Monday, May 28, 2007

A Metaphor For Nepal’s ‘Newness’

Usha Bista has become an apt metaphor for the tentativeness of our trudge toward a new Nepal. A member of the Loktantrik [Democratic] Everest Expedition 2007, Bista was part of a much-hyped endeavor to show the rest of the world how Nepal was advancing toward a post-monarchy pinnacle.
Teammates, firm on setting records of all sorts, ended up abandoning the 22 year old at an altitude of around 8,400 meters. That was after she fell nearly unconscious from swelling in the brain resulting from a scarcity of oxygen.
Earlier this year, expedition members had met with the top leaders of all the eight parties, whose flags they ventured to plant on the summit. As the marginalization of the monarchy proceeded as the one-point national agenda, Bista was at the center of another spin.
She was the first woman from the far-west region, from the Terai as well as from the Chhetri community, to mount an attempt on the world’s tallest mountain. The implication, of course, was that all but one of the Nepali women atop Everest belonged to the Sherpa community.
Discovered beside a path at the so-called “Death Zone” by a member of the Canadian Air Force, Bista was helped down the mountain to the South Col camp. There, British doctors, who had established a laboratory to explore oxygen deficiency in the blood, gave her emergency treatment. They escorted Bista down to a point where she could be picked up by helicopter.
In a nation where platitudes are being peddled as well thought-out plans and policies, Bista’s plight encapsulates the perils of our path. Of course, callousness is not new on our mountains. Two high-profile desertions last year triggered worldwide condemnation, prompting Sir Edmund Hillary to attack the degeneration of a once-lofty adventure into trophy hunting by the wealthy.
This mission was different. Members had an opportunity to prove that loktantra – loosely articulated as democracy without the monarchy – was really anything beyond a slogan epitomizing the Seven Party Alliance’s and the Maoists mutual antipathy for the monarchy.
The fact that climbers continued to tout their own achievements by abandoning a fellow team member in utter distress was bad enough. The reality that the Nepali media was complicit in a cover-up as long as they could is emblematic of loktantra’s manifestation as an exclusive tool for the perpetuation of the SPA-Maoist combine’s monopoly on power.
Surely, those unwilling or unable to go along with the current ground rules are doomed. Anything perceived to stand in the way of a nebulous newness is demonized as feudal, exploitative and antiquated. But when catalysts of change like Bista are abandoned at the first sign of incapacitation, what hope can there be for those outside the establishment perimeter?
There is a more poignant metaphor, though. Nepal is indeed lucky to have foreign friends and well-wishers ready to clean up the debris from our free fall. Surely their patience for platitudes cannot outlast ours.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

When The Reds Start Singing The Blues

The price of power is catching up with the Maoists. Ex-rebel supremo Prachanda and his No. 2 Dr. Baburam Bhattarai are now on antidepressants, one published report tells us.
Neither has denied the report and the specifics of their maladies and treatment plans don’t really matter here. The circumstances leading up to what many considered inevitable do.
For most of us, that gory pile of 13,000 bodies would have been more than enough to precipitate a lifetime of hallucination. (The premise, as always, is that the Maoists started the violence and are responsible for everything.)
For a cluster of top comrades long deluded by a discredited ideology, the ends always justified the means. (One death is a tragedy, anything beyond is a statistic, Uncle Joe told us, didn’t he.)
If some people weren’t prepared to kill and die for their beliefs, well, they didn’t deserve to live in the first place. Battlefield brutality and turgid theorizing offered a solid synthesis for a purpose-driven life.
As long as it was lived subterraneously. The first lights of peace must have proved real distracting to our supremo. The novelty was bound to wear off sooner or later. Sooner in Prachanda’s case, once it emerged that his bite was nowhere as sharp as his bark. His royalist phobia had to be symptomatic of a larger condition.
As for Dr. Bhattarai, you could forgive his abrupt U-turn in the past because they occurred over a period of time. With all the detours, twists, jerks, twists the chief ex-rebel ideologue’s prose took within the first few months of the April Uprising, the aura of erudition had to evaporate.
In fairness, we don’t know whether Prachanda or Dr. Bhattarai have personally killed anything bigger than mosquitoes. Still the number 13,000 must have been etched deeply inside both somewhere. With the blanket of fear lifting so swiftly in the spring of 2006, the Maoists knew they couldn’t count on the docility of ordinary Nepalis.
It must be hard for the honchos to keep track of the non-government quarters gunning for their heads. How many people could really forget that hapless teacher Gyawali as he lay dying tied to that tree? Could relatives and friends of Maoist victims organizer Chilwal be lurking out there somewhere. And the widows and children of the police, soldiers and bureaucrats the “people’s war” claimed. Gaur must seem like a picnic.
And this is just the beginning. How deep does the sense of betrayal really run in the movement? When you have the prime beneficiary of Prachanda’s pro-Indian line, Mohan Baidya, criticizing the supremo’s groveling to the south, things must be real bad.
Krishna Bahadur Mahara was already in parliament in 1991. With enough scheming with the UML and others, Dr. Bhattarai could have plotted a takeover of the state faster with far fewer lives lost and more communication towers standing. The parliamentary route might even have conferred on the Maoists the legitimacy ex-communist Boris Yeltsin enjoyed. The end result of that spree of death and destruction? A seat on the table with seven former foes.
As spokesman for the government, Communications Minister Mahara has to present a unified version of events and ideas to the nation and world. How many qualifiers and caveats can he throw out without undermining his party? Sure the ends justify the means. But that sordid royal-plot CD? Even Goebbels worked within certain rules.
Then there’s Dr. Bhattarai’s defense of his wife, Physical Planning Minister Hisila Yami, in her attempt to keep the capital’s taps dry until she finds someone who looks good enough to run it. Even the Young Communist Leaguers need a decent bath from time to time, don’t they?
The larger question becomes unavoidable. When the Maoists fail to vindicate the Great Helmsman, what becomes of the Nepalis’ reputation for loyalty in times of war as well as peace? All things considered, this whole depression shtick may still be another Maoist ruse. It could help Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai take the insanity defense at any future war-crimes trial, couldn’t it?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Obverse Of Animus: Equivalence

Consider it this way. The Maoist Demolition Crew has redefined the national debate on the monarchy. By pulling King Gyanendra’s predecessors down to his pedestal, the Young Communist Leaguers may have detected a short cut to Year Zero. The obverse, however, is what stands out the most. The Maoists have equated the current monarch with his forebears.
The distinction is more important than it sounds. Remember how, after the Narayanhity Massacre, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai tried to single out King Gyanendra for opprobrium by eulogizing all of his predecessors. (Although, we still don’t know how Doctor Sahab felt about King Dipendra.)
For the rebels, Birendra, Surendra and Rajendra were in the same league as Rana Bahadur and Girban. Tribhuvan and Mahendra, whose temperamental and attitudinal disparateness we were told defined our destiny, were made of the same stuff, too.
Now the Maoists see Prithvi Narayan and Prithvi Bir as worthy of national ire as the rest of our kings. What could this mean at this critical juncture? The Maoists sound equally flustered.
Two weeks ago, Dr. Bhattarai reminded us that no monarchy in the world has been abolished through a constituent assembly. Last week he tried to foist that leadership-line ploy that ended up deepening suspicions of a crippling rift in the ex-rebels’ ranks.
In denouncing the Goebbelsian tactics of his critics, he only emulated the inventor of Big Lie Technique. By the end of his exegesis, the chief ideologue sounded uncharacteristically unsure of whether he should have contradicted his critics or cold-shouldered them.
For the rest of the country, things are crystallizing a bit. Until recently, a lot of people were making a clear distinction between the Maoists’ guns and the monarch’s. Sure, the rebels were fighting for the people – for their people. And now they seem to be fighting within, especially since Hisila Yami trumped Pampha Bhusal to become a minister. (Ms. Yami is probably wondering whether it was worth all that, considering the Melamchi mess.)
Crown Prince Paras, meanwhile, continues to make headlines from a decade-old news peg. Evidently, his more recent purported episodes stood little chance with all those YCL crown princes unleashing their knuckles, fists and elbows all around us.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Chewing On Koirala’s 20-Percent Kernel

The monarchy, according to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s fresh calculation in Biratnagar, has shrunk to a fifth of its pre-April Uprising size. With the Chinese ambassador having formalized the premier’s concurrent status as head of state, Koirala is perhaps being a little generous – even allowing for his hometown-induced exuberance.
This reckoning is bound to enrage Prachanda further. The former (and soon to be?) rebels were already warding off the wrath of fellow Reds in the UML for having registered a proposal in the interim legislature to abolish the monarch without, so to speak, due process.
Illustrating his point, Koirala explained to reporters that King Gyanendra was busy visiting temples and so on as part of a long but inexorable path to citizenry. The monarch, according to other sources, may be doing so as part of his elaborate but surreptitious coronation.
Over a year after his regime collapsed, King Gyanendra reportedly maintains his executive-monarch schedule. He maintains regular office hours, voraciously reads newspapers and magazines, meets with people from different backgrounds and attends to household responsibilities.
Between October 2002 and April 2006, King Gyanendra didn’t seem terribly excited about scheduling a coronation. True, a few auspicious dates were being thrown around, but little else. With the monarchy in suspension, even facing the prospect of abolition if the Maoists have their way, this could hardly seem a propitious time for a coronation.
On the other hand, a king so overt with his religiosity and ritualism could not have envisaged such a seminal event without proper sanction from the planets and constellations.
What about the secrecy? Hanuman Dhoka Palace, the traditional venue of coronations, hasn’t shown signs of the festivities. Is the surreptitiousness in conformity with the stars, too?
Or is the old palace being readied for a new role? One report a few weeks ago said it was being set up as the secretariat of a new royal regime once the Young Communist Leaguers finally shed their civvies. Narayanhity Palace, so prompt in rebutting all manner of speculation, has been silent on this one.
And rumors are flying in all directions. Now we are told that the United Nations has made contingency plans to evacuate its staff to New Delhi should things get any worse. Clearly, the organization remains seared by the August 2003 attack on its premises in Baghdad, which claimed several international civil servants, including the top UN official responsible for Iraq. The UN had refused to relocate to Amman, citing that the anti-American groups would remember that the international organization had tried to prevent the invasion until the very end.
Unlike the ex-Baathists, jihadists or whoever the attackers were, our Maoists have already accused the UN of doing Uncle Sam’s bidding in Nepal. Of late, Prachanda has been warning against efforts to undermine the Maoists. His one-time mentor, Mohan Baidya, has candidly explained why a republic cannot await a constituent assembly: national and international forces are creating anarchy to sway public opinion towards the relevance of the monarchy.
As for Koirala, well, he’s too consummate a politician to have blurted out that 20-percent figure for nothing. The Chinese ambassador’s bow and stretched hands may have symbolized the loss of a power the monarchy had enjoyed even under the Ranas. But Koirala knows the envoy was acting in conformity with an interim constitution reflecting the tentativeness of all things Nepali.
The premier’s real message from Biratnagar this time, as far as Maila Baje is concerned, is his warning to legislators stalling house proceedings of an onset of a dictatorship. The last time we heard someone make that prophesy in the midst of political bickering and Maoist machinations, we were merely months away from February 1, 2005. And, let’s not forget, communications minister Mohammed Mohsin was just the spokesman for the government.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Nepali Congress’ Monarchy Machinations

If anything, the Nepali Congress has reaffirmed its status as – well – a true status-quo party. The district chiefs of the country’s pre-eminent – some would say only – democratic party had assembled in Kathmandu to hear their president enunciate a clear line on the monarchy ahead of the constituent assembly elections. What they got from Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala instead was a theorization of the fuzziness that has passed for party policy for the past year.
“A republic should be established in the country gradually by removing the king’s power,” the Nepali Congress president told his befuddled supporters. “A republic cannot be achieved in just a decision – whether that of mine or any other political parties.” A big fat no to the Maoists’ demand that the interim legislature announce the abolition of the monarchy. (Not to be outdone, UML chief Madhav Kumar Nepal chose precisely this time to rubbish rumors of a broader republican front with the Maoists.)
The idea of inflicting a slow and painful death on the monarchy is not new. Stratfor, the Texas-based intelligence agency, had expounded on that option during the height of the April Uprising. In its Geopolitical Diary titled “Countdown to a Coup in Nepal?” on April 18, 2006, the private-sector equivalent of the CIA had said: “Recognizing that Nepal’s fate depends primarily on the mindset of its generals, India’s attention likely is fixated now on the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA). Senior army officials feel that New Delhi, formerly one of its chief suppliers, ditched the army when it cut off military aid to Nepal following the royal takeover.”
India might begin to draw the SPA away from the Maoists with the promise of RNA backing to topple the monarchy, the Stratfor Nepal desk had postulated. Evidently, that promise does not seem to have been forthcoming, as evidenced by the royal salute the military gave at Dakshinkali. So the Nepali Congress has been left with making peace with the palace via the generals.
Despite the brouhaha over Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal’s purported meeting with King Gyanendra the other day, that prospect doesn’t seem as implausible as it sounds. More so in light of the Nepali Congress’ own history.
After the 1951 Delhi Compromise, the dominant section in the party began hating King Tribhuvan when he appointed as premier Matrika Prasad Koirala – the “dictator” of the anti-Rana revolution – instead of B.P. When Tribhuvan reappointed Matrika Babu after a spell of direct rule, the Nepali Congress had reason to be livid. The eldest Koirala had formed his own Rastriya Praja Party. So B.P. & Co. focused their attention on Crown Prince Mahendra, who had emerged as the de facto ruler amid his father’s failing health. The Nepali Congress mouthpiece hailed a letter from Mahendra, still regent, supporting the party’s demands for the early election of a constituent assembly and an independent judiciary as the Magna Carta of Nepal.
Why did B.P. Koirala agree to abandon the demand for constituent assembly elections in exchange for legislative polls under a constitution gifted by the king? Was it because the Nepali Congress saw this as the only way of advancing the process of democratization? Or was B.P. really influenced by the lukewarm public support for his civil disobedience campaign as well as his party’s dismal showing in municipal elections held in Kathmandu?
Regardless, that shift helped the Nepali Congress, which won a two-thirds majority in Nepal’s first elections in 1959. Impressive as that mandate undoubtedly was, we do need to recognize that the vote was staggered over 45 days. More relevant to our inquiry, the results from constituencies that had voted earlier had been available long before other Nepalis had cast their ballots.
Once the verdict came in, King Mahendra didn’t want B.P. Koirala as premier. If he had some personality issues with B.P, he certainly wasn’t alone. Dilli Raman Regmi had already christened B.P. as the new oligarch when he was home minister in the Rana-led government. It is also important to recall that a sizeable section in the Nepali Congress agreed that B.P. did not have an automatic claim to the premiership.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that King Mahendra had been expressing his distrust in political parties and politicians long before he sacked the Koirala government. Moreover, people like Tanka Prasad Acharya and K.I. Singh had been calling for the ouster of the Koirala government on account of policy issues (or at least they framed it as such).
It’s easy to see the December 1960 move as a conspiracy hatched by an autocratic monarch. That doesn’t explain why at least 55 of the 74 elected Nepali Congress MPs in the lower house should subsequently have joined the palace-led Panchayat system.
After that blow, the Nepali Congress still couldn’t make up its mind on the monarchy. It tried to assassinate King Mahendra in Janakpur but did not lose hope in an eventual overture from the monarch. The party’s hopes of becoming a catalyst of and beneficiary from the political elevation of Prince Basundhara – King Mahendra’s colorful and supposedly more liberal younger half brother – evaporated with the Sino-Indian war two years later.
King Mahendra eventually freed B.P. Koirala and Ganesh Man Singh after eight years in prison only after they signed a pledge of loyal cooperation with the palace. Exile came months later when it became clear the palace wasn’t about to restore Koirala to power.
King Mahendra’s death, weeks after the “liberation” of Bangladesh allowed the Nepali Congress to moderate its stance on the monarchy. That wait for a phone call from western-educated King Birendra proved too excruciating. So B.P. warned of a Bangladesh-like military action. The implications were so apparent to New Delhi that it had to issue a formal statement dissociating itself from B.P.’s comment. The party mounted another assassination bid, this time on King Birendra in Biratnagar, and hijacked a Royal Nepal Airlines flight, stealing millions of rupees it was carrying. (And widening fissures in the party, we are told, because the Koiralas kept all the loot.)
In 1976, B.P. Koirala’s national reconciliation slogan provided a cover for India, Nepal and the Nepali Congress to address an untenable situation: Koirala’s exile. Almost three years later, student protests forced King Birendra to announce a referendum on the future of the Panchayat system. When the verdict came in favor of partylessness, B.P. Koirala stunned his party and country by accepting it. But, then, long before that Koirala had been assuring relatives that he expected to become prime minister by 1980.
That hope lived on. Koirala wanted to contest the 1981 Rastriya Panchayat elections. There must be a good reason why he couldn’t for once overrule Ganesh Man Singh and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. B.P.’s death left the party in deeper confusion vis-à-vis the palace.
After People’s Movement I, Ganesh Man Singh had actually urged King Birendra to head the interim government. The king felt compelled to point out the incongruity of that request considering all that had happened over the previous weeks. Once the Constitution of 1990 – the best in the world accord to its architects – was promulgated, the Nepali Congress couldn’t stop extolling King Birendra as the model constitutional monarch. Ganesh Man Singh found it convenient to denounce Girija Prasad Koirala’s government as being worse than its Panchayat predecessors.
Singh was the least of Koirala’s woes. During the climax of the Tanakpur imbroglio, visiting Prime Minister Narasimha Rao barely concealed his desire to hold the real and substantive talks with King Birendra over “quiet dinner.” The S.D. Munis, too, had begun to recognize the cost of mentoring Koirala so brazenly in public. And President Shankar Dayal Sharma? In his banquet speech in King Birendra’s honor, the Indian president had space for a sentence on King Mahendra, but none on the supposed triumph of people power.
In a bout of revisionism, we discovered that King Birendra wasn’t really what we were told he was. After King Gyanendra took over power in October 2002, Ram Chandra Poudel recounted overhearing Birendra mocking politicians in a group of non-politicians. Of course, Poudel didn’t bother to explain how he found himself as the only pol within earshot of the royals.
But there were telltale signs beyond the palace’s refusal to deploy the military against the Maoists. For instance, the robust exchange that took place between the monarch and premier over the shabby state of the VVIP restroom during that extended welcoming ceremony for Mongolian President Bagabandi. (The government had forgotten to inform the palace that the dignitary’s flight had been delayed several hours.)
Prime Minister Koirala was too busy up until the afternoon of the Narayanhity Massacre explaining how he eagerly looked forward to becoming a truly free head of government. Deputy Premier Poudel could have made a greater contribution to historical inquiry by shedding light on Crown Prince Dipendra’s studious opposition to the importation of those Heckler & Koch GmbH assault weapons for the military. That contract, one might add, was a greater life-and-death issue to the extended Koirala family than the Lauda Air accord could ever become. And perhaps Poudel could explain how a royal relative happened to be the only candidate denied advancement in the police department he oversaw as home minister.
From Day One, King Gyanendra turned out to be quite shrewd in dealing with Koirala. The premier, palpably perplexed by the unspoken “request” not to take the traditional ride on the royal carriage to the palace after the new monarch’s enthronement, seemed to get the message. He emerged with a tonsure after many ordinary Nepalis were already struggling with their scalps trying to pull on or off their undershirts.
To pre-empt Koirala’s non-cooperation, King Gyanendra, we are told, cited the location and registration numbers of the bullet-proof Mercedes he wanted to use for the daily Nirmal Niwas-Narayahity drives during the yearlong mourning period.
The monarch nominated four members to the upper house in time for the 1pm news on Radio Nepal, long before the scheduled 4pm consultations in which the premier was expected to present loyalists as candidates. The rest, as they [should] say, is a history of power struggles with all permutations and combinations.
The mainstreaming of the Maoists has injected a new dynamic into the Nepali Congress’ survival strategy. The whole argument about the interim legislature not being empowered to declare a republic is hogwash. If the ruling elite didn’t need any sense of constitutionalism to secularize the country or to democratize the military why should it feel constrained to exercise powers the second amendment to the interim constitution already envisages through the interim legislature? Prominent Nepali Congress allies in academia, such as Professor Lok Raj Baral, are among those vociferously raising this question.
Clearly, the Nepali Congress’ stand on the monarchy is conditioned by its proximity and ability to exercise full power. And who better to articulate this truism than that man who has been at the center of every political movement since those workers at Biratnagar Jute Mills rose up against the Ranas?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Crowning Of A Democratic Front?

If the eight parties in power can agree on one thing, it’s the transience of public opinion. So it’s hardly surprising that the purported meeting between King Gyanendra and Nepal Army chief Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal has kicked up the storm it has.
Obviously, the two men didn’t spend all that time ruminating on how King Mahendra might have dealt with the kingdom’s crisis. As any two Nepali adults are likely to do, the king and the commander in chief must have reviewed the year’s politics.
Long on bravado and theatrics, the first year of “loktantra” was devoid of both the popular and procedural connotations of the word. By linking Nepal’s salvation with the abolition of the monarchy, the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists simply overreached. In blaming the 238-year-old crown for Nepal’s plight, the failed to project themselves as agents of real change. Through word and deed, the SPA and Maoists continue to show that the king is the only thing keeping them together.
Whipping up anti-palace fervor will no doubt continue to energize their base. The “people” whose “mandate” the ruling alliance invokes ad nauseum cannot be taken for granted. After all, it was the royal regime’s persistence in going after the mainstream parties in the name of subduing the Maoists that really set off the final countdown.
Nepalis in general may not yearn for the sense of regularity the royal regime could maintain. Nor may they recall the monarch’s invocation of Article 127 of the erstwhile constitution as the paragon of rule of law. The rest of the world watching Nepal has had time to ponder.
The United Nations is becoming uncharacteristically candid in admonishing the Maoists. The United States’ intolerance for the SPA’s reliance on the ex-rebels’ good faith has had reverberations in the Nepali Congress and other constituents. Indian public opinion seems to be struck by the sudden spurt in anti-Indian militancy – in its Islamic as well as Naxal dimensions – stemming from democratic Nepal. The Chinese may be typically quiet. But the frequency of Kathmandu-datelined stories the Free Tibet movement has been generating must have raised a new set of questions in Beijing.
Surya Bahadur Thapa, fresh from extensive talks in New Delhi, has urged Koirala to lead a democratic front against the communists that dominate the interim legislature. Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula has used the customary “medical treatment” excuse – he is said to be suffering from hearing loss – to fly into New Delhi. Yet Sitaula, who had managed to slip into India a week after the royal takeover to announce that the Nepali Congress would join hands with the Maoists, can expect an earful from his political handlers.
US Ambassador James F. Moriarty is said to have advised Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to send the army chief with a message to the king seeking support for a democratic front. (How ironic. It was the other way around in April 2006.) To fortify his flank, the premier acquiesced in – if not instigated – the leaking of that news. (Nothing new for the Nepali Congress. It was interim prime minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai in 1990 who had leaked that “odious” palace draft of the 1990 constitution.)
If a democratic front including the monarchy is actually being conceived, what form might it take? Specifically, what would be the role of the monarchy? Those who know King Gyanendra, more so after April 2006, recognize the consistency in his understanding of the role and responsibilities of the monarchy.
Clearly, nomenclature won’t matter here. During the height of the Panchayat system, Nepal was still called a constitutional monarchy. The removal of royal prefixes from the army and other state institutions shouldn’t make that much of a difference. The monarchy’s leadership of the army remains at the center of the history of modern Nepal’s emergence.
The renaming of the Royal Nepal Airlines and the Royal Nepal Academy cannot obscure the fact that both institutions were created under the monarchy as part of its campaign to consolidate Nepal’s independent identity. The much-publicized removal of King Gyanendra’s portrait from banknotes cannot change that key piece of monetary history: It was under King Mahendra that the rupee began its rise as the national currency under a fully fledged central bank.
Conceptually, a “ceremonial” monarchy remains as elusive as the “constructive” monarchy King Gyanendra’s had envisaged a few years ago. On the road to a “new” Nepal, it’s precisely this amorphousness that alarms our republicans the most.