Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Pretenders To A Putative Presidency

After a long time, the debate on a republican Nepal has advanced a notch up. CPN-Maoist chairman Prachanda has intimated his desire to become the first president of Nepal in two years with a resounding popular mandate.
In a wide-ranging television interview with Indian journalist Karan Thapar, the Maoist supremo gave some insights into the ex-rebels’ foreign policy. Special relations with India would be refined by equiproximity to China. In the afterglow of his meeting with former US president Jimmy Carter, Prachanda doesn’t sound terribly excited about keeping the Americans out of the country.
For Nepali Congress general secretary Ram Chandra Poudel, the Maoist supremo is living in a fool’s paradise. By dint of his “character,” Prachanda is unfit for the presidency, Poudel says.
Now, Poudel’s riposte is revealing on several counts. As Peace Minister, he doesn’t want to be distracted by a premature jockeying for power. Persistent doubts about the Maoists’ commitment to multiparty democracy are enough to keep us a nation of skeptics for a lifetime.
More importantly, half the country still seems to favor some kind of monarchy, most opinion polls show. A far greater proportion of Nepalis, moreover, find it hard to believe that constituent assembly elections can be held on November 22 in order to make final decision on the future of the crown.
As for the interim constitution now empowering the interim legislature to abolish the monarchy, should the palace “conspire” to “subvert” the elections, well, both terms contain pretty broad connotations to permit easy consensus.
Poudel has a personal motive here as well. Within the Nepali Congress leadership, he remains the most outspokenly republican leader. He is by no means in the league of Narhari Acharya or Gagan Thapa, but, then, who really envisages either of them as president. Amid the Maoists’ multifrontal onslaught, Poudel believes the Nepali Congress will push for a republic at a convenient time.
When Prachanda seemed ready to accept Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala as president during the early months of the nascent peace process, things were okay with Poudel. After the two men fell out, Poudel wasn’t terribly upset, either. Now Prachanda assiduously lays claim to the presidency, the offense that can’t go unchallenged.
The Young Communist League (YCL) has come in handy. Thugs these men and women are. But ones that helped catapult Koirala to the premiership. Without the YCL in its previous incarnation, the Seven Party Alliance would probably still be working out the post-monsoon umpteenth phase of the anti-regression struggle.
It’s not for nothing that Kamal Thapa, King Gyanendra’s home minister, can muster such conviction when speaking in defense of the monarchy.
Clearly, Poudel sees himself as the first president of Nepal. Come on, who but the Nepali Congress has the international legitimacy to steer a tiny republic squeezed between two giant ones?
Moreover, Sher Bahadur Deuba, Shailaja Acharya, Sushil Koirala, Sujata Koirala – everybody else has a history of appeasing the palace one way or the other.
As deputy prime minister during the Narayanhity Massacre, Poudel didn’t shy away from publicly referring to a nexus between the new king’s old residence and the Maoists.
After King Gyanendra’s takeover, Poudel challenged the conventional wisdom that King Birendra was the model constitutional monarch the rest of the country made him out to be.
Referring to a comment he overheard in a gathering where he happened to be the only non-royal present, Poudel insisted the late monarch had never reconciled himself with multiparty democracy.
Many long-time observers like to credit Poudel with steering the anti-Mao protests under King Mahendra and the anti-Zia-ul Haq protests in 1979 into full-blown democracy movements.
With this carefully built public record under assault from a late-comer still cashing in on decades of obscurity, Poudel was bound to react.
As for the wisdom of a nasty public squabble over a job that hasn’t even been created, it’s entirely consistent with the general direction of our politics.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

An Enfeebled Premier’s Infantile Royalism

It’s pretty clear how Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala is saddled with the unenviable job staking out that space between the monarch and the Maoists. With almost clock-like precision, after his latest taming of Prachanda, he’s back to the abdication business.
If King Gyanendra and Crown Prince Paras step aside, Nepal has some chance of keeping the monarchy under a Queen Purnika or King Hridayendra. Does our premier really think Nepalis are that stupid?
We know how badly Koirala needs a fig leaf to rally behind the monarchy. But a child monarch? When’s the last time that happened? When the current monarch was a toddler, of course. But, really, hasn’t our turbulent history of minors on the throne done enough to negate that option for a new Nepal? Or has senility set in our perennial premier so seriously now that he hopes to do another Bhimsen Thapa or Jang Bahadur Rana?
It’s easy to sympathise with Koirala’s desperation. That honeymoon with Prachanda was a fiction that had to blow up in his face sooner or later once India was reasonably satisfied with the onset of the ex-rebels’ decline.
Prachanda, by no means a quitter, is pestering Koirala by advertising all those phone calls he’s made recently to royal secretary Pashupati Bhakta Maharjan. And that China card? With two out of the country’s three power centres leaning northward, the Nepali Congress’ prospects are not promising. On top of that, Sher Bahadur Deuba keeps upping the stakes in his demand for a respectable unification of his faction.
Prime ministerial daughter and would-be successor as party president, Sujata Koirala, must be pushing the old man to the wall. The longer the media focuses on the price tag of her purse, the real message is going to get more muddled. The Nepali Congress needs to come out firmly – and publicly – behind the monarchy before the party hurtles any further toward extinction. How longer can that imperative be left to the likes of K.B. Gurung to hammer home.
Now things are going to get worse if vice-president Sushil Koirala were to lose his voice to cancer. Who’s going to go after the Young Communist League marauders with so little to lose?
Prime Minister Koirala, to be sure, can’t appear to be seen capitulating to either the palace or the Maoists in order to preserve his legacy. For one thing, this whole myth about the Nepali Congress having restored King Tribhuvan to the throne in 1951 and having forced King Birendra to his knees four decades later would dissolve into the cloudiness of his “grand design” bluster. Moreover, we still don’t know the precise terms of the compromise that resulted in King Gyanendra’s decision to restore the House of Representatives.
But should Koirala be insulting the intelligence of Nepalis in such a brazen way? He says the current king can either go abroad to a life in exile or run his businesses from Nepal. That’s a pretty wide range of choice. By implication, the would-be ex-crown prince would be free to swing his entire line of golf clubs at Gokarna.
Logically, a Queen Purnika or King Hridayendra would reign under their mother’s regency. Unless, of course, the eight parties form separate council. Regardless, who do they think the girl or boy would listen to? Mom, Dad and Granddad – even if in that precise order – or a self-appointed panel populated by people who have already done so much to denigrate the monarchy?
If Koirala really thinks King Gyanendra and Crown Prince Paras are that unpopular, why doesn’t he let the sovereign people decide in a referendum? Better still, why not ask the people whether they think a minor king can even be contemplated as a component of a new Nepal?
Or is the premier somehow suggesting that the current monarch and heir apparent would be allowed rule from behind the throne. In any case, shouldn’t Koirala, the Great Democrat he is, be asking Princess Purnika and Prince Hridayendra – through their legally designated guardian – whether they’d really like that fast-track deal?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Carter: Not Quite The Peacemaker

Nepal’s peace camp is pinning much hope in James Earl Carter Jr.’s arrival this week. The fact that the 39th president of the United States plans to hold talks with Maoist chairman Prachanda and chief ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai must have allowed many adherents of the Great Helmsman to see that first manifestation of the Great Satan in new light.
Carter, it should be recalled was scheduled to arrive in April last year, before the Uprising scuttled his itinerary. Ever since, the Carter Center has been quite candid in enumerating the shortcomings in the run-up to the constituent assembly elections. As an organization that made its name in certifying elections, the center’s apprehensions are understandable.
By scheduling a meeting with Maoist honchos, Carter is adhering to his own post-White House tradition. Among his prominent interlocutors have been Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the late North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung.
The Nobel Peace Prize Carter was awarded in 2002 certainly added to his ebullience. In real terms, peace has been more elusive under his watch both inside and outside the Oval Office.
For a while, Carter seemed to be the most famous ex-president for most Americans. The manner in which he has breached the gentleman’s agreement among ex-presidents not to criticize the incumbent in the White House has been galling, to put it mildly.
More so has been the route he took to criticize President George W. Bush. Carter recently called the current administration’s foreign policy record as being worse than Richard Nixon’s. The fact remains that Carter owed his presidency to Nixon. The post-Watergate national ire denied Gerald Ford his own mandate. The governor of Georgia did much to keep that national mood alive.
Carter’s anti-Bush rhetoric, therefore, was something akin to Ganesh Man Singh’s denunciation of Girija Prasad Koirala’s first prime ministerial tenure as being worse than that of the Panchayat system both had joined hands to oust.
As for the legacy of the dark horse from Georgia, well, it was a disaster. And President Bush can certainly vouch for that. True, Carter was the first president to have brought human rights to the center of American foreign policy. Barely a year after he had praised the Shah’s Iran as an island of stability in a turbulent sea, the monarch was forced into exile.
Carter’s ambassador in Teheran, William Sullivan, was instructed to bolster the Peacock Throne by encouraging the monarch to institute reforms. Yet a Carter emissary, General Robert Huyser, arrived to run his own operation in Teheran. He ended up pulling the rug from under the palace.
Apparently, the politically astute ayatollahs conned Carter into switching sides by promising to be more pro-American than the Shah could ever be. Carter’s aides – including chief of staff Hamilton Jordan – met with Iranian representatives – believed to be led by future foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh – in Europe to work out a post-monarchy order.
With the godless Soviets having recently thrust their way into neighbouring Afghanistan and purportedly closing in on the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, the Shiite clerics and the sometime Sunday School teacher found themselves united by their faith in the Book. Khomeini returned in triumph to Iran. Contrary to popular wisdom, the Islamic Revolution had not yet begun. The ayatollahs kept people like Mehdi Bazargan, Karim Sanjabi and Abol Hassan Bani Sadr as frontmen as they moved to consolidate power. The abduction of American diplomats – purportedly by a group led by current Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedenijad – and Carter’s botched rescue mission deepened the post-Vietnam malaise.
Khomeini used the American hostages to consolidate his revolution to the point where he no longer required the other anti-Shah constituents. To render Carter’s humiliation complete, Khomeini ordered the hostages’ flight to freedom after 444 days in captivity only after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. As for human rights, Iranians would end up suffering far worse abuses under the ayatollahs.
As for Carter’s other foreign policy initiatives, the Camp David Accords seemed to be seminal when they were signed. Yet today even Carter seems to have revisited those days quite a bit, considering the way he derides the Israelis as the new purveyors of apartheid. The handover of the Panama Canal to its rightful owners, too, seemed to be an accomplishment, until the Chinese were found to be fishing in and around those troubled waters.
Nepal’s own real brush with Carter as president remains that reported phone call to King Birendra which led to B.P. Koirala’s release from prison and state-funded medical treatment in America. When he landed in Nepal as ex-president, Carter did bolster our trekking industry a bit – with B.P. dead and the Panchayat system in full bloom.
During his first term, President Bill Clinton had all but subcontracted foreign policy to Carter. His mission to Pyongyang paved the way for the Agreed Framework, which everyone thought was the best deal the Americans could have struck with the last outpost of Stalinism. Except that the North Koreans got their food and fuel as well as the nukes.
It would probably be unfair to consider Carter emblematic of the bitterness that creeps into one-term presidents, especially since the only other contender for that position is Bush Sr. However, if Bush Jr.’s foreign policy seems totally out of kilter, it’s largely because of Carter.
President Bush probably won’t take kindly to Carter’s overtures to people Washington still considers terrorists. What Maila Baje will be watching closely is whether Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai might be able to pull off a Ghotbzadeh on Carter. As for the Nobel Peace Prize, consider this: Mahatma Gandhi was studiously considered unworthy.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Carnage Anniversary & Creepy Anticipation

The Narayanhity Carnage anniversary went largely unmarked this year. And for good reason, at least from the perspective of the Eight Party Alliance (EPA)-led power elite.
Unlike previous years, there was no longer any logic to eulogizing King Birendra as the antithesis of the current monarch. When the EPA’s overt objective still is to do away with the throne, accusing King Gyanendra of usurping it is obviously a waste of time.
Last June, despite its capitulation, the palace was still a palpable player. The fact that the House of Representatives owed its resurrection to King Gyanendra’s proclamation was pretty apparent. Since the interim constitution doesn’t recognize the king, and the debris from royal statues lays strewn across the landscape, the monarchy is on its way out, right?
Not so fast. In varying degrees of conviction, the communist factions that dominate the interim legislature believe constituent assembly elections can’t be held as long as the monarchy exists. In terms of shifting the goalposts, our comrades are very supple. For an embattled palace, the good news is that the only way it can head is up.
Despite the sustained calumny, the crown continues to draw the support of roughly half of the people, according to most opinion polls. As any pollster knows, the large “undecided” column is the place to watch.
With the military having emerged as the most trustworthy national institution in the latest poll, the threat of a coup seems to have risen. Maoist chairman Prachanda has discounted the possibility of an army-backed palace takeover. Yet even he recognizes that warnings of impending authoritarianism are being sounded by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, not some royal rep on a palace-appointed cabinet.
Prachanda’s deputy, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, has conceded that the Maoists respected Koirala only for his international legitimacy. On the defensive vis-à-vis the constituent assembly elections over the past few weeks, Koirala has now turned the tables on the Maoists.
If the elections are to be held on schedule, a modicum of law and order is what is really needed – not an arbitrary declaration of a republic. This can’t be news to Prachanda. Long before the premier, the Maoist chief had publicly acknowledged that a mere legislative declaration of a republic wouldn’t force the monarch onto the next flight out of the country.
It was significant that Koirala chose June 2, the Nepali-calendar anniversary of the palace massacre, to renew his threat to institute drastic measures to restore law and order. If Koirala succeeds in mobilizing the army against forces of instability, that would no doubt be a belated personal triumph.
But he hardly seems to be in a mood to rejoice. It’s Dr. Bhattarai’s “international” dimension our premier is really zeroing on. At the South Asian summit in Delhi in April, Koirala declared he had staked his six decades of politics on the mainstreaming the Maoists. The Young Communist League (YCL)’s antics have forced the premier to reconsider the wisdom of that accomplishment on various external planes.
Former premier Sher Bahadur Deuba has returned from China, ostensibly having assured our northern neighbors of the Nepali Congress’ recognition of geopolitics since its last stint in power. The longer Prachanda persists with playing China and India off against each other in his search for the best patronage, the greater the chances of an ultimate fiasco.
China may have opted out of the Diplomatic Corps’ statement demanding the security and safety of foreign envoys, in the aftermath of the YCL’s attack on US Ambassador James F. Moriarty’s vehicle. But it would be wrong to construe that Beijing’s pragmatism comes with unlimited patience. More so, when a US Assistant Secretary of State arrives in Kathmandu for the express purpose of encouraging the government to set the date for the elections.
On the southern front, an EPA delegation is sounding out the official mood of India. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has affirmed his intention to take the Bharatiya Janata Party into confidence while proceeding with his Nepal policy.
Newspapers close to the New Delhi establishment are becoming more candid in asserting the urgency of giving the monarchy a “toehold”. Gandhi family confidants, moreover, remind us that it was then-Prince Gyanendra who kept open those vital channels of communication during King Birendra’s 1988-90 standoff with Rajiv Gandhi. When Rajiv lost power, Prince Gyanendra still maintained contact. King Gyanendra’s message to Sonia Gandhi after her Congress Party won the 2004 elections, we are told, didn’t come out of the blue.
The death of former army chief Satchit Shamsher Rana, the man the Indian media reviled as the chief architect of King Gyanendra’s takeover, may or may not have helped clear the air between the two dynasties. The fate of the Bhutanese refugees’ Long March was nevertheless emblematic of the extent of New Delhi’s reciprocity to friendly royals.
The Nepali Congress, mindful of its own history, is sticking its finger in the wind. Leaders of both factions are blowing hot and cold on unity prospects primarily to keep the communists guessing. Unity will eventually come and the catalyst will likely be the Nepal Army. Those wary of a military intervention should look not at Pakistan, but Bangladesh – perhaps even Thailand – for parallels.
An army-backed Nepali Congress-led broader democratic front under the monarchy sounds too far-fetched? After the 1951 democratic upsurge, few Nepalis had envisaged the Shahs and Ranas ending up as a single power center.