Sunday, January 29, 2006

Undoing The Year

As King Gyanendra's government prepares to complete its first year in office, Maila Baje is gripped by one of those persistent "what-if" moods.
Suppose the monarch hadn't acted the way he did on Feb. 1, 2005.
Would the UML have pulled out of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's coalition government? After all, street pressure had been mounting against the party's continued participation in the coalition.
More significantly, would the UML have suffered another split? Deputy Prime Minister Bharat Mohan Adhikary and other ministers representing the party had become increasingly vocal in resenting UML leaders' lectures on how they should work.
A formal act of insubordination had every likelihood of occurring.
Say the UML pulled out of the government – split or no split -- would the Nepali Congress of Girija Prasad Koirala have joined the coalition. Deuba's explicit recommendation to the king on restoring the House of Representatives might have been enough to entice the grand ol' man.
Would that move have united the Nepali Congress? (Provided, of course, that the king went along.) Or would it have formalized the split, once rival Congress factions competed for plum ministerial portfolios.
And the Maoists? Would they have continued to rule out negotiations with the "slave" and sought direct talks with the "master"? In a face-to-face with King Gyanendra, what would Prachanda have said? "Let bygones be bygones, Your Majesty. We need your support as head of state to earn international legitimacy.
"King or President for Life, what difference would it make to you? Of course, President would help us tame our cadres."
Would Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, deprived of the premiership in the spring of 2003 when the United States declared the Maoists terrorists when they had come to the peace table, have gone public with the simmering discontent within his organization?
By now King Gyanendra probably would have paid that much-delayed visit to India. (Remember how he arrived at Tribhuvan International Airport after months of postponement, only to turn around having learned of India's former premier P.V. Narasimha Rao's death?)
What would Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have proffered? "Your Majesty, we agree that the politicians have made a mess of Nepal. We also recognize Your Majesty's inability to sit idly by. But in this day and age, we don't think the Musharrafication of Nepal would be a wise idea.
"Instead, we would support a council of ministers drawing representation from all the major political forces, excluding, of course, the Maoists. While we recognize Your Majesty's prerogative to choose your ministers, we would favor Surya Bahadur Thapa as chairman. Having time-tested friends would count a lot, especially during these difficult times for both our countries."
And the rest of us? Maybe we would be witnessing a broad Red front, consisting of the UML and the factions led by Rohit, Amik Serchan, C.P. Mainali et al, on the streets still wondering whether it should forge a working alliance with Baburam's faction of the Maoists.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Whining Gets Worse

In a twisted manifestation of the inverted-pyramid story structure, the lead paragraph opens thus:
"As India continued its freeze on defense supplies to Nepal, the royal government has started procuring military articles from other countries, including China and Pakistan."
Sound like a story the leading news service of the world's largest democracy would run on the defense dilemma of its tiny neighbor?
You got it. The Indian media are up in arms over the way China, Pakistan -- and now -- Israel are supplying the Royal Nepalese Army.
The first 10 words effectively answer the prime question the 400-word story raises. However, the whining just gets worse.
For a while, India seemed confident that the Chinese would not "fish in troubled waters," to borrow a cliché enjoying currency down south. Despite all its bluster about being a stabilizing force in the subcontinent, Pakistan wouldn't dare challenge India on another front.
The Indians choice of words was consistent with their skewed logic. China, Pakistan and Israel were not on some fishing expedition. They were responding to – if the Indian reports are correct – the request of a sovereign nation struggling to bolster its defenses against rebels enjoying safe haven in, if not full-scale military support from, the very country making the loudest noises against third-country suppliers.
(Consider the discomfiture the Israelis must have felt at having been lumped together with China and Pakistan. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke amid the historic redrawing of the country's political equations his decision to float the Kadima party must have left few Israelis with the time or inclination to sift through the fine print.)
When Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran brought up Nepal in his strategic dialogue in Beijing recently, his Chinese counterpart counseled non-interference. Translation: Let Nepal be Nepal.
Confronted with reality, enlightened analysts in New Delhi are now pointing out how the three aforementioned countries were selling military ware to Nepal out of business considerations, not as aid as New Delhi had been doing until King Gyanendra seized full executive powers last February.
Hey, not so fast. What are we to make of that other story a few weeks ago that asserted Nepal owed India billions of rupees for the arms it had received before the royal takeover?
Then there's the question of Washington and London, the other two constituents of the axis of weevils that have squandered no opportunity to extol their consensus with New Delhi on Nepal?
Besides issuing perfunctory disapproval last year, neither western capital has said much about China, Pakistan, Israel or any other country stepping in to fill Nepal's arms void.
Just imagine the sleepless nights a lot of people across the southern border might have avoided had they been less hasty and ambiguous in announcing what eventually emerged as a formal arms embargo on the kingdom.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Royal Resolve

To allies and adversaries alike, King Gyanendra has in the past few days reinforced his credentials as an iron-willed man. It takes extraordinary hardiness to act on your convictions in the midst of such adversity.
The defining feature of the monarch's televised address to the nation last February while seizing power from Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's multiparty government was the lumping together of the mainstream parties and Maoist rebels as the bane of the country. (Did that in any way inspire the 12-point accord between the two forces?)
The palace's intensification the anti-Maoist campaign, its refusal to recognize the rebels' truce as genuine and its determination to firmly deal with mainstream parties if they veered closer to the insurgents – all these suggested that King Gyanendra meant every word he said in that speech. And, yes, including those he used to reaffirm his commitment to multiparty democracy.
The Nepalese people are free to debate the meaning, content and implications of a term that has seen great malleability at home and abroad. For the Ranas, their system of hereditary rule was the best form of participatory politics in the best interest of the masses. The panchas saw partylessness as a route of ensuring all the benefits of democracy without its principal ills. The Maoists have demonstrated that their version of newness rests on the destruction of the old. All in the name of the people.
The people have been quite observant. The performance of Nepal's mainstream parties while in power was no different from that of their counterparts in other newly democratizing countries. The problem was that the hunger for power and the lust to retain it came with a dangerous dose of complacency.
The Nepali Congress and the UML saw in the restoration of multiparty democracy some kind of mandate to monopolize their hold on power. The monarchy, in each group's view, was useful only as a tactical tool in bolstering its position against the other.
King Gyanendra is castigated for blaming the mainstream parties and the rebels for wrecking Nepal while giving himself a free pass. Maila Baje doesn't believe the monarch thinks the palace's role has been above-board, either.
Relegated to the margins of politics in 1990, the palace was evidently busy nursing its wounds.The core of the constitution the palace hoped to promulgate was excised from what actually was announced. Constitutional monarchy did not envisage an indifferent or passive head of state.
We didn't need Maoist ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai to tell us that his organization had a working alliance with the palace. It was obvious that the active monarchists and Maoists were united in their opposition to the monopolization of power by the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists.
King Birendra and his advisers seemed content to let public perceptions of royal empathy for the rebels to run wild. The perils of that policy have come to haunt the palace. More than four years after the supreme commander in chief ordered his soldiers to go after the rebels, much of the country still believes the palace is actually running the rebellion. (The Maoists, by their total abandonment of violence in eastern Nepal during the king's recent three-week tour, seem to acknowledge the relevance of the monarchy in their current scheme of things.)
Throughout the 1990s, King Birendra failed to demonstrate the resolve to reverse the rot in the mainstream in time. In the last year of his reign, the monarch seemed to have begun to grasp the impact of his inaction. Tragedy intervened before he could.
Although the new monarch was less popular than his predecessor, the succession rested on the resiliency of the institution. King Gyanendra recognized that fate had thrust upon him unexpected responsibilities. Once he wore the crown, he lost no time in zeroing on his mission. Among his first sustained expressions: "Don't expect me to stand idly by like my brother."
In retrospect, King Gyanendra appears to have drawn a dislike for the political leadership from the father he is compared with in so many other ways. King Mahendra had repeatedly characterized parties as corrupt and divisive and accused them of being pawns of foreign powers.
King Gyanendra's views were not shaped by genetics. During their second stint in power, the parties failed again to prove themselves as capable agents of change. The assertion from the political mainstream that King Gyanendra was against democracy per se reflected the narcissism that had gripped the parties.
As we continue debating whether Nepal really needs a monarchy, King Gyanendra seems to have made up his mind. He is going to sit on the throne the way he feels comfortable.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Secret Disservice

"Nepal monarchy's secret plan to undermine opposition." The Indo-Asian News Service headline grabbed Maila Baje's attention.
The lead was a disappointment. One expected to read about the palace's latest Machiavellian ruse to marginalize the mainstream parties. Instead, the storyline was how the palace under King Birendra – that constitutional monarch par excellence until the other day -- plotted to regain absolute powers in the early 1990s.
"The royal family, forced to hand over power to a democratic government after a mass movement for people's rights in 1990, has been pursuing a secret plan to snuff out the opposition parties and regain control."
The story, which the IANS' Kathmandu-based reporter picked up from a Nepali tabloid, was doubly disappointing. It quoted a "secret document, written in Nepali with some English expressions, drawn up in consultation with a former army official working in the palace, a top official of the National Sports Council and a former bureaucrat, who is no longer alive."
The succeeding paragraphs hardly conveyed anything that was not already known. Of course, the palace worked to regain its powers. After all, it considered the Jana Andolan a foreign-hatched usurpation. (Remember that royal conclave immediately after Queen Aishwarya's car was stoned at Pashupati?)
After offering some background, consisting of what has become a mandatory condemnation of King Mahendra's reign, the report stated how the palace rooted for Girija Prasad Koirala as prime minister.
Why? So that he could crack down on the fledgling communist parties of that time as the main enemy of the crown with their bent toward a king-less republic. (Maila Baje would hardly consider the commies fledgling.)
Of course, IANS forgot to mention that Koirala was the only contender for premier from the Nepali Congress, which won a majority in the 1991 election. Ganesh Man Singh did not contest and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai lost. (G.P. Koirala is described as having assumed the leadership of the Nepali Congress after his brother B.P. died of cancer. In fact, B.P. left the party to the troika, while Bhattarai was the acting president. Since the Nepali Congress is on its own path of revising history, it can hardly be expected to object to such glaring errors.)
According to IANS, the "secret" report identified several districts in Nepal's Tarai plains, neighboring India, as having been bitten by the "democracy bug." Anyone familiar with Rastriya Panchayat member Gajendra Narayan Singh's Sadbhavana Parishad fully comprehended the Tarai's combustible qualities. Of course, many of the fears turned out to be misplaced.
IANS credits the "secret" document with having correctly predicted a rebellious tendency in key districts in midwestern Nepal. Left-wing radicals who would go on to form the core of today's Maoists were already active in local Panchayat politics in Rolpa and Pyuthan.
Then comes this gem: "The master plan also advocated making use of religious organizations since they were likely to support active monarchy as the king is revered as the supreme ruler in Hinduism and Buddhism." How instructive!
With key inaccuracies having eroded the credibility of the story, Maila Baje pinned great hope in the reporter's commitment to balance. "There was no immediate official reaction to the report," the last sentence read. Come on, an unofficial one was only a phone call away.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Pressing Hard -- And Soft

Have our opposition leaders softened their stance on the royal regime, or at least some of them within the context of the municipal polls?
Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala signaled such a shift a few weeks ago by offering to hold talks with King Gyanendra if he put off the municipal polls scheduled for Feb. 8.
Koirala hasn't said much on the subject after his partners in the seven-party alliance sought full clarification.
In recent days, UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal has been ruling out any kind of talks with the monarch. The perennial prime minister in waiting ostensibly wants us to believe he is speaking for the alliance.
In fact, Nepal believes the "autocratic monarchy" will fall by mid-February. Of course, we don't know whether he is speaking of the imminent demise of just "autocracy" or the entire institution.
All the same, his prediction seems to rest on the widespread convulsion he believes the municipal polls will trigger.
The Maoists have already begun their "climb-the-back-and-hit-the-head" offensive on Kathmandu.
In the view of the top UML comrade, Election Day would provide enough seismic energy to unleash his much-vaunted tsunami.
Nepal's allies-turned-rivals-turned allies Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli and Bam Dev Gautam seem to agree with his estimate.
A few rungs below, some opposition leaders have begun replacing stirring threats with fervent pleas in their recent notifications to the palace.
These leaders, mostly belonging to the Nepali Congress and the breakaway (Democratic) faction, are asking King Gyanendra to postpone the municipal polls to prevent further complicating Nepal's crisis.
Maila Baje wonders whether this linguistic transformation could be indicative of those two parties' recognition of the resurgence of the Red threat in the post-12-point-accord weeks.
Implicit in a fervent plea to untie the nation's knots is a readiness to lend a helping hand, isn't it?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Southern Soreness

Anything Nepal does these days to advance its national interest inevitably draws scowls from Indian officials and analysts. Our friends across the southern border seem increasingly worried that China and Pakistan may soon open consulates in the Tarai.
India's effort to wrap its opposition in the wider complaint of the "undemocratic" nature of the royal regime is becoming sickening.
What do the Chinese want to be doing in Biratnagar? (Just think how the Chinese must have felt with all those Indian checkposts on Nepal's northern border decades ago.)
And Pakistan? The country doesn't even have a border with Nepal, much less any chance of developing substantial trade ties? Why does it need a formal presence in Birgunj? (If geographical proximity were such a noble consideration for the Delhi babus, Nepal would have long been enjoying unimpeded access to those few miles of Indian territory that separates us from Bangladesh.)
The automatic conclusion of Indian security experts is that King Gyanendra is inviting Beijing and Islamabad to open consulates to force New Delhi to soften its policies on his government. Narcissism refuses to see its limits.
New Delhi has every right to communicate its strong displeasure to Kathmandu over these and future move. Just as Kathmandu has every right to freely pursue its options as a sovereign nation.
For a country that hopes to benefit as a transit point between the two Asian giants, the idea of expanding Chinese diplomatic points to facilitate trade and commerce is only logical.
Similarly, with the South Asian Free Trade Area having come into force this year, Nepal is justified in seeking to broaden economic ties with the second largest economy of the region.
No one denies the political/strategic content of these moves. However, obsession with that dimension must not be allowed to obscure the wider benefits Nepal would stand to gain.
Moreover, if China and Pakistan end up establishing those consulates, it will have been based on a clear recognition of the benefit to their growing relations with Nepal.
In the year since King Gyanendra took direct control of government, Nepal has made a conscious decision to correct the distortions that had crept into its foreign policy during multiparty rule.
Nepal recognizes the traditional ties it has with India and the mutual benefits they offer. By seeking to tighten what is already a stifling embrace, India is only doing a disservice to those shared values and interests.
Domestic and international critics are welcome to oppose this reorientation of Nepalese foreign policy based on the merits of the issue.
By denigrating it as a flaunting of the "China Card," critics are only exposing their intolerance for Nepal's right to pursue its sovereign choices.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Reading The Royal Mind

The Maoists end their four-month ceasefire and the Royal Nepalese Army halts its much-touted offensive in the rebel heartland of Rolpa. And the supreme commander in chief? He's busy trudging the rugged terrain of the rural east lending the people an ear.
What's going on in the royal mind?
Hard to know -- but certainly worth find out.
King Gyanendra's internal critics and international well-wishers miss a major point: his firm recognition that the Nepalese monarchy is facing a defining moment.
From the moment he ascended to the throne, King Gyanendra has been called all kinds of names – fratricide, murderer, plunderer. Autocrat is one of the pleasanter appellations.
Few people get to be king. Fewer still do so out of turn. How many have been crowned twice despite having been so far behind in the line of succession? If King Gyanendra seems impelled by destiny, he certainly has good reason. His critics' threats to turn Nepal into a republic aren't going to work.
The king abhors the notion of constitutional monarchy – at least the kind the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists want. In his view, King Birendra was forced to remain a silent spectator not because the late monarch was afflicted by a sudden character or temperamental transformation.
There were many ways in which King Birendra could have tried to preserve his Panchayat-era powers. Whether he would have succeeded, we don't know. All we do know is that, after the power struggle over the new constitution, King Birendra withdrew.
Personally, for him, it was a brilliant move.
King Birendra succeeded in reinventing himself as constitutional monarch par excellence – to borrow the phrase of leading politicians in the opposition today -- as the icons of democratic struggle began falling off their pedestals.
After a point, though, personal fulfillment didn't seem to matter much. King Birendra shot off memos to elected governments on why the Maoist insurgency broke out after Nepal had become a fully functional democracy. He used the Supreme Court route to veto a controversial citizenship bill a unanimous legislature virtually imposed on him.
In the final weeks of his life, he set out to end that great southern discomfort. The Bharatiya Janata Party may have been a Hindu nationalist organization. But it was an Indian political organization first. Nepal-India relations reached their worst levels under the purveyors of Hindutva. The lessons were clear.
King Birendra saw Nepal's salvation in reaching out to the country's giant neighbor to the north. In other words, for much of the past year, King Gyanendra has merely picked up from where his late brother left off.
Next, it is important to consider the psychology at work here. We may make distinctions between democratically elected and blood-drenched premiers. It doesn't really matter to the monarch. The last time an all-powerful prime minister began eclipsing the palace in Nepal, the shadow lasted over a century.
Then there's pure human nature. If Girija Prasad Koirala and Madhav Kumar Nepal want life-long tenure as head of their parties, why should we expect the monarch to relinquish control of a country he feels his ancestor took the lead in building?
History has relevance, too. We can argue for ever on how much death, destruction and deceit defined the national unification campaign or whether Nepal today is really a unified nation-state.
King Gyanendra won't take those arguments seriously unless the proponents say they are willing to go back to the fractious days of the baisi-chaubise rajyas.
Well, why doesn't the monarch listen to the international community?
Because he's seen their hypocrisy upfront. For Jawahar Lal Nehru, Nepal's independence depended on who sat on the throne. King Gyanendra must have been too small to recall the pain of dethronement in 1951. The symbolism was no doubt searing, especially as it related to the policies of Nepal's southern neighbor.
Matters came full circle 50 years later. What did Indian diplomats K.V. Rajan and M.K. Rasgotra discuss with King Gyanendra on the morning of Oct 4, 2002, before he dismissed Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's government?
Washington and London, too, left their imprint on that tender mind. After pledging to support the Rana regime's reincarnation into a political organization, the Gorkha Dal, the Americans and British got cold feet.
At the very last moment, they refused to recognize King Gyanendra's enthronement. If the palace today doesn't like the way Washington insists it is coordinating policy with London and New Delhi, now you know why.
More recently, why did the U.S. government have to declare the Maoists a terrorist organization only when Dr. Baburam Bhattarai emerged for peace talks in 2003 and was expected to head an interim government?
Four years after his enthronement, King Gyanendra is still in the process of defining the monarchy. From his perspective, too, the options are open.
What's the first thing a new king does? Plan his coronation. Have we seen or heard even faint hints of possible propitious hours?