Thursday, June 29, 2006

Realignment Rites

A palpably rejuvenated Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala is insistent that Nepal should retain a “ceremonial monarchy”. Maoist supremo Prachanda is busy wooing foreign ambassadors (at least the ones eager to receive him), apparently cognizant that retaining power would prove far more arduous than attaining it.
Nepali Congress (Democratic) president Sher Bahadur Deuba is on a weeklong visit to India for – by his own admission – serious political consultations. Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal, sensitized by the growing camaraderie between sections of the Nepali Congress and the Maoists, has emerged as the preeminent supporter of the Nepal Army within the Seven Party Alliance (SPA).
A passionate realignment of politics seems to be underway. To be sure, the precise motives and possible outcomes remain obscure. Yet this much is clear: In the run-up to the constituent assembly elections, Nepalese politics seems to be crystallizing into republican and ceremonial monarchist camps from their hitherto tri-polar dimensions.
Prachanda seems reconciled to a transitional democracy of sorts. In an interview with a Kathmandu weekly, the supreme commander in chief of the Maoist army speaks of spearheading another revolution for a “people’s republic” in about five years’ time.
Bam Dev Gautam, Prachanda’s principal adherent in the UML, claims Nepal could do without American assistance.
Gautam was responding to Ambassador James F. Moriarty’s assertion that Washington could not recognize or financially reward a Maoist-inclusive interim government unless the rebels fully and verifiably disarmed. The interesting part is that Gautam used his address to an agriculture conference to accuse Moriarty of conspiring with the palace to subvert the budding peace process.
What could be the possible permutations of the emerging politics? Radical communists within the UML could veer closer to the Maoists, while more “moderate” comrades could rally behind a ceremonial monarchy – for a variety reasons unrelated to any royalist sympathies.
Clearly, UML general secretary Nepal’s sudden warmth toward the military is the outcome of his perception that Koirala and Prachanda have resolved to annihilate the mainstream communist party.
The fact that the UML, which already had drafted an interim constitution as part of an internal exercise, was excluded from panel entrusted with writing the statute, has heightened suspicions. Prachanda’s sustained assaults on the UML after overshadowing its general secretary at the June 16 news conference have only deepened this distrust.
Perhaps sensing the possible scenario, Prachanda has started sounding a little contrite about his declaration that the Nepal Army was never anything but a bunch of murderers, rapists and plunderers – a remark Madhav Nepal roundly criticized, triggering the speculation of a UML-military alliance.
Within the Nepali Congress, Prime Minister Koirala and Deuba could reunite their parties behind a platform of a ceremonial monarchy. Pro-republic members like Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula – if that is what he really is – could find themselves closer to the radical communists. (Although it is not entirely clear how republican Nepali Congress leaders like Ram Chandra Poudel and Narahari Acharya could seek ideological succor in the likes of Sitaula.)
The mainstreaming of “royalist” parties would be easier this time than after the 1990 changes. Although not part of the SPA the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) led by Pashupati Sumshere Rana was in the opposition camp during King Gyanendra’s 15-month direct rule. The Rastriya Janashakti Party of former prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, too, opposed the palace’s direct rule without being part of the SPA.
Over the months, the RPP led by Kamal Thapa, King Gyanendra’s home minister, and other smaller parties represented in the royal cabinet could join a broader ceremonial monarchist platform.
At a practical level, an extended period of the kind of reflection the palace is currently in would allow the monarchy to accumulate enough energy to head into the robustness of the constituent assembly campaign season.
Admittedly, the missteps and compulsions of the government would facilitate a more dispassionate assessment of the palace’s assertiveness over the last four years. Some clouds are already starting to clear in other ways. The auditor-general’s comments at a Kathmandu gathering this week, for instance, suggested that the Royal Palace fell far short of spending the outrageous proportions of the treasury its critics so vociferously contended.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A Dahlian Wave of Democracy?

After weeks of anticipation, Washington has responded to the Seven Party Alliance (SPA)’s effort to mainstream the Maoists. It is to distribute translated copies of one of the most respected texts on democracy used by students and academics around the world.
US Ambassador James F. Moriarty handed over to Local Development Minister Rajendra Pandey more than 20,000 copies of the Nepali translation of Robert Dahl’s On Democracy. The books will be distributed across Nepal’s 75 districts.
“The government is working hard to put the nation on the path to democracy, peace, and prosperity, and information about democracy itself is critical to fulfilling those goals,” an American Embassy news release said.
The effort is certainly commendable, although the record of this approach is far from inspiring. The last major democracy treatise to be translated and distributed, Samuel Huntington’s Third Wave, coincided with the gradual erosion and emaciation of Nepalese democracy.
For Washington, the current endeavor also makes perfect sense as preemptive diplomacy. The battle for the Nepalese soul is certainly going to be waged in the thousands of villages of the country.
Over the last decade, the Maoists have progressively tightened their stranglehold on rural Nepal. Indoctrination has been exacting. Since the enemy has been portrayed as ubiquitous and must be crushed at all costs, a perpetual revolution of sorts has set in.
But indoctrination has had its ideological limits. With the young and literate having either fled the villages or already become part of the rebel movement, the Maoists were confronted with forcing dogma down the throats of elderly illiterates or infants too preoccupied with their mothers’ milk. The mechanics of Marxist-Maoist prose could not always be distilled into vernacular appealing enough to become part of the general political conversation Nepalese villagers are famous for.
In retrospect, Washington gave King Gyanendra a deadline to prevent the Maoists from attaining power on their own terms. We now know that when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was talking about events “crystallizing” soon, she was referring to the window of opportunity the palace had. Once that threshold was crossed, without much being achieved, the conversation for America narrowed down to a “messy abdication”.
Moriarty joined the SPA bigwigs in New Delhi to personally acquaint himself with the provisions of the Indian roadmap. Washington understood there was no way the Maoists could be left out of any settlement. But they couldn’t be part of one in their existing incarnation because of two reasons: they are communists and terrorists.
Students of realpolitik would easily refer to how the Americans once supported the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia whom they continue to castigate. But, then, that was during the Cold War. The Vietnamese-backed communist regime of Heng Samrin was a greater adversary. Moreover, the Khmer Rouge was part of a government in exile led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
The Cambodia model could have been implemented in Nepal. By sending the likes of Prachanda, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and Krishna Bahadur Mahara into internal exile with hard labor, people like Devendra Parajuli could have led a faction of less tainted rebels into the mainstream. Not everyone seems to have what it takes to be a Hun Sen.
To cut a long story short, does Robert Dahl have a chance of saving rural Nepal from the depredations of a group that reminds America of the worst of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras?
Or, more specifically, can Dahlisms like effective participation, equality in voting, gaining enlightened understanding, exercising final control over the agenda, inclusion of adults compete with the imperatives of taking great leaps forward and letting a hundred flowers bloom?
Perhaps. The prospect of peace might draw just enough literate Nepalis back to their villages with enough time for a comparative reading of the two texts. The intrinsic value of democracy, you would think, would work against a Maoist electoral sweep in rural Nepal.
But what if the young and literate don’t return to their villages in sufficient numbers? Well, much will depend on the quality of the work Dahl’s Nepali translators have done.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The SPAM Slapstick

Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s return home, after receiving medical treatment in a Bangkok hospital, is expected to unfold the next act in the Seven Party Alliance-Maoist (SPAM) slapstick.
Maoist supremo Prachanda and his No. 2 Dr. Baburam Bhattarai are back in Kathmandu after a whirlwind tour of their base areas. They have held preliminary talks with senior SPA leaders, who dubbed the eight-point accord a mistake days after signing it.
Early indications from some of those confabulations suggest that a second Koirala-Prachanda summit might not be able to paper over those differences entirely.
The dissolution of the House of Representatives, representational issues on the panel that is drafting the interim constitution, the precise status of the Maoists’ weapons before they can be inducted in a new interim government, among other things, would have to be addressed by the prime minister.
What all this means is that Koirala not only needs to attend the next post-summit news conference – on a wheelchair or a respirator if necessary – but also must take full command of the proceedings. We certainly cannot expect army headquarters to keep on rebutting the inanities Prachanda seems so eager to foist on the Nepalese people in the presence of ministers and SPA leaders intimidated into silence.
Considering how the government, in Koirala’s absence, couldn’t even present a united view on the army’s angry response to Prachanda’s denigration of the record of the Nepalese military, Koirala’s active participation in this side of the peace process becomes all the more crucial.
The fact that it took a “royalist” ex-premier, Surya Bahadur Thapa, president of the Rastriya Janashakti Party, to emphasize the long-term damage the SPA’s shallowness would inflict on the nation remains instructive.
It would be na├»ve, however, to believe that the Maoist leaders have returned to the capital with their foot soldiers solidly behind them. Military strategist Ram Bahadur Thapa “Badal” hasn’t broken his vow of silence. Worse, it increasingly looks like he has Nanda Kishor Pun “Pasang”, that other feared rebel commander, on his side.
The reality that both men come from the Magar community, which underpins the rebel movement but is sparsely represented in the political leadership, cannot be wished away. The eight-point accord marks a sharp climbdown for the rebels, who had declared war on both the parliamentary system and the monarchy, which is bad enough. Reports that the Maoists have watered down – if not entirely abandoned – their commitment to creating ethnically defined autonomous regions certainly cannot have gone down well with the rank and file.
Furthermore, Matrika Yadav, the most prominent Maoist leader from the Terai, has vowed to lead a boycott of the constituent assembly polls unless madhesis get their citizenship certificates. The recent House of Representatives Proclamation may have cleared the way for the distribution of citizenship papers that had been held back since slain King Birendra virtually scuttled the last legislative initiative months before his tragic end.
Whether the Koirala government, two months after its heady rise to office, can muster the political will to make such a weighty decision remains to be seen.
Of course, the SPA and the Maoists can still try to divert public attention by whipping up fears of a “resurgent autocratic monarchy”.
Both sides, however, would do well to recognize that the Nepalese people they want to empower certainly do not lack the power of good judgment, especially amid the charade of the past couple of days.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Assistant UN Sec-Gen Or Deputy Director?

“Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations Kul Chandra Gautam has said that the supervision and management of arms of both the Maoists and the Nepal Army is not an easy task and that it will take time to arrange all procedures.
“Dr Gautam stated this to journalists after his two-hour long meeting with Deputy Prime Minster and Minister for Foreign Affairs KP Sharma Oli at the Foreign Ministry.”


As a compatriot, Maila Baje commends Gautam, the highest-ranking Nepalese to serve at the United Nations, for having taken such an abiding interest in advancing peace and stability in his motherland.
In the preceding excerpts, Gautam was responding to queries about the expected one-month timeframe to manage the arms. “It is impossible to complete all the formalities in one month. It takes time to allocate budget, manpower as well as to arrange other logistic details,” he added.
The extent of Gautam’s involvement, however, raises important questions. For starters, Gautam’s area of responsibility lies primarily with the UN Children’s Fund. The assistant secretary-general title is merely suggestive of the equivalence of his UNICEF position in the United Nations personnel structure, a level above the D-2 rank.
Put another way, the chiefs of other United Nations specialized agencies such as UNDP, UNESCO and UNHCR, much less their deputies, are hardly identified in any other way.
The capacity in which Gautam has been acting is relevant because his comments would carry much less significance if he were merely making them during his vacation home.
The entire peace process suffers from enough ambiguity. SPA leaders, who signed the accord with the Maoists, now say Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala acted in haste and without proper consultations. The Maoists are talking about simply demobilizing, not disarming. Even if that were acceptable to the government, how precisely would the United Nations step in? One would expect the official position of the world body to come from Mathew Kahane, the top UN representative in Nepal.
Given the UN system’s general practice of not posting an international staff member to his or her native country, the concern over Gautam’s role assumes added importance. True, Gautam made clear that he had not met any Maoist leaders during this visit and that he is not on an official visit to Nepal. But that doesn’t do much to clarify the nature of his ostensibly unofficial/informal role. Is he simply putting together an unofficial briefing paper for Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the UN chief prepares to leave office and establish his legacy? Or is Gautam updating the Nepal mission of Annan’s official representative Samuel Tamrat, something the next secretary-general would consult?
And why has Gautam allowed this entire confusion to persist? There has been some speculation on Gautam’s family ties with Maoist leader Pampha Bhusal. It also has been surmised that Gautam, scheduled to retire from UNICEF soon, may be expecting some high-profile role in the emerging Nepalese order. The Nepalese people, at the very least, deserve to know more.
While acknowledging Gautam’s impressive professional accomplishments as an international civil servant, one must not allow the ambiguity of his involvement to overshadow – and perhaps even undermine -- the peace process.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Inverted Summit And Comedy Of Terror

Things are getting weirder worse than you would have thought. The Seven Party Alliance (SPA), in the absence of its august leader undergoing medical treatment abroad, has concluded that last week’s eight-point pact with the Maoists was a mistake.
The Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) comrades, who originated the concept of an interim constitution to consolidate democracy, found themselves excluded from the drafting panel. Considering that the UML saw the “historic” House of Representative proclamation eviscerating the monarchy as a regurgitation of the communists’ contribution to the draft of the 1990 constitution the Nepali Congress and the palace jointly discarded, our mainstream comrades must feel terrible.
Not that they are missing much. Halfway through its two-week tenure, the panel is still awaiting an official letter confirming its existence so that it could start arranging office space and furniture. The attorney-general, the top legal adviser to the government, insists the commission doesn’t deserve such a letter because it wasn’t created by the government.
Women organizations, for their part, still feel the country is in the grip of “gender autocracy.” Riot police under the democratic government are still merciless against women protesters demanding a voice in the restructuring of the state. Even the worst female critics of King Gyanendra probably concede that women had better representation in power under the palace-led regime.
And the excluded and marginalized communities the Maoists claim to be fighting for? The silence of Ram Bahadur Thapa “Badal,” the military strategist of the “people’s war,” says it all.
It turns out that the “summit” between Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and Maoist chairman Prachanda was actually conducted in reverse. The summiteers met in the official bedroom of the head of government, scribbled eight points, and came out to command the SPA sherpas to append their signatures certifying the legwork.
Stunned by the secrecy, they signed first and resolved to read the text later. (After all the country has been through, could the SPA leaders have defied Prachanda?)
Prachanda’s ebullience at the post-summit news conference changed the mood. When the SPA signatories read between, under and over the lines, they realized that King Gyanendra’s ministers, the American ambassador and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party in India might have been right all along. Prachanda used the SPA to achieve what he could not through a decade of armed rebellion: full recognition as the top representative of the “new state” on his way to becoming the sole leader of the country.
Eager to sell the accord to his foot soldiers in the Maoists’ base areas, Prachanda employed all the craziness he could come up with. Bourgeoisie parties like the Nepali Congress should be banned, the rebel commander in chief thundered, at one point. That prompted Nepali Congress leaders to virtually accuse Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula – the public face of the Koirala-Prachanda camaraderie -- of being a Maoist infiltrator in the ruling party.
The SPA leaders finally mustered enough courage to speak out against the accord. With Koirala convalescing from laser surgery of the prostrate in Bangkok and unable to mount a vigorous defense, it fell to Prachanda to roar against the two “conspirators” seeking to derail the deal. (Hadn’t Koirala gone to Bangkok to treat some “unspecified ailment” of the lungs related to his chain smoking? But I digress.)
The Maoist supremo named the palace as one of the plotters. The other wasn’t too hard to figure out. Since Prachanda had just praised India for forging – no pun intended – the 12-point SPA-Maoist accord last November, Uncle Sam had to be the culprit. For some in the rebel camp, Washington’s tentative we-are-with-the-Nepalese-people response to the eight-point accord was already self-incriminating enough.
To gauge how precariously perched Nepal is after the landmark accord, consider this. What if, God forbid, Koirala failed to make it back to Kathmandu alive? Or even sufficiently mentally alert to resume his “historic duties”?
And we’re all wondering why King Gyanendra seems to be a little depressed these days.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

More Inside Stories, Please

One interesting fallout of the summit between the de facto leaders of the “old” and “new” Nepalese states is the rapidity with which the inside stories can now be expected. And, boldly enough, Maoist supremo Prachanda has led the way.
The Maoists’ channel to King Birendra is well known. The conventional wisdom is that the rebels chose to lavish praise on the slain monarch’s patriotism only posthumously because of the obvious political advantage. Prachanda has now revealed that evidence on these contacts are safely preserved at Maoist headquarters.
Another disclosure is that the Maoists, although convinced that King Gyanendra was more driven by personal interests than patriotism, maintained a channel with the current monarch. Now that undercuts the prevailing belief – epitomized most memorably by Ram Chandra Poudel, currently general secretary of the Nepali Congress – that the Maoists were a creation of “Nirmal Niwas” (King Gyanendra’s former residence as prince).
There are other intriguing holes the Maoists should plug in the interest of the historical record. Did or did not Prachanda meet with Crown Prince Paras somewhere in eastern Nepal in the winter of 2002 after King Gyanendra dismissed Sher Bahadur Deuba’s elected government?
If so, did that meeting lead the Maoists to officially call a boycott of King Gyanendra’s felicitation in Biratnagar but then bus crowds to Shahid Maidan? Was the 2003 ceasefire and talks only aimed to formalize a settlement already agreed with the palace?
Was that deal advanced without the concurrence of our great southern neighbor, which led CNN to carry that sensational story about how the Maoist leadership had been gunned down in Silguri or surrounding area, only to retract it after they had entered Nepal?
Was the murder of Armed Police Force chief Krishna Mohan Shrestha, contrary to the Maoists’ claim of responsibility, a deadly outcome of the conflict between RAW and the CIA? (Something RAW defector Ravinder Singh carried with him to his new abode in New York?)
Did the Maoists really want to break off the talks after Badri Prasad Mandal was named the head of the government negotiating team, precisely because of the upper hand India had achieved? Of course, the American blow would come in that retroactive listing on the State Department terrorism list.
Was there some personal assurance from the monarch that allowed the Maoist team to resurface after briefly going underground and join a final round of talks – an undertaking that one unit of the Royal Nepalese Army broke through the Dorombha massacre? Hence, leading the Maoists to rechristen the force Royal American Army?
Did Prachanda instigate the king to take full executive powers by insisting the rebels would only talk to the real source of power and then seek a favorable deal? Did that plan collapse once the royal proclamation – contrary to assurances the rebels had received – described the Maoists as terrorists? Did Prachanda use the anti-palace platform only to burnish his credentials in that power struggle with Dr. Baburam Bhattarai? Are all these threats about trying and executing the monarch a red herring, especially since Prachanda saw no reason at the press conference to react negatively to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s advocacy of a ceremonial monarchy?
I know it’s a long list. Maybe Prachanda could begin by telling us whether Narayan Singh Pun really took him aboard his helicopter and flew him into Narayanhity Palace for direct talks with King Gyanendra?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Look Who’s Talking!

A day after Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala emphasized the urgency of retaining a ceremonial monarchy in the interest of peace and stability in Nepal, Maoist supremo Prachanda issued an ultimatum to King Gyanendra: abdicate or face execution.
The agenda of the much-hyped Koirala-Prachanda summit has been set. The direction of Nepalese politics certainly has not.
In an interview with Reuters, Prachanda sounded confident that the Nepalese people would vote in favor of a democratic republic. He hastened to add that Orwellian tag: “[B]ut we are ready to follow any result.”
Accept a popular verdict in favor of a ceremonial monarchy after the king has already abdicated or, worse, has been executed? Or does Comrade Awesome intend to crown himself at Nasal Chowk after working out a propitious date?
The arguments Prachanda advances in opposing the monarchy are pitiable, especially considering his proud claim during the interview that the Maoists had their own army of legal eagles.
“So-called King Gyanendra and his son Paras are goons and smugglers,” Prachanda began. Now look who’s talking. The more than 13,000 deaths in the last 10 years can be directly attributed to Prachanda’s folly. Since the state only responded to the Maoists’ first strike, these deaths could have been avoided had Prachanda stuck with horticulture.
As for the crown prince, don’t we want to check the blood alcohol levels of the singer he ran over to make sure it wasn’t a hit-and-run case? And the smuggling charges, well, everyone raises it when convenient but no one seems to be able to prove them. On the other hand, the billions in development infrastructure the marauding rebels have laid waste to over the last 10 years can be detailed with reasonable accuracy by someone like, say, the architect in Dr. Baburam Bhattarai.
If probity were at such a premium for our comrade, he certainly wouldn’t have rebuffed Sher Bahadur Deuba’s multiparty government, demanding direct talks with King Gyanendra.
If the implication is that the current monarch and crown prince were somehow complicit in the royal palace massacre, didn’t Prachanda already forfeit his claim to the moral high ground by holding talks twice with His Majesty’s Government, the second time bypassing the political parties?
If Prachanda is referring to the 19 deaths resulting from the royal regime’s crackdown on the protesters, then let’s not forget the 38 lives lost when the Maoists blew up that bus in Chitwan last year. Did they receive the “fair trial” Prachanda touted in the interview? At least the protesters knew they were violating curfew orders.
Then Prachanda turns asinine. “Their (King Gyanendra and Crown Prince Paras) blood is criminal blood, and they will not accept a ceremonial role. They will seek some sort of conspiracy.”
Pardon me, Comrade, but doesn’t that argument say more about you and your newfound SPA allies than about the king and his son?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Cash-For-Coverage Caper

It turns out the royal government paid up to 99 journalists or media organizations to carry favorable coverage. Most of the alleged recipients were “nationalist,” “independent” or whatever pro-palace adjective you might want to use.
The bulk of the budget was allegedly consumed by reporters and editors who defended King Gyanendra’s takeover to the hilt – one pocketing up to a million bucks. Another scribe was said to have received wads of banknotes from the monarch himself. Others served the cause by simply restraining their criticism of the regime.
A few recipients, however, belonged to outlets that were at the forefront of the anti-palace jihad. Take this weekly, for instance, whose sustained censure many considered to be the absolute affirmation of the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML)’s conversion to “total democracy”. Or that private TV organization bearing the name of its parent company that most of thought held the mantle of freedom of the press the highest.
Most of these anti-palace outlets and individuals deny having touched royal cash. Two TV journos have resigned as the first step toward clearing their name. Moreover, the “opposition” journalists were the recipients of the smallest portions of royal largesse. Another defense, which none of the alleged recipients has advanced vigorously enough, is that the payments were for “dissemination of peace-related information.” Theoretically, they could have done that while criticizing King Gyanendra’s direct rule.
This episode raises a broader question relevant to Nepalese affairs: the difficulty of discovering who is who. The denigration of one publishing house as a front for the Indian government has not prevented it from bringing out English and Nepali dailies. Behind that criticism, rival “indigenous” publishers have been advancing more energetically causes close to New Delhi.
Now, great minds do think alike. Those with an abiding faith in freedom and democracy can have the same core beliefs regardless of national borders. Should too much be read into this convergence? Not until you realize how this argument deepens the original cover.
Such mistrust confounds Nepal’s wider politics. In their spasms of fury, the Maoists claim the current government has enough “agents” of the palace and foreign expansionists and imperialists to annihilate the peace process several times over.
Could the rebels be referring to the new people in charge of, say, the foreign and finance ministries, who are ostensibly more vulnerable to such pressures? Did Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala appoint a second deputy prime minister from a smaller but more radical communist constituent of the Seven Party Alliance in response to the supposed susceptibilities of his UML deputy premier?
But what about the Maoists’ own flank? Considering their current cordiality, it is easy to forget how rebel supremo Prachanda not too long ago accused his deputy, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai of being an Indian agent, prompting the latter to describe his boss a palace lackey.
This naming and shaming can only get better should someone identify the beneficiaries of the Indian Embassy’s munificence. Considering the stakes involved on all sides, Maila Baje doubts such a list will ever become public.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Ponderings Inside The Palace

By sending the reinstated House of Representatives (HoR) into suspended animation, the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) has moved halfway toward meeting the Maoists’ principal precondition to continuing the peace process.
Although Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala – newly emboldened by consultations in India -- has refused to walk the full walk and dissolve the HoR, the Maoists seem to be reasonably assured of the SPA’s good faith. Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula has held preliminary talks with Maoist supremo Prachanda and his deputy Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, among others, ostensibly in preparation for the full “summit” between the representatives of the two states.
Clearly, the SPA and the Maoists have achieved their minimum program: emasculation of the royal palace in the run-up to the constituent assembly polls. The substantial portion of the legislative proceedings was focused on trimming royal powers through last month’s “historic” Proclamation and last week’s HoR regulations. It was only when MPs ventured into such radical programs as outlawing untouchability and ensuring gender equality that the Maoists started becoming agitated.
What might the thinking be inside the Narayanhity perimeter? The overall silence maintained by all those who are in a position to know has encouraged Maila Baje to take another of his occasional dips into the royal mind.
Since the entire program of restructuring the Nepalese state is being envisaged without consultation with the head of state – much less the very institution that led the campaign to establish the nation -- King Gyanendra must feel he is already living in a republican Nepal.
There cannot be much ceremonial in a monarch who has to pay taxes, can be hauled into court, cannot be assured of his successor and cannot assent legislation, forget about vetoing it.
In such a scenario, the monarch must have been tempted to voluntarily announce his abdication and formally abolish the monarchy. Apart from the singular contribution such an action would make to history, it also makes operational sense.
In retrospect, King Gyanendra’s roadmap wasn’t devoid of substance. The monarch simply stood no chance of overcoming the “autocratic” tag Nepalese political parties and foreign organizations conferred on him for a variety of seemingly disparate reasons.
The monarch probably grasped the enormity of his undertaking by the direction of the media coverage. In the weeks after the February 1, 2005 royal takeover, publications and outlets that did their best to “prove” that Crown Prince Dipendra murdered his parents, siblings and other royals before turning the gun on himself revived an intriguing interest in how King Gyanendra happened to be out of town and how his wife and son escaped the wrath of his deranged nephew.
Conspiracy, by definition, cannot be conceived in isolation. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, officially in charge of royal palace affairs during the night of the massacre, was never held accountable for dereliction of duty. He’s too busy these days institutionalizing democracy.
Madhav Kumar Nepal, who admonished King Gyanendra to form an official inquiry commission and originally consented to sit on it before refusing, can talk about institutionalizing transparency in royal palace affairs.
Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, who praised King Birendra and each of his predecessors for their deep nationalism and profound contributions the Nepalese people would glorify unto eternity, can hold King Gyanendra accountable for 238 years of pillage and plunder by the Shah Dynasty.
Dilendra Prasad Badu, the assistant sports minister who accompanied Crown Prince Dipendra and – we are told – Devyani Rana to the Sydney Olympics, is communications minister today. No journalist has thought of asking him whether he saw any signs of impending calamity.
From Dr. Bhattarai’s own exegesis, King Birendra paid the ultimate price for his refusal to allow Nepal to become, among other things, a launch pad for the containment of China. The last few months of King Birendra’s reign leaned very much toward the pro-Chinese tilt King Gyanendra espoused after seizing full executive control. If the mere apprehension of royal action could lead to such horrific consequences, King Gyanendra is too mortal not to count the costs of actually carrying it out.
The alacrity with which the HoR voted to transform Nepal from the world’s only Hindu Kingdom into a secular state forced Maila Baje to recall that doctor who had arrived in Kathmandu to treat protesters before being deported by the royal regime. Missionary zeal, at least in this sense, could be converted into heavenly merits several times over.
Would these few weeks of reflection be enough to encourage King Gyanendra toward boldness? The abolition of the monarchy would not mark the end of the Shahs’ political role. The core of the royal roadmap, enhancing security and stability in a tiny state sandwiched between the two Asian giants while deriving the benefits from the rapid economic modernization of both, remains relevant.
As a private citizen, the former monarch could create a new political force. Western-educated Shah and Rana youths whose commitment to and stake in an independent Nepal has brought them home could join hands with a plethora of like-minded people. The former monarch and former crown prince can use their vast international contacts to promote Nepal abroad.
Abdication, in this sense, would not be an admission of defeat; it would be the creation of an alternative route toward shaping the Nepalese state. Would a ruler who coveted absolute power until the other day have the valor to voluntarily abolish the monarchy? Maila Baje can’t rule it out.

Friday, June 09, 2006

For Prachanda, Peace Has A Perfidious Price

A $200 million aid package, support for a United Nations role in the monitoring of arms during the constituent assembly elections complete with an undertaking to free Nepalese Maoists jailed in India, and a formal affirmation that the two countries had sorted out their differences in the defense sector – Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala couldn’t have found a more generous host.
Add to this munificence Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s eagerness to dispense with protocol and receive Koirala at the airport. The “new dimension and dynamism” New Delhi has been projecting in bilateral relations since Nepal’s recent political change couldn’t have pulsated more.
Before slobbering over this providential end of history and geography, consider the domestic dynamics in play during Koirala’s four-day absence. Specifically, the escalating war of words between the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists on the role and relevance of the reinstated House of Representatives (HoR).
SPA leaders, cutting across party lines, are adamant that the HoR would not be dissolved until an alternative body is formed. Maoist leaders see the reinstated legislature as a roadblock to peace. In a television interview, rebel supremo Prachanda derided the redundancy of the SPA’s “revolutionary” record in parliament, even reminding MPs that untouchability had been outlawed by King Mahendra decades ago.
Prachanda went beyond denouncing the SPA’s proclivities for doing “everything through a parliament that is dead and has no constitutional or political validity…” He accused India of putting the cart before the horse, warning Nepalis that this could be part of a conspiracy to break the 12-point SPA-Maoist accord signed in – yes – New Delhi last November.
“India knows the condition in Nepal,” Prachanda said. “It knows there can be no development till there is peace. If it truly wants to assist Nepal, it would help with a conducive atmosphere for an interim government. Then we too would sit in the discussions (on assistance as part of the interim government).”
The “greater propaganda” from New Delhi about “economic package,” he said, smacked of a conspiracy to delude Nepalis that India could resolve Nepal's problems. “Why are they (the political parties and India) trying to bypass us?”
Prachanda’s accusation that New Delhi is complicit in an effort to marginalize the Maoists – at least in their current incarnation – is what should make Nepalis sit up.
Does the rebel supremo feel that New Delhi, mindful of the SPA’s failure to intimidate the palace on its own, forged the accord only to ensure that the mainstream opposition parties could borrow enough street power to force a recalcitrant palace to its knees?
Clearly, Prachanda must have fathomed during Koirala’s visit the fervor with which India wishes to see Nepalis retain the monarchy. Constitutional, ceremonial, titular, figurehead -- the adjective doesn’t really matter. When King Birendra promulgated the current constitution in 1990, who expected the monarchy to go on to seize full executive powers 15 years later – except perhaps those few who saw the incongruity of the king clipping his own wings.
New Delhi’s two conditions for a Maoist role in the polity – recognition of the monarchy and the SPA represented by the current parliament – place the rebels in a pre-February 1996 posture. For the Maoists, acceptance of the two institutions they had raised arms against could still be worded safely enough to signify some kind of victory to the rank and file. India’s third condition – the repudiation of all ties with Indian Maoists, or Naxals – is nothing short of a poison pill.
The Nepalese Maoists were a major influence in the amalgamation of disparate Naxal groups into the Communist Party of India (Maoist). A senior Naxal leader in the Indian state of Chattisgarh was recently heard on the BBC praising the Nepalese Maoists as a profound inspiration.
Hard-line communists across the subcontinent hope to create a compact revolutionary zone in South Asia on the trail blazed by Prachanda. Maoists from the Philippines to the Dominican Republic look up to the Nepalese Maoists to prove the prematurity of reports of communism’s demise.
The last great hope of these revolutionaries was Peru where the Shining Path guerrillas controlled over 90 percent of the country before being beaten back by the government. Prachanda knows that the Peruvian Maoists could at least claim that the government had captured their leader, Comrade Gonzalo, and dealt a devastating psychological blow.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Does ‘Historic Mandate’ End At The Border?

Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s hastily arranged visit to India has raised deep suspicions among Nepalis, traditionally wary of the motives of their giant southern neighbor.
The fact that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh broke protocol and went to the airport to receive Koirala doesn’t seem to have mattered much. New Delhi’s promise of a Himalayan Marshall Plan doesn’t seem to have impressed too many Nepalis.
Now don’t get Maila Baje wrong. He hasn’t lost any of his congenital mistrust of official India’s motives just because New Delhi has chosen to equate Koirala with President George W. Bush. Prime Ministers Jawahar Lal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, after all, used to meet with King Mahendra at the airport whenever the late monarch was in transit in New Delhi. Where did that land the Panchayat system?
Maintaining eternal vigilance as the price of liberty is hard enough in ordinary times. The changes of 1950 and 1990, brought about through India’s active involvement, changed Nepal’s political landscape. Or so we thought. In retrospect, they ended up serving India’s interests – especially in terms of concessions on Nepal’s vast water resources – more than ours. Otherwise, five constitutions later, we still wouldn’t be fighting over where sovereignty really resides and who really controls the army.
For all his reincarnation as the savior of Nepalese democracy, Koirala’s allies in the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) still see in him the halo of having “sold out” Nepal’s interests in the early 1990s by signing the Tanakpur Treaty with India and then misrepresenting it for months as a mere understanding to avoid parliament. To be fair, Koirala’s successors – Manmohan Adhikary and Sher Bahadur Deuba, in particular -- were hardly above reproach on this count.
Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it -- individually and collectively, Santayana might have added. Leaders of SPA constituents sought specific assurances from the premier that he would not sign any controversial deal. That insurance policy should be instantly cashable if the premier, in his age-induced infirmity, happened to walk into another minefield.
Admittedly, it’s pointless to argue here that India would definitely want to extract its pound of flesh – to put it crudely – from the latest change in Nepal’s body politic. India’s foreign policy, like that of any country, is an extension of its domestic policy.
Amid the all-round preponderance of India, the most Nepalis can do is remain watchful. It’s troubling, however, to hear some of our political and civil-society watchdogs bark from both sides of their mouths.
Subodh Pyakurel, who heads the Informal Sector Service Center, maintains the legal status of the restored parliament is unclear. “It was revived by the king at the last moment and immediately accepted by the Seven-Party Alliance,” he was quoted as saying by an Indian daily. Dina Nath Sharma, a member of the Maoist delegation to the peace talks with the Koirala government, was more categorical: “The current government does not have the mandate to take decisions on nationally important issues.”
Here’s the real question: If the SPA government and the reinstated legislature are good enough to turn Hindu Nepal into a secular state, to create a republic in all but name even before delimiting the constituencies for the constituent assembly that’s supposed to determine the fate of the monarchy, and to rewrite citizenship laws, why can’t Prime Minister Koirala exercise his full responsibilities in the area of foreign affairs. Or does the “historic mandate” of the April Uprising end at Nepal’s southern border?

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Physician, Heal Thyself!

It looks like Nepal has split the Indian political spectrum right through its heart. The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the constituents of the Left Front backing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coalition government are locked in an escalating war of words over New Delhi’s policy on its tiny northern neighbor.
Writing in the latest issue of the Hindu nationalist party’s mouthpiece, Organizer, Varun Gandhi goes beyond castigating the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) and its chums for coercing the Singh government into abetting a Maoist takeover of the kingdom.
Gandhi ties loose straws to paint a picture of a vast left-wing conspiracy that began a decade ago. “Is it not strange that the Nepalese Maoist started their campaign to oust the monarchy in 1996, at a time when the communist influenced third front government was in power in India?” he asks. “And it is not even stranger that the de-Hinduization of the Nepalese state has taken place in 2006, when a communist-supported government is in power in India?”
The CPM organ, People’s Weekly, responded with a scathing attack on what it called the main opposition party’s “neofascist” agenda. “Their contempt for democracy is so pervasive that in the midst of popular upsurge in Nepal for restoration of democracy, they openly sided with King Gyanendra,” V Srinivasarao writes.
Srinivasarao’s tirade is against the BJP’s crusade against the controversial film “Fanaa” starring Aamir Khan, a Muslim. In an effort to bolster its criticism of the BJP’s sustained stoking of communal and regional passions, Srinivasarao adds: “They wished to keep Nepal intact as a Hindu monarchy state.”
Gandhi, however, raises more somber questions about the Nepalese conflict’s fallout on India. “What will [India] do if the Maoists takeover Nepal and the Red flag flies on either side of the Himalayas? How will India handle the thousands of Nepalese citizens working in India? What will be the effect of the Maoist presence in Nepal on the minds of the Nepali Gurkhas in the Indian Army?”
Underscoring the stakes involved, Gandhi asks: “How will China use a Red Nepal to its advantage? What repercussions will that have on India’s fight against the Indian Maoists and Naxals, especially since after the Maoist takeover the Naxals—boosted by this—may well increase their activities in India?”
Gandhi urges the Indian to take pro-active steps right away. “India must ensure the continuation of the monarchy in Nepal, take steps to protect the monarch, look into the defense for Kathmandu, ensure a step-by-step approach to Nepali democracy beginning not by the weakening of the king but by the strengthening of Nepal’s democratic institutions, and de-arming of the Maoists under the neutral presence of the Indian army.”
That demand prompted a stern response from S. Sudhakar Reddy a central committee member of the Communist Party of India, a member of a four-member parliamentary delegation that recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Nepal.
"Nepal is at the political crossroads and should be allowed to decide its policies independently without any intervention," he said. "Keeping in view past experiences with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, it is better that we keep away from the internal affairs of that country.”
Identifying the door through which the interventionist wing of the Indian establishment would enter Nepal, Reddy said, “There were incidents to project that law and order has failed by some vested interests but things will fall in place soon.”
From a Nepalese perspective, these duels are thoroughly entertaining, especially considering how a nation that considers itself the ultimate arbiter of Nepal’s fate remains deeply divided over what it wants.
What makes them scary, however, is the solemnity with which the United States and much of the western world have rallied behind India on Nepal.

Friday, June 02, 2006

NRA Finds An Unlikely Ally In Nepal

In a week that highlighted the medical-research value of Nepalese monkeys and the misfortunes and miracles of mountaineering, you’d think the headlines couldn’t get any better for Nepal. The real story of the week turns out to be the ally the U.S. National Rifle Association (NRA) has found in our Maobadis.
Gopal Khambu, chief of the Kirat Peoples’ Government and Maoist central member, said the new constitution should give right to each citizen of Nepal to own a gun. That is a refreshing platform to head into the constituent assembly elections. With its exclusive focus on the future of the monarchy, the political discourse had started becoming staid.
To be sure, there was no dearth of weighty things to talk about. Scientists investigating the genetic makeup of rhesus macaque monkeys, a key species used in biomedical research found the rhesus in Nepal may provide a suitable alternative to alleviate a critical shortage of laboratory animals used in work to develop vaccines against diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
Writing in the cover story of the current issue of the American Journal of Primatology, researchers headed by Randall Kyes of the University of Washington report that the Nepali macaques are more closely related genetically to rhesus macaques from India than rhesus macaques of China.
This is important because Indian-origin animals have been used for more than half a century in biomedical and behavioral research. Rhesus macaques have contributed to the discovery of vaccines to prevent diseases such as polio and yellow fever, and represent one of the most widely used primate models for AIDS-related research. India, however, banned the export of all macaques in 1978, thus leading to the current shortage.
Issues of life and death on the Himalayas, too, raised more somber questions this season. Dozens of summit-bound Everest buffs left David Sharp, a 34-year-old Briton, to die of oxygen deficiency on his way back from the top of the world.
By voicing his shock at the callous disregard for the welfare of others, Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary set off a serious debate on mountaineering ethics. Before that perspective could fully play out, word came in that Lincoln Hall, a 50-year-old Australian, was available to narrate his ordeal a day after being declared dead at 8,700 meters. This back-from-the-dead news peg underscored the perils of jumping the gun.
Khambu, however, stole the show and not just by encouraging Nepalis to read the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. His right-to-bear-arms platform ties in perfectly with the latest campaign of Wayne LaPierre. The executive vice-president of the NRA, arguably the most powerful interest group in the United States, has written a new book “The Global War on Your Guns: Inside the UN Plan to Destroy the Bill of Rights”.
The context is the United Nations Small Arms Review Conference at UN Headquarters in New York from 26 June to 7 July. Representatives from governments, international and regional organizations and civil society will to review the efforts and progress made at all levels to address the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons and devise future action.
By unanimously adopting a UN Program of Action in 2001, the UN members committed to collecting and destroying illegal weapons, adopting and/or improving national legislations that would help criminalize the illicit trade in small arms, regulating the activities of brokers, setting strict import and export controls, taking action against violators of such laws, and better coordinating international efforts to that end.
LaPierre argues that the UN wants to take away guns because it is club of governments that want to strip opposition forces of the means to challenge their authority. During the 20th century, he stresses, governments murdered 169 million people in various parts of the world. Individual gun ownership, he adds, is the ultimate protection against tyranny.
Our own Prachanda could not have said it better. The rebel supreme might want to call off his unpopular “fundraising” tactics and build bridges with the American gun lobby.
A formal Maoist-NRA alliance would have to cross a number of hurdles. For one thing, the NRA is a staunchly Republican organization; the Maoists would have to tone down their tirades against President George W. Bush and his global war on terror.
It might be worth the effort. The NRA could then be expected to deploy its massive PR machinery to pull the Maoists off the State Department’s terrorist list.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Maoist Admonition Or Olive Branch?

At a time when much of the world has been led to believe Nepal has become a republic in all but name, Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara warns us of the possibility of another takeover by King Gyanendra.
In the five weeks since the monarch reinstated the House of Representatives and withdrew from active politics to see his powers systematically clipped by a government and legislature of questionable constitutional standing, Mahara has become the public face of the rebels.
In the run-up to the first round of talks with Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s government, Mahara had been working overtime to establish the rebels’ commitment to a lasting peace. While his bosses Prachanda and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai have been blowing hot and cold over Nepal’s real prospects, Mahara has chosen the moderate course. That seems to have changed with his interview with the Indo-Asian News Service (IANS).
Clearly, Mahara offers the warning to press the rebels’ demand for immediate constituent assembly elections. Since the “royal takeover” angle was about the last one foreign correspondents remained to pursue, IANS merely reinforced the editorial edge it has consistently maintained over rival Indian news organizations.
On the other hand, this is a news service (or correspondent perhaps?) that appears to consider palace-bashing its principal mission in Nepal. Fanning up fears of a royal takeover could ease the pressure off the SPA government and MPs, whose emphasis on style has alienated those expecting substance.
More importantly, it would help New Delhi focus on the core of its renewed engagement with Nepal, especially in the fields of security and water resources. (Could Prime Minister Koirala’s decision to travel to Bangkok instead of his customary New Delhi for medical treatment be rooted in a desire to avoid one-way diplomatic badgering?)
Coming back to Mahara, the IANS interview was transmitted the day the Maoists restored India to its plinth alongside the United States as the principal impediments to the empowerment of the Nepalese people. It also came on the eve of the fifth anniversary of that seminal conspiracy Washington and New Delhi had hatched – the former to contain China and the latter to transform Nepal into another Sikkim, according to Dr. Bhattarai’s famed exegesis.
More ominous, however, was Mahara’s view that King Gyanendra, the Nepal Army and the Maoists represented the current balance of power in Nepal. Why did the Maoist spokesman choose to snub the SPA? Because of the MPs’ collective desire to hold on to power as long as possible? To checkmate the Unified Marxist-Leninists’ enthusiasm to revive the local bodies, the majority of which the UML controlled? To provide a subtle reminder to the palace that the rebels are still keeping all options open?
Toward the end of 2004, the Maoists had said they would only hold talks with the king, a stand many believe goaded King Gyanendra to seize direct control months later. Could the rebels be working that strategy in reverse this time?
The Maoists are in their third experiment of peacemaking against the backdrop of a monarch whose enthronement they refused to recognize. The first time the king and the parties were together, the former weakened by the circumstances of his crowning and the latter undermined by their general loss of credibility. The Maoists were confident of securing a settlement on their terms until 9/11 happened.
During the second peace process, the parties had just been marginalized by the monarch. Sensing that King Gyanendra needed them to outflank the parties, the rebels sought to prove their commitment to peace by, among other things, forming a negotiating team under Dr. Bhattarai. The two principal intermediaries between the rebels and the palace asserted the peace process was bound to succeed because the parties weren’t around to subvert it. Dr. Bhattarai’s hopes of being asked to lead an interim government were dashed when the United States retroactively designated the Maoists a terrorist organization.
The third peace process has begun amid the palace’s loss of relevance. The SPA’s eagerness to breathe new life into a dead legislature with foreign prodding, botched the Maoists’ Plan A – storming Narayanhity and unfurling their flag atop the tower. Then the top State Department bureaucrat for South Asia, Richard Boucher, lands in Kathmandu and begins his consultations with an extended session with army chief Gen. Pyar Jung Thapa. Boucher departs with an offer to resume military assistance if the new Nepalese government so desired.
Still confident that SPA leaders couldn’t breathe without their support, the Maoists expected a short ride to a constituent assembly. Instead, the House of Representatives has all but acquired an open-ended tenure. Point to ponder: If MPs of the lower chamber aren’t willing to share power with their colleagues in the upper house, how can they be expected to accommodate the Maoists?
This brings us to Mahara’s next revelation. The rebel spokesman insists that the king and the army have not changed despite the hullabaloo over the “historic” parliamentary proclamation. The logical extension of this argument is that a ceremonial monarchy would lose none of its powers and prerogatives.
This assertion has both negative and positive connotations. The question is: are the Maoists trying to undermine the SPA or extending an overture to the palace? Might Friday’s half-a-million (wo)man march offer a clue?