Sunday, April 30, 2006

The SPA’s Crowning Folly

As headlines go, they were pithy. “Nepal to vote to trim king’s power.” “Nepal lawmakers demand that king relinquish control of army.” “New elected body to decide king's role.”
Western news editors carried variations of the preceding three titles, carefully keeping the essence of the nut-graph: King Gyanendra is the principal obstacle to Nepal’s democracy and prosperity.
For a world attuned to color-coded revolutions in a minute-and-a-half segments, the televised images of Nepalese government forces killing and maiming street protesters proffered the solution. Chase or vote out the medieval monarch and Nepalis can reach for the moon.
The triumphant Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) leaders should have recognized the fallacy in that prescription. By zeroing in on the Constituent Assembly as a mechanism to oust the monarchy, the mainstream opposition may have appeased their egos bruised badly over four years of palace-driven marginalization. They shouldn’t be digging their own graves in such haste, at least not until the Maoists proved they were even remotely committed to multiparty democratic republicanism.
Although they have repeatedly vowed not to repeat the mistakes of their previous stint in power, SPA leaders have already done worse. Barely a year after promising how the restoration of multiparty democracy would turn Nepal into another Singapore, Nepali Congress and communists alike had to concede their lack of preparedness to govern. The tallness of their early promises played a major role in undercutting their credibility.
Let’s say everything works out according to plan this time. The Maoists and the SPA agree to conditions guaranteeing free and fair constituent assembly elections. Let’s say 90 percent of Nepalis vote in favor of abolishing the monarchy. (For the sake of the credibility of the exercise, the assumption here is that 10 percent of Nepalis are dim-witted and wrong-headed enough to want to keep the king. Hitler and Stalin, after all, still enjoy greater support.)
Under a republican constitution, the ex-Maoists fighters and ex-Royal Nepalese Army personnel are fused into a national army. Booting out the Ranas, Shahs, Thapas and Basnets won’t solve the problem. How are we going to reconcile the traditionally disadvantaged groups on the opposite armies raised on completely different standard operating procedures?
Even if they hit it off well personally, how can Bharat Bahadur Thapa Magar of the former Royal Nepal Army, trained in conventional combat, and Maoist fighter Ram Man Pun, with all his hit-and-run agility, be expected to get along professionally? How are their divergent attitudes, temperaments, motivations and training supposed to mesh into unity of purpose?
At the political level, the SPA and the Maoists may divvy up the presidency and premiership in the true tradition of the American spoils system. The Bahuns, Chettris and Newars that dominate each side will monopolize power and extend patronage. No matter how the military-mobilization modalities are worked out under the control of parliament, someone somewhere must have the ultimate authority to order the troops out of the barracks.
Despite all the calumnies heaped on them, the former RNA men (and women) – minus the Ranas, Shahs, Thapas and Basnets, of course – might still be driven by loyalty to the country. What about the former Maoist fighters driven by hatred for everything except their cause? Will they be able to dissociate themselves from the ideological inferno that got them this far?
This is just the monarchy-military dimension of the constituent assembly in the most optimistic scenario. We haven’t even addressed economic and social exclusion, lack of distributive justice, inequitable representation in state structures and regional disparities in development and all the other issues plaguing Nepal.
Vote out the monarchy in the constituent assembly and prosper? A nice slogan perhaps, but one that could boomerang with devastating effect quite fast. No wonder Prime Minister-designate Girija Prasad Koirala, rejecting an almost universal demand from his camp, went to Narayanhity Palace to be sworn in by King Gyanendra.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Democracy – That Great Equalizer

The prime minister-designate is too ill to take the oath of office. The revived legislature doesn’t have a speaker because he’s been forced to step down by his own party.
The deputy speaker reads out the prime minister-designate’s proposal to hold elections to a constitutional assembly. The high-profile session is adjourned after 35 minutes.
The monarch who returned executive power to the people is blamed for everything. The mainstream parties affirm that in the legislature. The Maoist rebels assert it at a public meeting. Democracy shines.
The Unified Marxist-Leninists, the second largest constituent of the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) has gone the farthest in the anti-royal dash. Top leaders have said the constitutional assembly would only formalize what the Nepalese people had affirmed over the past three weeks: the transformation of Nepal into a republic. It wants to be part of a Government of Nepal instead of His Majesty’s Government.
The UML has good reason to strike the hardest at the palace. The comrades were part of the coalition King Gyanendra dismissed on February 1, 2005 before seizing full powers. UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal was tormented the longest after the royal takeover. He was the last leader to be released following the royal takeover, only to be rearrested several months later. When most opposition leaders were being freed from house arrest, Madhav Nepal was transferred to the custody of the security forces.
During the height of the protests, the UML general secretary was told he would be released. He was brought halfway to the capital from the Kakani barracks only to be put back in detention until the following afternoon.
So political developments sound straightforward, eh? Consider the fine print. And where else to begin than with the official Maoist mouthpiece, Janadesh?
In a blistering editorial against the SPA’s rush in hailing King Gyanendra’s restoration of the House of Representatives – thereby “betraying” the Nepalese aspirations for “total democracy” -- the Maoists heaped much of their ire on the UML. The main communist party in the mainstream, according to the rebels, was actively involved in subverting the protests. UML leaders, according to the Maoists, were instrumental in shelving a Kathmandu-centered showdown in favor of nationwide protests. That weakened the democracy movement from the outset. Moreover, the rebels maintain, the UML whipped up fears of a brutal palace crackdown to prevent party cadres from participating in the protests.
Dip a little deeper. Which leaders might the rebels be talking about? Madhav Nepal was behind a massive security cordon. Bam Dev Gautam was ensconced in New Delhi fine-tuning the SPA-Maoist accord. While Madhav Nepal and Gautam were mounting scathing attacks on King Gyanendra, the third principal UML figure – Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli -- was sounding remarkably conciliatory. He’s the man who will lead the UML contingent in Prime Minister-designate Girija Prasad Koirala’s government. Of the UML triumvirate, Oli is the only man who hasn’t served as deputy prime minister.
With Koirala in poor health, Oli would probably be the de facto premier. Even if he doesn’t, you gotta admit – democracy is a great equalizer.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Girija Galvanized By Ganesh Man?

With Nepali Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala set to return as prime minister, a lot of Nepalis seem to be scratching their heads. After all that has happened over the past three tumultuous weeks, not too many people seem to have revised their view of the grand old man.
The internet is full of lamentations on how the man who supposedly symbolized all that went wrong in Nepal between 1990 and 2002 could end up making such a heroic comeback. Public ire may be focused on King Gyanendra and Crown Prince Paras, but Koirala comes a close third.
Maila Baje found two interesting points in the overall debate. Some wonder why the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA), stymied until the other day by its inability to agree on a consensus candidate for premier, could rally behind Koirala with such alacrity.
Others are baffled why someone who has already served three times as an elected prime minister would even want to accept such a thankless job in the eighth decade of his life. The first is easy to guess. None of the other SPA leaders were confident enough to grapple with such a huge mess. King Gyanendra’s restoration of the House of Representatives – a demand Koirala has consistently put forth over last four years -- was bound to infuriate the Maoists, who have denounced the SPA for betraying the people. Carving out enough space between humbled royals and hurt rebels is no enviable task.
The Nepali Congress remains the majority party in the lower house. The Nepali Congress Parliamentary Party (NCPP) remains undivided, since the organization split after Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba dissolved the legislature in 2002.
Technically, Deuba remains the NCPP leader and should have been returning as premier. But the poor guy was the first to recommend Koirala for the job. (As jinxes go, Deuba perhaps recognizes that a third sacking would certainly have driven him out of politics.)
But why did Koirala accept? Probably because of two people. Although a year or two older than Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, who turned down King Gyanendra’s offer to become premier, Koirala is more agile mentally and physically.
More importantly, though, Koirala must have recalled the experience of Ganesh Man Singh in the aftermath of the People’s Movement of 1990. When the then-supreme commander declined the premiership, many thought his ill health must have played a part.
A few cynics questioned the status of Singh’s mental health as well when he urged King Birendra to lead the new government. Diehard Singh supporters were impressed by what they considered a Gandhian gesture of self-abnegation.
Soon Ganesh Man Singh’s critics within the Nepali Congress started making fun of his decision – a process that snowballed into a pro-Koirala momentum within the party. Singh himself could be heard later insisting that he did not spurn the premiership for lack of ability.
Having led – at least theoretically – a movement that dwarfed the 1990 protests, Koirala must have felt further energized not to repeat Singh’s misjudgment.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Behind India's Two-Pillar Obsession

India is still wiping off the egg that landed on its face after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rushed to reaffirm his faith in New Delhi’s twin-pillar policy on Nepal.
In effect, India stood behind the restoration of the 1990 constitution’s political order.
Such dualism must be discarded, Indian analysts stress, because it is acceptable neither to the Seven-Party Alliance nor the Maoist rebels arrayed against King Gyanendra.
Both believe that if constitutional monarchy is allowed to stay, the king might bide his time and dismiss another elected government to seize absolute power.
Moreover, the growing anti-monarchy sentiment seen, heard and felt on the streets could easily dissipate once the palace receded to the background.
Prime Minister Singh must have expected such a response. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have sent Dr. Karan Singh, a prominent lawmaker of the ruling Congress party with close ties to the Nepalese royal family, as his special envoy.
After his mission, Karan Singh probably told the Indian premier that King Gyanendra would not take any step toward the restoration of multi-party democracy until the monarchy’s role in the new arrangement was established.
Aboard a special aircraft en route to Germany, Prime Minister Singh sounded undaunted. He asserted that India couldn’t afford Nepal to become a failed state. (Under the domino theory, Bangladesh could stand next in line.) Translation: The two pillars stay.
Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, who owes his accelerated promotion in large part to his performance record as ambassador to Nepal, had to come out with a clarification on New Delhi’s optimism over King Gyanendra’s readiness to appoint an SPA government.
But Saran couldn’t bring himself to discard the twin-pillar doctrine. What could explain this Indian obsession? Perhaps the fact that it has worked well for India all these years. History is instructive here. Remember the Delhi Compromise of 1951 under which Jawahar Lal Nehru constructed the platform for King Tribhuvan, B.P. Koirala and Mohan Sumshere Rana to work out their differences?
Mohan Sumshere and B.P. found themselves locked in the same noose; the survival of the Rana-Nepali Congress coalition government was predicated on the passion of the partners participation. Once either constituent pulled out, the coalition would collapse. And it did after nine months.
As the triumphant revolutionary, B.P. Koirala thought he deserved the prime minister’s job. He pulled out of the coalition precisely for that purpose. But the Lightning Brigade, that elite military symbol of real power, had moved from Mohan Sumshere’s control to King Tribhuvan’s. The Nepali Congress did get to form the government, but it was B.P.’s elder brother Matrika Prasad Koirala who took the oath as premier.
Let’s face it, India is still committed to the two pillars. The plinth and dead weight could be worked out in accordance with developments. The first pillar will no doubt be the political parties. The second is up for grabs.
The monarchy and the Maoists must brace themselves for a rigorous test. All is not assured on the SPA side, either. Surya Bahadur Thapa is not formally in the opposition alliance. Moreover, he might be considered a venerable has-been by a rising and shining India.
Maila Baje always thought Arjun Narsingh K.C. had a promising future. Well positioned in the Nepali Congress, Maila Baje hears that his recommendation letter counts a lot at the Indian Embassy’s cultural scholarship section. A Prime Minister K.C.? Maybe not right away. But don’t count him out just because you don’t see him running from pillar to pole.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Portentous Pieces Of The Peace Puzzle

Struggling to regain the initiative on Nepal, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has appointed Dr. Karan Singh as his special envoy to the kingdom.
With the situation in the Himalayan kingdom threatening to spiral out of control, New Delhi seems to be more worried than the palace is.
A former federal minister and a senior member of the Congress party, Dr. Karan Singh is the son of Hari Singh, the last maharajah of Kashmir. Hari Singh, one may recall, supposedly signed the controversial instrument of accession that merged the Muslim-majority state into Hindustan – something that has kept India and Pakistan at each other’s throats ever since.
As someone personally familiar with the gravity of seemingly benign twists and turns that go on to determine a nation’s future for generations, Dr. Karan Singh is perhaps the perfect man for Nepal. The Indian media are going ga-ga over Prime Minister Singh’s exercise of “Rajput diplomacy.”
What must not be forgotten here is that Kunwar Natwar Singh, who was forced to resign as foreign minister amid allegations of shadiness relating to Saddam Hussein’s oil-for-food scandal, was also a scion of a princely family – that of Bharatpur, to be precise. He proved to be an implacable opponent of King Gyanendra’s takeover of full political control 14 months ago.
Dr. Karan Singh’s family ties to Nepalese royalty are widely expected to bolster his ability to persuade King Gyanendra of the need for reconciliation. Not that the monarch really needs it, considering that the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) is the side rebuffing repeated royal overtures.
More importantly, Dr. Karan Singh might be more receptive to the concerns of the king, something that has been lacking in New Delhi from the outset of the crisis. A sympathetic understanding of King Gyanendra’s views could do much to moderate the extremism being peddled as informed advice to the Indian government.
Amid the latest flurry of initiatives, restoring the parliament dissolved prematurely in 2002 by then-Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has gained ground as an option. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, the man who led Nepal’s transition from a partyless system to multiparty democracy in 1990, is rumored to be the next premier.
Both factions of the Nepali Congress revere Bhattarai. Whether they would accept him as premier after the anti-monarchy momentum of the last fortnight remains unclear.
That, moreover, is less important than whether the leaders of both factions would be able to persuade younger Congress activists of the need to retain the monarchy as a bulwark of stability.
The communist factions in the SPA can either go along with the Congress or join hands with the Maoists. The Maoists, for their part, have made the former likelier by their headlong rush to claim credit for the unexpectedly large public participation in mass demonstrations and, worse, by questioning the SPA’s leadership abilities.
Indeed, the mode and mechanism for creating a constituent assembly that would draft a new constitution – clearly the last remaining principal demand of the Maoists – would have to win the confidence of the rebels.

Alarming Accuracy
Buried in media reports on New Delhi’s fresh activism is a more ominous development. The Indian Army seems to have succeeded in conveying to Prime Minister Singh the urgency of restoring links with the Royal Nepalese Army.
Those alarmed by the possibility of the Chinese and Pakistanis stepping into the void created by the military embargoes imposed by India, United States and Britain may have finally prevailed.
Coupled with recent American moves to impress upon the RNA generals and mid-level commanders the risk of sticking their necks out for the monarch, however, the whole ambience acquires a sinister touch.
In its latest analysis on Nepal, Stratfor suggests the latest initiatives might just be laying the ground for an eventual military coup against the monarchy.
And, lest we forget, Stratfor’s accuracy in predicting coups is largely behind the reputation it has built today.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

From Here To Trinity

The grand showdown between the palace and its two adversaries finally seems to have produced one positive result. As part of a flurry of consultations, King Gyanendra met with the American, Chinese and Indian ambassadors Sunday.
Now that’s a far cry from the agonizing waits the palace secretariat inflicted on Their Excellencies. Which side was the real urgency on? The king’s it would appear.
Dive a little deeper to pursue the chain of events behind the smokescreen on the streets. During the height of the violent protests – and the massive government crackdown – much of the world erupted in condemnation of King Gyanendra. It was only after the security situation worsened, prompting U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert to cancel his delegation’s visit to Nepal, did India choose to break its silence. (Hastert, one may recall, is the man who would be president should George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney suddenly decide to renounce the world and go into seclusion)
As the warnings from New Delhi got stronger, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, too, decided to call off his much-anticipated visit. Apparently, he believed the situation wouldn’t improve in time even for a purely recreational trek to Mustang. For now, the Indians and the Chinese have fended off the meddlesome Americans.
Don’t underestimate James F. Moriarty, though. He may have ordered a voluntary evacuation of the American Embassy to prove his point back home. He’s staying put to find out what alternatives New Delhi and Beijing can produce.
Remember he’s the guy that negotiated the release (in bits and pieces of course) of that American spy plane the Chinese had force-landed in 2001. And last year Moriarty flew into New Delhi to follow the scope and structure of the negotiations the SPA and the Maoists had huddled into.
Moriarty is all eyes and ears. This time probably more so on China. Moriarty’s deputy (substitute?) Elizabeth Millard, in her new capacity as a Bush administration adviser, became the highest American official to have gone on record saying Washington would consult with Beijing on Nepal. Nepal’s geopolitical profile, she told Nepalese reporters in a recent video conference, had just grown too big. The White House backed that claim in its National Security Strategy by citing state failure as a principal threat to the United States.
For each Asian giant, the Nimby Factor is too ingrained. The moves on the South Asian chessboard demand great dexterity to ensure no one gets the whole hog. Afghanistan got a full seat in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation only after Nepal and others ensured an observer status for China. Beijing, in turn, was allowed in only in partnership with Tokyo.
Then America got itchy and slid its foot in the door. South Korea wasn’t far behind. The whole international system gets complicated. Is Seoul, traditional ally of Washington, on America’s side? Or on China’s, considering Seoul’s traditional rivalry with Tokyo, which happens to be a Washington ally?
More relevant to our subject: Have Ambassadors Shiva Shankar Mukherji of India and Sun Heping of China devised a peace plan acceptable not only to themselves but also the Americans?
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Maoist insurgency in India as the greatest threat since independence to the country’s internal security. China’s recent National People’s Congress devoted much of its session on bridging that country’s rural-urban divide, the cause of much social – and potentially political – instability ( drawing up the agenda for which apparently forced State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan to reschedule his visit to Nepal).
An unstable Nepal bordering Tibet was bad enough. A Maoist Nepal that could revive in rural and poverty-stricken China memories of the good old days under The Great Helmsman is inconceivable.
Moriarty’s government, as we all know, sees in Prachanda’s Path the worst of the Cold War and post-9/11 order: communism and terrorism. With Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara and government spokesman Kamal Thapa agreeing that the rebels are full participants in the current street protests, the urgency for all three foreign players becomes self-evident.
Maybe those Sunday evening meetings were not really King Gyanendra’s idea. Come to think of it, did the three ambassadors actually seek a joint audience, which the monarch politely declined? And we still wonder what keeps King Gyanendra going.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Uncovering The ‘Total’ Democracy Story

In the end, Sharad Chandra Shah seems to have carried the day. Well, with a little help from Keshar Bahadur Bista.
King Gyanendra’s New Year’s message, in which he reiterates his desire to hold parliamentary elections to reactivate multiparty democracy, is unlikely to douse the flames on the streets.
Sharad Chandra Shaha expects the pro-democracy protests to peter out in a fortnight – max. His optimism probably carries traces of his grudge with the previous generation of Nepalese street fighters.
His residence in Dilli Bazar was torched during the 1990 People’s Movement. He had earned the wrath of the mobs for his role in unleashing storm-troopers from the National Sports Council against democracy campaigners.
Few recognized the real grievance of Sharad-raja. He had ceased being that all-powerful member-secretary of the National Sports Council when Ganesh Man Singh led a jihad against the partyless Panchayat heathens.
If retroactive justice was such a good idea, Sharad-raja might have wondered, why wasn’t Rishikesh Shaha paraded around in a necklace of shoes for having helped write the Panchayat constitution?
To be sure, during his heyday, Sharad Chandra Shaha made and destroyed a lot of lives. This time around, Maila Baje feels, the hardliner merely reinforced what King Gyanendra must already have decided in Pokhara. The monarch’s refusal to set the election date probably draws from Royal Minister Keshar Bahadur Bista’s party’s plea for reconciliation.
Ultimately, the monarch’s decision apparently factored in a vital confluence of events emanating primarily from across the southern border.
Implicit in the ease with which India agreed to renew the transit treaty on the eve of the protests was an omen of a looming massive political showdown. As the crowds swelled and the government unleashed its fury, the world rose in condemnation of the king. Deafening in its silence was India. (Although China, too, kept quiet, not much more could be read into its stand.)
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher’s tirade changed things. Only when U.S. Ambassador James F. Moriarty extended best wishes to the movement commanders before counseling a U.S. congressional delegation to stay away and trimming his mission staff did New Delhi choose to speak. And it did with a thunder. India has let it be known to the palace that it would be compelled to use all its levers to restore democracy in Nepal. (Abrogation of the transit treaty is probably not an option, eh?)
But poor Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Amid the deepening confusion that has passed for Indian policy on Nepal since the royal takeover, he chose to inject some honesty.
At a meeting convened by the Left backing his coalition, Singh suggested he didn’t want to be another Bush having to deal with the equivalent of Hamas. As if the analogy weren’t clear enough to the Sitaram Yechuris – who for one time agreed with American policy vis-à-vis Nepal – Singh clarified matters the following day: the Maoists in India pose the greatest internal-security threat since independence.
Translation: “No matter how vigorously they disown the Naxalites, we just can’t trust Prachanda and Baburam.”
The Nepalese Maoists, after all, inspired the unification of the fractious Naxalite groups in the world most populous democracy into the Communist Party of India (Maoists.) If the ground realities of the moment could force the Nepalese Maoists to muffle their long-standing anti-Indianism and marginalize their pan-South Asianism, they could revert to them just as easily once circumstances warrant.
Undoubtedly, the immediate payoff has been immense. By checkmating the U.N., Americans, Norwegians, Swiss et al, India warded off any precedent for Kashmir and the Northeast. At the same time, it checked Nepal’s dangerous drift away from the Indian orbit. (On the former, New Delhi probably thinks it has done a service to Beijing as well, considering our northern neighbor’s equally vital imperative of domesticating a solution on Tibet.)
All the same, the immediate challenge is daunting for Singh. With Girija Prasad Koirala and Prachanda already locking horns for a putative presidency, the Yechuris must be brought around to recognizing that a Republic of Nepal might not be in the immediate national interest.
With a recalcitrant palace, some more coercing, cajoling, enticing and intimidating would be needed. And what could offer a better cover than eternally endangered lives and inflamed streets in Nepal?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Who’s Riding Whom?

The surge in popular protests against King Gyanendra’s regime has set off a race to take credit.
Nepali Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala, the supreme commander of “People Power II”, continues to insist the movement is being led and controlled by the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA).
His principal lieutenants seem to be in full agreement; some have made identical pronouncements, while others have offered silence as evidence of support.
In an interview with BBC Nepali Service, Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara was baffled by the way the SPA leaders refuse to acknowledge the protests as part of the 12-point understanding. He went a step further and claimed that the signatories had in fact agreed to end the monarchy.
Koirala, in his interview with the BBC, insisted he held talks with the Maoists as well as with the international community based on some basic principles: the end of autocratic rule, peace, full-fledged democracy and independent, sovereign and prosperous Nepal. “Go and ask the Maoists,” Koirala challenged the interviewer, “I have held dialogue with them within the parameters of these principles.”
The only people who can offer independent verifications are Ambassadors Moriarty, Bloomfield and Mukherjee. But they too busy watching and waiting. (No wonder critics and supporters of the 12-point deal were united in demanding greater transparency on the Delhi agreement.)
With the “urban uprising” part of Prachanda Path’s strategic offensive phase in full motion, the stakes are too high. So Mahara’s boss, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai jumped in to tackle the joint ownership issue in a different way.
The SPA and the Maoists are the only constitutional forces, he said in Jana Astha weekly (although a little later he contradicts himself by saying there can be no constitutional forces when the constitution itself is inactive.)
But you get the drift. The chief Maoist ideologue is bothered by the way the term is being thrown around by the international community of democracies in pushing national reconciliation. Mahara and Dr. Bhattarai are being puerile. Of course, the SPA would vigorously deny joint action with the Maoists. That’s precisely the royal regime’s justification for the harsh crackdown.
So who’s riding whom? “Ground realities” – that favorite Maoist term – seem to support Mahara’s contention. The rebel offensive at Malangawa, Butwal and Kapilvastu may not have energized the pro-democracy activists in Kathmandu and other centers in way Mahara claims. They sure pinned down the security forces.
Then both Maoist leaders slip. “The peaceful agitation alone can’t bring about the end of monarchy,” Mahara argued. Dr. Bhattarai exuded more erudition: "A weak capitalist class cannot alone lead a capitalist popular revolution".
Koirala, on the other hand, sounds confident. Asked whether he would hold talks with King Gyanendra, he said he wouldn’t go to the palace with his tail behind his feet.
In any case, when the Maoists are willing to share something, things must be messier on their side.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Scripting Self-Defense

As Nepal burns, each act unfolds with a precision that stupefies the scriptwriters across the southern border.
The Maoists, having declared a unilateral cease-fire in Kathmandu, lead the peaceful protests organized by the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) through vandalism and arson.
The rebels continue to mount heavy attacks elsewhere, seeking to pin down the security forces.
The royal regime, ostracized by a world that simply refuses to see the stakes involved, tries to uphold its basic responsibility of maintaining law and order.
Every government act is portrayed as repressive. Three civilian deaths, unfortunate no doubt, prompt a rage of revulsion.
The Maoists must be marveling at the muted sighs their decade of murderous rampage prompted.
The SPA gloats over another manifestation of people power. Which people and whose power?
Those sustained by the sudden spurt of Indian currency in the central bank’s coffers? Faces not normally seen and dialects not normally heard are suddenly everywhere. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next.
Except the alien scriptwriters who have carefully calibrated each twist and turn. Indian news organizations had the perfect lead. By the end of the first day of the strike, the royal regime’s crackdown had already precipitated an exodus of refugees into bordering Indian states.
How can the world’s most populous democracy sit by and watch the palace desecrate the democratic aspirations of the Nepalese people? The crowds of Nepalese migrants grow in the Indian capital.
The Indian communist parties instrumental in crafting the 12-point agreement between the SPA and the Maoists voice solidarity with their Nepalese brethren.
The debate takes another form. With continued death, destruction and debris, how longer can the only country sharing a 1,000-mile open border with a failed/failing/failed state ignore this threat to national security.
You don’t have to be the world’s hyperpower to exercise your right to self-defense. Send in the jawans. The all-party conference has set the mandate.
The ghosts of Jaffna continue to haunt. Surely those dark shadows can’t be allowed to hold back a nation destined to shine. Nothing to worry about. The Nepalese Maoists won’t become another LTTE. By veering into the Indian camp with such palpable shamelessness, Prachanda has lost the ability to become another Prabhakaran.
India said it would not allow any third party to mediate an end a conflict in its backyard.
Hey, not too fast. Weren’t the Indian generals supposed to be in favor of bolstering the royal regime against the Maoists?
Too late. Orders are orders.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Roots Of The Repression

From the popular mood and the protest mechanics, Nepal has clearly plunged into a 1990-style convulsion. Each act of repression by the royal regime is adding protesters to the streets. More and more “liberated areas” are being proclaimed in the quest to usher in “total democracy.”
Home Minister Kamal Thapa is emphasizing how the movement has gone beyond the control of the mainstream parties – drawing verbatim from his pronouncements as a minister in 1990.
Whether the ongoing protests will yield any substantive change remains to be seen. For now, the royal regime, citing Maoist infiltration of the protests, can be expected to intensify its crackdown, unless the security forces desert en masse.
The severity of the royal regime’s crackdown was only to be expected. General Satchit Sumshere Rana, the army chief in 1990, is today a principal advisor to King Gyanendra. Sixteen years ago this week, Gen. Rana had sought King Birendra’s permission to disperse with more lethal force the sea of protesters in front of the palace.
Having attacked the statue of King Mahendra – who as the father of the Panchayat system symbolized the partyless regime -- the crowds were marching ahead purportedly to storm the palace gates. Soldiers did open fire on the protesters, inflicting heavy loss of life. King Birendra’s decision to lift the ban on political parties may have prevented further bloodbath. The showdown shifted in large part to the political domain.
Over the years, Gen. Rana has repeatedly insisted – often with tinges of regret -- that the army could have easily crushed the movement and saved Nepal from the subsequent cataclysms.
As the new constitution was being drafted in the summer and fall of 1990, Gen. Rana led an army delegation to interim prime minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai demanding that provisions relating to the king’s control of the military not be tampered with. Bhattarai refused to relent. Gen. Rana went on to become Nepal’s ambassador to Myanmar, technically an appointee of the elected government but in reality a palace nominee. He must have gained an opportunity to study how an internationally isolated military junta succeeded in maintaining its grip on power.
The wider constellation of Nepalis known pejoratively as royalists pondered how things might have changed had King Birendra acceded to Gen. Rana’s request. Compared to the 13,000 lives lost in the Maoist conflict, the loss of an extra hundred more lives in 1990 would hardly have seemed remarkable. The Panchayat system, already branded a genocidal regime, could easily have absorbed that additional stigma.
That’s not the real point. The official inquiry into the 1990 suppression of the democracy movement came out with a list of around 70 dead. Anyone familiar with that movement knew the figure to be outrageously low. More than 70 lives were lost in front of the royal palace that fateful afternoon alone.
What propelled the newly ascendant democratic leaders to lower those figures? Certainly not a sudden desire to redeem the Panchayat system in the eyes of the people. They new had a selfish motive. The majority of the protesters killed were non-Nepalis – or, more accurately, Nepalis of India.
How did these people become such an integral a part of the 1990 movement? Most had been evicted from their homes in the northeastern states of India amid ethnic violence there. These people formed the core of India-funded protesters aimed at intimidating a recalcitrant palace. Marich Man Singh Shrestha, the last prime minister of the Panchayat system, has pointed to the sudden and massive inflow of Indian money during this movement.
Once in power, the democratic leaders could not have afforded to list such a heavy cluster of non-Nepalis as “martyrs,” especially when they themselves were criticized as Indian protégés.
The 1990 constitution was hailed a compromise document between the palace, Nepali Congress and communist parties. However, the palace was hardly accepted as an equal partner. King Birendra and the entire royal family continued to be subjected to incessant calumny. From the political discourse, you would have thought the monarchy had already been overthrown.
That sordid trend evolved into a wider one. Depending on which side of the political fence you were on, the palace became a stepping stone to power or a major stumbling block. King Birendra’s detachment from day-to-day politics was castigated as a design calculated – subsequently in collusion with the Maoist rebels -- to undermine multiparty democracy. When the monarch began seeking clarifications from the prime minister on the growing Maoist insurgency, the ruling party and opposition denounced the palace for conspiring to retake power.
The moral of the story: In refusing Gen. Rana’s request, the palace ended up exposing itself to a fate worse than one a bloody crackdown might have inflicted. King Gyanendra is certainly not about to repeat that mistake.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Son Also Rises

He may not be as voluble as some of his cabinet colleagues. But when Prakash Koirala speaks, he hits right on the nail.
The minister for science and technology in King Gyanendra’s cabinet has accused India of forging the alliance between the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists rebels as part of its policy of perpetuating instability in Nepal.
Before castigating the man as a rabid India-baiter, let’s look into a phenomenon he represents. As the eldest son of B.P. Koirala, Prakash knows better than anybody else the tragedy and travails of Nepal’s first elected prime minister.
Although B.P. never directly accused the Indian government of instigating his ouster in December 1960, his memoirs and prison diary portray a complex relationship he had with Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru.
In his memoirs, Kumar Mani Dixit, B.P.’s secretary, describes in detail B.P.’s last meeting with Nehru as prime minister. A visibly disturbed B.P. emerged from the talks, seething at how a leader of Nehru’s stature could fail to see him as the prime minister of an independent and sovereign country.
Stories abound. Nehru once asked B.P. whether he wanted to serve as the deputy chief of India’s embassy in Moscow or go to Nepal to pursue a political career. B.P. opted for the latter. The story gained traction among those familiar with B.P.’s purported role in the campaign against Nepal’s application to join the United Nations.
It is commonly held that King Mahendra didn’t want B.P. as prime minister after the Nepali Congress won a landslide in kingdom’s first election in 1959. Once he became premier, B.P. went on to share warm relations with the monarch. King Mahendra would regale B.P. with royal lyrics with full accompaniment of the harmonium. B.P. once ventured into the royal kitchen inquiring whether he could help Queen Ratna with food preparation. Days before dismissing B.P.’s government, King Mahendra presented gifts he said he had bought for the prime minister during his foreign visit.
Years later, some people close to King Mahendra marveled at the monarch’s endless praise for B.P. One mustered the courage to ask the king why he had B.P. behind bars for so long if he thought the man was the only Nepali worthy of the premiership. King Mahendra’s reply was cryptic. “Do you think I wanted B.P. imprisoned this long?” He probably was referring to the lack of discretion Girija Prasad Koirala, B.P.’s youngest brother, had demonstrated during the quiet reconciliation talks, which ultimately scuttled the effort.
Regardless of the authenticity or otherwise of all these stories, a larger picture emerges. After his release from eight years of imprisonment, B.P. happened to be in Bombay where King Mahendra was transiting on his way back home from a trip to the West. As a former prime minister, he felt an obligation to go to the airport to welcome the monarch. On the receiving line, King Mahendra gave him a quick glance and passed him by, leaving B.P. a little puzzled about royal psychology.
Moments later, though, the monarch returned to inquire about B.P.’s health and general well being. As B.P. subsequently recounted, it looked like the personal warmth between the two men had never dissipated.
Where B.P. did find a sea-change was in the behavior of Indian leaders. They systematically shunned him. He ended up living in virtual house arrest in Varanasi and Delhi. For B.P., national reconciliation was a compulsion stemming from a larger Indian reality.
Neither Ganesh Man Singh nor Girija Prasad Koirala could grasp the thoughts B.P. grappled with before deciding to return to Nepal. He was, after all, facing charges of treason. (The other top Nepali Congress leader, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, had refused to go into exile, insisting that a stable democracy couldn’t emerge from abroad.)
Later, when B.P. was on his way to the United States for medical treatment, Indian reporters were anxious to know whether he would return to Nepal. “The king’s neck and my own are entwined in the same noose,” he replied.
When the Panchayat side won a referendum in 1979, the entire multiparty camp cried foul. B.P. stood firm saying the result was inexplicable but as a democrat he would accept it. B.P. wanted to take part in the first adult-franchise elections to the partyless legislature. He was dissuaded by his colleagues.
Toward the end of his life, B.P. began narrating his story to his brother in law Ganesh Raj Sharma, the eminent jurist. In the opinion of the ailing ex-premier, there was only one other person, apart from Sharma, who he thought could do justice to his story.
That other person was Shailaja Acharya, B.P.’s niece, who to this day is fiercely committed to the imperative of national reconciliation. B.P. emphasized that Shailaja might not have the time or convenience to complete the task and asked Sharma to volunteer.
Girija Prasad Koirala and other members of the Koirala coterie did their best to prevent Sharma from coming out with B.P.’s memoirs. (When a Kathmandu-based publishing house started running excerpts from another phase of B.P.’s unpublished prison diary, there were rumblings of discontent in the Koirala family. The English weekly and Nepali fortnightly that were carrying the pieces quietly dropped them.)
Prakash Koirala wasn’t the only one drawing lessons from B.P.’s experience. B.P.’s granddaughter – Prakash’s daughter -- Manisha has been quite critical of the way other members of the extended Koirala family have misused B.P.’s life and legacy to further their own political interests.
One does not know whether Manisha shares her father’s estimate of Indian intentions in Nepal; nor is it clear whether she would be as forthright in voicing them in public, given her own status as a leading actress in the Indian film industry. (Dr. Shashank Koirala, Prakash’s younger brother, is firmly allied with Girija Prasad Koirala. He seems unable to fathom the depths of Prakash’s sentiments; perhaps it’s because he was too young – and subsequently too engrossed in his medical studies -- to experience his father’s travails.)
Prakash Koirala’s remarks bear added significance in view of the renewal of the transit treaty between India and Nepal. A protracted dispute over the renewal – which seemed increasingly likely at one point – would have imposed severe hardships on Nepal.
The closing of transit points and withdrawal of privileges would have been tantamount to an embargo on the landlocked kingdom – reminiscent of 1989-90.
A second blockade perhaps became untenable because of, among other things, the improved transit and transportation system available to Nepal via China – something absent 17 years ago. Making a virtue out of necessity, India renewed the treaty.
What we don’t fully know is the fate of the “non-treaty-related” issues India had raised in earlier negotiations, citing which New Delhi extended the agreement for three months. In formally renewing the treaty, India may have weighed the benefits accruing from an improvement in its public image among ordinary Nepalis. Could New Delhi be gearing up to extract greater -- and graver -- concessions via the unfolding SPA-Maoist showdown with King Gyanendra’s government?

Monday, April 03, 2006

Waging War By Other Means

King Gyanendra’s government may be forgiven for shrugging off the unilateral truce declared by the Maoist rebels in Kathmandu Valley. With the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA)’s much-hyped “massive showdown” with the palace looming, Maoist supremo Prachanda has decided to take the peace route to the Nepalese capital.
During their decade-old “People’s War,” the Maoists have succeeded in mounting daring attacks on district capitals and inflicting heavy blows on the state. However, they have lacked the ability to hold on to their “conquests” even for a few hours. So much for the rebels being in control of 80 percent of Nepal.
Prachanda evidently recognizes the futility of triumphalism as long as Kathmandu valley remains out of bounds. The Shining Path, the Maoist organization in Peru from which the Nepalese rebels draw inspiration, was thought to have been in control of 95 percent of the Andean nation. Once Comrade Gonzalo was in the grip of the Peruvian security forces and found himself paraded in a cage, the Maoists there lost their luminosity.
Instead, Prachanda has decided to rally behind the SPA in an effort to foment the overdue urban insurrection that would catapult him to power. The Maoists’ latest unilateral ceasefire is clearly aimed at absolving their organization of responsibility for any outbreak of violence.
The peace route has worked well for the rebels. Last week, Maoists bombed a high-school test center in western Nepal, injuring teachers and students. The rebels came out with a statement clarifying that such attacks were not part of their movement.
Earlier this year, the Maoists gave an explicit pledge to Ian Martin, the top UN human rights monitor in Nepal, that they would not physically attack candidates standing in the municipal polls the royal regime was organizing as part of its three-year roadmap to democracy. The Maoists actually killed two leading candidates and injured others. Martin saw no reason to hold the Maoists to their pledge, but that’s a different story.
The SPA is either unaware of the rebel ploy or is totally consumed by hatred of the palace for having exposed the hollowness of the multiparty democracy the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninists crafted at the instigation of their Indian mentors.
The royal regime has branded the upcoming protests as a Maoist-driven campaign and has vowed to repulse this challenge to its authority. The rebels’ ceasefire is unlikely to change the government’s stand because it can see through the rebels’ deceit. During the last unilateral ceasefire, the Maoists continued with much of their terrorist activities – murder, kidnappings, extortion, etc. If they desisted from high-profile attacks on government installations, it was merely to rearm and reorganize for a deadlier spree of murder and mayhem.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

How Do You Say It In Newari?

With that massive showdown looming, the wild card is obviously Kathmandu Valley’s Newars. Their turnout – or lack of it -- will determine which side wins. Ever since the first phase of King Gyanendra’s takeover on October 4, 2002, the mainstream political parties have been trying hard to replicate the flavor and feistiness of the Jana Andolan. The democracy movement has gone through different phases but hasn’t been able to acquire enough firepower to intimidate the palace. Why? A principle reason is that Newars aren’t too thrilled.
When the capital last erupted, Newars were at the forefront of the thunder and lightning. It was the Nirgun Sthapits and Soviet Man Shresthas who fell to the cause of democracy. The old quarters of Patan became an autonomous republic. During those days, most Newars seemed ready to avenge everything starting from Prithvi Narayan Shah’s blood-drenched conquest of the valley.
Newars became among the first to be disenchanted. Ganesh Man Singh’s wife and son, who had made enough of their own mark on the democracy struggle to qualify as election candidates, became the first victims of the bramhu-chas ascendant in the Nepali Congress. Marshal Julum Shakya, that youthful face of anti-Panchayat defiance, had already been edged out. In no time, the supreme commander of the democracy movement, had been portrayed by his peers as a grumpy malcontent carrying virulent strains of communalism. Even the worst enemies of Ganesh Man Singh knew those attributes to be untrue.
Despite all the ideological symbolism involved, the Krishna Prasad Bhattarai-Madan Bhandari contest was merely a harbinger of the caste-hierarchy-based haughtiness of the new political class. Soon people who clearly belonged to constituencies outside the valley became candidates in growing numbers.
At one level, the comrades were perhaps more deserving. Many had married into Newar families during their underground years. That intricate network shielded most from the clutches of Panchayat totalitarians. Once the light of democracy shone, it became clear that the comrades already had wives and children in the eastern hills and plains.
The Nepals, Pokharels, Bajgains and Pants weren’t the candidates too many Newars expected to rise from the Panchayat debris. (The Maobadis aren’t quite different on this count. The first thing the two brahmus do after patching up is expel Rabindra Shrestha and another leading rebel.)
What’s there to throng the streets and dodge the bullets for if the choice for Asan voters under Democracy III would be among, say, Mandals, Tumbahamphes and Bohras?
And, yes, I heard you. Who am I to complain?