Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Other Summit And The October Option

The delay in the second round of formal talks between Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and Maoist chairman Prachanda may have cast some uncertainty over the peace process, but it certainly hasn’t stopped the rebel chief from holding another vital summit.
Casting aside protocol, the supreme commander in chief of the People’s Liberation Army held talks with Nepal Army chief Gen. Pyar Jung Thapa. Had the House of Representatives heeded former premier Sher Bahadur Deuba and allowed King Gyanendra to retain the supreme C-in-C job without the uniform, Prachanda might have finally ventured into Narayanhity Royal Palace. (On second thoughts, maybe he already has and will tell us about it in due course.)
News of the soldier-to-soldier summit came from Prachanda himself. At a public program in the capital, the Maoist supremo said he had met the NA chief for consultations on managing weapons. Gen. Thapa, according to Prachanda, said he would follow any modalities laid down by Prime Minister Koirala.
This prompted Prachanda to thank Gen. Thapa for his faith in the prime minister. (The comrade in chief finally seems to have discovered who holds the actual reins of power.)
Prime Minister Koirala’s own telephone conversation with Prachanda around this time was no less revealing. Koirala, we understand, told Prachanda that he should seize the opportunity for peace while he (Koirala) is still alive. With no presumed successor to the ailing Koirala in sight within his Nepali Congress, the situation is bad enough. We don’t know whether the Nepali Congress would even get the premiership should Koirala, God forbid, depart.
Prachanda, for his part, is taking his own time. Having emerged from decades in the shadows, he deserves all the sunshine he can bask in – and on both sides. Days after rejecting the government’s letter to United Nations with own missive to Kofi Annan, Prachanda still professes good faith. He has begun consultations with a UN mission headed by Staffan de Mistura to “forge a common understanding.”
The rebel chief has extended the ceasefire for another three months, but not without a stern warning. “We want to follow the pact we signed with the seven-party ruling alliance and take peace talks forward,” he said. “But if that fails, we would be compelled to begin another intense though peaceful people's movement.”
Consider the Maoists’ plight: Everyone barring the Chinese has explicitly called for the rebels’ disarmament before the formation of an interim government. Even the Indians who “forged” the SPA-Maoist alliance don’t want to see armed Maoists in power.
The Maoists aren’t talking about an armed political party like Hezbollah. They are talking about a well-regulated people’s militia, something along the lines of what the Second Amendment to the US Constitution envisages. (Maybe Prachanda should reach out to the National Rifle Association for some PR help.)
And the Americans? Didn’t they once recognize a coalition government in exile an armed Khmer Rouge was part of when the Vietnamese were running the show back home?
Linger a little longer with the Chaudharis and the Khetans and it might be too late to go back to the jungles. Surely, Ganapathy and his band of Naxals must be seething at this betrayal of the revolution.
But maybe Prachanda is really biding his time. Without Koirala, the SPA would just implode. The Maoist truce is set to expire in the last week of October, right? So Prachanda can still make good on his threat to launch that much-vaunted revolution.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Lady Is A Trampler

As Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s Nepal Sarkar and Prachanda’s Jana Sarkar take their battle all the way to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a third “government” has stepped into the realm of our Fourth Estate.
This officialdom is actually an individual. A Kathmandu-based correspondent for an Indian news service with wider Asian pretensions, she has been using her status as the representative for multiple media outlets down south to create and spread “news”.
The lady’s beat of choice continues to be Narayanhity Royal Palace. Anyone with anything that denigrates the king, crown prince and royalty as such can expect a sympathetic hearing. If the story line fits her “agenda,” she will package the product in a way that gets by-lined coverage in the top dailies of West Bengal (her home state?) and Andhra Pradesh as well.
Sprinkle in a few gender-specific facts (and fiction), and you can expect the world’s women to regale in her feature-writing skills. With a little geopolitical twist here and there, her prose even ends up commanding attention among thinkers in Geneva.
In recent dispatches, though, our lady has started telling more about herself – of course not in so many words. Actually, you have to read between lines. Take her latest story on King Gyanendra’s increasing fondness for late-night Internet gambling.
Our lady picked the story straight from her favorite Nepali tabloid published on Wednesdays. Yes, the same tabloid she quoted in her recent copy detailing the monarch’s bout with depression. (Full disclosure: Sensational and spicy, the weekly is one of Maila Baje’s first reads of the day. In the symbiotic relationship between the lady and the tabloid, it is sometimes difficult to discover who is feeding information to whom.)
In its version, the weekly carefully noted that the information emerged during the conference of Indian ambassadors to South Asian nations chaired by Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
The tabloid quoted Shiv Shankar Menon – India’s top diplomat in Pakistan and Saran’s presumptive successor at the Ministry of External Affairs -- as having made the revelation. The weekly suggested that Indian Embassy moles in the palace may have recorded that tidbit.
In her version, our lady of the immaculate deception conveyed the impression that the tabloid had carried an enterprise story complete with fully sourced details on the royal credit cards. There wasn’t the slightest hint of a tabloid tittle-tattle.
The tabloid and the lady have emerged as one of the most prominent members of Kathmandu’s Mutual Admiration Society. But even the most intimate of relationships have their share of rules and roles, kaso sarkar?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Bipolarity That Really Matters

Considering the fervor with which it is broached, speculation of recent secret talks between a team of Chinese officials and top Nepalese Maoist leaders threatens to throw our nascent peace process off course.
According to sections of the Nepalese and Indian media, the Chinese delegates weren’t content with their face-to-face encounter with the Prachanda-Baburam-Mahara triumvirate in the resort of Dhulikhel. They wanted to see the men and women in uniform.
A Maoist maneuver close by provided the perfect setting for this fact-finding tour. Depending on who you listen to, the Maoists have either received firm pledges of Chinese military support or are actually hoarding guns and bullets as we speak.
At first, all this seemed merely to suggest that Nepali Congress leader Govinda Raj Joshi’s had discovered a platform from which he could resurrect his blemished politics. Painting the northern neighbor as the principal obstacle to peace is a sure-shot way of ensuring the eternal patronage of those who matter down south.
Since the story has acquired a momentum of its own, it no longer matters whether a Chinese-Maoist alliance is merely a perception or a reality. So the subject must be approached with the seriousness it warrants.
At a time when Nepal is grappling with what to do with the weapons the Maoists already have, why has China stepped in with an offer of more? Bring up all the pejoratives you want, but you can’t accuse the Chinese of being interventionist on the side of war before listing a bunch of other friends and neighbors of Nepal.
Perhaps the two have been united more by compulsion than choice. Contrary to popular belief, the April Uprising was not a success for the Maoists. Everyone knows that the rebels were at the forefront of the anti-palace protests. Everyone also knows that the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) leaders went AWOL as the protests climaxed. And the first thing they did even before fully emerging to relish victory is reject the slightest suggestion of a Maoist role in the protests.
Initially, the comrades seemed to empathize with the embarrassment the SPA leadership would have suffered had it acknowledged the rebels’ preeminence in bringing down the royal regime. However, suspicions deepened as each constituent started repeating that negation. Maoist supremo Prachanda had to reprimand the SPA for what he called a sustained campaign to marginalize the rebels before the government would even contemplate a summit. Prachanda’s ferocity at his first news conference was rooted either in wounded pride to the promise of power. Then the SPA signatories to the eight-point accord began describing their assent as a mistake.
With Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala in poor health and the two deputy premiers locked in a bitter power struggle, Prachanda unleashed his October Revolution threat. That pushed the Unified Marxist Leninists closer toward the state army they had just emasculated.
Worse, Washington and New Delhi, in a remarkable coincidence of timing, rejected the notion of the Maoists joining an interim government without disarming. The copy of the letter the government wrote to Kofi Annan seeking U.N. involvement in managing rebel arms got lost even before the foreign minister got a chance to read it.
By then Prachanda & Co realized that the spirit – if not the letter -- of last November’s 12-point SPA-Maoist accord did not envisage a significant political role for the rebels in a post-royal-regime arrangement. Suddenly, the Maoists’ political leadership figured out the threat levels emanating from their own fighters as well as their Indian allies.
Running for cover, they discovered how bruised the Chinese were after the fall of the royal regime. Indian reporters based in Kathmandu made much of how the royal defeat was an unmitigated debacle for Beijing. Nepalese Maoists pursued a different line of inquiry.
The Chinese, our comrades concluded, must have based their acquiescence in the India-driven evisceration of the monarchy on their mutual interest in marginalizing the Americans. And what does the SPA government do? It allows the reopening of the Tibetan offices shut down by the royal regime and works toward providing Tibetan refugees travel documents for resettlement in the United States.
Compulsion clarified compatibilities. For the Maoists, the Chinese communists may be guilty of ideological deviance. But they never branded the Nepalese rebels terrorists. From the Chinese point of view, the Maoists as warriors tarnished the reputation of the founder of the People’s Republic. As men and women of peace, the Nepalese rebels not only represent dispossessed and marginalized but also 70 percent of what Beijing officially considers to be Maoism’s enduring magnificence.
Nepalis remain precariously perched between the vigilance of their two giant neighbors. That’s the bipolarity that really matters.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Sitaula: Between Prachanda And Ganapathy?

Canceling a scheduled meeting with a European Parliament delegation, Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula left for India on Monday on a three-day ‘religious’ visit. Finance Minister Dr. Ram Sharan Mahat has been designated by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to look after the Home Ministry during Sitaula's absence.
Sources close to Sitaula said he was heading for the Indian state of Jharkhand to pay homage to a saint named “Thakur Baba”. A pretty odd time for the Maoists’ chief confidant in power to be leaving the country. On the other hand, Nepal does need all the advice – political, spiritual and extraterrestrial – it can get at this critical juncture.
Maila Baje couldn’t help delving a little deeper into the matter. Sitaula, under fire from his own Nepali Congress for granting a string of concessions to the Maoists, is suspected of having inserted the clause on dissolving the House of Representative without the prime minister’s knowledge in the eight-point accord.
With that row now imperilling the peace process, could Sitaula have gone for consultations with the principal architects of last November’s Seven Party Alliance-Maoist accord?
For a politician who barely tries to conceal his admiration for every bit of official advice emanating from across the southern border, flying into New Delhi would have not been prudent. Could the ordinariness of Jharkhand have been intended to obscure the substance of Sitaula’s consultations? Whisking him away to New Delhi from Jharkhand wouldn’t be that difficult, either.
Or could the pilgrimage merely be a cover for the shifting dynamics in the peace process. The principal government interlocutor, demonized by his own party, seeks solace in the company of a seer.
The minister who steps in is known for his closeness to foreign stakeholders farther afield. (Would Crown Prince Paras’ game of golf with American Ambassador James F. Moriarty have merited so much column space in The Washington Post several months ago if Sitaula had been the Nepali Congress politician grumbling?) Watch out for the next statement from each side on the imminence or otherwise of a Maoist-inclusive interim government.
Maybe Sitaula is away in Jharkhand for serious political discussions on the peace process – with leaders of the Communist Party of India (Maoists). Remember Ganapathy, Prachanda’s Indian counterpart? Yeah, the guy with whom Prachanda issued a statement reiterating their “pledge to fight unitedly till the entire conspiracies hatched by the imperialists and reactionaries are crushed and the people’s cause of socialism and communism are established in Nepal, India and all over the world.”
Sitaula may be getting the rap at home for capitulating to Prachanda. From Ganapathy’s perspective, Prachanda is culprit. Each step the Nepalese rebels take toward the mainstream represents a betrayal of the revolution India’s Naxals envisage.
Remember Prachanda’s rosy rhetoric on creating that South Asian Compact Revolutionary Zone? His Indian allies are working hard on carving out their component of the structure, only to see the Nepalese rebels repudiate it for the sake of imminent political power.
No wonder Prachanda, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and others seem to feel far safer inside Nepal these days, although there is very little that would prevent Ganapathy from ordering cross-border hits. I guess the question really is, did Prachanda ask Sitaula to mediate with Ganapathy?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Trivialization Truth

Less than a 100 day before he was forced to give up direct rule, events have vindicated King Gyanendra’s February 1, 2005 takeover of full executive powers – at least from one standpoint. In his proclamation, the monarch had cited, among other things, the political leadership’s trivialization of national issues during their 1990-2002 stint in power. If anything, the mainstream parties’ propensity for cheapening the national discourse has worsened since their return to power in April.
The other day we were told the Nepali Congress, UML and Maoists had agreed to replace the House of Representatives with an interim arrangement. A breakthrough indeed, considering that the rebels had unleashed their “people’s war” also against parliament. Before you could pause to consider what thoughts the Nepali Congress (Democratic) and smaller constituents of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) might have on the issue, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala stunned us by voicing surprise at the deal.
Of course, by then, Sushil Koirala and Ram Chandra Poudel, who had represented Koirala’s Nepali Congress at those talks, had already denied such an agreement was reached.
Within the UML, that “agreement” pitted two senior leaders, K.P. Sharma Oli, Koirala’s deputy premier, and Bam Dev Gautam, the principal Maoist confidant, against each other.
Oli, presumably reflecting the sentiments of his boss, would not hear of any deal on dissolving the legislature before it completed its job. Gautam, as a leading participant in the meeting, insisted dissolution was a precondition for peace from the outset. (It’s growing harder these days to believe that Oli and Gautam were allies against UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal during the last party convention in 2003.)
Madhav Nepal, meanwhile, came out with a baffling suggestion: replace the House of Representatives with an interim parliament ostensibly including Maoist representatives. The absurdity becomes apparent once you consider that even in its most restrictive phase, the Panchayat system had a legislature that was at least partly indirectly elected.
The proposal of Narayan Man Bijukkche, the head of the Nepal Workers and Peasants Party, an SPA constituent, for a 51-member advisory assembly makes more political sense in the current circumstances. At least it contains no illusions that members of a legislature that has outlived its normal life could somehow “elect” interim successors.
The Maoists, for their part, are oscillating between wild alternatives on almost every important issue. They still refuse to concede that the Nepalese people might vote for retaining the monarchy, but, in the same breath, vow to uphold any outcome.
Long a proponent of neutral external monitors, Prachanda now wants the Nepalese to resolve the issue of the rebels’ arms, but then he flatly refuses to disarm. Now the rebels want both armies maintaining their independent status. (Any inspiration from Hezbollah, as suggested in this space a few days ago?)
Amid reports of growing Chinese interest in the rebels, even chief rebel ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai can’t seem to figure out one principal ground reality. Is Beijing reaching out to the Nepalese rebels because of any residual ideological affinity or because it wants the Maoists to reconcile with the monarchy. After all, the Great Helmsman himself, we are told, had encouraged Dr Keshar Jung Rayamajhi do so a generation ago.
What is becoming increasingly clear, though, is that the Maoists are gradually recognizing how their gift for ambiguity has come to haunt them.
So what is King Gyanendra doing? Well, he seems busy. He accepted the credentials from, among others, British Ambassador Andrew Hall. (Hall replaces Keith Bloomfield, who was among the inveterate foreign critics of the royal regime. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Bloomfield, in his farewell audience with King Gyanendra after the SPA’s return to power, assured the monarch he could finally sympathize with his distrust of the current crop of politicos.)
If you really want to know what the monarch thinks about current events, you might want to check out his birthday pictures. It’s hard to miss the “don’t-blame-me” aura.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Royal Responsibility

With most ministers and officials of King Gyanendra’s 15-month regime having shifted to the palace responsibility for the deaths and injuries inflicted by the state’s brutal response to the April Uprising, the Rayamajhi Commission appears emboldened enough to seek to question the monarch.
A few royalists, such as former Home Minister Kamal Thapa, have been politically prudent in articulating the collective responsibility of the cabinet. On the other end, royal aides such as former commander in chief Satchit Sumshere Rana have questioned the jurisdiction of the panel. Why stop at 19 deaths (or 22 depending on how you count) when the country has lost over 13,000 lives in a decade of political violence?
More succinctly, Rana sought to know who would take responsibility for the nine deaths (a number that has risen since his testimony) that occurred after the monarch reinstated the House of Representatives in April.
Contrary to prevailing belief, the palace accepting responsibility for its actions is not unprecedented. After the 1990 protests, King Birendra took responsibility for the Panchayat system in a highly mature way. The late monarch’s interview in January 8 1992 with the now-defunct Independent weekly made headlines for the propriety or otherwise of a constitutional monarch speaking to the media. In one question, the interviewer pointed to claims that courtiers deliberately kept information from the monarch regarding the nature and extent of public disenchantment in the country.
The late monarch’s answer was revealing: “I believe in direct interaction with the people and their representatives and it was with this objective that I spent time outside the capital every year meeting (people) and visiting various parts of the country. This type of accusation has been leveled in the past and will continue to be leveled in the future on anyone holding positions or responsibility.”
Should the Rayamajhi Commission summon King Gyanendra, his testimony would help shed considerable light on the dysfunction that passes for democratic politics. In the more than two months since he was forced to give up power, the reasons for the February 1, 2005 takeover have been amplified. The political value each player has been coveting and extracting from war and peace over last 10 years is at the heart of Nepal’s crisis. The trivialization of vital national issues – which King Gyanendra specifically stated as a reason for the takeover – has returned in its full lethality.
Initially, there seemed to be firm commitment from the political parties and the Maoists to restore the nation’s vitality. The performance of both suggests that the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists – and the Indian architects of the 12-point accord, had envisaged little beyond clipping the political powers of the monarchy.
To be fair to the SPA, the skepticism of the people, spurred by the mainstream parties’ ineffectiveness and squabbling between 1990 and 2002, has held them to a higher standard. But, then, recognition of this heightened threshold was implicit in their acceptance of King Gyanendra’s reinstatement of the legislature.
Should the occasion arise, it would be inconceivable for King Gyanendra not to take responsibility. The laws of the time had banned protests. Those breaking the curfew were consciously using their defiance to reinforce their message to the palace. As the chief executive responsible for maintaining law and order, the monarch can be expected to articulate the thoughts that went behind his government’s decisions.
For the sake of consistency, however, King Gyanendra might want to insist on everyone taking responsibility for the destruction of life and property. This won’t be an easy task. For one thing, what is the standard for apportioning culpability for the 13,000 deaths during the Maoists insurency? In terms of numbers, the Maoists and their supports might seek to evade responsibility by repeating that two-thirds of those deaths resulted from the state. Even going by this claim, can there be a moral equivalence between the Maoists, who started the violence, and the military mobilized as a response through political consensus?
Moreover, can political expediency of the moment ignore the reality that the political parties, which first unleashed the full coercive powers of the state against the Maoist insurgency, were in fact “suppressing” the “People’s War”?
In terms of the destruction of state property and development infrastructure – along with the more pernicious psychological damage -- that would have a longer term adverse impact on the country, are the Maoists ready to accept proportionate responsibility?
As William Blackstone said, every wanton and causeless restraint of the will of the subject whether practiced by a monarch, a nobility, or a popular assembly, is a degree of tyranny. Voltaire may have been speaking of the perils of the SPA’s and Maoists’ propensity for blaming a “despotic” palace for Nepal’s ills even after having eviscerating the monarchy: A despot always has his good moments; an assembly of despots never.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Israel To Prachanda’s Rescue?

Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Lebanon in response to the Shiite Hezbollah organization’s abduction of two of its soldiers must have pleased the Nepalese Maoists.
Maoist supremo Prachanda must be drawing a sense of vindication from the fact that the Middle East’s principal democracy considers it fit to attack civilians and development infrastructure of the enemy just because it has the temerity to seize two of its soldiers.
But there is a more pressing reason why the Maoists should be thankful to Israel. Without the severity of its attacks on Lebanon, how many of us would have known that Hezbollah has managed to become part of the Lebanese government while still operating its own armed forces?
Now if such a formula could be used to end the Lebanese civil war, why should it be a bad prescription for Nepal? Maybe Prachanda and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai should let Messrs Badal, Pasang and Prabhakar et al take charge of the negotiations pertaining to the arms issue.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Ailing Premier And Politics Of Inertia

Citing the inertia gripping the government, Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal wants ailing Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to delegate responsibilities to his two deputies.
Deputy Prime Ministers Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli and Amik Serchan can’t agree on who’s senior between them. Before that conundrum can crystallize, Prime Minister Koirala comes out with a warning to all from his hospital bed not to spread rumors about his illness at such a critical moment for the nation.
Koirala’s camp is responsible for much of the confusion. The prime minister’s doctors say his health has improved considerably. But they insist he must remain hospitalized for another 10 days or so. Nepalis, for their part, are still trying to figure out why a premier with an unspecified ailment relating to the lungs returns from Bangkok after undergoing laser surgery of the prostate.
Within the House of Representatives (HoR), which reconvened after a three-week adjournment intended to placate the Maoists, the deliberations are becoming rather ominous. When Rastriya Janashakti Party president Surya Bahadur Thapa criticized the government’s haste in meeting the Maoists’ demand for the dissolution of the legislature, he won instant acclamation from Nepali Congress and UML members.
Meanwhile, Pashupati Sumshere Rana, the president of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party whose rivalry with Thapa goes back to the Panchayat decades, castigates the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) for refusing to recognize his party as the opposition.
The fact that Oli read out the Koirala government’s policy speech at the HoR can’t settle the succession issue. The Nepali Congress considers itself the head of the SPA. Party vice-president Sushil Koirala and general secretary Ram Chandra Poudel each considers himself Koirala’s legitimate successor.
Neither is likely to accept the other for the top job, but that wouldn’t stop them from joining hands to block the chances of Shekhar Koirala, the prime minister’s nephew whose meteoric rise within the party has irked the old guard.
That’s why the motive of the UML general secretary merits greater scrutiny. Madhav Nepal insists a transfer of responsibilities is crucial to prevent “regressive forces” from taking advantage of the mess. He hasn’t yet cited the fact that the army led the birthday celebrations of King Gyanendra to bolster his contention.
Perhaps he won’t, especially if his real intention to clear the way for his own rise to the premiership. After all, he was once the mainstream parties’ consensus candidate for the job until Koirala disavowed him at the 11th hour.
Internal UML dynamics, too, would appear to favor Nepal. To date, four men from the UML have become deputy prime minister – the first being Nepal himself. Bam Dev Gautam is best remembered for having sanctified the ex-panchas through his readiness to serve as Lokendra Bahadur Chand’s deputy in 1996.
Nepal sent Bharat Mohan Adhikary as the top UML representative in the multiparty government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba primarily to prevent Gautam or Oli from playing their own politics. Evidently, Adhikary couldn’t prevent the royal takeover. But he had exposed himself before that when he started justifying why the palace and security expenditures couldn’t be touched, contrary to the UML’s stand on the streets.
To contend with Oli, the leader of the dissident faction during the last UML general convention, Nepal would probably have to hammer the “inertia” angle hard enough.
In recent weeks, the UML general secretary has moved closer to the army, shielding the force from Maoist supremo Prachanda’s vitriol. Nepal has also stepped up consultations with Prachanda in an effort to boost overall confidence in the peace process.
Yet the UML chief’s strategy might not work. Oli might decide to endorse Serchan as acting premier to prevent Nepal from becoming the real one.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Oli Writ

Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s “secret” letter to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan requesting the world body’s help in monitoring and managing the Maoists’ weapons has set off a firestorm.
The Maoists were bound to be annoyed, considering that the premier failed to consult them before sending off the missive. What’s intriguing is that Deputy Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, too, is clueless.
Granted, Koirala wouldn’t want to share the contents of the letter with the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML)’s ranking representative in the government. But Oli also happens to be the foreign minister. The council of ministers has vindicated King Gyanendra’s accusation in his Feb. 1 2005 proclamation seizing full executive powers that the political parties trivialized issues of national importance.
Oli’s own situation is a little tricky here. The leader of the dissident faction within the UML during the last party convention, Oli was almost on his way to becoming a senior minister in one of the palace-appointed cabinets. Although he was a bitter critic of the royal takeover, he was perceived to be less than enthusiastic about the Seven Party Alliance (SPA)’s street protests.
The Maoists continue to pour much of their wrath on Oli, often to the extent of accusing him of being a royal agent in the cabinet. Such allegations are nothing new for the deputy premier. During the Panchayat years, it was said that Oli was one step away from being appointed a zonal commissioner.
A leader of the Jhapa Movement, Nepal’s first real violent communist insurgency, Oli was arrested an almost executed. The story is that the person pulling the trigger ran out of bullets. But Oli had a more powerful moral from that movement. The Jhapa revolutionaries, he once told an interviewer, recognized the futility of armed action against the state years before they shed the last drops of blood. The Maoists cannot be expected to cease violence the instance their supreme commander in chief, Prachanda, orders them to.
If Oli has become harsher in recent days in his criticism of the Maoists’ continued attacks, abductions and extortions, perhaps there is much more to his sting than reciprocity. By committing the Maoist leadership today to cease coercion and intimidation, there may some chance of Nepal turning a little more peaceful a couple of years down the road.
Oli seems to have recognized that candor may be his greatest companion at the moment – even if it means underscoring the clumsiness that passes for statecraft. When he defended the army after Prachanda’s intemperance, it set off a wider recognition of the imperative of decency.
If Prachanda finally felt compelled to amend/retract his slur, it was certainly because Oli set the ball rolling. Moreover, without Oli’s articulation, we wouldn’t have recognized the depths to which Nepal-China relations now seem destined to plummet.
Straight talking also serves as cushion for Oli within the UML. Countless people in Oli’s party are waiting for the current government to fail so they could destroy the politics of the deputy premier. Now UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal need not necessarily be the instigator here. But he would be the principal beneficiary of Oli’s fall. To date, four men from the UML have become deputy prime minister – the first being Nepal himself. Bam Dev Gautam is best remembered for having sanctified the ex-panchas through his readiness to serve as Lokendra Bahadur Chand’s deputy. Nepal sent Bharat Mohan Adhikary as the top UML representative in the multiparty government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba primarily to prevent Gautam or Oli from playing politics. Adhikary couldn’t prevent the royal takeover. But he had exposed himself before that when he started justifying why the palace and security expenditures couldn’t be touched, contrary to the UML’s stand on the streets.
If Oli were to stumble embarrassingly frequently enough, Madhav Nepal wouldn’t have a potential rival of reasonable standing to worry about. Oli seems to understand this reality better than Nepal does, considering the alacrity with which he attaches all those clarifications/qualifications to key government matters.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Cost Of Capriciousness

Even after stripping the monarchy of the basic powers and prerogatives commonly inherent in a titular head of state, the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists continue to project the palace as the principal threat to Nepalese democracy.
In any other place, such an act would have been the gravest admission of incompetence by a newly ascendant political class. But, then, few countries have averaged a constitution a decade without figuring out a clear political course.
For a moment, it looked like the SPA and the Maoists had finally found that prized political potion. With India having strengthened its position in Nepal after the April Uprising, the fact that the 12-point SPA-Maoist accord was forged in New Delhi looked like its biggest strength.
If blatant Indian interference could bring peace to a country sunken by a decade-long orgy of death and destruction, perhaps that brazenness was worthwhile.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s dispatch of Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) leader Sitaram Yechuri to Kathmandu served to reveal New Delhi helplessness in the midst of the existing political alignments. Yechury would probably dispute the premise that he is an emissary of the prime minister. But that would not change the reality that the Singh government has virtually subcontracted its Nepal policy to the CPM leader.
For Yechury, mainstreaming the Maoists is an act of self-preservation. The CPM must make sure Prachanda and his people join the democratic process to prevent Indian Maoists, or Naxals, from dominating the Indian left. But Yechury may not be able to untangle the web of doublespeak Prachanda and his lieutenants are currently caught in. Like it or not, Prime Minister Singh must bear full responsibility for the experiment underway in Nepal.
Clearly, New Delhi conceived the SPA-Maoist alliance to prevent King Gyanendra from taking Nepal out of India’s stifling embrace. A sobering moment must have come for the Indian architects when the Maoists and SPA constituents rushed to admonish Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala not to give in to any kind of pressure during his hastily arranged visit to New Delhi.
Indian media are reporting on how Nepal had become an alternate route for Kashmiri militants. This revelation comes close on the heels of reports that Al Qaeda had struck a working alliance with the Maoists. (Which, again, came a few months after Osama bin Laden for the first time identified India as a legitimate jihadist target?) The contours of an Indian preemptive strategy are becoming clear. However, these must be juxtaposed with another reality.
Considering the anxiety permeating the Indian media over China’s motives in South Asia, it is hard to believe that New Delhi could have driven the political change without consultations with Beijing. Although he vigorously denied having discussed Nepal during his visit to China, Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran must have compared notes on the mutual urgency of preventing the Americans from fortifying their foothold in Nepal.
Has that understanding now been breached? The Koirala government’s move to grant travel documents to Tibetan refugees slated for resettlement in the United States threatens to become a major irritant in bilateral relations.
The palace is the least of the SPA and Maoists’ worries. Let’s hope they don’t have to learn this the hard way.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Is Anyone Going To Say Sorry?

The media escapades just keep getting better. We were told, by unnamed sources in the Home Ministry, that royal adviser Sharad Chandra Shah evaded a government dragnet by minutes and flew out of the country. Days later, the top cop at the airport was recalled for this lapse.
When leading ministers of the royal regime, quizzed by an official panel probing abuses, blamed King Gyanendra and his “non-political” advisers for the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in April, Sharad-raja was uppermost on many minds. The blast from the past coupled with his more recent prominence in power was too overbearing to avoid.
During the 1990 movement, Shah was accused of mobilizing youths from the National Sports Council (NSC) to suppress the protests. Once the Panchayat edifice started crumbling, Shah’s home in Dilli Bazar was torched. For angry protesters, Shah’s seemed to be the main non-royal face that symbolized everything wrong with three decades of palace rule.
But Sharad raja had left the NSC – edged out in disgrace according to some accounts – long before the seeds of the democracy movement had been planted. During his recent stint in power, Shah was in the thick of things until the very end. His detractors evidently felt they had a better case this time. (The day Shah flew out, irate students poured their wrath on another royal adviser, Bharat Keshar Simha, and his sons after a traffic altercation.)
Sharad raja has returned home 10 days later. It turns out he flew out to attend a seminar in China and undergo medical check-up at the same hospital where Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala got his laser surgery of the prostrate. The seminar was organized by the Academy for World Watch, a Shanghai-based research institute.
Shah was the keynote speaker at a June 24 session on the impact of Maoist activities on political situation in Nepal. The following day, he chaired discussions on the impact of the unstable political situation in Nepal on neighboring countries.
To be fair, Shah’s return was duly reported by the principal English-language daily representing the “section of the media” that originally revealed his “escape”. The reporter seemed more eager to blame the anonymous Home Ministry sources for the screw-up. But doesn’t someone somewhere need to say sorry?
Now Sharad raja may be too polarizing a figure to get the apology he deserves. As someone used to the heat of the limelight, he may not even expect one. But what about the hapless top cop at the airport whose performance record has been wrongly tarnished?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Cloud Still Hangs Over Our Comrades

Ram Bahadur Thapa “Badal” has finally broken his vow of silence – and can’t stop talking. How firmly the man known as the chief military strategist of the Maoists’ “People’s War” is behind the ongoing peace process depends on, well, the media organization interviewing him.
Badal, a member of the Maoist delegation at peace talks with King Gyanendra’s government in 2003, was conspicuously quiet over the past several months. When Rabindra Shrestha and Comrade Anukul openly assailed the Maoist leadership’s policies, they were believed to be fronting for Badal.
Instead, Badal rebuked the duo. A careful reading suggested that Badal was less interested in defending Maoist supremo Prachanda and chief ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai than in ensuring intra-party disputes stayed within the ranks.
Badal’s absence from the post-summit news conference on June 16 was widely noticed. Was he unhappy with the way his leaders rushed to a settlement with one of the two enemies of the “people’s war”? Had all the “sacrifices” of the last 10 years gone in vain? Was Badal under pressure from the foot soldiers who couldn’t forget that key constituents of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) first unleashed the full force of the state against the insurgents?
Early last week, the weekly tabloids came out with Badal’s response, based on a news conference the comrade organized in the Terai. From the coverage, Badal’s support was anywhere between unqualified and tepid. Yet we could be reasonably assured that he was nowhere near mounting a rebellion against the political leadership.
Badal’s comments in a television interview, after arriving in Kathmandu for talks with Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai, were more political. “Since there are pro-monarchists in the SPA, a republic front is necessary,” Badal told the interviewer.
Asserting that a democratic republic was the people’s mandate of the pro-democracy movement, Badal urged the current political leadership to stand by this. “And it seems that [a republic] is attainable at the moment.”
It can be surmised that Prachanda’s latest proposal to put the two armies under the command of the prime minister of an interim government contains Badal’s fingerprints.
The Maoist supremo’s rejection of the idea of inviting foreigners to settle arms and armies could be a concession to the “nationalist” stream within the Maoists, with which Badal is often associated.
Less clear, though, is the extent of the support Prachanda’s suggestion that the Maoists would not return to violence enjoys within rebel ranks. The ambiguity is deepened by Badal’s assertion that no senior Maoist leader would participate in an interim government. Clearly, the burden of peace continues to weigh heavily on the comrades.