteness? Nah – unless the royal regime faced a full-scale Chinese embargo.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Poll Pragmatism

After months of creeping ambivalence, Maila Baje is now growing cautiously confident about the municipal polls being held as scheduled in February.
This optimism doesn't stem exclusively from King Gyanendra's unwavering determination to hold the elections at any cost. Nor does it flow from any firm belief that the Maoists have privately assured the palace they wouldn't actively sabotage the exercise.
The intrinsic beauty of the sovereign people finally taking charge of their affairs after seven long years of limbo, while noble in itself, isn't what has swayed Maila Baje. It's pure pragmatism expected from the political class.
Regardless of what Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala or UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal may be hollering in public, local politicians of all political stripes know what they stand to lose from a boycott. The power, privileges and patronage associated with local politics provide an addiction only practitioners can perceive.
The opposition alliance's call to boycott the royal regime's polls is likely to receive a less enthusiastic hearing at the local level because of one overriding reason. A large section of the village, municipal and district leaders of the 1990-2002 period started their careers as panchas.
Party ideology may not be that appealing to those who have reaped the fruits of flexibility. (And, of course, more than a few recall how the drafters of the present constitution simply forgot to enshrine local bodies in a separate article, much less its own section.)
To bolster its credentials, King Gyanendra's government might be willing to host the best of international observers. With the major opposition parties sitting on the sidelines, the government wouldn't have to pull a single string to ensure the dominance of the parties led by Ministers Badri Prasad Mandal, Keshar Bahadur Bista, Narayan Singh Pun and the more malleable adherents of Surya Bahadur Thapa and Pashupati Sumshere Rana.
That's where the pragmatism of Koirala and Nepal could blossom. These local satraps, more than the CDOs and Anchal Prashasaks, would frame the environment for the parliamentary elections the monarch has promised in 2007, a year before what he had originally pledged.
Even if the major parties officially stick to their decision to boycott the polls, Maila Baje believes they will allow supporters to stand as independents or as members of other parties.
The alternative – going head-on against the monarch on the streets – still hovers over the nation. Considering the tepidity the political opposition has shown in the last three years, that choice is more than likely to concede to electoral expediency.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Resolute Royalist

The most salient strand of substance to emerge from Dr. Tulsi Giri's latest newspaper interview, in Maila Baje's view, is his bewilderment at the amorphousness of the royalists' ideology.
The vice-chairman of crown-led cabinet is the kingdom's royalist in chief. The fact that he should be expressing such exasperation says a lot.
Dr. Giri is sometimes quoted as having declared himself the mother of the Panchayat system. Regardless of the authenticity of that attribution, he has stood up defiantly in defense of his beliefs – most awkwardly during King Birendra's reign.
He shares with Surya Bahadur Thapa the distinction of having been imprisoned by the very system he defended as head of government.
When Narayanhity tried to play both the liberal and hardliner act to project partylessness as benevolent authoritarianism, as opposed to outright autocracy, Dr. Giri wasn't too amused. Adult franchise and partylessness, in his view, were antithetical.
He quit his post as chairman of Panchayat's 25th anniversary celebrations committee and flew into exile in Sri Lanka and later India. He changed his religion but not his resoluteness.
He steadfastly refused to dabble in politics. Nepal Television's gaudy Bijay Kumar failed to elicit even an ambiguous answer in the late 1980s when he asked Dr. Giri how he rated his chances of returning to active politics.
Dr. Giri's change of heart coincided with King Gyanendra's enthronement. In 2002, he broke his political silence by telling a reporter in Bangalore that Afghanistan would look like a picnic if Nepal's ethnic and linguistic fault-lines were allowed to widen.
Still, few were ready to rate him any higher than a political has-been. Senior leaders of the Nepali Congress – the party Dr. Giri had ditched a generation ago to "conceive" the partyless system -- had crowned Sher Bahadur Deuba as the perfect incarnation of the man that continued to roil their blood.
The royal step of October 4, 2002 seemed to have persuaded Dr. Giri that his time had come. In fact, some theorize that Girija Prasad Koirala, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Co. agreed to King Gyanendra's appointment of Lokendra Bahadur Chand as premier only to prevent Dr. Giri from entering Singh Durbar. (Dr. Giri, then on his first visit to Nepal in years, had met King Gyanendra during the consultations following the dismissal of Deuba.)
As vice-chairman, Dr. Giri has lost none of his trademark anti-Indian vitriol. He has shown how exile and incumbency are entirely two different things. (Imagine where India would be today if Gandhi and Nehru had remained overly beholden as one-time students in Britain to their benefactors there.)
Among Dr. Giri's principal contentions:
*A section of royalists are busy offering the king bouquets during celebrations while others are behind the monarch just to get government posts.
*Sovereignty lies in the people. “If people can hand sovereignty to parliament for five years, why can’t they do it to the king?”
*The king is not the symbol of divine power or a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu but is established on the trust of the people.
*The current fight in the country is absolutely ideological. “Multi-party system is not synonymous with democracy. If political parties have the right to demand a republican order, we also have the right to demand monarchical democracy.”

Amen to all of the above. The "ideology" school of thought needs amplification. Events have been coalescing for a while but remain to acquire coherence of thought.
Consider this: Former Nepali Congress and UML stalwarts Prakash Koirala and Radha Krishna Mainali are in the royal cabinet. Former zonal commissioner Surya Bahadur Sen Oli has emerged as a key royal critic.
Under the Panchayat system, the first two men suffered exile and imprisonment largely because of their opposition to the palace. The third enjoyed full power and perks under royal patronage.
The temptation to explain this realignment on the basis of personal preferences or prejudices is flawed.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Oval Office Overture?

With contrition having suddenly emerged as a defining trait in his beleaguered second term, U.S. President George W. Bush seems to have used the holiday spirit to expand his gaze beyond Iraq, renditions and wire-tapping.
He has acknowledged the fallacy of equating King Gyanendra with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.
The U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu is refusing to comment on reports that Ambassador James F. Moriarty handed King Gyanendra a letter from President Bush urging the monarch to begin reconciliation talks with the parties. In Maila Baje's view, absence of denial, at least in this specific case, is sufficient confirmation.
King Gyanendra's visit to the United Nations that the Royal Palace never officially planned was put off last September not because of the black flags the Nepali diaspora had planned to unfurl. Nor because of subversion from the Maoists or mainstream parties, as each have claimed.
The monarch was put off by Bush's decision to strike him off the guest list to the traditional reception the U.S. president holds in honor of visiting heads of state or government.
The palace should have gotten an inkling of the impending snub. Weeks earlier, Moriarty had gone out of his way to publicly rule out any meeting between Bush and King Gyanendra in New York.
The king had good reason to be irked by Bush's poor social skills. For over a generation, Nepal has been totally pro-American – at least as far as its precarious location between China and India would permit. Our much demonized King Mahendra, for one, was invited by both the Republican Eisenhower and Democratic Johnson administrations. King Birendra himself was invited by none other than Ronald Reagan. (For the record, King Tribhuvan was planning to visit the U.S. but the State Department was in a quandary over his two wives. By the time the Americans got over the "bigamy" consideration, the monarch was already on the verge of death in Europe.)
Worse, Bush's equation of King Gyanendra with the Latin American and African strongmen wasn't fair. Chavez is plotting to create a leftist Latin America that would seek to humble America in its hemisphere.
Mugabe, a one-time Marxist, is forcing the United States to acknowledge complicity in Britain's colonial sins.
King Gyanendra, on the other hand, was planning to place Nepal's fight with the Maoist rebels squarely as part of Bush's war on terror. A president with a black-and-white "either-you're-with-us-or-against-us" vision shouldn't have been so shortsighted.
Indeed, Moriarty must have recognized the rapidity with which America was risking its foothold in Nepal. (His wife, the U.S. ambassador to Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, was in a better position to provide a regional perspective to an administration that has become conspicuously Asia-centric in so many ways.)
So after his consultations in New Delhi last month, which coincided with the Maoist-mainstream confabulations there, Moriarty must have felt the urgency of a face-to-face briefing in DC. (Fluent in Chinese, Moriarty must have deciphered the view from Beijing in its pristine original official form.)
By this time, Washington had identified the principal architect of the de-Americanization of Indian foreign policy and acted. It had leaked enough combustible material portraying Indian Foreign Minister K. Natwar Singh – also a hawk on Nepal -- as an alleged beneficiary of the U.N./Saddam Hussein oil-for-food kickbacks to force him out of office.
The fact that news of Bush's letter was leaked by a palace official does not diminish its importance. Such a plea couldn’t have come without some moves toward reconciliation between the White House and Narayanhity – or at least the promise thereof.
Will Bush's turnaround facilitate the process of reconciliation in Nepal anytime soon? Can't say. Maila Baje will be watching for one sign: Sher Bahadur Deuba's fate.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Irked Ideologue

With Kisunji's endorsement, the 12-point accord between the mainstream parties and Maoists has recovered some of the traction it lost with chief rebel ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai's latest comments.
In an interview with the Maoist mouthpiece Janadesh, Comrade Lal Dhwaj cautioned all against expecting a complete cessation of armed rebellion even with the inauguration of total democracy.
That was the soft ball. Lower down the column, Dr. Bhattarai categorically ruled out that India, given its history in Nepal, could be an honest broker.
What happened? Did Prachanda, who not too long ago accused Dr. Bhattarai of being an Indian agent, use the interregnum to open his own channel with South Block?
Is this the rebel philosopher's way of hitting back – by making things easier for the palace?
After all, who gets the most sleep knowing that the regional hegemon will be welcomed to throw its weight around by one less – no doubt influential – quarter from within?
As for the United Nations, even a palace hukke knows that a full mission in Nepal – something the Maoists seem to want -- would never get past that draft-resolution-circulation phase among Security Council members.
By ruling out India's role, Dr. Bhattarai has put the mainstream parties in a dilemma. They can't afford to insist that New Delhi remains central to their understanding of the accord. Not doing so would spell the end of the initiative's whole purpose.
Prachanda, where art thou?

Friday, December 16, 2005

Compromise(d) Candidate

WHO: Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala and UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal

WHEN: 10pm, December 16, 2005

WHERE: Maila Baje's head

Madhav Kumar Nepal: The tide is turning in our favor, Girijababu. What do you think?

Girija Prasad Koirala: Let the king's men lose their mind a little more, and then we'll size up the crowds.

MKN: Don't count too much on the crowds, though. This man is nothing like his brother. Moreover, he knows that it’s anger against his government that's fueling the protests – not anything attractive we're saying or doing.

GPK: Now that's the kind of defeatism that has harmed us since Asoj 18. You should be….

MKN: Defeatism. It was your refusal to back me as PM that led to all this…

GPK: Now look who's talking. You're the one who jumped to join the king's government, and you weren't even offered the deputy premier's post. What was your phrase again… "Regression has been half corrected?"

MKN: Okay, okay let's focus on the future. I got a call from a palace aide who said the king was ready to appoint me prime minister if I got an express undertaking from you that the Nepali Congress would join my government. What should I tell him?

GPK: How close to the king is this aide? I need a name and rank.

MKN: Let's keep that a secret for now, shall we?

GPK: Gosh, you're still at your old games after all we've been through.

MKN: C'mon Girijababu let's get a little serious here. This may be our last chance.

GPK: Your last chance, you mean.

MKN: Whatever…

GPK: No Madhavji, I can't support you as PM. I'm already having a hard time wiggling between Sushil and Ram Chandra. I got Ram Chandra to accept Sushil as party vice-president by promising I would step aside in his favor for the premiership.

MKN: What? Ram Chandra for prime minister? After all he did to you after the Darbar hatya kanda? As deputy premier, he should have stuck with you till the very end.

GPK: You miss the point, Madhavji. Ram Chandra's resignation made it easier for to persuade Sujata that my time was up. And, don't forget, Ram Chandra almost became president of Sher Bahadur's new party in 2002. He had dispatched all his supporters to Deuba's conference as a decoy.

MKN: Ram Chandra can't even win his Tanahun constituency without Govindraj's support. Your overestimating the guy.

GPK: No Madhavji, you don't understand. As a commodity, votes are highly unpredictable. Did you expect Bamdev to lose his seat in 1999? It's a man's political acumen that counts.

MKN: And what might be so great about Ram Chandra's acumen?

GPK: Go back a little and remember how Ram Chandra sparked those anti-China protests. All Ram Chandra wanted to know was why Chairman Mao's portrait was hanging higher than King Mahendra's at that Chinese fair? He couldn't be charged with crimes against the state for that.

MKN: Yeah, and he ended up strengthening the palace's ties with China.

GPK: Here's another instance: the student protests of 1979. It was Ram Chandra's idea that students march up to the Pakistani Embassy to lodge a protest against the execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. If you ask me, I never liked the guy. He always had that air about the Bhuttos being a cut above the Koiralas – and that was long before most Pakistanis had heard of Benazir. Ram Chandra calculated that Kirti Nidhi's government would crack down on the demonstrators, giving us the excuse to fire up the streets.

MKN: And the king announced a referendum that Surya Bahadur Thapa rigged in favor of the Panchayat system, before getting the boot himself.

GPK: Don't dwell too much on the negative.

MKN: Give me a good reason not to.

GPK: Look, no one expected Ram Chandra to survive incarceration in Tanahun after Magh 19 with that toothache, or whatever it was. He came out with sharper fangs ready to go after the palace until the very end.

MKN: No, I need a better reason.

GPK: Do you think a government led by any other party than the Girija Congress can carry international legitimacy? Especially with Prachanda and Baburam, not to speak of the Calcutta commies, calling the shots in the mainstream? Moreover, we have to split China and Pakistan from the palace – and who better than Ram Chandra to do that?

MKN: That's a cheap shot, Girijababu. The UML has fought harder than anyone in defense of this constitution – Moriarty, Bloomfield and now Martin know that. And don't forget Madan Comrade had given the document only qualified support.
Give me a nice solid reason why you think Ram Chandra is better qualified that I am to become PM.

GPK: I hate to say this, Madhavji, but you asked for it. Ram Chandra dispenses with protocol when it comes to the national interest. He agreed to become Kisunji's deputy premier – and subsequently mine -- after already having served as speaker of the House of Representatives. He's our version of Shimon Peres. But Ram Chandra, too, is human. You can't force the man to make it a habit. You, on the other hand, never rose higher than deputy premier, although I do concede that you were virtually Manmohan's boss for those nine months.

MKN: Yes, I think our comrades will buy this line. I'll update you within 24 hours on what they have to say. Then we can discuss who gets the Royal Palace Affairs portfolio.

GPK: Don't take too long. And, yes, make sure you're always half a mile away from Surya Bahadur until then.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Taking Responsibility

The tragedy inflicted by that drunken soldier in Nagarkot has tarnished – irreparably if you ask Maila Baje – the reputation of the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA).
The sense of impunity within the RNA is probably not greater than in any group that finds its stars on the ascendant.
However, the military is the last organization that can afford a brazen display of callousness. And certainly not when much of the country is urging foreign governments not to arm the force.
The Nagarkot carnage puts the RNA in worse ground than the Maoists. At least the rebels – however misguided they may be – can claim they are killing and maiming in support of a cause.
There seems a lot we don't know yet on both sides. The international media began the news cycle with soldiers opening fire, before stepping back to the singular.
Reports that the perpetrator committed suicide after massacring 12 innocent revelers, too, don't seem to gel with the facts on the ground.
But this much is clear: This madman, hiding behind civvies, squirted a stain of infamy the entire armed force will have to live with.
One soldier's madness must not be allowed to tarnish the reputation of the entire force, the RNA top brass will no doubt say. Point taken.
But the standards have to be fair. If Maoist chairman Prachanda is asked to own up the dastardly bus attack in Chitwan earlier this year, then the RNA supreme commander in chief must take responsibility for the senseless act of a subordinate – no matter how low down the ladder.
Moreover, King Gyanendra is his own prime minister and defense minister and has been standing on an anti-terrorism platform for almost a year. Terrorism unleashed by his side is equally condemnable and punishable.
Opposition leaders' demands that King Gyanendra assume moral responsibility for the massacre are valid, although how he might go about doing so remains debatable.
Maila Baje feels these demands must be weighed against two other ominous stories that were overshadowed by the Nagarkot massacre.
Indian Maoists have threatened to intensify their "war" against foreign multinationals and other firms in several Indian states, accusing them of plundering resources and forcing them off their lands.
Not our problem, right?
Right, but only until you get to the paragraph that says two rebel leaders made the threat to a group of reporters somewhere along the Indo-Nepal border. One newspaper even made it sound like the rebels were enjoying a safe haven deep inside Nepal.
One rebel leader suggested the Indian Maoists shared only ideological affinity with their Nepali counterparts. However, a female Maoist, admitting her involvement in last month's jailbreak in Bihar, told a news conference the same day that Nepalese Maoists had specially trained her unit for the task.
New Delhi has long feared Maoist violence in Nepal could spill into parts of India. In recent months, Indian security analysts have suggested that growing links between Indian and Nepali Maoists have boosted the Indian Maoists' striking power.
The right to self-defense could easily join the range of options New Delhi is said to be mulling in response to Kathmandu's growing security ties with Beijing and Islamabad.
Maila Baje's attempt to divert attention from the Nagarkot tragedy? Or a plea for some perspective? You decide.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Water Resourcefulness

So King Gyanendra didn't get that much-expected invitation from India.
Ending his three-day visit, Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran brushed aside speculation, saying it was not his job going about handing out invitations.
But who expected the invitation?
Foreign Minister Ramesh Nath Pandey was extensively quoted as having made that suggestion before Saran's arrival. But those news reports quoted some other source.
An invitation to the monarch at this juncture would have represented a monumental climb-down for the Indians. Imagine how the Chinese would have felt.
In the early 1960s, when democracy and human rights were not so chic, it took a massive Chinese blow on the border for India to begin overtures to the palace. And it took almost two years after King Mahendra booted Bishweswar Prasad Koirala and Co.
How could 18 truckloads of Chinese arms entering the kingdom without Beijing having let out a whisper trigger a monumental turnaround? Especially when Hindi-Chini bhai bhai has gained an economic luster?
So the "non-invitation" was probably a cover floated to conceal the real bargaining Saran was in Nepal for: preventing China from entering Nepal's hydroelectricity industry.
On the eve of his arrival in Kathmandu, Saran was lecturing us how Nepal had the potential of being the richest country in South Asia [only if…]
That ploy must have prompted King Gyanendra to strike hydroelectricity off the agenda right away.
In the end, the best Saran could get was Nepal's permission to resume construction of the dam at Danda river on the Rupendehi border. That, too, with an explicit rider: the Indian government would have to construct two culverts – and more, if need be – to discharge water collected on the Nepalese side.

Monday, December 12, 2005

All In The (U.N.) Family

Ian Martin must be having the time of his life.
The former secretary-general of Amnesty International has inspired new hope in Nepalis of all kinds, ever since he arrived in Kathmandu earlier this year to open a U.N. human rights office in Kathmandu.
Under an agreement between the United Nations and the Nepalese government, Martin heads a team of monitors to try to establish accountability and prevent further abuses by all sides in the nine-year-old armed conflict with Maoist rebels.
Martin's bio is impressive. He has 30 years of experience in human rights, both with non-governmental organizations and with the United Nations.
Maila Baje pondered a bit. East Timor is perhaps Martin's most shining moment, inspiring him to write an entire monograph on self-determination there. Bosnia, too, can be counted as a success, but probably more because of Bill Clinton than anyone else.
As for Martin's other stints, let the proper nouns speak for themselves: Ethiopia and Eritrea, Sudan, Rwanda. Do these places evoke tranquility of any kind?
As for Rwanda, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had to apologize last year, on the 10th anniversary of the massacre there, that the world body had failed that country. Of course, Annan didn't mention that he was the U.N.'s Under-Secretary for Peace-Keeping Operations in 1994.
One Nepali lawyer on Monday filed a petition urging Martin's office to expedite the reinstatement of the House of Representatives. Dhruba Koirala complained that the Supreme Court had delayed hearing on his case and apparently his human rights had been violated.
Evidently, Martin wanted to relish every moment of this vanity. Where else could he find a real lawyer so awed by his omnipotence? Even his newest interns at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and International Center for Transitional Justice knew better than that.
But Martin knew he couldn't disappoint his Nepalese visitor by raising issues of improper jurisdiction and the like. So, in classic U.N. bureaucratic style, Martin passed the buck upwards. He told Koirala that his message would be conveyed to Annan.
It's all in the U.N. family.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Seven-Party Dalliance

It seems all the constituents of the Seven-Party Alliance have overcome their differences over the 12-point understanding reached between the Maoists last month.
C.P. Mainali, the leader of United Left Front, said his concern was only over some "procedural matters." Satisfied, he has pledged full support to the accord.
Pari Thapa, vice-chairman of People's Front Nepal, said the alliance would make it clear that the issue of placing the Royal Nepalese Army and the Maoist army under United Nations supervision doesn't mean inviting any other force into the country.
Now Maila Baje is a little lost here. If the alliance as a whole is ruling out the arrival of any other force – logically including a U.N. or any other regional or multilateral force – then how is the supervision to be conducted?
Furthermore, Maila Baje isn't sure whether the Maoists understand the alliance's latest interpretation of the accord in the same way. The two sides did come out with their own versions of the agreement, didn't they?
Since Mainali and Co. managed to resolve their differences in time for Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran's arrival in Kathmandu, let's hope things become clearer by the time Saran ends his three-day visit.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Courting Catastrophe

Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala has given King Gyanendra a one-month ultimatum to respond to the 12-point understanding reached between the seven-party alliance and Maoists. Missing that deadline “will invite a big catastrophe that will wash away the monarchy.”
Koirala said the NC was standing on the borderline of republicanism. "If people want to cross the borderline we will have no option but to comply."
Maila Baje thought Girijababu’s party had crossed that borderline when it dropped reference to constitutional monarchy from the party statute. So there’s some hope that the “people” – Nepali Congress activists and their student, trade union, women, ex-servicemen allies who are essentially the same bunch of folks – may relent.
The octogenarian’s threat is similar to the tsunami warning UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal has been issuing.
Seeking to show that, unlike Girijababu, he is a man of the times, MaKuNe has been making repeated references to dragging the royal regime to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Since Nepal is not a state party to the Rome Treaty that established the body, the ICC can begin an investigation if a case is referred either by the United Nations Security Council or by another ratifying state. While the prosecutor may also take independent action, it involves a process, shall we say, too complicated to constitute a credible threat.
With Nepal able to the count on Chinese and Russian vetoes, at the least, the U.N. Security Council would have a hard time referring the royal regime to the ICC. The only other country Comrade MaKuNe could count on is India – provided a left-driven government like the current one is in power. But India has shown little inclination to sign the treaty, much less ratify it. (Obviously, it’s not like, say, promising Nepal could export electricity via satellite to dodge its geographical disadvantages.)
King Gyanendra, for his part, seems to be a man of infinite patience. Four years on the throne, he hasn’t even begun consulting propitious dates for his coronation.
Moreover, he knows that a catastrophe by definition has far-reaching dimensions. As for MaKuNe’s tsunami, the comrade should take a deep breath and go back 11-and-a-half months. Does he still believe he can escape the devastation he has vowed to unleash?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Koshi, Gandaki, Mahakali, But Not Karnali?

Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran is due in Nepal Sunday on a three-day visit. The Indian and Nepali press have given prominent coverage to schedule in Kathmandu --and with good reason.
With the U.N.-Iraq oil-for-food scandal having claimed Foreign Minister Natwar Singh’s job, Saran, a former ambassador to Nepal, has come to wield much influence over Indian diplomacy.
Considering its “history of unpredictability”, in the words of one Indian newspaper, Nepal-India relations require handling with “extreme care and dexterity”. But as part of its extended neighborhood and given the historical ties that India enjoys with Nepal, an Indian ambassador has a very important role in Kathmandu.
How much Saran’s performance in the kingdom contributed to catapulting him to the foreign secretary’s seat remains unclear. Few Indian ambassadors to Nepal have succeeded in getting the top diplomatic job back home. The fact that Saran superseded almost a dozen babus says a lot.
Although he took over as foreign secretary after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government assumed power last year, Saran’s appointment was actually pushed by the Vajpayee administration. (Another confirmation perhaps of Indian political parties’ broad consensus on matters concerning foreign policy.)
Maila Baje was impressed by Saran’s past as a journalist with Calcutta’s now-defunct JS magazine. Its breezy, graphics-heavy coverage of Nepal stood in refreshing contrast to the normally staid fare of the Indian press. One hopes Saran can enliven South Block’s ambience during his tenure, which ends in less than a year.
As for Nepal, the Indian foreign secretary recently asserted that India had high stakes in the kingdom.
Those who continue to labor over what role New Delhi played in forging last month’s deal between the parties and Maoist rebels shouldn’t have searched any further. Saran was quite candid in insisting that India had begun a process of engagement with all parties to Nepal’s deepening conflict.
Since Nepal’s Maoist rebels and mainstream politicians had only assembled in New Delhi awaiting further orders when Saran met King Gyanendra on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Dhaka last month, there must be much Saran hopes to discuss with the palace.
With 18 truckloads of Chinese arms entering Kathmandu days after Nepal played its part in ensuring China’s firm imprint on South Asia’s geopolitical map, New Delhi felt forced to act. But the mainstream-Maoist accord didn’t have the desired effect.
Four days after returning home from a three-week foreign trip, King Gyanendra reconstituted his cabinet in a way that, among other things, signaled he may be ready to cut his own deal with a section of the rebels.

What About Our Stake?
But Maila Baje thinks something else is bothering India: the Upper Karnali Project, located in the Surkhet-Accham-Kailali triangle, a Maoist stronghold.
India's National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) and Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) had reached an initial understanding on building the 300MW project. The NHPC has not replied to the formal memorandum the NEA sent over a year ago.
Here’s the rub: The NHPC was reported to have insisted on an 85 percent stake in the project, something Nepal considered highly unfavorable. In the draft the NEA sent, Nepal sought a 49 percent stake.
Given its severe power shortage, Assistant Minister for Water Resources Binod Kumar Shah said in a recent interview with Indo-Asian New Service, Nepal can't go on keeping the project on hold.
At a public program, Shah announced the government’s plan to promulgate a new Hydroelectricity Act and an Ordinance to attract investment from other sources.
The “other sources” are clearly visible to Saran and his bosses.
Weeks after the Feb. 1 royal takeover, Xinhua news service reported that China and Australia planned to invest in the 750MW West Seti project. The $1.2 billion project, scheduled for completion within five and half years, aims to sell power to India.
Shah and his immediate boss, Tulsi Giri, retain the water resources portfolio.
Koshi, Gandaki, Mahakali but not Karnali – how can that be?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

‘Meaningless’ In So Many Words

For Nepal’s opposition parties, King Gyanendra’s latest cabinet reshuffle is meaningless. No quibbling with that. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion in a democracy. What struck Maila Baje was the plethora of politicians and wads of words it took to convey that simple sentiment.
Does this incongruity stem from bruised feelings? There were rumors, after all, that some prominent members of the seven-party alliance had received that much-awaited ‘signal’ from the royal palace after King Gyanendra returned from a three-week foreign tour on December 2.
In the Nepali Congress, the cover was, of course, the growing feeling that UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal was demanding full credit for the deal with the Maoists. (To set the record straight, NC leader Girija Prasad Koirala had to acknowledge for the first time he had held face-to-face talks with Maoist leaders in New Delhi.)
For some UML leaders, their stint in the Sher Bahadur Deuba cabinet either as members or mentors left a lasting stain. The grilling from the rank-and-file was becoming gruesome. (Remember that ‘Godly’ comrade who was released on a Supreme Court order but couldn’t find anyone waiting with vermilion and garlands outside the prison gates?) Moreover, some ex-UML members had prospered by not repudiating the “royalist” label.
A lot of aspirants will be venting their spleen in the days ahead.

Staying Power Of A Fortunate Few
Among the fortunate few retaining their positions, Radha Krishna Mainali and Prakash Koirala were the most vocal in criticizing the parties-Maoist pact as New Delhi’s creation. As former UML and Nepal Congress bigwigs, they carry much political content.
Ramesh Nath Pandey, who has endeared himself to almost everyone in power since B.P. Koirala, probably worked his charm again. What worked in favor of Salim Miya Ansari and Niranjan Thapa – apart from religion in the case of the former and strong Panchayat credentials in the latter -- is less clear.
Interestingly, Pandey and Mainali are the only unbattered members of the Group of 10 with which King Gyanendra began his direct rule on Feb. 1 Six ministers were dropped while two were demoted.

Ugly, Bad And…
Everyone knew that Jagat Gauchan and Senate Shrestha were a liability from the start. Maila Baje felt all along that Gauchan’s induction was intended as a snub to Girija, who ordered his early release from prison in exchange for some “consideration.” Shrestha’s appointment was perhaps more of a personal favor to his father, Dil Bahadur Shrestha, one of the first ex-panchas urging the palace to sack the elected government and assume direct command.
The other sackings were less explicable. Home Minister Dan Bahadur Shahi and Finance Minister Madhukar Sumshere Rana, named in a fertilizer smuggling scam a few months ago, were expected to be shown the door. But Agriculture Minister Badri Prasad Mandal – directly in charge of fertilizers – received slap on the wrist – transfer to a less lucrative ministry.
So must we assume that Shahi's fall came after Crown Prince Paras' motorcade was pelted with stones by angry protesters? Or, worse, for having ordered tight security to prevent irate royalists from ransacking UML headquarters?
Maybe Rana, scheduled to head the Nepali delegation to the WTO ministerial conference in Hong Kong from Dec 13-19, fell into that perennial double trap: coming to a ministry with few resources and unlimited demands after criticized successive incumbents’ “nonperformance”?
Durga Shrestha probably had an inkling of impending disaster when she received a missive from the anti-corruption body for misusing government funds and vehicles. Krishna Lal Thakali, Khadga Bahadur G.C. and Ram Narayan Singh had made few waves for their departure to have made news.
Instead, a few of those who stayed have. Tanka Dhakal, the government spokesman, was shunted to the Local Development Ministry, once a lucrative post. With not much local or development happening in the rural hinterland these days, the shift was probably a shunt. (His successor, journalist Shirish Shumsher Rana, among the few in the trade with remarkable proficiency in both English and Nepali, has a tough challenge.)
Some months ago, Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister Buddhiraj Bajracharya was in the news for having made “donations” to the Maoists. If that was his crime, then how could he be good for the cabinet without a portfolio? At least Kirti Nidhi Bista – the other man in the cabinet without a specific ministry – remains the junior deputy to King Gyanendra.
For Bista’s Panchayat-era rival, Surya Bahadur Thapa, this was payback time. During his last premiership in 2003-04, Thapa couldn’t bring onboard the rival faction of his Rastriya Prajatantra Party, let alone representatives of other parties. So the Brave Sun disowned his long-time loyalist Buddhi Man Tamang. In Thapa’s view, Tamang is in the cabinet in his personal capacity, not as a representative of the Rashtriya Janashakti Party the former premier formed after breaking away from the RPP.
With Kamal Thapa and Bhuvan Pathak having joined Niranjan Thapa and Tanka Dhakal, there has never been such a heavy concentration of ex-mandales.

Party Bosses In And Out
Keshar Bahadur Bista, the sports minister who resigned on “moral grounds” when a hailstorm-induced stampede at the stadium resulted in the deaths of over 70 people, returns as head of his brand-new Prajatantrik Nepal Party. The strange part was that he registered his party at the Election Commission insisting that the government could not hold the polls.
Another party chief Narayan Singh Pun of Samata Party, who brought the Maoists to peace talks in 2003 but then had receded in influence, has come in as land reforms minister. Is Pun’s Maoist link Sagar Chettri (aka Comrade Ram Bahadur Thapa “Badal”?) plotting a mass defection to the government in response to Prachanda and Baburam’s capitulation to India?
Bista and Pun, along with Mandal, chief of Nepal Sadbhavana Party, have given a multiparty hue to the government. By roping in the RPP and RJP (regardless of what Surya Bahadur Thapa says), the government might be able to hold the local elections after all.
Who could have imagined that Thapa and his long-time critic RPP chief Pashupati Sumshere Rana – both of whom have been hesitant about participating in the royal government’s polls – would ever find themselves on the same boat?
In this sense, maybe the reshuffle is indeed meaningless.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Dissonance Of A ‘Dependent’ Media

When Nepalese media organizations start throwing around words like “China Card” with abandon, you get a feeling that something’s not right.
Coined by the Indian media to display the New Delhi establishment’s traditional dislike for Kathmandu’s effort to exercise its full sovereignty, the term’s deep local penetration has serious implications.
For one thing, the sustained use of the term suggests the non-state “free” Nepalese media’s acquiescence in India’s prejudiced interpretation of Nepal’s foreign policy.
Worse, it sets out to convey the fallacious impression that Nepal’s “independent” media are merely conveying a growing public dislike for the government’s exercise of its sovereign options.
Last month, Nepal took a bold step toward correcting a palpably growing imbalance in South Asia. Although geographically distant, China has come to play an increasing role in the region. That consists of much more than an improvement in political and economic ties with India and a consolidation of the traditional security partnership with Pakistan.
China has steadily built robust multidimensional partnerships with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, which India condescendingly considers its backyard.
Our homegrown critics of Nepal’s “China Card” fail to acknowledge that Kathmandu’s initiative at the SAARC summit to have Beijing associated with the regional organization as an observer had the full backing of Islamabad, Dhaka and Colombo.
On the issue of Chinese arms supplies to the Nepalese army, why have the “independent” media conveniently ignored the fact that Kathmandu turned to Beijing only after New Delhi, along with London and Washington, stopped crucial supplies at a critical moment?
Nepalese publications populated with Nepali-speaking migrants from the northeastern Indian states of Assam and Meghalaya are throwing around such terms most consistently. Maila Baje doesn’t believe this is only coincidental.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Slightly Unexpected

The royal snub is proving too unbearable for Messrs Girija Prasad Koirala and Madhav Kumar Nepal. They probably can empathize more with Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai now.
Remember how the Maoist top guns crowed over how, by announcing a three-month unilateral truce, they checkmated King Gyanendra from internationalizing Nepal’s war on terror at the United Nations General Assembly?
With no official announcement ever having been made by the Nepalese Foreign Ministry, we never got around to knowing whether the monarch actually planned to attend the 60th anniversary of the U.N.
(If he had, then palace speechwriters probably just had to rework the text the King would have used in New York in time for the SAARC summit in Dhaka. The message got across.)
The Maoists waited in vain for the government to reciprocate. Maybe they should have paid more attention to what the king had said about peace weeks earlier during a trip to western Nepal. The adjective he used was “durable”. Translation: “Talk to me when you thing you’re really ready folks. I’m not gonna be conned a third time”
The Munis and Mehtas mentoring the Maoists from across the southern border had Plan B ready. The first draft of the mainstream-Maoist accord was probably finalized while Girija Koirala was undergoing his first series of medical tests in New Delhi.
Once the pace of China’s march on South Asia became clearer, the agreement had to be made public.
After proclaiming their joint resolve to relegate the crown to the history books, the parties and Maoists waited for the king to return from his three-week foreign tour. So much for the “irrelevance” of the “remnants of feudalism” amid today’s “ground realities.”
Five days after the monarch’s return home, the parties are still waiting. (Actually, the king did obliquely applaud their initiative, saying it contributed to creating a propitious climate for elections.)
By the way, when have the Delhi doctors scheduled the next round of medical tests?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

A Hands-On Crown Prince

It’s not for nothing Crown Prince Paras is called a hands-on man.
When your limbs can do far more than your language, an optimization of resources becomes a rational choice.
Through a swing of the golf club in the company of the U.S. ambassador a couple of months ago, he managed to create a diplomatic fracas at the State Department.
Before the latest display of his dexterity, the crown prince, according to anti-palace websites, drove to Police Headquarters December 3 to seek an explanation from the inspector-general on events of the previous day. The inspectors-general of the armed police force and the intelligence department were summoned.
“How could you allow the commies to stone my motorcade? I could have died. Do you think I’m going to let this lapse go unpunished just because my aunt kept quiet after a similar attack 15 years ago?” Variations of the preceding sentences were quickly attributed to the crown prince.
Before the three men could start explaining the lapse, they received stinging royal slaps.

Stars And Style
Crown Prince Paras has established himself as the most controversial royal since King Rana Bahadur Shah. (Many prefer to draw parallels with King Surendra, who gave Jang Bahadur the commoner a pretty hard time). But he has an uncanny way of surviving scandals.
It seems rahu and shani are in constant battle on birth chart, evening out their effects in weird ways.
Five years ago, when the capital saw thousands of protesters demanding that he be stripped of his royal privileges, Maila Baje felt sorry for the prince.
True, royal recklessness on the driver’s seat deprived the nation of an outstanding musician. To many, the prince’s pattern of indiscretion had started becoming unbearable. The verdict in the court of public opinion was understandable. In fairness, though, the blood alcohol level and driving record of the musician should have been part of the story.
Who could have imagined then that Paras would not only retain his title but a few months later go on to assume direct succession to the throne?
With motive, opportunity and means so clearly evident, the prince must have been complicit in the Narayanhity massacre. The fact that he emerged without a scratch was too hard to hard to reconcile with the gory details of what had occurred inside Tribhuvan Sadan.
For those unfamiliar with the prince’s habitual bodily motions and involuntary grins, the televised images from Arya Ghat were too compelling not to be incriminating. Even the new king broke with tradition and waited four months to proclaim Paras the heir apparent.
Crown Prince Paras was so upset by the sustained national discourse about him that he eventually became a poet. “I must disbelieve what I saw and trust what I hear.” It used to take something akin to unrequited love to bring out such feelings.

Regalia And Reticence
Crown Princess Himani’s grace and the arrival of Nava Yubaraj Hridayendra were expected to help Paras build a new persona. Even that moustache had started acquiring a degree of regalia. But, no, the prince’s wrath continued to manifest itself in different ways.
The Nepalese media – which has had little hesitation till this day in recounting how fond King Gyanendra was two decades ago of appraising ancient idols – was reticent about reporting the crown prince’s latest escapade.
Had the latest media ordinance finally begun to show its effect? Or were reporters reminded of how a colleague ended up drenching a couple of towels red after having infuriated the crown prince?

Stepping Into His Shoes
How would things look from the crown prince’s perspective? Here was a man who felt he had discharged his duty as chairman of the council of royal representatives for three tumultuous weeks with great élan.
Unnatural or not, the Maoist-mainstream accord had enough firepower to inflame anyone within a kilometer of Narayanhity’s outer perimeter. Maintaining a studious silence must have required great patience on the part of Crown Prince Paras. An hour before that arduous responsibility was to have ended, his motorcade was attacked.
A little history must have set in, too. What did the royal lassitude following the stoning of the motorcade of Queen Aishwarya and Crown Prince Dipendra at Pashupati in 1990 do? It emboldened many ex-panchas to hound the palace. Clearly, Crown Prince Paras was in no mood to allow history to repeat itself under his watch.
Can our Comeback Kid come back this time? (The premise here is that the crown prince is guilty until proven innocent. By now, the man himself must have stopped expecting the normal standards of justice to apply.) Maila Baje isn’t optimistic – but for a different reason.
Since the SAARC summit, King Gyanendra has raised the political stakes to a dangerous level. Indeed, Nepal may have lost the ability to control events. What if the protests against autocracy take stridently anti-Chinese overtones over the next few days? UML chief Madhav Kumar Nepal has already fired the first salvos. His followers just need a nod from the top comrade and his mentors across the southern border to wreak ultimate devastation.

Revelation And Contemplation
Some astrologers caution against underestimating the broader planetary position on the crown prince’s kundali. A few are more impressed by his son’s. One says a King Paras would have a long and prosperous reign and reveal what really happened on the night of June 1, 2001 before renouncing the throne in a quest for spiritual contemplation.
What kind of nut would make such a prediction, you may ask. Who believed the sage who said Crown Prince Dipendra would never become king but the monarchy would survive? Technically, at least, that prophesy remains fulfilled. Dipendra didn’t know he had been crowned.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Prakash Koirala And Politics of Candor

You can’t talk any straighter than Prakash Koirala, at least when it comes to the latest twist in Nepalese politics.

Most Nepalis see India written all over the recent agreement between the seven parties and the Maoist rebels.

King Gyanendra’s minister for environment, science and technology strikes right at the heart of the matter. He insists New Delhi was impelled to forge a united front against the palace after Nepal unveiled a new foreign-policy thrust at the SAARC Summit.

Using more precise language, he describes the agreement as part of India’s effort to keep Nepal within its sphere of influence.

The eldest son of Nepal’s first elected prime minister has been consistent in his views. Fifteen years ago, he drew much criticism for having opposed the People’s Movement. His contention that India would use the unnatural alliance forged between the Nepali Congress and communist factions to foster perpetual instability to preserve its primacy was vindicated by subsequent events.

Maila Baje long wondered how Prakash Koirala and his equally forthright actress daughter Manisha could end up supporting the palace.

King Mahendra’s takeover in December 1960, after all, inflicted untold hardship on the Koirala household. As B.P. languished in prison for eight years, his wife, Sushila, and children must have agonized endlessly trying to figure out what crimes could have brought such punishment.

With India having provided shelter and succor to his family for so long, how could Prakash Koirala bring himself to criticize that country’s policies with such vehemence? In retrospect, the answer was always there.

Prakash Koirala has lived through India’s double game in Nepal. When it served its interests, India encouraged the Nepali Congress to rise up in armed insurrection against the palace. When New Delhi saw virtue in compromising with the king, it wouldn’t even allow the Nepali Congress to bring out its official newsletter.

During Indira Gandhi’s emergency, B.P. Koirala – by then in exile after King Mahendra released him from prison -- was living under virtual house arrest in the Niti Bagh section of the Indian capital.

At least Narayanhity was candid about its dislike of the Koiralas.