Monday, December 25, 2006

‘Chanakya’ On A Roll

Considering the number of physical attacks his party has come under from the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists, you would think Rabindra Nath Sharma is the most reviled politician in Nepal. But the man is certainly on a roll.
With every assault, he sounds more persuasive as a committed constitutional (note not ceremonial) monarchist. Sharma probably expected the current spree of revulsion from the moment he took over the presidency of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) faction that was part of King Gyanendra’s regime.
Pashupati Shamsher Rana, the head of the united RPP, refused to recognize King Gyanendra’s takeover. The SPA and Maoists refuse to recognize his RPP faction as anything but a palace appendage. Sharma, who unsuccessfully challenged Rana for the RPP presidency in late 2002, has taken a huge political risk by taking over as head of faction led by disgraced home minister Kamal Thapa. He seems to have drawn much of Thapa’s zeal to build the faction as the real RPP.
To understand Sharma’s persistence, you have to delve deeper into his politics. (Actually, those close to him say he beat great odds in a highly fractious extended family to survive childhood. But that is a different story.)
Rising up the Panchayat ranks, Sharma became quite candid about his prime ministerial ambitions. When King Birendra announced the referendum in May 1979, Sharma was among the few panchas that crossed over to the multiparty side. As campaigning progressed, Sharma braved a number of physical attacks.
He didn’t amount much in the anti-panchayat camp. He didn’t seem to ruffle feathers in the palace, either. Those who saw King Birendra attend Sharma’s daughter’s wedding easily put their money on the man.
He lost the first direct elections to the Rastriya Panchayat in 1981, but won a seat in the unicameral partyless legislature five years later. He was among the four serious prime ministerial candidates after the death of Lokendra Bahadur Chand’s father put the frontrunner out of the race. (The monarch could not swear in a man in his year of mourning, we were told then.)
Once Marich Man Singh had added Shrestha to his name, it was clear he was the palace top choice. Asked whether he would serve in a Shrestha cabinet, Sharma reminded many that the prime minister-designate had once served as his assistant minister. If that sounded like a resounding no, the pledge didn’t last long. About a year later, Sharma briefly joined Shrestha’s cabinet.
The collapse of the Panchayat system thrust Sharma into the wilderness. But not for too long. Many credit him with ensuring that the RPP was born as twins. From the convoluted electoral formula emanating from a hung parliament, Sharma won a seat in the upper house.
When Girija Prasad Koirala conned Sher Bahadur Deuba into taking that vote of confidence he was not constitutionally required to and then prevented two Nepali Congress MPs from casting their ballots, Sharma was quietly waiting in the wings.
Before Koirala could stake his claim to form the next government, Sharma had already struck an alliance with Bam Dev Gautam of the UML and intimated the palace.
He became finance minister in the cabinet nominally headed by Lokendra Bahadur Chand. Yet Sharma was the only RPP man who could stand up to Deputy Prime Minister Gautam. By now, he had earned the soubriquet of ‘Chanakya’ of Nepalese politics.
Acknowledging that he was not the first and would not be the last finance minister to preside over financial malfeasance, Sharma collectivized responsibility for corruption. In the RPP, he seemed to be allied with Surya Bahadur Thapa, who succeeded Chand as premier. Apparently, the wily man refused to anoint Sharma as his successor. (Maybe he never forgave Sharma for having catapulted Chand to the premiership first.) Rana beat Sharma as Nepal headed into uglier conflict.
When Thapa returned as the second premier King Gyanendra directly appointed, Sharma was overseas. He was persuaded to return to serve as a minister, some say by Thapa himself. When Sharma landed at Tribhuvan International Airport, he was detained on corruption allegations. Thapa probably wanted to prove that he wouldn’t spare his own, but it didn’t help him get Koirala’s support. In fact, the RPP couldn’t unite behind its former president, forcing Thapa to form his own Rastriya Janshakti Party.
Amid such complexities, it was hard to see Sharma heading a party of his own. Now that he has, the contours of realignment are becoming apparent. Although they differ on the exact adjective to precede the institution, Koirala, Thapa and Sharma are leading advocates of the monarchy. All three share close allies in New Delhi’s political establishment. The youngest of the three, Sharma’s ambitions must be the most zestful.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Can Any Premier Have Greater Power?

An all-powerful prime minister replaces an “autocratic” monarch as head of state to the glee of the dominant political class. When he asserts that role days later, his partners in peace and reconciliation erupt in anger.
True, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala exercised his prerogative rather prematurely – before the interim statute empowering him to do so had come into force. But, then, when did constitutionalism begin defining Nepal’s post-royal regime politics?
An acknowledged straight-shooter for much of his political life, Koirala began indulging in theatrics during the first phase of royal assertiveness that began on October 4, 2002. He accused Narhari Acharya and Gagan Thapa – the two preeminent republicans in the Nepali Congress – as agents of the palace. During the height of the hype surrounding the Nepali Congress’ abandonment of constitutional monarchy from the party charter, Koirala privately suggested that republicanism was only a slogan to intimidate the palace.
Age has entitled Koirala to use poor health as an excuse to procrastinate on critical issues. He couldn’t take the oath of office on the appointed day and skipped the early sessions of the legislature he single-handedly struggled to reinstate. Instead of traveling to Bangkok for medical treatment as announced, Koirala changed directions and flew into New Delhi to be hailed as South Asia’s preeminent statesman. When he came back, the premier inked the eight-point accord that brought Maoist supremo Prachanda into full public glare. The Reds had cautioned national vigilance against another Tanakpur Koirala might do in Delhi. No evidence to that surfaced. But Koirala returned a committed constitutional monarchist. Narhari Acharya is waiting for a propitious moment to defect to the Maoists and Gagan Thapa has receded into silence.
The day after he drew up the eight-point accord with Prachanda and virtually forced it on his Seven Party Alliance (SPA) partners, Koirala left for Bangkok. The other SPA leaders, ever reticent in Koirala’s presence, regretted how they had inked the accord in haste. Instead of receiving treatment for his longstanding respiratory problems, Koirala underwent prostate surgery in Bangkok.
After the premier’s return, Prachanda hit a Baluwatar stonewall that, among other things, shattered his claim to the co-premiership. The rebel supremo’s talks with a Chinese academic created some sensation – primarily across the southern border – that galvanized the peace process. It took Prachanda’s visit to India – preceded by US Ambassador James F. Moriarty’s and UN special representative Ian Martin’s own missions – and a formal renunciation of Maoism as an exportable commodity to complete the broader peace accords. The interim constitution was inked in time for Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s arrival in Kathmandu. Koirala used Mukherjee’s presence in the country to meet a Chinese delegation and reiterate his government’s refusal to allow Nepalese territory to be used against its northern neighbor.
With his control of the Nepali Congress never really in doubt, Koirala is carefully treading between the Maoists and monarchists. The palace is his tool to tame the Maoists and vice versa. As for the preeminent political player in Nepal, Koirala has been deferential even amid the deepest personal humiliation, outdoing his Nepali Congress contemporaries.
By choosing the Panchayat prison over Indira Gandhi’s emergency-era detention centers in 1976, B.P. Koirala clearly registered his views of India. Of course, his prison memoirs are more explicit vis-à-vis the world’s largest democracy’s considerations in Nepal.
Ganesh Man Singh, “supreme commander” of the 1990 movement, used surrogates to blame the defeat of his wife and son in elections the following years on Indian designs. When post-Rajiv Gandhi Indian National Congress began cultivating the palace, Singh became more candid about New Delhi’s motives.
Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, stung by the “common rivers” tag he acquired during his interim premiership, used anti-Indianism as a plank in his unsuccessful by-election campaigns. The fallout from the December 1999 Indian Airlines hijacking perhaps reminded then-prime minister Bhattarai of the kind of Nehruvian pressures B.P. Koirala faced during his last months as Nepal’s first elected head of government.
Girija Prasad Koirala has strenuously desisted from anti-Indianism. The only time Maila Baje can recall this emotion taking hold of his politics was during the aftermath of his ignominious resignation in 2001. He accused the palace and India of being behind the Maoist insurgency. When both rejected the allegations, Koirala attempted to sound apologetic, but without retracting the substance of his allegation. (“Alright, but I am still surprised at how the Maoists could have thrived as they have.”)
When Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee refused to meet him during one of his medical-treatment sessions in New Delhi, Koirala kept silent. He couldn’t have been prescient enough to recognize that someone held personally responsible for the worst of Nepal’s post-1990 multiparty politics would become the savior of democracy on his terms. Yet Koirala must be human enough to recognize the impermanence of the “statesman” title foreigners confer.
The scary part now is that Nepal’s peace and reconciliation hangs on the life – literally and figuratively – of a man who has spent almost all of it. How much more power can any prime minister exercise over his country?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Making Head Or Tail Of The New State

The king is no longer head of state. The interim constitution is silent on who is. As political solutions go, Nepalis have strictly conformed to tradition.
In the 1951 “revolution” Mohan Shamsher Rana succeeded Mohan Shamsher Rana as premier and our fathers and grandfathers rejoiced at the brilliant dawn of democracy.
In the aftermath of the 1990 “People’s Movement,” the triumphant supreme commander, Ganesh Man Singh, proposed that King Birendra become head of government as well in the run-up to the installation of full-fledged multiparty democracy. It fell upon the monarch to point out the absurdity of his heading a government whose main objective was to clip the palace’s political power.
This time, the Maoists seem to be wearing the widest grin. The king has been “suspended” until the constituent assembly elections. (Didn’t the Historic Proclamation of the reinstated House of Representatives already do that a couple of months ago?) They can prove to their cadres that their republican campaign was not entirely in vain.
Of course, Prachanda’s soulmates across the southern border aren’t buying that rubbish. They want the Maoists to prove their bona fides as people’s warriors by pulling out of the peace process at this late stage.
Poor Prachanda has come too far out into the democracy sunshine from his underground anonymity to do any such thing. It was his firm commitment to capitalism, expressed at the global leadership summit in New Delhi, which untied the arms management knot. Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara and one-time chief Maoist military strategist Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal are already locked in a dispute over who has the final say in the disbursement of government money to their foot soldiers. (Many of whom, by the way, have taken ill in the new camps and need all the help they can get quick.)
Our buddies in the CPN-UML are still hurting. Madhav Kumar Nepal is hollering himself hoarse reminding everyone that his party played the principal part in striking the Seven Party Alliance (SPA)-Maoist 12-point accord last year.
With the Maoists having monopolized all there is to the communist agenda, the UML is in a real mess. Overtures to both the Maoists and the Nepali Congress are ongoing. But, then, the party has been in an identity crisis ever since Madan Bhandari came out with that multi-point conditional support for the 1990 constitution. It has thrived on contradictions and may yet pull through this existential crisis.
With Sher Bahadur Deuba having virtually thrown in his neck in a single noose with Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, the leaders of the two Nepali Congress factions have united. Sensing some kind of conspiracy, several Deuba’s lieutenants are about to defect to the mother party. The only conspiracy seems to be the readiness of Koirala and Deuba to provide ample time to the Narahari Acharyas and Bimalendra Nidhis to cobble together a pro-republic Congress faction or party. No wonder Rabindra Nath Sharma mustered the courage not only to take over the leadership of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party faction in the royal government but also to organize conferences and processions in support of the king.
The external stakeholders are equally baffled. Having failed to prevent the Maoists’ political ascendancy, American Ambassador James F. Moriarty has taken his mission to the Terai. In rather impressive Nepali the other day, he said he felt for the grievances of the madhesis. Maybe Hridyesh Tripathi and the other Sadbhavana Party people can, after all, expect to file election nomination papers from Sankhuwasabha and Solukhumbu in their lifetime.
Even after having disarmed the Maoists on paper – a feat unthinkable before Prachanda’s Delhi sojourn – New Delhi remains wary of the Maoist rebels. Ostensibly, India wants to track down all the arms that may have found their way to the criminal underworld and the Naxal underground before contemplating engagement with any Maoist minister.
Yet the real worry of New Delhi, Washington and the rest of the west seems to be a four-word qualification in Chinese official media. The People’s Daily consistently refers to the Maoists as the Communist Party of Nepal (formerly known as guerrilla). The full import of that suffix is still being analyzed in India in the afterglow of President Hu Jintao’s recent visit.
As for the monarchy, the official international position seems to be: let the people decide. Here, too, things have changed. Of the two Nepali media houses most critical of King Gyanendra’s takeover, one has put out a poll portraying 68 percent of Nepalis as being in favor of keeping the monarch as head of state. The other has been urging Indians not to lionize Prachanda. Where they intersect is in echoing the contents of a recent Times of India editorial advocating a continuation of the monarchy for stability in Nepal.
As for the king, well, he has started paying taxes. That brings to mind the no-taxation-without-representation rule governing politics. Reverse that, and it becomes clear that the citizen king can demand the vote, patronize political candidates and even parties and officially run his business interests.
You can no longer blame the palace for any acts of commission or omission of the government because it no longer acts in the king’s name. If the Nepal Army really mounts that coup, you can’t link the palace to that setback to democracy.
Returning to the interim constitution, it will come into effect once the United Nations completes its arms management mandate, paving the way for the Maoists’ inclusion in power. The fogginess surrounding both the mandate and timetable allows us ample time for us to make head or tail of the emerging Nepali state.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Maoists’ Anti-Feudalism Masquerade

Despite its economic and social backwardness, Nepal is a capitalist, not a feudal, country. Even King Gyanendra is known for his business dealings. The program of the Maoists does not represent the interests of ordinary working people, but sections of the business elite that are keen to reap the benefits of opening up Nepal to foreign investors and regard the monarchy as an impediment.

It took a formerly pro-Maoist writer and platform to point out the incongruity of Nepal’s much-hyped anti-feudalism fight.
W.A. Sunil and the World Socialist Web Site are no strangers to Nepali netizens. Until recently, they longed for the beacon a People’s Republic of Nepal would provide revolutionaries worldwide. With Prachanda settling for a democratic republic and wowing everyone around him, the writer and website are groaning in pain.
The headline of Sunil’s December 11, 2006 write-up – “Nepali Maoists to lay down arms and enter the government” – makes it sound like one of those regular straight news stories on the historicity of our peace process. Sufficient chunks of commentary are interspersed with the paragraphs to form a cogent opinion piece. The keyword running between the lines is “betrayal”.
“[T]he entry of the Maoists into the cabinet will do nothing to end the country’s deep economic and social crisis and is directed at suppressing any political opposition to the government and its policies,” Sunil writes. “Far from opposing capitalist rule, the Maoists are propping it up.”
Quoting from Prachanda’s interview last month with a British newspaper, Sunil notes that the Maoist supremo offered a guarantee to international investors that their capital would be safe in Nepal. “We are not fighting for socialism,” [Prachanda] bluntly stated. “We are just fighting against feudalism. We are fighting for the capitalistic mode of production. We are trying to give more profits to capitalists and industrialists.”
Prachanda’s comments, in the author’s view, are the direct consequence of the Stalinist two-stage theory, which is the core component of the nationalist ideology of Maoism. “The Maoists have always subordinated the interests of the working class and peasantry to ‘progressive’ sections of the capitalist class and relegated socialism to the distant future. In one country after another, the results have been a disaster as the ruling class has invariably turned on the masses.”
Buttressing his point, Sunil states the Maoists have agreed to help suppress strikes and industrial action. “Point 7 of the [November 21] agreement declares: ‘Both sides believe in the fact that the industrial climate in the country should not be disturbed and production should be given continuity and that the right of collective bargaining and social security should be respected.’ Any disputes with employers should be solved ‘in a peaceful manner’.”
Sunil notes that along with other Nepali leaders, Prachanda has written to former US president Jimmy Carter calling on him to send international monitors to observe next year’s poll. “‘I value your commitment to conducting the [constituent assembly] elections in a conducive environment,’ he wrote. The letter is clearly addressed not just to Carter but is aimed at establishing closer relations with the US ruling elite.”
In fact, Sunil writes, “[T]he Maoists in Nepal are simply the latest in a long line of nationalist guerrilla movements, which in the 1990s abandoned their anti-imperialist rhetoric and, under the auspices of the major powers, cut a deal to enter mainstream capitalist politics.”
In his ultimate indictment, Sunil states: “Prachanda is now joining hands with the very parties that over the past decade helped prosecute the war against his guerrilla army.”
For those wondering why the Maoists and elements of the Seven Party Alliance should want King Gyanendra, for all his purported transgressions, to become president, Sunil’s quote opening this entry should be more than revealing.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Gripping Giri-isms: Southern Playbook

It seems Dr. Tulsi Giri has lost none of his caustic candor amid the debris of what he must have envisaged as a stunning political comeback. At informal political gatherings, we are told, the senior vice-chairman in the 15-month royal regime, mostly rants against King Gyanendra.
For someone who once declared himself the mother of the Panchayat system, Dr. Giri is nothing if not a straight-shooter. A confidant of B.P. Koirala, he ditched Nepal’s first elected prime minister and joined hands with King Mahendra in a new political experiment. Unlike most panchas with backgrounds in political parties, Dr. Giri never made apologies for his conversion.
After India’s humiliating defeat in the 1962 war with China, Dr. Giri said Peking’s real aim was to get India off Nepal’s back. Whether Dr. Giri had any special insight into Chinese thinking is unclear. The fact that his quote still circulates in Indian media and academia underscores its psychological potency.
Dr. Giri’s disenchantment with the partyless system under King Birendra was real. He served as premier only to be shunted – and worse. He was tried for corruption in a carpet-export scandal along with some of his most energetic ministers. When King Birendra announced the referendum in 1979, the palace needed Dr. Giri’s oratory skills. He could oblige so easily because he saw the carpet scandal as a vast scheme of palace secretaries to emasculate the cabinet in a bid to concentrate power.
The victory of Panchayat system the following year brought little relief to its principal living architect. He saw an inherent contradiction between adult franchise and partylessness. Resigning as chairman of the committee organizing the silver jubilee of the Panchayat system, Dr. Giri left for exile in Sri Lanka and later India. This time the message to the palace was more meaningful.
Dr. Giri’s return from Bangalore to become the senior-most commoner wielding executive power in 2005 prompted some to wonder whether he could retain his pro-Nepal – his critics would say anti-India – posture. He was back in form. Hospitality foreigners accord a private citizen need not constrain his or her ability to perform public duties. (Where would we be today had Gandhi and Nehru remained eternally beholden to their lives as students in Britain?)
Rumblings of discontent emerged from Dr. Giri within months of his assuming power. Then, last month, he made the most crucial revelation: King Gyanendra’s Feb. 1, 2005 takeover occurred with India’s approval.
So why the Indian volte face? Because it is part of the Indian playbook. After foisting the 1950 Treaty on the tottering regime of Mohan Shamsher Rana in exchange for continued support, India crafted the Delhi Compromise. Now, Indians like to ascribe that policy “evolution” to the People’s Liberation Army’s invasion of Tibet after the signing of the 1950 treaty.
Yet the actual reason may be the inroads the isolationist Rana regime had been making in the Truman administration. With London and Washington on the verge of recognizing King Gyanendra I as the new monarch in November 1950, New Delhi used the tripartite consultations in many ways. Today Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala knows that the Nepali Congress erratic anti-Rana insurgency owed more to the unpredictability of India’s support than to any inconsistency in the insurgents’ zeal. Of course, he won’t say so.
Convinced he had kept the Americans and Brits out, Jawahar Lal Nehru didn’t lose a minute in ditching Mohan Shamsher. Of course, he emulated his Raj forbears in offering Mohan exile. (Kings Rana Bahadur Shah and Rajendra Bikram Shah spent time in Benaras.)
When King Mahendra dismissed B.P. Koirala’s government, deputy premier Subarna Shamsher Rana could evade arrest because he had left for Calcutta days earlier. It is said that the king had spoken of his intention during his trip to the west. As Subarna Shamsher was in the entourage, this departure was intriguing. Also noteworthy is that King Mahendra preferred Subarnaji as premier and had delayed inviting B.P. to form the government after the 1959 elections.
So the logical question is: Was Subarnaji supposed to have led the Nepali Congress faction backing the palace takeover? Was his departure to Calcutta to attend property matters merely a ploy to prevent that from happening? Was Subarna Shamsher’s 1968 statement of loyal cooperation with the palace a delayed version of the one he was to have returned to Kathmandu with six years earlier?
When Nepali Congress insurgents intensified their armed campaign after King Mahendra signed the agreement with the Chinese on building the Kodari Highway, New Delhi ruled out any link between the two developments. Here, too, Dr. Giri was at his brightest.
Asked by a Time magazine reporter to comment on Indian denials, Dr. Giri said: “The rebel leadership is in India. The money comes from India. The propaganda comes from India.” (“War in the Mountains”. March 9, 1962) A brilliant triple whammy.
For a government that could keep the letters exchange with the 1950 a secret for a decade, India sought mileage by “revealing” that King Mahendra somehow sold out Kalapani and compromised Nepalese sovereignty by signing the 1965 arms agreement. Twenty-two years later, few Nepalis recalled that Prime Minister Kirti Nidhi Bista’s eviction of the Indian military checkposts and mission included the repudiation of the 1965 accord.
Kalapani was very much on the royal agenda until King Mahendra’s death in 1972. No one in New Delhi will reveal what kind of implorations their government made to the palace to maintain their defensive posture after the Humiliation of Sixty-Two. Especially since India gets to denigrate King Mahendra’s nationalism as well as occupy the territory.
Against this sordid background, Dr. Giri’s latest disclosure warrant greater attention. Clearly, India used the first 10 months of the royal regime to bargain with the palace. It was only when King Gyanendra led the initiative to grant China observer status in South Asia’s premier organization that the Seven Party Alliance-Maoist combine gained traction in New Delhi. What kind of concessions was New Delhi trying to extract? A more stringent extradition treaty? Passage of the citizenship bill? Priority in the development of Nepal’s water resources? The oil concessions that helped catapult Cairn into the FT 100 index? Perhaps we can expect Dr. Giri to keep up his candor.