Monday, December 31, 2007

Dude, Where’s My Country?

As our seven satraps gloated over Nepal’s gambol to republicanism, two events on the other side offered a gleaming contrast. As Maila Baje surveyed the hundreds of people that converged on the royal palace gates to extend birthday greetings to Crown Prince Paras, the first thing that struck him was the diversity.
One saw a similar multiplicity at Durbar Marg two weeks earlier, as hundreds assembled in front of King Mahendra’s statue to commemorate his 1960 takeover. If the palace really staged both events – the critics’ standard line – then it did a pretty good job of rounding up a representative sample.
From youths donning baseball caps to older Nepalis attired in their respective cultural brilliance, the turnout epitomized the nation we are being incited to abhor. What inspired these men and women to come out in support of what is increasingly portrayed as a sinking ship? And that, too, amid palpable threats from the more militant sections of the ruling establishment?
Almost two years after the collapse of King Gyanendra’s regime, Maoist guns have fallen silent in deference to a contrived peace process. Who knows when they will start booming again? Moreover, warning shots are being fired from all sides as new disgruntled groups emerge. Pre-1769 Nepal has returned in its full scariness. While everybody is busy articulating their victimhood, petty principalities are looming large in the name of inclusion.
Pashupati Shamsher Rana and Pari Thapa represent opposite poles of the political spectrum. That didn’t stop them from voting against the third amendment to the interim constitution. Madhesi leader Upendra Yadav is already demanding a fourth amendment specifically to address his region’s grievances. And he’s not the only spokesperson for geographically defined grudges.
The advent of a republic has failed to enthuse diehard followers of the seven ruling parties, for different reasons. Deep down, they surely know that it wasn’t part of the original manifesto of the April Uprising. True, venomous anti-monarchy slogans were raised by the tens of thousands who took to the streets. But what about the millions who stayed home? Could any genuine drivers of democracy have the audacity to expropriate the people’s sovereign rights?
With distance, the practical dimensions of change have become too obvious. If the Maoists truly believed the movement was for ending the monarchy, why didn’t they press on and move toward Narayanhity? And why didn’t the mainstream opposition parties rebuff King Gyanendra’s reinstatement of the House of Representatives and push for a full-fledged republic? As for ordinary Nepalis, there is only one way of finding out what they really think. No wonder a referendum on the monarchy is what scares the seven parties.
The goal posts have been shifting in the name of the peace process, primarily because the masterminds of the 12-point alliance are busy playing all sides. At this very moment, New Delhi is probably pressuring the palace on precisely those matters the monarchy has traditionally resisted. With Beijing and Washington having emerged as more robust players since the restoration of democracy, India is probably under new urgency to calibrate its Nepal policy.
The country is a republic, but the monarchy could be abolished if it were found to be conspiring against the constituent assembly elections. The contradiction doesn’t stop there. The Nepali Congress finds it expedient to commemorate National Reconciliation Day while undermining the monarchy B.P. Koirala counseled a rapprochement with in the interest of preserving national independence.
Regardless of the effort the seven parties have put in defending this sleight of hand, the people recognize the 23-point agreement for what it is: an affirmation to hold on to power at all costs.
Few people have a problem with that. What’s galling is the SPA’s haughtiness in blaming the palace for our ills while conceding everything to a growing number of external power centers pushing their own agendas.
In that sense, the royal commemorations convey a larger message. Having been denied the right to determine the future of their country, people are beginning to vote with their feet.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Probing The Parallel Peace Process

The ruling alliance has finally decided to declare Nepal a “federal democratic republic state,” a status that would be ratified by the first sitting of the constituent assembly. Their resolve to hold the elections within mid-April, together with the Maoists’ apparent readiness to rejoin the interim government, has contrived a modicum of stability.
With the Six Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists dominating the interim legislature, the relevant amendments to the interim constitution should breeze through. Despite their public opposition, “royalists” within the Nepali Congress can be expected to go along with these changes, now that even the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) has disavowed official links to the monarchy.
Ordinarily, the spectacle of a self-appointed assembly striving to make such a sensitive decision, with the monarch safely ensconced in the palace, would prompt jeers of derision. The absence of rudimentary national debate on such issues as federalism and democracy a post-monarchy Nepal would have underscored the buffoonery.
They don’t because these public moves seem to have provided a smokescreen for a parallel peace process. From conversations in Kathmandu over the last several days with individuals familiar with this relatively stealthy exercise, Maila Baje can identify the two principal domestic protagonists: Army chief Gen. Rukmangad Katawal and Maoist supremo Prachanda. The external players are the usual suspects: India, China and the United States.
No source this blogger spoke to could offer a coherent plan in the works, but these conversations did suggest broad outlines. Central to this initiative is the retention of the monarchy in a ceremonial form with overt backing of the Maoists.
This “nationalist” realignment is understood to have been the principal pivot of China’s growing activism in the country. When State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan, a former Chinese foreign minister, arrived in Kathmandu during the final weeks of King Gyanendra’s regime, he had received categorical pledges of support for the monarchy from principal Nepali opposition leaders.
After its early overtures to the former rebels, Beijing was subsequently said to have given a specified timeframe to Prachanda to persuade his rank and file of the urgency of building an alliance with the palace. The Maoist supremo’s much-anticipated visit to China is believed to be contingent upon his ability to rally his party behind him.
Maoist representatives visiting Beijing have, almost to the person, have been politely reminded of that imperative, while successive Chinese delegations in Nepal have pressed the point directly with former rebel leaders.
Growing Chinese assertiveness is believed to have precipitated a thorough review of India’s policy on Nepal. Gen. Katuwal’s high-profile visit to India provided the public manifestation of an impending shift. Nepali Congress leader Sujata Koirala’s less conspicuous discussions in New Delhi reinforced key tenets for Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s benefit.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s personal intervention is said to have been behind the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)’s chief’s recent visit to Nepal. Although he met with all leading power centers, according to Nepali sources, the RAW chief was preoccupied with covering his tracks on a strategy gone awry.
The United States, for its part, is believed to be amenable to a military-backed government led by the Nepali Congress. Washington, which seems more insistent on holding a popular referendum on the monarchy than on constituent assembly elections, believes such a government would draw the support of the RPP and Rastriya Janashakti Party as well as an influential section of the Unified Marxist-Leninists. The monarchy, in the run-up to a referendum, would remain out of the public scene.
That specific proviso runs counter to Beijing’s instincts, according to sources. The Chinese, with an eye on the Beijing Olympics, are averse to doing anything precipitous. On the other hand, they see the referendum plan as a prelude to the end of the monarchy. Still distrustful of the Maoists’ links to constituencies in India, Beijing views the monarchy at the center of the nationalist plank in Nepal. Gen. Katuwal’s upcoming visit to China may not be as high profile as his visit down south, but, according to Nepali military sources, it promises to be politically significant.
Significantly, the Nepali Army figures prominently in all three external stakeholders’ political calculations. Senior commanders, contrary to rumors of frenzied jockeying for power, are apprehensive of the political establishment’s record of destroying the police between 1990 and 2002. Concern for professionalism remains the strongest adhesive in the military.
The Maoists seem most worried by this external convergence. During the height of the Madhes movement last winter, the former rebels seemed confident that the most segregated institution, in that context, would desist from striking. The dramatic dissipation of the movement seems to have reinforced Maoist fears of external involvement to their detriment. Accordingly, a dominant section of the former rebels is trying to woo the generals and soldiers alike with the nationalism plank.
The Young Communist League’s recent warning of a mass revolt should the party leadership forge ties with royalists was played down by key Maoist functionaries during recent conversations with this blogger. They seem to be growing extremely anxious about their physical well-being. This, they concede, may nudge prominent mid-level leaders toward an alliance with the palace.
As for the rank-and-file, according to these sources, the same threat of an “externally inspired campaign of physical liquidation” could significantly tone down their recalcitrance over the next few months. Prachanda may then get his long-cherished audience with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Divided They Stand

Wearied by the re-
public-or-constituent-
assembly-election-first rigmarole, Maila Baje decided the other day to take solace in a once-favorite refuge: the Reporters Club. The fact that Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) president Pashupati Shamsher Rana was scheduled to speak proved an added attraction.
Quietly taking a seat among relatively younger scribes, one was enthralled by Rana’s fieriness. Admittedly, the newly re-elected RPP chief’s threat to launch a decisive movement against the Six Party Alliance-Maoist combine if the interim legislature voted in favor of a republic was little more than bluster. Considering the latest allegations of fraud gripping the recent party elections, it’s doubtful whether any significant number of RPP activists would join street protests.
Rana’s support for a fully proportional representation system was hardly surprising, either. Ostensibly, the RPP expects to gain seats commensurate with the popular votes it would get, something it was denied during each of the three parliamentary elections since 1991.
Where Rana really excelled was in his articulation of the RPP’s agenda for the constituent assembly elections. Claiming that the seven parties in power – Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala hasn’t accepted the Maoist ministers’ resignations – had appropriated the people’s rights, Rana said he would exhort the people toward regaining their sovereignty.
In his impeccable Nepali, amplified by a near baritone, Rana built a sturdy case against a government that, by all reckoning, is bent on perpetuating itself into permanence. The RPP chief’s finger-wagging from the lectern prompted scribes around Maila Baje to scribble along. How much of those notes would be reflected in news coverage was a different matter.
As Rana spoke, Maila Baje couldn’t help marvel at how Panchayat-era politicians, despite their own rifts, have emerged as the preeminent voices of the opposition. Former prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, like Rana, is a member of the interim legislature. His reflections in the house draw some news inches and airtime. It’s Thapa’s comments at public functions that tend to provide the people with a broader perspective of current events.
Kamal Thapa, home minister in King Gyanendra’s regime, handles hostile questions with great aplomb. In a recent BBC interview, questioner after questioner seemed genuinely intrigued by his open support for the continuation of the monarchy.
Rabindra Nath Sharma, chief of Kamal Thapa’s breakaway RPP-Nepal, has been enduring physical blows in his campaigning for the monarchy. Largely credited with masterminding Lokendra Bahadur Chand’s and Surya Bahadur Thapa’s return as premier with UML and Nepali Congress backing respectively, Sharma recently said he did so to expose the two main parties’ greed for power.
Divided the ex-panchas most certainly are. Maybe that’s why they're standing.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bruised But Unbroken ...

Education Minister Pradeep Nepal, in some ways, sounds like a man ahead of his time. Long before Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala offered the advice, Nepal had urged King Gyanendra to abdicate and reside in the country as a respectable citizen.
Last winter, that counsel was viewed as part of the manoeuvrings in the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) party. Specifically, Nepal’s remark was seen as an effort to torpedo the idea of a referendum on the monarchy, which his boss and (sur)namesake Madhav Kumar Nepal had been advocating. That was then, of course, when the UML was pushing for full proportional representation and the Maoists insisted on a mixed system.
Months after joining the Koirala cabinet this year, Nepal began insisting that the interim legislature didn’t have the authority to abolish the monarchy. This notwithstanding the fact that the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists had jointly railroaded the second amendment to the interim statute specifically empowering our unelected representatives to do precisely that.
When Maoist leader Prachanda began dangling the premiership to Madhav Nepal in a flash of broader Red bonhomie, Pradeep Nepal came out with a great revelation. Koirala would rather return power to the palace than see the UML chief finally get his job. If that remark ended up shoring up Koirala, it was an unintended consequence. Pradeep Nepal doesn’t seem happy in the cabinet.
For weeks on, he had a hard time getting the premier appoint university vice-chancellors. Koirala did make the appointments, but that didn’t seem to help. Last month, Nepal accused Koirala of preventing him from carrying out his work.
The reason? Koirala’s purported fear that the UML would score electoral points if the people saw the Education Ministry function smoothly. Echoing comments by former Maoist ministers Matrika Yadav and Krishna Bahadur Mahara, Nepal claimed the premier simply didn’t understand the meaning of cooperation. He didn’t stop there. Nepal described himself as “the most victimised person at the hands of the premier.” (Yadav and Mahara would probably dispute that categorical assertion.)
Still, Pradeep Nepal is against changing the leadership of the government during these trying times. It’s easy to dismiss his stance as an act of self-preservation. Nepal, after all, runs the risk of losing his job should Koirala step down voluntarily or under pressure. (Not that he would lack a political platform. We heard recently that he is a promoter of Saptakoshi FM.)
As the rest of the country remains petrified by repeated delays in the constituent assembly elections, Nepal remains unruffled. Where have such important elections been held on schedule, he asked one recent interviewer. With the specific examples he laid out – from Guatemala to South Africa – not a few nerves must have been somewhat soothed.
In his latest policy position, Nepal wants a merger of the Maoist fighting force with the national army before the constituent assembly elections. That way, he argues, the Maoists wouldn’t be able to avoid the elections. A smart move indeed, if the Maoists were the only ones uninterested in seeking a popular mandate.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Myths That Deserve To Be ‘Flattened’

The maelstrom created by Maoist supremo Prachanda’s call to include royalists in a new Nepal makes it easy to miss the significance of another story relating to the monarchy.
The Times of India carried a piece on a new book that “demolishes the popular myth that the kings of Nepal are reincarnations of Hindu god Vishnu and even the belief that they are descendants of the ruling Rajputs of India.”
Under the stimulating headline “Book flattens Nepal king’s divine myth,” the reporter covered Subodh Singh’s work tracing the ancestry of the Shah dynasty to Magars and Tharus. Both, the reporter pointedly reminded readers, are “low in Nepal’s social hierarchy.”
Without having read the book, it would be difficult for one to address the specific revelations in The Return of the Mauryans. Evidently, the author provided enough material to allow the newspaper to carry that storyline with sufficient credibility.
For purposes here, therefore, the Times text is the focus.
The issue of divinity is something the monarchy’s adversaries have long used against the institution and for their own narrow purposes. Rana prime ministers perpetuated this deification primarily to confine successive kings within palace walls.
For modern mainstream politicians, divinity morphed into constitutionalism. Specifically, elected politicians after the 1990 change sought to curtail the king’s space to just enough to prevent asphyxiation.
Admittedly, the monarchy has benefited from this aura of divinity. Yet, in all fairness, no monarch has ever claimed such a status. After his accession in 1972, King Birendra addressed the issue in interviews with western journalists. In a conversation with a Newsweek reporter, he described the popular perception of his being an incarnation of Lord Vishnu as something influenced by tradition.
King Gyanendra has been more categorical. When a reporter for TIME magazine brought up the subject in early 2004, the monarch sounded palpably ecstatic. Expressing delight that his role had been spelled out in terms of “the preserver of all things,” King Gyanendra added emphatically: “But I’m a pragmatic and practical person. I’ve never said I’m God.”
Far louder have been the actions of the two kings. Undiluted divinity would have precluded King Birendra from making that high-profile pilgrimage to Sai Baba and wearing that locket until his tragic end. The fact that King Gyanendra was so demonized for his abiding belief in higher powers absolves him from charges of harboring divine aspirations.
The perception persists also because it serves some value. Amid the global convulsions precipitated by the fall of the Berlin Wall, how might Nepal have garnered the sustained attention of western news editors but for the Vishnu verisimilitude palmed off by their color-starved reporters? Fast forward 16 years and the secularization of the world’s only Hindu state made the greatest sense in the context of the humbling of its monarch.
The book helps debunk a second myth. If the Shahs’ roots are really among Magars and Tharus, wouldn’t that make them, contrary to some detractors’ claims, among the original inhabitants of the country?

Monday, December 03, 2007

The RPP: Radicalism Or Ruse?

This isn’t a good time to be Pashupati Shamsher Rana. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) chairman opposed King Gyanendra’s direct rule to the point of allowing the party to split. The breakaway group led by Kamal Thapa considered Rana as much of a destabilizer as the agitating opposition alliance. Yet to this day, few Nepalis consider Rana little more than a palace frontman.
Rana’s claim to formal recognition as the opposition leader in the interim legislature would have helped the ruling alliance. The perception of a fractured coalition fumbling in power might have been dispelled to significant degree by the RPP’s cutting perorations. The Six Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists might have succeeded in raising the anti-monarchy banner higher in the house. Their compulsion for political cover apparently paled when considering the perils of countenancing the ex-panchas in a parliamentary role on the road to a new Nepal.
The ruling establishment’s loss hasn’t translated into Rana’s gain. A man who won all five adult-franchise-based elections since 1981 from his Sindupalchowk constituency is still struggling to establish his party’s democratic credentials.
In a sense, political fortune has looked kindly upon Rana. He was knee-deep in the Tanakpur waters in the final years of the Panchayat system. But Girija Prasad Koirala is who the country associates with the blot. As to the parliamentary ratification of the much-maligned Mahakali Treaty, how many people remember Rana’s exuberance that the sun had dawned from the west? Or, for that matter, his refusal to join the cabinet of one-time boss Lokendra Bahadur Chand because he didn’t get his favorite water resources ministry?
On the personal front, too, Rana has largely avoided major political ramifications. After the Narayanhity massacre in 2001, Rana was well placed to shed light on the tragedy. He is, after all, the father of the woman Crown Prince Dipendra couldn’t marry, driving him to open fire on everyone around him before turning the gun on himself.
Equally, Devyani’s Dad could easily have sustained the competing theory that would have exonerated the crown prince. Yet Rana was about the only person of interest that kept quiet – and got away with it. By the time Devyani returned to Kathmandu for her wedding reception, hardly anyone recalled her as the palpably distraught woman who had refused to depose in person before the panel probing the massacre.
In the run-up to the party convention, the RPP has dropped references to constitutional monarchy from the statute and all other official documents. But it stopped short of openly espousing a democratic republic, largely because of Rana’s stand, we are told. In fact, republicanism has gained significant ground in the party, with some erstwhile members of the partyless legislature among key advocates.
This camp has readied an alternative to Rana at the convention should matters take a divisive turn. The party chief, for his part, seems prepared with a proposal to coalesce the royalist factions of Surya Bahadur Thapa and Rabindra Nath Sharma under Chand’s leadership.
A year ago, Rana signaled that some momentous change was underway in the party. In a speech in Biratnagar, he rejected suggestions that the RPP was a royalist group. Thereafter, the party took a major step in repudiating its relations with the palace while registering with the Election Commission for the constituent assembly polls.
The RPP characterizes its latest posture as a prudent “middle path,” between republicans and monarchists. It could just as well mean the party is setting on the fence. The RPP probably believes that an avowedly monarchist party wouldn’t garner significant votes amid the frenzy whipped up by SPA and Maoists. Otherwise, it would not have let the breakaway RPP (Nepal) hog that field.
Or perhaps the RPP has been watching the Nepali Congress rather closely. Even after the party convention that plunged the largest democratic party into the sea of republicanism, the Nepali Congress is finding it difficult to break its bonds with the monarchy in the interest of self-preservation.
Considering the number of power-brokers in the Nepali Congress that seem to have recognized the political benefits of the monarchy amid a resurgence of the Reds, a lot could change in terms of the party’s voting pattern in a putative constituent assembly.
So it comes down to this. If an overtly republican platform needn’t constrain the Nepali Congress’ room for maneuver vis-à-vis the monarchy, why should it impede the RPP’s more nuanced approach?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

An Eeriness About This Patriotism

Patriotism has suddenly become politically chic. Maoist chairman Prachanda has turned into an ardent champion in recent days. The country’s pre-eminent non-communist republican, Narhari Acharya of the Nepali Congress, is anguished by the bevy of foreigners bolstering his cause. Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) leader K.P. Sharma Oli sees in the Maoists’ camaraderie with a section of his party a diabolic plot against the entire nation. In a recent speech, Prachanda suggested his People’s Liberation Army and the Nepal Army fight together in the Terai in defense of Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Elsewhere, the Maoist chief had warm words for his erstwhile battlefield adversaries – or, rather, their bosses. Still castigating the national military as politically defeated, Prachanda said the generals couldn’t be blamed for the delay in integrating the two armies. The former rebel in chief’s olive branch came amid incessant warnings sounded by his key lieutenants of an imminent military coup.
Admittedly, Prachanda is doing everything he can to cast off the image created by his recent trip to the Indian Embassy – Dr. Baburam Bhattarai in tow – in the cover of darkness. The widespread belief that Indian Ambassador Shivshanker Mukherjee himself chose to tip off reporters to this surreptitious visit has irked Maoist hardliners and moderates alike.
Whether Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai really dance to the tune of Lainchaur Darbar seems to have become immaterial to the rank and file. More germane is what they consider New Delhi’s sustained effort to discredit the ex-rebels’ nationalistic credentials. So when Prachanda claimed that his party’s relations with the Americans were improving of late, he did not have to elaborate with specific examples.
Acharya, to be sure, cannot forget how Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala once labeled him a “palace agent” for peddling the republican agenda at uncomfortable times. When all those files on Acharya’s computer hard drive went missing during the royal regime, monarchists couldn’t help commiserating with this loss of intellectual property. (Did some of the purloined material find its way to the Carter Center?)
Undaunted, Acharya pressed on, battling prickly questions as to his true motives. Former US president Jimmy Carter’s compromise formula – the immediate declaration of a republic that would be endorsed by elected representatives of the people – undoubtedly raised the profile of the principal snag in the peace process. But Acharya seemed to consider Carter’s ebullience a slap on his face.
As Koirala’s stock continues to plummet in New Delhi, the premier’s uncharacteristic and overt commitment to the national interest is being cited as the trigger for a more conspicuous breach. By bolstering that internal prop, Acharya has no doubt done a good turn to his party chief.
Rejuvenated after a kidney transplant in New Delhi, Oli is still recovering from the abruptness with which his own party threw him overboard earlier this year. Even if UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal wanted him out of the cabinet that bad, he could have still pressed for the same rank for Sahana Pradhan. How prudent was it for the UML to accept a demotion just to make sure neither the Maoists nor the Nepali Congress got the deputy premiership? As UML chief Madhav Kumar Nepal is drawn to that elusive premiership on the back of the Maoists, Oli has become a leading apologist for the Nepali Congress.
This outpouring of patriotism may have come too late, especially when Nepalis find fewer and fewer things to be all that humble about. Still, the gush feels good, right? Maybe not. As a virtue of the vicious, this sentiment may yet be a subterfuge to squander what remains.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Populist Resonance Of Regressive Politics

A cliché is haunting Nepal; the cliché of constitutional exceptionalism. Specifically, the inviolability of the 1990 constitution, touted until the night of October 4, 2002 as one of the world’s best.
Granted, the only people who publicly celebrated what would have been 16th anniversary of that document earlier this month belonged to an obscure group. When Sujata Koirala, the feisty daughter of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, fired the first salvo, the country sat up and took notice. The ad hocism of the last 18 months, she asserted, must be corrected by reactivating the 1990 constitution.
Sujata’s rival for the dynasty’s mantle, cousin Shekhar, snuggled into the debate from a slightly circuitous route. The Nepali Congress, he stated, cannot violate the principle of constitutionalism in order to overthrow the monarchy.
Of late, relations among Sujata, Shekhar and Prakash Koirala, the eldest son of B.P. Koirala who was a minister in King Gyanendra’s much-maligned government, have improved considerably, we hear. If these reports are true, then there is a narrative here. This camaraderie cannot be explained as the result of the deaths of co-matriarchs Sushila and Nona, mothers of Prakash and Shekhar respectively.
For the Nepali Congress, the hardening of posture vis-à-vis the communists could not have been better timed. When the Maoists and the Unified Marxist-Leninists ganged up against the senior partner of the ruling alliance to adopt non-binding resolutions directing the government to lay the groundwork for a republic and an electoral system of full proportional representation, many rushed to draft the obituary of the Nepali Congress.
Before Prime Minister Koirala ever felt his job was seriously threatened, the UML recognized the Maoists’ comradeship for what it is: an effort to split the mainstream communist party that was hoping to win the constituent assembly elections.
What the Nepali Congress understood with greater clarity was the speediness with which the Maoists virtually abandoned their demand for a constituent assembly. If our ex-rebels really deluded themselves they could get away with subverting the elections without leaving fingerprints, developments in Cambodia must have come as a rude awakening.
With Khieu Samphan joining Ieng Sary and Nuon Chea in government detention ahead of a genocide trial by a UN-backed tribunal, our Khmer Rouge soul mates may have lost any traces of triumph.
Admittedly, Nepal has moved far beyond the contours laid out by the 1990 constitution. Bishwanath Upadhyaya, the man who headed the panel that drafted that document, proudly rubbished 90 percent of the suggestions he received, saying they pertained to language, culture, ethnicity and other irrelevant issues.
His co-panelist, Laxman Prasad Aryal, who led the group that drew up the interim constitution, was expected to rectify that flaw. But Aryal has long ceased to recognize the statute as what his panel had submitted to the Seven-Party Alliance and the Maoists.
Upadhyaya, for his part, seems to have become a champion of draconian measures to safeguard the rule of law during these extraordinary times. Nepalis needed some drastic intervention that might even entail a temporary suspension our liberties, Upadhyaya was recently quoted as saying. The kicker: whoever took such a “courageous” step would stand to create a fresh chapter in Nepal’s political history.
Don’t expect King Gyanendra to invoke Article 127 anytime soon to reactivate the 1990 Constitution and dissolve the interim parliament and government. Don’t single him out as the emblem of regressive politics, either.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

In Substance, The Challenge Stands

It’s one of those mystifying moments again. A government minister publicly claims that the Maoists and the monarchists have joined hands in a grand alliance against the mainstream democrats.
Prithvi Subba Gurung’s assertion comes days after Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala purportedly told his extended family that King Gyanendra had emerged the real winner from the mêlée called the peace process.
The geopolitical strokes are no less intriguing. Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful personage in the world’s most populous democracy, goes to China tugging along royal relative Karan Singh. After that, Wang Hongwei, the preeminent Chinese spokesman on Nepalese affairs passes an opportunity to go ballistic on King Gyanendra’s direct rule.
Then comes a bit of history. Indira Gandhi almost took up King Birendra’s offer of asylum for her extended family after she lost the 1977 elections amid popular revulsion over her emergency rule. By now, you’re forced to wonder whether the Rajiv Gandhi-King Birendra frostiness was really as icy as it was made out to be on the eve of April Uprising I.
Then-Prince Gyanendra was reportedly the intermediary, a former Indian foreign secretary told us in the aftermath of the 2001 palace massacre. That assertion came in an effort to quell growing speculation that the newly enthroned monarch was congenitally anti-Indian.
Six years down the road, the Indians are eager to punish the king for shifting the geopolitical locus of South Asia northward by bringing China into SAARC. But how far can you go when a dynasty’s genetically dominant heart disease skips a generation and strikes Crown Prince Paras.
The notion of a Baby King – enthroning the monarch’s grandson Hridayendra to revitalize the institution – hasn’t quite warmed up the hearts of monarchists. Circumstances have helped King Gyanendra reiterate the reality that, in a monarchy, you don’t get to choose the king.
With India once again on the cusp of dynastic politics – and seemingly out of the clutches of communists – the ex-royals that dominate the ruling Congress Party must be pondering their own dilemma: how do you make a king repent for something he doesn’t believe was wrong?
Back home, each of the king’s adversaries recognizes how badly they need him. Of course, palace bashing was the principal adhesive of the mainstream-Maoist alliance to begin with. The difference now is that each of the protagonists needs the monarch for its own different reasons.
The Nepali Congress, in its newfound struggle for self-preservation, needs a bulwark against the onslaught of a broader communist front it thought could never materialize. The Maoists need the king to ratchet up their rhetoric, especially the nationalism variant revived by their disenchantment with India.
The Unified Marxist Leninists need the palace, if nothing else, to keep both the Nepali Congress and the Maoists guessing. UML ministers, after all, are the most vociferous in claiming that the government was under no obligation to implement the latest legislative directive on laying the groundwork for a republic.
The three major external stakeholders are equally flustered over one other’s true beliefs vis-à-vis the monarchy. They know they cannot afford to remain silent should things spin out of control, which looks increasingly likely.
If we are to believe that, by assuming direct control of government on February 1, 2005, King Gyanendra defied the world to accept him over the messed up mainstream and the marauding Maoists, then we must acknowledge that the substance of that challenge is still alive.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Compromise(d) Solution

After nearly a month of high-stakes legislative posturing, blighting the Dasain bonhomie, the best the Maoists could claim was a resolution directing the government to prepare the groundwork for declaring Nepal a republic as well as fixing a new election date for the star-crossed constituent assembly.
The proportional representation front brought a worse PR fiasco. The nonbinding nature of both votes says it all. The people, again, have been taken for a ride. Or have they? For many, from the outset, the only thing special about this session of the interim legislature was its senselessness.
Each constituent of the ruling Six Party Alliance (SPA) had formally espoused the cause of republicanism. Clearly, Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara could have used his erstwhile position in the cabinet to press his party’s agenda. In retrospect, by quitting the cabinet, the Maoists only acknowledged their inherent ineptitude to govern.
The triumphalism echoing across the ruling establishment stands in sharp contrast to the mood among its fellow travelers, not to speak of ordinary Nepalese. Laxman Prasad Aryal, the chief drafter of the interim constitution, has decried the ad hoc legislature for adopting “anti-constitutional proposals”. (Not that the twice-amended document really resembles the text Aryal and his cohorts drew up.) Other notable legal scholars, spanning the political spectrum, have underscored the inherent futility of the exercise. Some have even posited that the constituent assembly now has been pushed deeper into uncertainty.
If the trajectory of our “new” Nepal has been trivialized, the fault lies collectively with the architects. The principal pivot of the peace process – the fallacy of holding the monarchy responsible for Nepal’s problems – now lies in tatters. The “mandate” of the April Uprising was not the abolition of the monarchy. It was reinterpreted as such amid the political whirlwind whipped up in large part by the Indian sponsors of the 12-point agreement between the SPA and the Maoists. (The fact that the two sides came out with different texts on a supposedly ground-breaking alliance underscored its tentativeness.)
Even then, republicanism was little more than a tactic to bully King Gyanendra into submission ahead of a redesigned monarchy. Evidently, that hasn’t worked for New Delhi. The crux of the matter was apparent all along. Long before loktantra entered the Nepalese lexicon as an apt translation for a kingless democracy, successive monarchs had been using lok sammati (popular will) as the guiding principle of their reign.
Also thoroughly exposed was the ruling alliance’s fraudulence in accusing the Maoists of kicking up the republic frenzy. The entire political establishment had voted for the second amendment to the interim statute that, among other things, provided for the immediate abolition of the monarchy if the palace were found to be conspiring against the constituent assembly polls.
If the palace is indeed behind the post-April Uprising instability, then that provision does enjoy relevance. Obviously, the SPA couldn’t afford to be seen or heard defending the palace against the Maoists’ charges of conspiracy. So the inane became inseparable from the impeccable
The Unified Marxist-Leninists can gloat all they wants over having fashioned an 11th-hour compromise that has essentially compromised the SPA’s ability to govern. The Nepalese people are too smart to miss the sham.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Insulted But Not Humiliated

Around this time last year, he was designated Asia’s most humiliated man. This year King Gyanendra – according to the same bestower – is the “humiliated scarecrow of the institution that helped bring Nepal together as a nation-state.”
Evidently, the monarch does not share the sense of mortification conveyed by this gentleman, whom the Voice of America described as “one of Nepal’s most influential civic voices.”
The day after he received last year’s title, King Gyanendra issued a public statement welcoming the comprehensive peace agreement. Those who mocked what they considered the monarch’s eagerness to take credit for the mainstream-Maoist rapprochement weren’t jeering on for too long.
This year’s designation didn’t deter King Gyanendra from discharging the crown’s Dasain duties within the palace perimeter and outside. Stung by his ill-conceived reaction to the monarch’s visit to Kumari Ghar the previous month, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala chose to play it cool this time.
The public turnout at Narayanhity for the traditional Dasain tika may not have merited headlines in the Nepalese media (much of which was on holiday any way). The scant coverage it did receive outside the country seemed to have forced some to pause a bit. (“Festival shows uneroded Hindu support for Nepal king,” went one. “Embattled but still revered: Nepal lines up before King,” read another.)
Coincidental or not, one Maoist leader, C.P. Gajurel, indicated his party’s readiness to drop its demand that the interim legislature announce the abolition of the monarchy. How far that stance would reinforce the Maoists’ other demand – a fully proportional electoral system – remains to be seen.
What matters far more is our wider predicament. Domestically, the utter senselessness of the Six Party Alliance (SPA)-Maoist accord forged in New Delhi in November 2005 was apparent from the outset. For its external sponsor, the tie-up made tactical sense.
For New Delhi, the singular objective of the April Uprising was to forestall the reconfiguration of Nepalese statehood along monarchical lines. That, too, only after the royal regime’s tenaciousness in correcting Nepal’s detrimental southern tilt appeared irreversible.
Autocracy became a convenient cover to discredit the monarchy’s effort to widen Nepal’s sovereign space. The bad news: the slur stuck to the seven-party oligarchy. As “democracy” deepened Nepal’s drift, its civil society contractors couldn’t skirt responsibility. New Delhi, meanwhile, set out to operationalize the second phase of the SPA-Maoist pact.
The systematic marginalization of the ex-rebels in the name of a muddled peace process might have succeeded but for the activism of the other two external players. Geography and topography would shield America and China from the worst turbulence emanating from Nepal. How insulated could India expect to be?
That was their problem. What about ours? When a retired Indian general asserted that New Delhi might feel compelled to send in its troops unilaterally, many rushed to condemn him. Yet few in Nepal felt the urgency of pulling the country from the brink of a disaster that could easily precipitate such preemption.
Following Army Chief Rookmangad Katuwal’s assertion that his soldiers would never mount a coup, might the external dimensions of a stabilization initiative come into sharper focus? Now that would be some humiliation, wouldn’t it?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Nitty-Gritty Of A Northern Alliance

India’s edginess over China’s new assertiveness in Nepal has now gushed into our own deliberations. In the run-up to the annual Dashain recess, the media have been speculating copiously on the emerging dynamics precipitated by our normally quiet and composed northern neighbor.
The proliferation of delegations emanating from the north, the growing warmth between our ex-rebels with the successors of the Great Helmsman, the mounting candor of Beijing’s top diplomat in Kathmandu, among other things, have been perceived as a novel assertion of China’s uncharacteristically overt interest in our affairs.
The fact that Chinese Ambassador Zheng Xianglin chose to meet Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala not at the premier’s official residence but in the relative seclusion of daughter Sujata’s home has additionally befuddled not a few analysts on both sides of our southern border.
Had Zheng merely wanted to avoid the surveillance devices Baluwatar is widely presumed to be rife with, he could have easily chosen from a host of other venues. For this quintessential mandarin, Mandikhatar had multiple benefits as both medium and message.
Take the fact that Sujata Koirala remains among the vocal proponents of the monarchy in the newly republicanized Nepali Congress. Mesh that with the opaqueness surrounding China’s positions vis-à-vis the monarchy as well as the Maoists.
As to the latter, after months of warming up to each other, Prachanda’s surreptitious foray into Silgudi (or was it Sikkim?) seemed to have raised China’s guard. When the Maoist chairman staked his party’s claim to one of the top four Nepalese embassies, his sights were clearly up north. What made Prachanda & Co. steer clear from that demand? China’s unwillingness to accept a Nepalese Maoist as the top envoy so early in the day? If so, what might have caused that to happen? Is Beijing still in search of reliable interlocutors from among the former rebels?
It’s unclear whether the emergence of a “nationalist” camp comprising the Mohan Baidya and Ram Bahadur Thapa “Badal” wings could be construed as an outcome of this northern exposure. If it is, may we stretch the point further? Did Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara’s recent call for a nationalist front capable of safeguarding national sovereignty presage in any way some kind of alliance with the monarchy?
That wouldn’t be impossible even amid the ex-rebels’ ongoing republican ruckus in the interim legislature, considering their own track record. (Remember the “working unity” with King Birendra Maoist ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai took such great pride in revealing after the monarch’s murder?)
As for the palace, are the Chinese working to cement an alliance between their traditional ally and the Maoists as a bulwark against India’s growing influence since the fall of the royal regime? Or has that been Beijing’s objective all along since State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan’s visit on the eve of the April Uprising.
Much was made about how Tang’s meetings with leading Nepalese opposition politicians marked a vital shift in Chinese policy. Was that gesture in fact Beijing’s subtle way of distancing itself from the beleaguered palace, which many in Nepal and India had then so gleefully concluded? (Obviously those who forgot – or chose to ignore – how President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji had met with opposition leaders during their visits.)
Or did Tang use those meetings to lay out his government’s expectations from Nepalese political parties regardless of the nature of the government of the day? In one of his public engagements, Tang himself had proffered: “China is ready to increase friendly exchanges with the royal family, government, political parties.”
So when Zheng became the first ambassador to present credentials to the prime minister, instead of the king, earlier this year, was that an acknowledgement of the interim constitution’s realities laced with a reminder of the assurances Tang had received?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Big Chill Sets In

Speculation of a change of government has intensified with the convening of a special session of parliament on October 11. A chill of sorts has crept into relations between the prime minister and the army chief. The king, while maintaining a studious silence in public, has stepped up his own consultations. Throwback to the old Nepal? Not quite.
Few thought Gen. Rookmangad Katuwal could ever match the rhetoric his former boss Prajwalla Shamsher Rana unleashed five years ago against the games being played in the name of democracy. Fewer still expected Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to melt in front of the army chief.

Going into that meeting on October 1, Koirala intended to reprimand the army chief for facilitating King Gyanendra’s visit to the Kumari seeking her annual blessings. Instead of breathing fire down Katuwal’s neck, the premier’s throat seemed to parch. The military, the top general asserted, would follow all legitimate orders. It was after that affirmation, we are told, that Koirala started considering himself the first detainee of an impending military takeover.

Is the premier’s position really that shaky? The interim legislature can’t really oust Koirala. Certainly not without the two-thirds majority the non-Nepali Congress parties don’t have.

Can the house pass a resolution of intent to usher in a republic that could undermine the premier? Not one that could be written into the interim statute or could be binding on a putative constituent assembly. For that to happen, the cabinet – which the Maoists are no longer part of– would have to sponsor the relevant motion. And here, too, the premier stands above the two-thirds threshold.

So there must be a more profound issue involved. Something that ties into the riddle as to why didn’t Koirala take the interim president bait dangled from across the southern border. Did the democrat in him abhor the idea of anointment? Or did the nationalist in him – as odd as that might sound – see through the “South Asian statesman” appellation his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, had conferred on him last year? Or was it something as simple as Ganesh Man Singh’s declining the premiership in 1990 – frailty of body and mind?

If that’s what it is, why, then, this infirmity of the spirit? Could despondency be Koirala’s way of bowing to the inevitable without the appearance of so much as tilt? Nothing, after all, can be left to coincidence when it comes to Koirala.

Ever since his party virtually ditched B.P. Koirala’s national reconciliation policy by deciding to go for a republic, the prime minister has been articulating its principal tenet more assiduously. After cryptically claiming that Nepal’s sovereignty was under threat, Koirala now has been affirming his refusal to compromise on either democracy or nationalism.

Of course, he has been reinforcing his anti-palace plank by asserting that reconciliation herewith would be with the Nepalese people, the real symbol of national unity. Could that latter remark have some greater import? Such as, say, recognition of India’s traditional machinations?

The only time Koirala ever came out in public against India was after his resignation in 2001. He accused the palace and India of masterminding the Maoist insurgency to subvert multiparty democracy. After both protested, Koirala gave a vague appearance of a retraction.
Something must have triggered his sovereignty-in-danger stance. Was it Indian Ambassador Shiv Shankar Mukherjee’s wide-ranging talks with King Gyanendra at Narayanhity the evening the government announced the nationalization of the palaces? Not the content of the discussions, but the mere fact that the palace as well as the embassy considered it convenient enough to spread the news?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Koirala’s Crown Of Thorns

So Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala has lost patience with King Gyanendra. Evidently, the fact that the monarch trailed the acting head of state to Kumari Ghar by an hour to seek the blessings of the “living goddess” hasn’t mitigated the circumstance.
Koirala rung up royal secretary Pashupati Bhakta Maharjan demanding an explanation for this act of defiance. (One wonders why he chose not to summon Maharjan to the prime minister’s residence.) Then the premier stared down army chief Rookmangad Katuwal with a demand to whittle down the palace’s security personnel. (To what avail, one might ask, considering the kumari’s consent to adorn the royal forehead.)
Koirala’s discontent is understandable. His debut at Indra Jatra – that ultimate symbol of his usurpation of royal religious rights – was hardly propitious. The kumari’s chariot malfunctioned, among other things, sending shivers down the spines of the more traditional constituencies of the capital. Koirala must have wondered whether the omen applied to himself or to the king.
There is a deeper malaise. Having finally acknowledged that Nepal’s sovereignty and independence were imperiled, the premier hasn’t been able to rally the cabinet, much less the nation, behind him. More and more people consider him the cause of this impending jeopardy and want him to shed his penchant for the cryptic. Clearly, there can be no grandeur in a design wrapped in a riddle for so long.
Indeed, the Nepali Congress’ reunification marked a personal vindication for the premier. Five years ago, Sher Bahadur Deuba and other dissidents broke away from the party primarily because they didn’t like their onetime mentor. If anything, their return represented a collective reversal of that sentiment.
No one expected a historically fractious party to shed that legacy. But the Nepali Congress’ post-reunification amity couldn’t last a day. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, the only surviving founder, quit the Nepali Congress less in defense of the monarchy than in defiance of his longtime nemesis.
The “royalist” wing of the party – led by the premier’s daughter, Sujata – seems to be stockpiling for a battle a little further down the road. For now, the Nepali Congress’ platform of republicanism has allowed candor to overwhelm conviction. That alone portends the agonizing wait Nepalis must endure for constituent assembly elections.
Steroid shots or not, Koirala seems eager to keep up his head of state swagger and shtick. The artifice is most apparent when it comes to officiating tradition. A family background of brazen agnosticism doesn’t quite gel with the religious demands of his elevation. And certainly less so in an officially secular nation. It’s hard to believe that our premier has become a born-again Hindu of sorts.
Koirala, to be sure, doesn’t have the luxury of taking on the Maoists and the monarchy together. The last time he did that, he ended up reading out his resignation speech before the TV cameras. With Sher Bahadur Deuba growing more sympathetic of the Maoists’ increasingly strident pre-election demands, Koirala must be quite aware of the other parallels at play.
As for the Maoists, the ex-ministers can’t quit venting their exasperation with the absolutism they saw in full regalia at Baluwatar. There’s no public sign of the ex-rebels’ reversion to their pre-February 1, 2005 proximity vis-à-vis the palace on issues of nationalism. The atmosphere is conducive enough, though. (The fully proportional voting system the Maoists are demanding would help the opposite extreme of the spectrum as well, wouldn’t it?)
Since the premier has now firmly trained his guns on the palace, there must be some inclination to squeeze the trigger a bit harder. The logical question is obvious. Will we now see a special session of the interim legislature adopt that formal resolution abolishing the monarchy?
It all depends on how deep Koirala’s outrage really is. It’s possible, after all, that the premier merely sought to deflect the Nepali Congress delegation’s dissatisfaction by voicing some of his own. And, of course, give some respite to the Maoists.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

History As Tragedy And Farce

For a nation hurtling toward a nebulous newness, history is becoming an increasingly hard thing to beat. The political discourse is oscillating wildly between Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 and the storming of the Bastille a century and a half earlier.
Considering the way things are going, Prachanda & Co. may actually end up bypassing the constituent assembly to seize full state power. Whether they would be able to keep it is a different matter.

A cluster of the chatterati has shifted course. Having considered Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala a potential Alexander Kerensky for the past year and a half, this group is now firmly attuned to the French Revolution. Never since Jang Bahadur Rana’s voyage to France has the name Napoleon loomed so large over Nepal.

In a realm of perpetual ranters, replacing an absolute monarchy and feudal privileges for the aristocracy with the principles and practices of liberty, equality and fraternity becomes too hard to resist.

Cautionary tales of how the subsequent reign of terror led to the restoration of the monarchy in France become badges of defeatism. To be sure, two additional revolutions eventually gave that country its modern democratic polity. Whether the Maoists would let Nepalis complete that cycle of history remains unclear. Tragedy and farce have collaborated in a hugely sinister way well before a recurrence of that history.

Shooting the messenger has become the sport of the season. When Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, the man who oversaw Nepal’s transition to democracy in 1990 as interim prime minister, recently admonished republicans within the Nepali Congress, the conversation instantly shifted to his purported senility. The following day, the old man paid a visit to Crown Prince Paras in hospital to prove his lucidity.

It is easy to dismiss the royalism led by the likes of Khum Bahadur Khadka and Govinda Raj Joshi as rank rancidity. (Add Sujata Koirala to this camp and people start covering their noses harder.) Sleazebags they may be, but these two men – both as former home ministers – know the Maoists better than anyone else does.

True, Khadka had famously vowed to crush the insurgency within a week. Yet that may have had less to do with hubris than with history. Khadka, after all, had seen two Nepali Congress-led insurgencies fizzle on account of geopolitics.

Let’s not miss the broader picture here. Khadka was on the same flight B.P. Koirala and Ganesh Man Singh took to Kathmandu with their national reconciliation program in 1976. The mid-air conversation must have covered much more than the quality of their impending incarceration.

Joshi, for his part, was booted from the cabinet by then-premier Koirala after he savaged the military for silently watching the rebels clobber the cops in early 2001. That, in retrospect, was when the minister and the generals were on opposite sides. Time and space have chastened Khadka and Joshi – and the Maoists know that. It’s no coincidence that the ex-rebels have singled them out for “physical action”.

When these men assert that the Nepali Congress would be, in essence, digging its own grave by espousing republicanism, they are perhaps merely conceptualizing a collectivization of calamity. As free thinkers, the party rank and file enjoy the freedom to head in any direction – including the subterranean.

For the nation at large, there’s that nagging question. If the Nepali Congress central committee’s mere decision to draft a post-monarchy manifesto is enough to precipitate a Maoist pullout from the interim government, what might a complete immersion in republicanism produce?

With Prime Minister Koirala on steroids and Maoist supremo Prachanda straining with spondalytis, the national oscillation can only get odder.

Monday, September 17, 2007

New Delhi To Beijing Via Kathmandu?

He came. He saw. But did he conquer?
Winding up his talks in Kathmandu, Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon stood firm on the constituent assembly elections being held as scheduled on November 22. Everything else – such as an immediate declaration of a republic by the interim parliament – remains an internal matter for Nepal. Southern non-interference at its best, perhaps.
But there’s that larger question. Did Menon arrive to patch things up among the fractious eight parties in power? Or was he in town essentially to prepare for the next phase of his country’s strategic dialogue with China. Menon’s Chinese itinerary, it may be recalled, was flashed as he was landing in Kathmandu.
The 123 Agreement between India and the United States on civilian nuclear cooperation has brought some interesting Chinese perspectives germane to Nepal. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has been most vocal in admonishing New Delhi against annoying Beijing. The public face of this “China’s-interest-is-our-interest” lobby is none other than Sitaram Yechuri, the man instrumental in bringing about the Seven Party Alliance (SPA)’s 12-point agreement with the Maoists.
Yechuri’s Chinese activism coincided with the intensification of Beijing’s concerns over the quadrilateral strategic interaction involving India, Japan, the United States and Australia. China, needless to say, views this enterprise as one aimed at countering its naval power and presence in the Bay of Bengal/ Indian Ocean region.
New Delhi knows that The New York Times and The Economist have been more critical of the US-India nuclear deal than the Chinese media. Yet South Block is still to recover the pre-shock from President Hu Jintao’s visit to India last year. The Chinese, to recall, had adopted a sharp tone on the border issue, especially on Tawang. The Chinese ambassador in New Delhi asserted his country’s claim on the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. That cast a dark shadow over a visit that was marked by a reaffirmation of the world’s two most popular nations’ intent to bolster ties. In the cooperation-competition-confrontation paradigm, New Delhi remains clueless as to Beijing’s motives and methods in South Asia.
What’s China up to in Nepal? The tealeaves are too crumpled to decipher. India’s “free” newspapers convey the official quandary with great candor; China’s “controlled” media relishes in fueling the guessing game.
The fact that Chinese Ambassador Zheng Xianglin became the first foreign representative to present his credentials to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala raised an important question. Was the gesture a symbol of a monumental policy shift on the part of Beijing, which has traditionally backed the monarchy over pro-Chinese communists? Or was it an affirmation of Beijing’s recognition of the interim constitution? (In which case the term “interim” becomes operative.)
Days later Ambassador Zheng began reaffirming Marshal Chen Yi’s Nepal Doctrine in a way not heard since, well, the original articulation decades ago. The premium put on Nepal’s sovereignty came out loud and clear, regardless of whether the country remained a kingdom or became a republic.
From New Delhi’s vantage point, Beijing’s stance vis-à-vis the Maoists remains nebulous. Ex-rebel supremo Prachanda had demanded at least one of the four major ambassadorships. Considering China’s policy of pragmatism that led to its growing ties with the Maoists, Beijing would have been the logical capital for our comrades to camp in. But, no, the Maoists relented.
Are our northern neighbors still testing the bona fides of the Maoists? That sudden slip into Silguri or Sikkim – wherever it was – couldn’t have earned Prachanda high marks. Prachanda’s audience with President Hu could still be on the cards. For now, Delhi seems more interested in Beijing’s eagerness in becoming a steady supplier of petroleum products.
So Menon and his doubly divine partial namesake heading Delhi’s sprawling mission in Kathmandu have left things in limbo. The saving grace, of course, was Prachanda’s newfound enthusiasm for a legislative declaration of a republic to be endorsed by the constituent assembly. As Nepalis try to sort out this internal matter, all we can do is wait for the next couple of moves on the regional chessboard.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Hegemon Hectored By Its Own Haughtiness

From the jumble called the peace process comes another rare flash of candor. Nepal Workers and Peasants Party (NWPP) President Narayan Man Bijukchhe insists that the elections to the constituent assembly would be held only at India’s pleasure.
Before mocking his assertion as an obsequious affirmation of India’s omnipotence, we must delve into the man’s record. Bijukchhe was the first politician to criticize the Seven Party Alliance (SPA)’s 12-point agreement with the Maoists during King Gyanendra’s direct rule.
Of course, Bijukchhe sounded a little disingenuous at the beginning, especially since his party is part of the SPA. But the man’s underlying objection was to the notion of selling out national sovereignty in the name of restoring democracy. Almost two years later, that has become the defining trepidation of the nation.
Ponder a little deeper and it becomes clear that Bijukchhe’s statement is no so much an assertion of India’s traditional hegemony in Nepal. It’s the creative ambiguity that New Delhi has perfected as it Nepal policy. Playing all sides of the Nepalese political field is something New Delhi inherited from the British Raj. What has changed recently is the domestic content of India’s imperatives.
While the Indian left, right and center have been conducting bilateral relations with fraternal organizations in Nepal, key institutions, too, seem to be anxious. Army Chief Gen. Rookmangad Katawal’s purported four-hour one-on-one with his Indian counterpart in Australia must count for something when opinion polls show the military as the most trusted institution in Nepal.
In all of this, Indian Ambassador Shiv Shankar Mukherjee is in an unenviable position. In the end, he had to sneak into talks with King Gyanendra. But he couldn’t fold his sofa bed in Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s bedroom. His Excellency’s narration of his palace confabulations at Baluwatar must have elicited more than loud snores from our premier.
The Indians are at a loss for good reason. China’s silence on Nepalese affairs has been as menacing as its increasingly candid statements. Washington, for its part, must have something up its sleeves, especially since James F. Moriarty has returned as ambassador to a country barely 25 kilometers away from where the Maoists had stoned his vehicle.
Ever creative in extending overtures, the Pakistanis scored points by becoming the first foreign government to commiserate with Nepalis during the recent devastating floods. The frequency with which Nepal figures on copy transmitted by the Islamic Republic News Agency and Prensa Latina makes you wonder how far stakeholders in our stability are spread out.
Coming back to the constituent assembly elections, many Nepalis believe the Indians have already drawn up the text the people’s representatives are supposed to draft. Maila Baje strongly disputes those reports. New Delhi already must have drawn up a couple of different drafts conforming to specific scenarios.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A Measure Of Maoist Moderation?

Already facing multi-frontal challenges from party dissidents, Maoist supremo Prachanda now seems to be at odds with his chief representative in the interim government.
Information and Communication Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara asserted the other day that the elections to the constituent assembly will be held as scheduled on November 22. He spoke after Prachanda denied published reports quoting him as demanding another postponement of the balloting.
Maoist No.2 Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, in subsequent comments, indicated that Prachanda’s denial was not really, well, a denial. When the party can’t find an official spokesperson, you are bound to have all kinds of people speaking from all sides of their mouths.
As the spokesman for the interim government, Mahara was perhaps only reiterating the state’s official position on the controversial polls. Yet in many instances in the past, where his party’s position was at variance with the government’s, Mahara chose to maintain a stoic silence.
This sudden propensity for finality, therefore, raises a deeper question. Does Mahara symbolize a distinctive current within the fractious ex-rebels?
A member of the first parliament after the 1990 changes, Mahara represented a forerunner of the Maoists. Before that, during the referendum years, we know him as an active student leader. What Mahara’s official biography doesn’t reveal is that he was once a member of the Nepali Congress student wing.
It’s in this context that Mahara’s recent purported contacts with Prakash Koirala, a minister in King Gyanendra’s cabinet, becomes relevant. As B.P. Koirala’s politically prominent son, Prakash was the man who liaised with Nepali Congress youths. If moderation is what this Maoist now espouses, then he’s probably in good company.
As spokesman for the Maoists until he joined the government, Mahara sought to justify to national and international audiences the imperative of a bloody and destructive armed rebellion to restructure one of the world’s poorest states. Many of those who dismissed the substance of his arguments couldn’t help admire his persistence.
After the collapse of the royal regime, Mahara stressed the urgency of unity between the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists for at least a decade. He was expected to become the principal deputy premier in the interim government.
But somewhere along the peace process the Maoists – as if to heed his call – ceased to be a coalition partner with the SPA, settling instead for a status as the eighth member of the ruling establishment. If Mahara was wounded by this sudden downgrading, he surely couldn’t let the rest of the country know.
As the Prachanda-Baburam and Kiran-Badal factions slug it out for the spokesman’s job, Mahara probably sees some virtue in the full mainstreaming of the ex-rebels at a personal level. Once again, Cambodia becomes instructive here. Our man from Rolpa, the cradle of the world’s first post-communist Red uprising, might be too prominent a Maoist to become a Nepalese Hun Sen.
But would that be sufficient to deter him from pursuing the full mainstreaming of his party – or at least a faction of it? Were Prachanda ever to act on his repeated threats to pull out of the government, Mahara would be the man to watch.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Mr. Flip-Flop’s Fidelity Or Feint?

Madhav Kumar Nepal sees the Maoists as the principal obstacle to the constituent assembly polls. Worse than the regressive right, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) chief claims.
Now is there a subtle signal here? Has the palace improved its standing in the eyes of the UML? Nepal’s assertion a few weeks ago lends credence to suspicions of a shift.
The UML general secretary was the first prominent leader to defend the government’s decision to apportion funds to the royal family through the back door. Of course, the comrade took a circuitous route, arguing that even a prisoner deserved some kind of state allowance. But that trajectory hardly made the context any less revealing.
If anything, Comrade Nepal is the country’s principal flip-flop man. A member of the panel that drafted the 1990 constitution, he couldn’t get his own party fully aboard. General secretary Madan Bhandari had to come out with a multi-point note of dissent before the erstwhile Marxist-Leninist faction announced its critical support for the statute. Ever since, this cluster of comrades, who went on to form the UML, has been battling criticism for trying to have it both ways on almost every issue.
Catapulted to power after the death of Madan Bhandari in a road accident in 1993, Nepal did much to explain the tragedy as a premeditated crime. Once in power, though, Deputy Premier Nepal let the Dasdhunga mishap languish as a cold case.
A party that clobbered the Nepali Congress for pushing the country into the Tanakpur swamp, the UML thrust us deeper in the guise of the Mahakali Package. Nepal cited the Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the parliament the UML government had dissolved as a constitutional coup d’etat. In response, the party arrogated to itself the right to choose the premier even if it meant rehabilitating the erstwhile panchas.
The Mahakali expedition eventually led to the party’s split, which, by some accounts, deprived the UML from winning a majority in the 1999 parliamentary polls. Comrade Nepal accused the government of rigging the results, almost forgetting that the UML was part of it.
After the palace massacre in 2001, not a few diehard royalists felt uneasy at the angle at which Nepal paid obeisance to the newly enthroned monarch. Unfazed, the UML chief urged King Gyanendra to form a commission to probe the palace massacre but refused to sit on it.
He traveled to Silguri for consultations with the Maoists only to acquiesce in the deployment of the full might of the state against the rebels. When the time came for parliament to renew the emergency order, UML MPs ended up waiting for their leader’s wink before voting in the affirmative.
Amid the Nepali Congress split, the comrades thought they had locked up a majority in the impending the mid-term elections. The Maoists weren’t thrilled by that prospect. Ultimately, the UML joined others parties in calling for a postponement of the elections.
We don’t know what Nepal, like other senior politicians, told King Gyanendra before the monarch sacked Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and assumed full executive powers in October 4, 2002. What we do know is that the UML, like most mainstream parties, detected royal regression only after Lokendra Bahadur Chand formed his cabinet.
By winter, Nepal could easily have mobilized several thousand cadres against the palace. Instead, he chose to convene a party convention in Janakpur, confounding the rank and file. The internal divisions the Janakpur conclave brought out must have made it easier for the Maoists and the palace to announce a ceasefire and new peace talks. Comrade Nepal then stepped up his attacks on the monarch, raking up all the old allegations he could recall. Upon completing each round of invective, we were told, he would check whether the palace had called to schedule a swearing-in ceremony. The premier-in-waiting had his daura surwal in immaculate condition wherever he went.
When Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala reneged on his pledge to back Nepal as the consensus candidate for premier, the UML leader began considering alternatives. Deuba’s appointment as premier signified a partial rectification of regression, allowing the UML to pull out of street protests and return to power. Comrade Nepal was awaiting his moment of glory when the monarch took the job of head of government himself.
During the 15-month royal regime, the UML chief set the record among party chiefs for having been incarcerated the longest. Since detention came in stages, Nepal squeezed in a couple of visits to India. During one trip, he castigated the China for arming the royal regime against the people.
After the collapse of the royal regime, Beijing chose to embrace the Maoists, whom the military supplies were targeted against. That must have come as quite a revelation to the UML chief.
Comrade Nepal is well within his rights – as any other Nepali is – to aspire for the premiership. Has he now finally recognized how important it is for others to consider him worthy of the position?

Monday, July 30, 2007

Prachanda’s RAW Deal

Did Maoist-in-Chief Prachanda and key lieutenants slip into Silgudhi for a couple of hours the other day, ahead of the party’s crucial fifth plenary session? The comrades won’t tell us. They probably want us to keep guessing.
So here are some thoughts. Was the visit intended to improve the ex-rebels’ relations with their revolutionary international allies angered by their eagerness to wage peace? Or was it an effort to assuage comrades closer to home that the Nepalese rebels are still wedded to lighting that regional inferno?
It’s more likely that Prachanda & Co. ventured across the border for urgent discussions with their handlers in India’s top spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
After sneaking back into Nepal, Prachanda changed his tune. He began insisting that the Maoists would not quit the government. (So much for the fracas over the sudden deployment of guards from Nepal Army’s “killer” battalion to Maoist ministers.)
So what’s the deal here? If anything, it must revolve around the issue of republicanism. For RAW – or at least the dominant section therein – the monarchy has always been the principal problem. As long as the representative of the creator of the modern Nepali state continues to wield influence in any shape for arm, the logic runs, India would stand to lose.
Consider that contention this way. Every assertion of Nepaliness – which the monarch institutionally and psychologically is inclined to exercise – has been castigated as an abiding quest for autocracy.
What about the firestorm in the interim legislature blaming Indian embankments for the deadly floods in Nepal? The king has no nominees in that body. With Nepaliness having survived the sustained marginalization of the palace, RAW knows it has an uphill battle.
Make no mistake. The end of the monarchy would not guarantee success for RAW. In the ensuing instability, Indian sleuths nevertheless hoped to fortify their posture. That’s why they were so anxious to present the ambivalent political, military and bureaucratic class in New Delhi with a fait accompli.
From RAW’s perspective, the Maoists were ultimately supposed to supplant the palace. The so-called October Revolution was supposed to have inaugurated a new era of hegemony. A year and a half down the road, the ex-rebels don’t seem terribly excited about showing the king the door.
Worse, they are hobnobbing with the Chinese in what may turn out to be a grand palace-Maoist alliance for consolidating Nepaliness. RAW certainly didn’t invest so much over a decade to see Nepali Maoists take that great leap northward.
Sure, some Maoist hardliners are miffed by the way their party has been relegated to the eighth constituent of the ruling alliance. For RAW operatives, the republic cause could come in handy here. The problem is, this group is more anti-Indian than the rest of the bunch.
India had arrested Mohan Baidya and C.P. Gajurel in an effort to preempt any Maoist-palace deal. By depriving Prachanda of these two “nationalist” allies, India forced the Maoist chairman onto an overt pro-Indian path he had purged his deputy, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, for having traversed. In exchange, Prachanda persuaded New Delhi to free both of his allies.
Neither seems to have shed his skepticism vis-à-vis New Delhi’s motives in Nepal. Baidya has become the leading critic of Prachanda’s obsequiousness to India. Gajurel is building bridges to China faster than the Indians can assemble demolition crews.
So what might happen next? Will the Maoists, duly admonished by RAW, persuade other members of the interim legislature to abolish the monarchy right away and then promote themselves into constituent assembly elections? Or will the ex-rebels declare Nepal a republic during their upcoming meeting?
Either way, Prachanda has fortified himself. It’s hard count the number of times he has reminded us how King Gyanendra is under no compulsion to pack up and leave Nepal just because interim legislators or ex-rebels say so.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Premier Koirala’s Military Maneuvers

Is he wooing the generals or is he wilting under them? Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s new-found habit of dropping in on Army HQ for national security updates had already raised eyebrows. The latest foray has been truly hair-raising.
The abruptness with which a new group of soldiers descended to protect Maoist ministers has triggered one of the most serious crises the Eight-Party Alliance has faced. Army HQ insists the men were not from the Bhairabnath Gan the Maoists seem to dread. Our ex-rebels remain so unimpressed that they have threatened to quit the government.
If Koirala’s intention in hobnobbing with the top brass is to intimidate the Maoists into the democratic mainstream, the outcome could go either way. Today’s army may have shed its royal prefix, but it mission has not. The Maoists, of all political forces, understand that the Nepal Army’s primary and conventional role is to defend the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Nepal. The military’s official website clearly mentions that providing assistance to the civilian government in the maintenance of internal security is the force’s secondary mission.
On the other hand, the Maoists, like the rest of us, recognize how different today’s Nepal is than that of February 2005 or April 2006. The military, moreover, remains the most segregated institution. With the Terai in flames, it’s hard to see how a band of armed and professional pahadis could help solve the problem. (Installing Upendra Yadav as premier of an army-backed government might be a good first step but it certainly won’t be sufficient.)
But there are other dynamics at play, which both Koirala and Maoist supremo Prachanda recognize. By meeting him at the party office, British Ambassador Andrew Hall – and the European Union he represents for the rest of the year – may have conferred a smattering of legitimacy on Prachanda’s former warriors. But The Fierce One must have been flustered by London’s eagerness to roll out the red carpet for Army chief Gen. Rookmangad Katuwal.
Nepal’s army always has had a political color. After November 2001, when it was deployed against the rebels, it has exuded greater political assertiveness. The generals have had powerful external allies.
In early 2002, Colin Powell, then US secretary of state, chose to confer with the incumbent army chief, Gen. Prajwal Shamsher Rana, without the presence of a single civilian official hosting America’s top diplomat.
A few months later, when President George W. Bush received Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in the Oval Office with an admonition to “finish off” the rebels, Gen. Katuwal was part of the delegation waiting outside.
The generals may have persuaded King Gyanendra to assume direct power. Fifteen months later, they also counseled the monarch to restore the House of Representatives.
After the palace’s capitulation, they were scolded for having offered the traditional salute to the king at Hanuman Dhoka and Dakshinkali. Their absence from the royal birthday bash raised new ominous questions. One recent opinion poll even showed the military as the most trusted national institution.
As for our original question, with this kind of convolution, it really doesn’t matter whether Koirala is wooing or wilting.

Monday, July 16, 2007

What’s Really Going For Nepali Congress Unity

At times, the initiative to reunite the two Nepali Congress parties must seem sickening to the faithful on both sides. One morning, it looks like Girija Prasad Koirala and Sher Bahadur Deuba are just seconds away from sealing a deal. The next, unity seems an impossible undertaking. Then some senior Congress leader comes out with a timetable. And the cycle continues.
When the Nepali Congress split in 2002, it merely formalized the factional infighting that brought down the Koirala government in 1994. Deuba’s dissolution of the House of Representatives may have provided the trigger, but the actual foot soldiers – people like Khum Bahadur Khadka, Chiranjivi Wagle, Bijay Gachchadar and Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta – were fully armed. In other words, Koirala protégés turned critics led the charge. Of course, there were natural allies like Prakash Man Singh, the son of senior Koirala critic Ganesh Man Singh. Pradip Giri, once brutally assaulted – we are told – for the simple desire to establish marital relations with the Koirala clan, was another readymade heavyweight.
Demonized as the new Tulsi Giri for his proximity to the palace, Deuba eventually had to chart his course. His Nepali Congress faction seemed to gain the upper hand. The power of incumbency needed only the formal recognition of the Election Commission to precipitate a major realignment of Nepali politics.
Somewhere down the road, something went wrong. The Koirala Congress got formal recognition. The Democratic suffix was probably redundant, given the Nepali Congress history, but it sounded good enough for the Deuba Derby to go the polls with.
With parliament gone, Deuba didn’t have to worry about the kinds of machinations Koirala engineered to bring down his government in 1996. Unfortunately for the premier, the other parties were no less active outside the chambers. They pressed Deuba to recommend a postponement of the elections, and specifically instructed him to rebuff King Gyanendra should the monarch seek the premier’s resignation.
Some of the same people advised King Gyanendra to dismiss Deuba should he become adamant about his popular mandate.
After King Gyanendra’s October 4, 2002 intervention, Deuba ended up in a far worse state than B.P. Koirala’s after King Mahendra’s takeover 42 years earlier. Sure, Deuba avoided incarceration. But let’s not forget that the 1959 constitution empowered the monarch to dismiss the elected prime minister.
The Tulsi Giri appellation stuck on Deuba. For the next two-plus years, the mainstream parties didn’t consider him a worthy member of the anti-palace alliance. When Deuba was reappointed premier in 2004, adherents of Koirala’s Grand Design Theory were outraged.
It was only when the real Tulsi Giri returned from decades of exile to become King Gyanendra’s principal deputy in the royal regime that Deuba was rehabilitated.
Today the preponderance of the Maoists and other communists in the national firmament has made Congress unity an imperative. But has the principal circumstance really changed? Nepali Congress (Democratic) leaders may have changed their view on Koirala, but they don’t seem to have on Koirala-ism.
True, Khum Bahadur Khadka returned to Koirala’s party, but he did that to spite Deuba. (Koirala made a phone call to Khadka in detention inquiring about his health, while Deuba was too busy advancing his own victimhood.) Most of the other Nepali Congress (Democratic) leaders don’t seem to want a united party just to see it packed with younger Koiralas.
There is one thing going for unity, though. The Nepali Congress may have turned fiercely republican these days. With the communists dominant everywhere, the oldest democratic party doesn’t see the kind of republic it wants. General Secretary and Peace Minister Ram Chandra Poudel has been quite candid in admitting this.
Now Narahari Acharya, the preeminent republican in the party – whom Koirala once called a palace agent – has set forth his ‘ganarajya’ school of thought. That hasn’t found too many takers within. Worse, critics have been portraying Acharya’s model as a backdoor to national disintegration.
The prime factor, however, lies in the popular mood. Around half the country still wants some kind of monarchy, according to most surveys. Now who might be able to tap into this vote? The question must be worrying both factions, especially after how the equally fractious ex-panchas united for King Gyanendra’s birthday.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Brooding After The Birthday Bash

Fiasco or fright? Fewer than 200 out of the 800 or so invitees showed up for King Gyanendra’s diamond jubilee dinner. Anywhere between 2,000 and 15,000 thronged the palace to greet the monarch on his 61st birthday.
The Maoist Young Communist League (YCL) had vowed to scuttle the celebrations, but fell short. Politicos and pundits within the Seven Party Alliance had dismissed the celebrations as irrelevant. They, too, had their eyes glued on the turnout. Leading anti-monarchy publications carried editorials on the worthlessness of the three-day extravaganza, ignoring the apparent contradiction therein.
You’d think the SPA constituents would tone down their criticism of the YCL goons for a while. But, no, new apprehensions have emerged. Did the YCL politicize the royal bash as part of a Maoist understanding with the palace? Could it be purely coincidental, moreover, that influential sections of the Indian media chose this moment to allude to King Gyanendra’s “open channels” to the Maoists and the madhesis?
Things became really unbearable for the ruling elite when the palace sent out those invitations. For almost a year and half, they’ve tried everything to discredit the monarchy. Asia’s most humiliated man, in the words of a leading critic, somehow seems impervious to disgrace.
Yet that’s not the real problem. Most opinion polls still show the country evenly split on the issue of abolishing the monarchy. According to a survey by one weekly newspaper, over half of the respondents believed it was impolite of the diplomatic corps to have rebuffed the palace invitation.
It’s immaterial whether the Foreign Ministry really had urged the ambassadors to shun the palace. The justification the envoys gave was revealing. In the existing circumstances, they suggested, attending the celebrations would not be useful. Implicit in the emphasis on the present are the possibilities of the future.
The monarchy remains in suspension, awaiting the verdict of the constituent assembly. The prime minister, having started receiving the credentials of ambassadors, is now the chief spectator of Machhindranath’s bhoto.
Like any other recipient of a suspension order, the monarchy, too, can reclaim its role, provided the elected assembly votes to retain the crown. As a taxpayer without direct links to state institutions, the king could perhaps expect greater representation in national life.
What if the elections continue to be postponed for one reason or the other? The SPA and Maoists can’t go on blaming the palace without exposing their own ineptitude. Surely, moreover, there must be some sort of a statute of limitations. The monarchy can’t be expected to wait eternally for a constituent assembly to assemble. Could this be why Surya Bahadur Thapa and Pashupati Shamsher Rana, whose parties have dropped constitution monarchy from their statutes, nevertheless chose to greet King Gyanendra in their personal capacity?
Then there’s the conspicuous absence of Army chief Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal and his principal deputies from the festivities? Is this another indication that the military has severed its traditional links with the crown? Or could it be an admonition from the top brass to ordinary Nepalis not to equate that much-anticipated coup with that cliché called royalist regression?
The SPA government has ruled the country as long as the royal regime. As Nepal’s problems multiply, the ruling alliance believes it can set things straight once it gets the monarchy out of the way. It has the interim mandate and the necessary votes in the interim legislature to do just that before the constituent assembly elections. So why can’t they vote in a republic by acclamation?
Surely, not because they have lost some of their hatred for the monarchy. Nor because they have grown more fearful of the Maoists. It’s because they know they haven’t earned the trust of the country – and beyond – as post-monarchy custodians.