Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Now, That’s An Awesome Price, Comrade

It turns out that socket bombs catapulted Maoist leaders into the interim legislature and brought combatants government dole.
The United Nations says it can account for all but two of the 3,430 weapons the military says the rebels seized from them. From their initial reaction, the generals seem to be satisfied with this 99.94169 recovery rate.
Ian Martin, the head of the UN Mission in Nepal, agrees that there is a “striking difference” between the number of weapons registered and the number of combatants. “There would undoubtedly be a continuing argument as to whether the numbers showed that the Maoists had complied with their commitments to register all their weapons,” he adds in a remarkably candid session with reporters at UN headquarters in New York.
But the United Nations could not make a definite judgment, Martin says, placing the ball squarely on the government’s court. The government, for its part, is too busy figuring out a way to punish King Gyanendra for delivering his Democracy Day message.
Naturally, Prachanda has to speak. He claims a large number of the rebels’ tools of destruction were grenades and homemade bombs, which he said the United Nations did not register as weapons. (Not that those men and women are lazy. Who’s to say some of these crude devices wouldn’t have exploded in the monitors’ faces?)
Moreover, according to Prachanda, many of their weapons were destroyed in fire and swept away by river during the conflict. (Translation: if everyone’s so interested in exact numbers, why does no one ask Girija Prasad Koirala about the substantial arsenal the Nepali Congress maintained even after Indira Gandhi requisitioned those supplies for the Bangladesh front in the early 70s?)
Prachanda’s anger is understandable. The madhesi and janjatis movements have exposed the big lie that the Maoists were fighting for ethnic and geographical equity.
From the way the Supreme Court ordered the release of royalist ministers, the Maoist supremo can’t keep blaming the palace for the trouble in the Terai. Unless, of course, he is prepared to dismiss the justices as royal stooges. In that case, the Maoists would have to become more explicit in their revisionism. They can’t go on insisting that an institution that supposedly has one branch of government in its pocket is in any way on its last breath.
With Martin adding his voice to fears that the constituent assembly elections might not be held on schedule, Prachanda’s last political link with the “People’s War” is slipping away. At one public meeting, Prachanda insists the interim legislature will vote to declare a republic. But his own MPs can’t enter the chamber unarmed.
At another meeting, the Maoist supremo claims a legislative vote abolishing the monarchy won’t amount to much until the people start flooding the streets again. Since the Maoists lacked both the courage and conviction to storm the Narayanhity during the height of April Uprising, it’s unlikely they’ll get a second chance.
Reframing the debate, Prachanda then claims one group has allocated Rs.600 million to kill him. Now why would he believe his head carries such an awesome price, especially with all those pressure cooker bombs lying unaccounted for?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

‘Reactionary’ Ruminations

The Seven Party Alliance monopolizes the levers of power and the Maoists are inside the interim legislature. Yet King Gyanendra – “Asia’s most humiliated man” in the words of one staunch critic – can still speak with candor and conviction. No wonder the new aristocracy is up in arms.
Consider the core complaint: King Gyanendra attempt to “justify” his February 1, 2005 “coup”. Is that a crime? Moreover, if justifying the unjustifiable were the issue here, the royal message would hardly have warranted a murmur of protest.
The content is not in dispute. The sequence of events that led to October 4, 2002 is before everyone. As for the 15 months after the February 1, 2005 takeover, the king has taken responsibility for its failures – without losing an iota of his conviction. Clearly, it’s his reference to “successes” that has riled his critics.
Like most things in life, success is a relative term. It’s not much fun living in a twilight zone once you recognize you’re about to be stuck eternally between light and dark. The promise of a new Nepal loses its luster when the purveyors act little better than medieval clan chieftains.
Our eight chiefs have the power to rule by decree but they are deadlocked on virtually everything. We don’t even know what happened to Commerce Minister Hridayesh Tripathy’s resignation letter, if he ever submitted one to the prime minister.
On the other hand, listening to Pasang Sherpa and Upendra Yadav put forth their grievances on BBC Nepali Service in almost chaste Nepali, it becomes truly hard to forget King Mahendra. If that much-maligned Article 127 of the last constitution has started acquiring new respectability, don’t blame the palace.
Given the thoroughness with which he has been exposed since that Global Leadership Conference in New Delhi, Maoist chairman Prachanda is perhaps entitled to the loudest grumble. His refrain that feudal forces within and reactionaries forces abroad are trying to obstruct the constituent assembly elections in an effort to save the monarchy does sound state. But it begs the logical next question. Why? Weren’t these external forces the same ones that helped sideline the palace in April?
What changed over the months? China’s downing of its own satellite, thereby reverting Nepal to Washington’s pre-9/11 China calculus? Or recognition down south of the risks inherent in the Yechuri Option? Coupled, of course, by the swiftness with which Nepal has returned as a keyword on India-datelined terrorism stories. Our northern neighbors, too, must be wondering whether loktantra has had a hand in all that fuss Richard Gere is making about a handful of illegal border crossings.
After his recent speech, Gen. Dilip Shamsher Rana came in for familiar criticism from familiar quarters. Could there be a new factor at play here, such as, say, disenchantment within the ranks over the equation of a professional fighting force with a band of trigger-happy thugs reared in a belief system the rest of the world hates far more than it does the monarchy?
Clearly, the only gamble King Gyanendra took on February 1, 2005 was in tethering his agenda too tightly to the north. Could our next reactionary revival come with western and southern -- in addition to northern – support?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Constitutionalism’s Comeback?

King Gyanendra’s Democracy Day message came loaded with a dose of political candor reminiscent of the era of active monarchy. The message, almost entirely unexpected, has sparked a predictable array of responses.
If a monarchy, for all practical purposes, in suspended animation has violated the interim constitution (in no better shape, one must add, considering the amendments being mulled), at least it wasn’t the side that started it. The government had overstepped its constitutional authority by forming a commission to probe the attack on King Gyanendra’s motorcade at Pashupati on Shivaratri.
Clearly, the interim constitution doesn’t recognize the monarchy. Nor have the arbiters of a new Nepal demonstrated the courage to confer on the king the rights and prerogatives of an ordinary citizen. They have allocated state funds to the royal family and tremble every time they discover that the disbursements remain untouched. Yet the government rushed to order an investigation into a physical attack that came nowhere close to the sustained calumny it has been heaping on the palace for the last 10 months.
King Gyanendra must have thought through his message. You can hardly quibble with the facts. With government-driven deaths during the Terai conflagration having outpaced the April Uprising toll, the context also becomes clear.
By delivering his defense of the February 1, 2005 takeover on Democracy Day, the monarch has brought to light other points. Let’s begin by considering the flip side of his profuse tributes to his grandfather. The return of King Tribhuvan from New Delhi dealt the final blow to King Gyanendra’s brief first reign. That maybe a worthless part of Nepali history to those ascendant today. It remains a significant element of the continuity of the monarchy Nepalis have hitherto experienced. Moreover, it puts the role of the current monarch in proper perspective.
Next comes the question of whether democracy actually dawned on Nepal on Fagun 7, 2007. Obviously, the anti-palace camp, including those in the Nepali Congress, believes not.
What this also means is that the Nepali Congress would have to redefine itself. Can it consider itself to be the oldest – and even only – democratic party in Nepal? Moreover, can it claim to have delivered democracy to the people twice before the rent-a-crowd tumult of last April?
And the CPN-UML? When Jhal Nath Khanal is forced to quote B.P. Koirala in describing how the Nepali people can survive without the monarchy, you get a feeling of his relevance to the debate. When you hear J.N. Comrade borrow Mod Nath Prashrit’s line and cite Buddha-era Lumbini as the paragon of Nepali republicanism, the world progressive become a little repulsive.
The Maoists are caught in their own web of lies. As if the Madhesis and janajatis haven’t done enough damage by exposing the ex-rebel top brass’ opportunism, the Indian military remains adamant in asserting their links with the ISI. C.P. Gajurel has all but conceded that Prachanda’s obsequious assertion of the Maoists having rejected ISI offers of assistance in the past was merely aimed at securing his (Gajurel’s) and Mohan Baidya’s release from Indian detention.
So when Krishna Bahadur Mahara says he believes the king’s message has underscored the urgency of establishing a republic right away, you have to ask whether he really believes this ruse can work, But, then, his party doesn’t seem to object to placing a four-year-old on the throne as long as the former rebels get the lion’s share of seats on the Regency Council.
There is a bright side to the outrage triggered by King Gyanendra’s message: a recognition of the need for a modicum of constitutionalism by those who thought they had a mandate to dispense with such distractions.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Pope’s Pre-Shivaratri Benediction

If anyone had it all worked out these bewildering past months, it surely was Pope Benedict XVI. Nine months after the secularization of the Nepali state, the pontiff has elevated the Apostolic Prefecture of Nepal to the rank of apostolic vicariate. This means Nepal will now have its very own bishop.
The Vatican press office announced over the weekend that the Pope had appointed Father Anthony Sharma, 69, as the first apostolic vicar of Nepal. He is currently the apostolic prefect of Nepal. Born in Katmandu in 1937, Father Sharma entered the Society of Jesus in 1956 and was ordained a priest in 1968. He spent years in India, teaching in the area of Darjeeling, and he was rector of St. Joseph's College.
He was appointed ecclesiastical superior of Nepal in 1984. When Pope John Paul II elevated the “sui iuris” mission of Nepal to the rank of apostolic prefecture, Father Sharma became its first apostolic prefect.
The Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal counts 6,600 Catholics in a population of 23.7 million. It has five parishes, two churches that are virtually parishes, six mission stations and 22 substations, served by 11 diocesan priests and 40 religious priests. There are five major seminarians and 112 women religious. In addition, the Church has 44 educational and 16 charitable institutions.
That’s the most complete account of the Roman Catholic Church’s presence in the country. Apart, of course, from the periodic updates the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies in India have been providing.
Many of our officially atheist Maoist leaders are actually Christians, the BJP mouthpiece, Organizer, notes. During the royal regime, the party sounded pretty confident that a republican Nepal would retain a Hindu identity. It was only after legions of Church-based news services rejoiced over the demolition of this Hindu theocracy that the saffron brigade came to its senses.
Yet the BJP should know better than to quibble over what it could not have controlled. Under Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, a Hindu rastra stood little chance of surviving. And not only because of the Congress president’s faith-based initiative.
Sonia probably still holds that grudge over having been disallowed into the Pashupatinath premises during the 1987 SAARC summit in Kathmandu. (She should have simply walked in. With her hair color and sari, who would have recognized her as a no-no? But, then, Nepal’s political transformation was to take precedence.)
Yet that no-entry stricture must pale in Sonia’s mind when juxtaposed with that religious ritual the world’s only Hindu monarch purportedly sponsored against her husband. Let’s not forget the disclosure emerged as part of the investigation on the conspiracy behind Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. With some viewing the European Union as a revival of the Holy Roman Empire, the question of faith is becoming relevant beyond conspiracy theorists in the most secular settings.
Admittedly, it would be pointless to play up the role of one woman, two Germans (the Pope and the EU current chief, Prime Minister Angela Merkel) or a band of former rebels as somehow defining the character and content of a new Nepal. Yet it is baffling how believers and atheists could come together in fellowship. Or perhaps not. It’s probably better to be an atheist – by definition amenable to faithfulness – than to be idolatrous in 330 million ways.
It took a Buddhist monk, Bhante Girivargyana, to point to a historical coincidence: The first Capuchin priests came to Nepal in 1740s when the Pope was Benedict XV. Just imagine how different things might have been had Captain Kinloch’s expeditionary force survived malaria and saved Jaya Prakash Malla from Prithvi Narayan Shah’s juggernaut. No wonder this Shivaratri is so full of political content.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Demolition Crew’s Royalist Ruse

Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and his Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) colleagues probably still nurse grievances from the 1990-2002 phase of Nepali democracy. All those noises over corruption, nepotism, abuse of power, indifference from civil society organizations, the media and a motley crew of unelected and unaccountable quarters.
Yet the SPA constituents probably weren’t expecting the Demolition Derby to swing back so fast and strike so hard.
Take Dr. Devendra Raj Pandey’s statement absolving royalists of any role in the Madhes conflagration. What impelled our embodiment of civil society to jump to such a sweeping conclusion against the ruling elite’s accepted wisdom?
Certainly not any residual nostalgia for the royalist decades that allowed him to climb the Finance Ministry ladder all the way up to the secretary’s wing before he made a virtue of insubordination to the premier on the eve of the referendum in 1980.
In fairness, Dr. Pandey may have been truly overwhelmed by the genuineness of the Madhesis’ grievances. His conclusion may even be considered an act of contrition for his own inability to address the Terai’s concerns in his various incarnations in public life.
But how does that rule out the possibility of extraneous fishermen riveted on their own catch in the troubled waters? Surely Dr. Pandey’s failure to recognize familiar faces in the angry crowds could not have automatically empowered him to pronounce an acquittal verdict.
The most plausible explanation may sound the most cynical. But Dr. Pandey may have come to the royalists’ rescue only to embarrass the Koirala government. Of course, it would be unfair to single him out here. Daman Nath Dhungana is still infuriated by the SPA’s cold-shouldering of civil society while appointing representatives to the interim legislature and is quite candid about that.
Although he hasn’t expressed any such sentiment in so many words, Padma Ratna Tuladhar must be in discomfort now that Prachanda can meet Koirala in full public view. (Krishna Pahadi must be doubly injured, now that the Madhesi movement has, in the words of one astute blogger, regionalized his aura.)
The restoration of the democratic process has encouraged the media, too, to revert to subversion. The Fourth Estate, which considers itself the sole claimants to the invulnerability it despises in despots it sees everywhere else, has squandered few opportunities to undercut the new aristocracy. The timing of all those SMS polls, inquiries into royal finances and assertions on how Madhesis have not received such a raw deal makes their underlying content suspect.
Most Nepalis now recognize how easily and equally power can be abused under palace or party rule. They are perceptive enough to extrapolate the extent these ills would reach under the Maoists.
If the SPA-Maoist alliance was deemed good enough to marginalize the “autocratic” palace then maybe the constituents are good enough to try to navigate through the choppy seas. At a minimum, those who hailed the House of Representatives Proclamation as Nepal’s Magna Carta shouldn’t be the first ones baying for the drafters’ blood.
As to the royalists, since the government continues to hold the three ex-ministers regime, we can proceed on the premise that they may have had a hand in the southern inferno. What’s the next logical step? One weekly had a prudent solution: the government should start talking to them.
What do the royalists want? Undo the historic House of Representatives proclamation and restore to all those state institutions the royal prefix? They’re smarter than that. All that hobnobbing with the Hindutva crowd in Birganj last April couldn’t save the royal regime.
Are the royalists fanning the riots to remind us that the only time an authentic Madhise ever rose as high as the deputy premiership under a palace-appointed government (before accepting a demotion months later)? Or is Badri Prasad Mandal a mandale before he is a madhise?
Maybe the royalists want us to make up our minds on who we really are – a collection of conquered peoples consumed by our ancient hatreds or a community of communities that can still try to make the most of our diversity? That National Unity Day, in other words, should have a place on a republican calendar?